[WSF-Discuss] Six Steps the World Social Forum Must Take

CACIM cacim at cacim.net
Tue Apr 7 15:41:01 CDT 2009

Six Steps the World Social Forum Must Take
Znet essay - following up on "The Future of the World Social Forum
by Kim Foltz, Suren Moodliar and Jason Pramas


By Suren Moodliar

@ http://massglobalaction.org/home/docs/wsf-2009-article.htm

The World Social Forum (WSF) is at that “show-me” moment: “Hic Rhodus, hic
salta!” to borrow from a classic work.

At the start of the century, against (1) a rampant capitalism animated by
the information revolution and re-integration of China and India,* (2) a
resurgent US militarism asserting control over Central Asia and the Middle
East, and (3) in the absence of viable, national scale left-wing projects,
the WSF made sense. Its defiant assertion contrary to both immediate
experience and official propaganda that “another world is possible” provided
all that was necessary to rally a dizzying range and depth of causes,
movements and organizations to its banner.

The WSF condensed earlier grassroots globalizations that rejected
treaties-from-above and global elite consensus building in unaccountable
multilateral institutions like the IMF, World Bank and the WTO. Inspired by
the fires of Seattle, imagined in Franco-Brazilian dialogues, the forum
united a world against neo-liberalism and later against US militarism. At
once it inspired comparisons to earlier Internationals, the anti-colonial
and Pan African conventions, and the Rio and Beijing summits of the 1990s.

Now, with capitalism in crisis and with its neo-liberal variant thoroughly
discredited, with the US military project resting on accords with provincial
warlords in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with significant left-wing governments
and socialist-oriented projects in Latin America, it is necessary to
consider the future value that the WSF can add to the social change project.

Framed differently, the WSF pried open the space necessary to imagine and
organize alternatives; now that the space exists and that this world is
impossible, the challenge for the WSF is to establish a new function for

All of this takes place in a world of increased urgency: the timetables are
no longer mainly political: they run up against hard environmental responses
to human activities. The economic crisis and the rotation of capitalist
governments in the Global North increase the urgency for a coherent left

To deal with this urgency we need to (1) know who we are; (2) begin a
structured dialogue between “sectors”; (3) develop mechanisms for
coordinating actions; (4) build structures for deliberation and
accountability within sectors, (5) sharpen the differences with the emerging
Global Keynesian project while identifying areas of strategic collaboration
and competition; (6) articulate our localisms, regionalism in addition to
our globalisms.

None of these foreclose on the Social Forum as an open and potentially
“horizontal” space. Indeed each of these can be executed either from above
or below. Space considerations do not allow me to propose the ways in which
to realize these through incremental, bottom-up strategies. Also left
unanswered in this note is the question of who will make this happen: the
International Council, the Movement of Movements, the diffuse mass of
attendees? This important question for everyone—how do we make things happen
within the social forum process?—is left unanswered here. An earlier note,
“The Future of the WSF Process” (see http://tinyurl.com/wsffuture) provides
prescriptions for how to approach the forum.
1. Know Thyself: Toward Inventory of Movements**

Many commentators have rightfully celebrated the globalization of struggles
that the social forum permits. This have been particularly the case for
excluded and oppressed identities including most notably, the case of the
“outcasts” from South and East Asia and indigenous peoples. Beyond
identity-based movements, however, a vast array of civil society groups have
been using the WSF as one of several important global platforms for
coordination and organizing.

Unlike the typical “interests groups” of western social science, these
organizations have been coordinating their issue-based work in ways that
demonstrate their awareness of the universal and global character of their
concerns. Outstanding movements here include those around water, public
health, alternative economics and development, debt relief, environmental
justice, gender equality, HIV-AIDS and human rights. Ironically, class-based
organizations like trade unions and even many left-wing think tanks appear
to lag behind these movements’ global self-awareness.***

Nonetheless, these movements are now challenged to look outside of
themselves and identify their counterparts in other struggles. For example,
how does the movement that challenged tobacco corporations by supporting the
world’s first public health treaty establish its identity with movements
challenging mining practices or even mining itself? The WSF process seems
ideally placed to build an inventory of such movements. It can also
facilitate their cross-networking in deliberate ways.
2. Structure Dialogues between Sectors

Based on an inventory of movements, the WSF can help structure conversations
between these sectors as a way to spur additional decentralized
conversations between each. These movements have developed distinct cultures
of work and organizing over life of the forum process. A structured dialogue
will permit not only a cross-fertilization of repertoires and best
practices, it will enrich the vision of that other possible world whose
existence the forum has asserted.

In addition to old, tried and true techniques like joint panels, new
technologies exist for conducting large-scale conversations, including
parallel, small group conversations leading to proposals and opportunities
for real-time voting and/or consensus building. The forum could therefore
structure the dialogues to go well beyond the leaders of these movements to
include grassroots level activists.

The objectives for such a dialogue should initially be to hold the
conversations itself; over time concrete achievable objectives will emerge.
The time frame for the “over time” phrase of the last sentence must be seen
in light of the global environmental and health challenges. In the course of
these dialogues, it is likely that movements will come to understand the
brute deadlines imposed by environmental destruction and that these will
guide across sectors.
3. Build the Organizing Platform

In 2003, the Global Day of Action seemed proof-positive of the WSF’s promise
as a global organizing platform. However, even a cursory review of turnout
around the world suggests that the actions were strongest where the left and
left social movements already had a strong tradition of social protest and
demonstrations. In other words, the global framing of the day of action
added some value to the organizing but it did not signal the birth of a
global actor. Instead, the movements have yet to attain a similar degree of
coordination and unanimity. In the new context, proactive measures are
needed to give coherence to the dispersed struggles.

A strengthening of the WSF’s organizing apparatus is necessary to build the
organizing possibilities of the forum. For example, old-fashioned
techniques, coupled with newer social networking tools could be used by a
WSF staff to strengthen organizing from below.

The forum could proactively resource outreach to organizations with similar
proposals for the self-proposed workshops and encourage them via telephone
and e-mail to contact one another. Similarly, they could review with them
the action components of their work. These could be used to develop
deliberative conversations for action out of the individual workshop

These are all tools already used by the dispersed staffs of the various
global networks and social movements. By spreading out the WSF to a more
manageable frequency, a relatively small staff of fewer than 20 people can
catalyze the organizing potential inherent in the several thousand proposals
for activities received by the WSF for each forum.
4. Hold Ourselves Accountable

If the social forum idea has inspired its attendees with its horizontality,
aspects of its practice have generated much disappointment. Global and
institutional inequalities are reproduced rather than challenged or even
attenuated within the social forum. Large disparities exist between the
foundation-supported and command cities-based NGOs expressing themselves not
only in the programming and physical presence at the forum but also in the
informal parties and conversations taking place at elite hotels and
restaurants or is side-excursions throughout the life of individual fora.
The social forum begins to appear much more like already-existing world.

Actively encouraging the larger formations and smaller ones to present their
perspectives on matters of contention to their social forum peers in a
public way may help overcome the informal mechanisms of exclusion and create
incentives for positive working relationships.

In this vein, many solutions and mechanisms to deal with inequalities and
differences elsewhere ought to be deployed within the forum. From the First
International, for example, the forum should encourage many voices and
currents as representatives, rather than selecting between more or less
legitimate tendencies. From indigenous cultures, often reinvented often for
mainstream purposes are a range of peace-making, ombudsman-like roles for
building dialogues and generating working relations between formations. This
is a valuable culture for the WSF to nurture and diffuse across borders.

Intrinsic to accountability—and an incentive for groups to submit themselves
to the judgment of others—is the prospect of resolution and the overcoming
of past obstacles to joint action. To the degree that the forum offers these
prospects, the greater its continued relevance to the building of global
social movements. Beyond these kinds of nuts and bolts offerings, lie bigger
political tasks.
5. Sharpen the Differences: Another World beyond Neo-Keynesianism

The crisis of neo-liberalism has re-awakened Keynesian thinking as an
alternative. This is the kind of thinking represented by the many original
forum protagonists and a current that has grown over the years. The more
intolerable life became under neo-liberalism, the more its loyal opposition
appeared to be the other possible world. With thinkers like Paul Krugman
representing its left edge, Global Keynesianism may represent a step forward
but it has not consolidated itself. Krugman, for example is well to the left
of the Obama administration’s economic team. He is consistent with the kind
of “fair globalization” recommended by the corporatist thinking governing
the International Labor Organization and other international institutions.

However, for the left and in the spirit the movements that animated the
social forum, it is grossly inadequate. Core issues of the traditional
left—e.g. the distribution, ownership and control of the things that sustain
life—coupled with world scale environmental urgency demand a radical social
change project. For the social forum, the challenge will be to promote
opportunities for its diverse participants to gain the kind of intellectual
coherence that the IMF provided for neo-liberals and that the ILO provided
for neo-Keynesians.

For a global left that has been on the defensive since the overthrow of
Allende and subsequent imposition of corporate globalization, this means
moving beyond the embrace of diversity toward conscious strategic choices of
partners and friends in a multi-polar world with a range of economic and
political models.
6. Strengthen the Regional

Now that the “end of history” has ended, that the one-size-fits-all
assertions about appropriateness of “liberal democracy” and “free market”
institutions for the entire world have been vanquished, it is also clear
that the local, the regional and the national remain profound shapers of
life and of personal experience. Despite the very real globalizing forces,
the vast majority of people live and work within the countries of their
birth, local and regional rivalries and alliances shape their cultural,
political and social lives. More often than not, their comparisons and
references are neighboring regions and countries rather than the global.

The alternative choices for the WSF’s current Amazon venue suggest the
importance of the regional: Indonesia and South Korea. Each readily brings
to mind a distinctive set of issues. In this vein, fewer World Social Fora
will provide the space and the incentive to grow regional Social Fora and
spread the process globally.
Belém, 2009 – By way of conclusion

Now in its 9th year, the Social Forum has provided a welcoming space for the
Global Left. The forum in Belém will host Lula, Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa,
and Evo Morales among its highest profile attendees. It has also provided
sharp focus on the struggles of indigenous peoples and nature itself in its
choice of location at the mouth of the Amazon. In these choices, the forum
at once demonstrates the strengths and weakness of its entire project: its
appeal lies in the moral power—of indigenous struggles in the case of
Belém—it leverages; its ambivalent relationship with political
power—officially excluding parties from participation while drawing in heads
of state—suggests the chasm it must traverse between its social
movement/civil society base and the power needed to address that base’s
claims. The steps suggested here maintain the forum’s moral authority while
orienting it toward effective social movement activity and even political


* That doubled the size of labor power in the global labor market without a
commensurate expansion of consumption.

** Patrick Bond has suggested a global research project to review the
different progressive global networks.

*** Wherever a global regulatory or process has emerged, so too have global
social movements to press their claims. This is reminiscent of their
emergence relative early state structures in Europe. This is a positive
development because global civil society is often present at the very moment
of creation of these proto-global state structures unlike the social
movements that have had to contend with consolidated national states.


Suren Moodliar has been active in the WSF process since 2003. In 2004 he was
among the organizers of the Boston Social Forum. This note is a follow up to
one co-written with Kim Foltz and Jason Pramas (http://tinyurl.com/wsffuture)
at the 2005 forum in Porto Alegre. He is a coordinator of Massachusetts
Global Action and one of its projects, encuentro 5 and the Color of Water.
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