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Re: World Social Forum: space or movement?

A reply to Chico Whitaker's proposals for the future of the WSF. By Jasper Teunissen

(Source: http://openspaceforum.net/pipermail/worldsocialforum-discuss_openspaceforum.net/2013-February/003177.html)

*Re: World Social Forum: space or movement? *

*A reply to Chico Whitaker's proposals for the future of the WSF*

by Jasper Teunissen

2 February 2013

*Introduction*

In the process towards the World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunis next month,
some efforts have been made to start a discussion about the future of
the WSF, but have so far found little resonance, at least certainly not
in the public domain.

Among of the contributions are a number of recent proposals by Chico
Whitaker, one of the founding figures of the WSF. I think these
proposals need attention and further discussion. Another reason to write
down some thoughts on Whitaker's texts is the fact that he regularly
refers to, speaks to, and even shares his dreams about the so-called new
movements of Occupy and Indignados (2011, 2012a, 2012b, 2013b). As a
particpant in both a local social forum and Occupy related initiatives,
I'm especially interested to see how relations between the two could evolve.

And one last note: I don't doubt Whitaker's intentions concerning the
future of the WSF, and in fact I agree with many of the
underlyingthoughts and I warmly support the search for radical
improvements in the WSF process. Nevertheless, here I will concentrate
on some critical points, trying to get a better understanding of the
ideas about movements and open spaces on which Whitaker's proposals are
based.

*1. The dissolution of the IC and the start of a new movement*

The first step in Whitaker's proposal is to dissolve the International
Council of the World Social Forum (IC). Looking at the history and
context of the current crisis within the IC, I think the formal
declaration of the end of the IC is just the final step in the
acceptance of an accomplished fact . Whitaker argues the IC has 'already
fulfilled the functions it could meet'(Whitaker, 2012c), but I think we
should be more direct: the IC has failed to fulfull its role as a
permanent body that will give continuity to the WSF. The reality is that
the WSF 2013 is going to happen anyway, without a functioning IC.

The second step of the proposal is the establishment of a new movement
that takes over the role of the IC as 'facilitator and animator' of the
WSF process, assigning to itself the power to decide about the location
of the next WSF, 'the only really important decision that the IC takes'
(Whitaker, 2012c).

There is much to say about Whitaker's detailed vision of how such a new
movement would work (2013a, b), but here I will just mention a few
observations and concerns.

First, the establishment of a new movement is clearly a step further
than the earlier proposal suggesting a power shift from the
Brazil-France tandem to a Canada-Mahreb tandem (Whitaker, 2012a), but at
the same time the creation of a new movement within the context of the
WSF has been tried before: 'The Network of the World's Social
Movements'. [1] I haven't heard anything about it ever since.

Second, except from methodological adaptations, such as the
participation based on individuals instead of organisations, I don't see
any fundamental differences with the /intended/setup and goals of the
IC, that is: analysing the political situation in the world,
facilitating the WSF process and choosing the location of the next WSF.
In this sense the proposal is not as radical as Whitaker wants us to
believe.

Third, I see a problem with the order of things. Whitaker proposes a new
movement based on a new Manifesto or Charter, initially crewed by the
current IC members, and then gradually add 'people that constitute or
constituted the Organization Committees of the national, regional,
continental or World Social Forums, and even local ones [...]' (2013a
para 1.4). After that, local chapters of the new movement can be founded.

In many ways this reminds me of a somewhat similar initiave, namely the
International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS), which, to
put it bluntly, first presents a blueprint of a new society, then forms
a new organisation from within its own inner circle, and only then seeks
further participation and expansion. [2] I think we should not adopt
such a top-down approach if we aim for an actively involved, broader and
more localized base for a global process.

As I understand it, one of Whitaker's most important motivations for his
proposal is to find a way to include the latest generation of movements.
I agree this is a key question in the evolution of the WSF. But inviting
others to something new, to something pre-established that is not theirs
yet, is always extremely difficult. I wouldn't expect many new people to
join such a new movement, especially if they are not familiar with the
WSF, its history and its possible usefulness.

Having said this, I don't have any magic answers on how to overcome
these problems, but I would like to share some embryonic ideas and
suggestions that popped up while reading Whitaker's discussion texts.
But first I will try to give a brief reflection on Whitaker's views on
the role of social movements and the WSF as open space.

*2. WSF, movement and space*

According to Wikipedia the WSF 'tends to meet in January at the same
time as its "great capitalist rival", the World Economic Forum's Annual
Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. This date is consciously picked to
promote their alternative answers to world economic problems in
opposition to the World Economic Forum.' [3]

For the 2013 edition the tradition of the overlapping date with the WEF
in Davos has been abandoned for the first time in the history of the
WSF. Although this seems a trivial point, it made me realize how deep
the similarities between the WSF and WEF are, where the WSF has been
mimicking the WEF as an event for the leaders of, in this case, another
world, while Whitaker has made opposite claims (2004b). Let me explain.

In an interview addressing Occupy Wall Street, Whitaker frames the
position of social movements as follows: '[W]e are not 99% against 1%.
Those who have already the courage to speak up are many, but perhaps
more or less 1%, against the 1% who controls and exploits the rest of
the world.' (2012b) So, we have a powerful elite (symbolized by the WEF)
on the one hand, a small group who resists on the extreme opposite site
(symbolized by the WSF) and in the middle there is the 98%. Whitaker
continues: '[W]e need to change our strategy. We need to turn ourselves
to the 98%' (2012a)

I think this vision becomes problematic exactly where it puts the social
movements outside of the 98%, as those who already see, those who
already know. It's a simplicfication of reality in which the 98% has two
options: this 1% or that 1%, us or them. I think this is an elitist,
exclusive, vanguardist, moralistic and alienating picture and it ignores
the reality that a vast majority of the world population is engaged in a
day to day struggle for a life in peace and dignity, a struggle that
takes many forms, and some of them may be less visible than others. I
just don't think we can 'network' all these struggles by placing
ourselves outside or above them.

I'm not only having trouble with this narrow definition of movements, I
also would like to discuss the meaning of open space. Much has been
written about the WSF as an open space for movements. Here I will limit
myself by just looking at some of the Whitaker's (maybe outdated, I
don't know) hypotheses on the WSF as open space:

'A space has /no leaders/. It is only a place, basically a horizontal
space, just like the earth's surface, even if it has some ups and downs,
It is like a /square without an owner/. If the square has an owner other
than the collectivity, it fails to be a square, and becomes private
territory. Squares are generally open spaces that can be visited by all
those who find any kind of interest in using it. Their purpose is solely
being a square, whatever service they render to its users. The longer
they last as squares the better it is for those who use them for what
they offer for the realisation of their respective objectives.'

(Whitaker, 2004a, p.113, /author's emphasis/)

This vision contradicts with almost everything I was taught in human
geography courses at university. But here I won't go into the historical
and theoretical analysis of the relations between people and space, it's
enough to have a look at the recent experiences of Tahrir, Sol, Zucotti
and hundreds of other squares around the world. Here we have learned
that the creation of a safe and open space, trying to realize a glimpse
of another world, often right at a central point in the 'normality' of
the dominant logic, is not that easy. We have learned that open spaces
are always a product of a complex interaction between many different
interests, intentions and expectations, both within the occupied squares
and in relation to the rest of the world. Therefore, we can not just
simply declare a space open and horizontal, and expect it to behave
according to a certain set of principles forever. Instead, in the
struggle for open spaces we always have to take into account questions
of power, ownership and directions.

In the debate between those who have seen the WSF as movement, and those
who have seen it as a space, Whitaker always sided with the latter: 'For
me, there is no doubt that it is fundamental to ensure at all costs the
continuity of the Forum as a space and to not yield to the temptation of
transforming it now or even later, into a movement.' (Whitaker 2004a)

Now, nearly a decade later, Whitaker proposes to wrap the WSF space up
in a new movement, saying that 'we should have the WSF _as_ space and a
new movement (the APW -- Another Possible World) _as_ movement, in
parallel, without mixing both. We should nevertheless link them [...]'
(Whitaker 2013c para 1).

If we want to come to a widely shared vision of the future of the WSF,
can we base it on abstract and theoretical interpretations of spaces and
movements? Can we draw strict lines between spaces and movements, and at
the same time try to link them? Or can we develop new forms of global
movement meetings based on practical experiences from the social forums,
the occupied squares, and elsewere?

*3. Some suggestions*

/On charters and principles/

While Whitaker repeatedly states that 'it's not a question of modifying
the WSF Charter of Principles' (2012a, 2013a para 1.1), I think the
Charter of Principles and its meaning within the WSF process should be
rediscussed at some point. Without concluding that the text is not
relevant or valuable anymore, I see many reasons to have another look at
it, not only because of its limitations (and violations), but most
importantly because I think anything should be open to discussion, always.

/A next WSF in cyberspace?/

If the location of the next WSF is such a delicate matter, why not have
an edition of the WSF in cyberspace, as an experiment? I see many
opportunities here. First, it could improve the online infrastructure of
the WSF and many participating social movements. Second, this could
trigger the organisation of interconnected local events around the
world, building a base for the future of the WSF process. Third, it
could attract new types of participants, especially the ones that are
not already engaged in any existing organisation or movement (the 98
percenters?). Fourth, it automatically gives new generations and new
movements a position at the forefront, since they were born in a
landscape shaped by online social networking. Fifth, it doesn't have the
enormous environmental costs and it doesn't need a concentration of
financial resources. Well, there are more arguments for (and against) a
WSF in cyberspace, but it's just another option that can be considered.

/Opening up the spaces for debate/

I think, when talking about the future of the WSF and the futures of
social movements, we need to communicate and discuss our various needs
and expectations regarding meetings on the global scale. Only then we
are able to build a collective and practical framework to organize such
meetings. The WSF in Tunis offers us another moment to do this and we
have to make sure that these debates are not kept inside the exclusive
spaces of IC mailinglists and IC meetings.

*Notes*

[1] See: Ezequiel Adamovsky, 2003, 'The World Social Forum's New
Project: The Network of the World's Social Movements'
http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/free/wsf/newproject.htm

[2] See: http://www.iopsociety.org/

[3] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Social_Forum

*References*

Chico Whitaker, 2004a, 'The WSF as Open Space', in: Sen, J., A. Anand,
A. Escobar, P. Waterman (eds.), /World Social Forum: Callenging
Empires/, New Delhi, Viveka Foundation, p.111-121,
http://www.choike.org/documentos/wsf_s302_whitaker.pdf

Chico Whitaker, March 2004b, 'World Social Forum -- A Process in
Construction', http://www.pekea-fr.org/PubliSurNLetter/Whitaker-En-NL13.pdf

Chico Whitaker, November 2011, 'Inverted tale -- from the end to the
beginning (imagine is possible)', http://www.e-joussour.net/en/node/12054

Chico Whitaker, January 2012a, 'New Perspectives in the WSF Process',
_http://www.ciranda.net/article6100.html_

Chico Whitaker, February 2012b, 'A View From Brazil: World Social Forum
Co-founder Chico Whitaker Offers an International Perspective on the
Occupy Wall Street Movement', _http://www.ussocialforum.net/node/373_

Chico Whitaker, December 2012c, 'World Social Forum: space or movement?
Thinking about the WSF International Council future in new
perspectives', December 2012,
http://chicowhitaker.net/artigo_eng.php?artigo=44

Chico Whitaker, January 2013a 'Additional notes to the text proposing
the dissolution of the WSF IC',
http://chicowhitaker.net/artigo_eng.php?artigo=45

Chico Whitaker, January 2013b, 'More notes about my proposal on the WSF
IC ', January 2013 http://chicowhitaker.net/artigo_eng.php?artigo=66

 

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