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Farewell to the World Social Forum?

Recently, the Great Transition Initiative asked a group of us who had been active for many years in the World Social Forum process to respond to the theme and question: "Farewell to the WSF?" Most of the contributions came from members of organizations that were part of the International Council of the World Social Forum. My contribution -- which responded to previous ones -- is below.

(from Thomas Ponniah, www.rabble.ca)

The modern philosopher G.W. F. Hegel once noted that the political process that embodies a new universal impulse often perishes while its principle persists. What is the principle that the World Social Forum (WSF) brought forward? My book (co-edited with William F. Fisher) Another World is Possible -- published at the beginning of 2003 -- was the first book in English on the WSF, the first to contend that the common theme that threaded through all of the alternatives proposed at the WSF was a call for a participatory, radical democracy, and the first to argue that the Forum represented the initial steps for building a new left and a new global civilization. Over the years there have been a number of insightful interpretations of the WSF process: it embodies resistance to globalization, it epitomizes the latest struggle against imperialism, it manifests the power of identity, it is an insurgency against all forms of hierarchical discrimination including patriarchy, it exemplifies the "movement of the multitude," or articulates the emergence of the epistemologies of the South. The interpretation that I offered did not and does not exclude any of the others but encompasses them within a common overlapping framework: the "alternative globalization" or "global justice" movements that emerge from the WSF at minimum call for a radically, participatory, democratic process to be integrated into all major economic, political, cultural or ecological decisions. Social movements around the planet are too diverse to fully develop -- at this time -- a common substantive notion of the good but instead, for the first time in history, bring forward a shared principle of the process of emancipation, that is, the call for a global radical democracy that extends across all social domains.

The utopian laboratory

The World Social Forum has been a utopian laboratory, a space for re-imagining progressive politics, practice, and theory in the wake of what the late, great Immanuel Wallerstein once noted as the diminution of the welfare state in the "First World," the fall of the Soviet Union in the "Second World," and the exhaustion of various Southern national liberation projects in the "Third World." We can add that many of the alternatives presented in this laboratory also expressed the critique of modernity from various postmodern or alternative modern perspectives. The diminution, the fall, the exhaustion, the critique, all severely weakened the legitimacy of the three dominant left-wing, statist projects of the second half of the 20th century. The various proposals presented at the WSF initially incarnated an attempt by an emergent global left to re-imagine emancipation in the wake of the apparent decline of the progressive possibilities of the state.

The WSF was founded by three longtime activists and their organizations: Oded Grajew, Francisco Whitaker, and Bernard Cassen, as an event where various progressive social movements, theorists, students, and teachers -- but not political parties -- could regularly come together to mutually construct alternatives to the social degeneracy, cultural illusions, and asocial sensibility produced by neoliberal globalization. The Forum was imagined as an "open space" in which all progressives, that is, all those opposed to the current dystopian form of globalism, could voluntarily participate as equals in debate and solidarity. The process aspired to creating a situation in which dialogue amongst various members and movements in the public sphere was not distorted by the systemic pressures posed by state bureaucracies, the commodity form, or imperial intervention. These discussions inevitably led to a shared culture -- most eloquently described in Candido Gryzbowski's reference in this discussion -- to a mutual recognition and commitment our common humanity. The Forum has been the subject that refuses to treat itself or others as objects.

The principle of creating a universally available public space in which all can voluntarily come together in camaraderie to discuss freedom has been admirable but inevitably riven with the contradictions of the system that movements wish to transform. As Virginia Vargas noted, the representation of women, of Africans, of minorities, of the indigenous, and of the poor has never lived up to the aspirations of the open space. But, with that said, one cannot discount one of the Forum's greatest successes: its attendance numbers have been stunning. In the 2000s it regularly had over 100,000 participants at its events: indicating the range of the Forum's appeal, the talent of its organizers, and the extent of the public's desire for alternative forms of globalization.

While the future of the Forum is unclear its influence is not. The impact of the Forum's call for participatory democracy has been evident in the Occupy movement, the indignadas in Spain, the Arab Spring, and in some of the leftist governments in Latin America. While the WSF never officially allowed political parties to be the principal organizers of its events, the Forum's influence has been obvious in countries like Bolivia and Uruguay. The discourse of participation has been regularly heard in La Paz and Montevideo, and while one can question the extent to which it has been genuinely democratic one cannot ignore the prevalence of its use. The discourse is not only utilized by governments but also, significantly, by local social movements and the general population. The call for a new, genuinely egalitarian democracy has -- in its various guises -- been the common foundation for leftist struggles in the 21st century. It will continue to do so as the mainstream discourse of globalization evolves into a call for a world civilization that can accommodate humanity's diverse material, cultural, political, and ecological aspirations.


How does the Forum address the contemporary problem perfectly articulated by Roberto Savio: "the WSF has lost an opportunity to influence how the public understands the crises the world faces, a vacuum that has been filled by the resurgent right-wing"? I think that the answer has been explicitly suggested by Francine Mestrum: it is time for the World Social Forum to engage political parties and processes. The Forum emerged in a context in which the statist left had been delegitimized or at least severely weakened, thus it made sense in 2001 to not substantially integrate statist representatives into the Forum space. Today -- certainly since the 2008 financial crisis -- the state has returned. The electoral option -- symbolized in North America by people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- once again appears to be a viable way forward for some substantial progressive change. The state is of course not the only way forward -- Massiah, Malig and Solón are right to emphasize the need for ever-stronger international social movement networks because only they will pressure political parties to maintain their promises -- but the state remains the most powerful potential vehicle and ally for social transformation.

The standard of a global, radical democracy will persevere as the key element of the international left but if the WSF does not want to suffer the fate of past processes -- those that pushed forward a universal impulse but perished while their principle persisted -- then the forum must reinvent itself. It must exceed the historical conditions from which it emerged. It must find a way -- with all the contradictions, frustrations, and negotiations that this implies -- to effectively involve political parties and actors into the open space.

(Thomas Ponniah, PhD, is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, and the co-editor of Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books 2003), and co-editor of The Revolution in Venezuela (Harvard University Press 2011)).


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