[WSF-Discuss] Fw: Those Who Want To Build, Those Who Want To Fight: The World Social Forum with a North African Twist

jasper teunissen jasperteunissen at hotmail.com
Mon Apr 13 08:02:27 CDT 2015


  Those Who Want To Build, Those Who Want To Fight: The World Social
  Forum with a North African Twist

Apr 04 2015 by Cihan Tugal 

[Logo of the 2015 World Social Forum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.] 
[Logo of the 2015 World Social Forum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Holding the World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunisia, for the second time, is 
doubly significant. It is right on target, since Tunisians have toppled 
a neoliberal dictator. It is also a painful reminder of capitalism’s 
power, as Tunisian neoliberalism (along with the dictator’s entourage) 
is still intact. Not only are the main contours of Ben Ali’s policies 
still in place, his top bureaucrats are in command. Moreover, they have 
come back through elections. Voters replaced them for a secular 
liberal-Islamic coalition, partially due to worries regarding increasing 
conservatism and a deteriorating security situation. That coalition was 
also deeply neoliberal. In short, Tunisians got rid of a neoliberal 
tyrant so that they could choose between his neoliberal companions and 
their more conservative mirror images.

“What alternative did they have?” you may ask. That is the question. 
There are two, interconnected faces of the malaise. The first is 
political. The Popular Front and its constituent parties and movements, 
which were quite active during the revolution, could not amass the 
legitimacy to compete with the two main contenders (the old regime 
forces and the Islamists). Even though there were hopeful moments, one 
election after another frustrated the Front’s hopes. The other face of 
the malaise is economic. Even if the anti-neoliberal Front were able to 
come to power, would it be able to implement a working, efficient, 
alternative economic policy? The answer is far from clear. That 
uncertainty is among the reasons why it never came close to replacing 
the neoliberal twins (authoritarian secularists and liberalized 
Islamists). But more broadly, the Tunisian situation again demonstrates 
that a brave new world does not fall from the sky, even when 
neoliberalism miserably fails.

*The Wide, but Bridgeable, Gap*

The World Social Forum is one of the venues in which organizations, 
activists, and ordinary people dissatisfied with neoliberalism come 
together to exchange ideas, build networks, and discuss techniques. 
Settings like this one are indispensable to concretize paths out of 
disasters fostered by neoliberalization.

This year, seventy thousand people participated in the WSF. There were 
around a thousand panels. The WSF’s charter clearly states that the 
participating groups and movements are anti-neoliberal. The reality on 
the ground, however, is a little more complex—a complexity that is not 
necessarily, but could become a weakness.

Over the last twelve years, many things have been said about the WSF, 
and I do not want to repeat all of those (celebratory and critical) 
points here. Rather, I will focus on one slice of this complex reality: 
the 2015 WSF debates around building alternative economies in North 
Africa, and more specifically Tunisia. My comments are based on the ten 
panels I attended on this and related issues (five more panels on the 
topic were canceled and there were overlapping panels of interest I 
could not attend).

What was most striking about the panels organized under the broad title 
“The Economy and Alternatives Square” was the wide (but not 
unbridgeable) gap between those who wanted to fight and those who wanted 
to build. Especially among WSF organizers, it was taken for granted that 
transnational capital is the name of the evil and it has to be fought 
until the very end. “No negotiations,” many said. The panels they 
presented (and their audience too) were informed by political economy 
and Marxist vocabulary. The speakers were mostly European, North 
American, and South American (though some participants from India seemed 
to be on the same page too).

Yet when it came to North African speakers, the tone was often much more 
cautious. Their presentations were mostly about how to build economic 
alternatives on the ground. Some put the emphasis on negotiating with 
companies and governments to make them more accountable. I did not have 
a chance to attend the more politically oriented panels on citizenship, 
migration, youth, transitional justice, etc. It is quite likely that the 
North African tone was much more revolutionary on these panels. Yet, 
when it came to the economy, many seemed to find it out of place to 
reject the global structure out of hand. As one Tunisian professor told 
me after a panel, we could agree on broad anti-neoliberal principles (a 
British speaker had just listed these as common ownership, popular 
sovereignty, and social production), but Tunisia faces immediate 
problems such as sluggish growth, inflation, and corruption at the 
moment. Who would want big business to pack up and leave right now?

Other North African speakers (from Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco) 
similarly pointed to the possibility of capital flight (for example when 
I posed, at another panel, the question of why the revolutionary energy 
of 2011-2013 was not directly targeted at the transnationals, the harm 
of which they had elegantly described throughout their panel). These are 
legitimate concerns. Those who want to fight capitalism cannot win these 
activists over without laying out a concrete plan of what Tunisians (and 
others) will do if capital leaves them in the middle of the road (or 
chooses to punish them through other means, as it is in the course of 
doing in Greece).

But this plan cannot be a list of abstract ideas. People have to see, 
even partially experience, the alternatives before switching paths. Such 
an experience occasionally occurs during revolutions, but there is a lot 
that can be done in less revolutionary times too. We certainly cannot 
accomplish the task of building an alternative economy under the current 
conditions, but we can begin.


One possible starting point for building an alternative economy is 
through cooperatives. The idea has a long history. One of the important 
turning points in that history is the debate between Marx and some of 
the socialists of his time. Marxist polemics (and ultimately Stalin’s 
fateful turn to collectivization) were among the factors that buried 
hopes of building an alternative world through these organizations. 
Tito’s Yugoslavia, however, revived the practice and made it the 
cornerstone of a self-governing socialism. Yugoslavian cooperatives 
directly influenced the early Tunisian republic. Several of (the 
republican founder) Bourguiba’s ministers were from the /Union Générale 
Tunisienne du Travail/ (UGTT), a trade union that had an active role in 
furthering the cooperative movement. The centrality of a trade union 
within the old regime is unique to Tunisia in the region. However, after 
1969 the regime took a market-friendly turn. Cooperatives stopped 
playing a major role in the economy (though the UGTT retained its 

Today, cooperatives have a hard time flourishing because of legal 
barriers and credit shortages. A few networks and organizations are 
working on spreading the practice in the countryside, but new 
generations of Tunisian peasants are unaware of the possibilities. The 
UGTT is negotiating with the regime to open up more space for 
cooperatives, while other organizations and networks (some of them 
affiliated with the Popular Front) are putting more emphasis on 
autonomy. They point out that the major problem with the cooperatives of 
the 1960s was the lack of free adhesion of the peasants to these 

Cooperatives are much more widespread and institutionalized in nearby 
Morocco. Yet these are not necessarily alternatives against capitalism. 
They work in conjunction with the current Moroccan regime and hence are 
compatible with neoliberal capitalism. Still, their experiences can 
provide important clues for those organizing cooperatives elsewhere in 
the region (and they are indeed collaborating with cooperative movements 
of different colors outside of Morocco). Scholars, not only activists, 
have been debating for a long time whether rural cooperatives are a form 
of peasant self-organization or, rather, extensions of the state (and/or 
market capitalism). Today, as autonomy becomes the catchword, there is 
more opportunity to push for self-organization-based cooperatives in the 
countryside.*The NGO Universe*

But what about the towns and cities? Here is where the NGOs come in. In 
urban Tunisia, there is very little cooperative organization, and it is 
mostly restricted to the artisanal sector. There also seems to be, 
unfortunately, a generational divide. The youth concentrates on NGO work 
(the mean age at the cooperative panels was rather high). As in much of 
the rest of the world, NGOs talk of themselves as a “third” sector. Some 
Tunisian NGOs gather around the trope of a “collaborative economy.” They 
provide free or cheap transportation, food, education, and access to 
other goods (including musical instruments). Yet other North African 
NGOs negotiate with international institutions and governments to limit 
the damage of neoliberalization. Their activities include, for example, 
procuring compensation for transnational capital’s environmental damage 
to local communities. Nevertheless, these NGO activists are aware that 
their partial victories (for instance, legislation regulating free 
trade) usually lead to capital flight.

How do these organizations fit into the general framework of the WSF? 
When I asked whether their activities constitute alternatives to 
capitalism, some were truly disturbed. They underlined that 
transnational companies and (neoliberal) governments were their 
“partners,” not enemies. Some organizations, however, were internally 
divided on this topic. Some members of a collaborative economy NGO 
(which gratuitously incorporated neoliberal discourse through an 
emphasis on governance, mutual trust, management, etc.) expressed the 
worry that their work might be helping capitalism survive. Others in the 
same organization, however, objected that it should not be their concern 
whether the (neoliberal) regime falls or not (/isqat an-nizam/ was the 
shared slogan of the 2011-2013 Arab uprisings). It would fall when the 
time came. Their work, moreover, would undermine capitalism not by 
fighting it, but making it unnecessary, one of the representatives argued.

Such collaborative efforts are indeed important. It is also true that 
one dimension of our work should be rendering bosses unnecessary. Yet we 
also need to be aware of the limits of this kind of work (every effort 
has its limits). We can recall here one of Marx’s points against 
cooperative-based socialism (not to bury “utopianism” once again, but to 
be aware of its limits): the problem of scale. Marx’s anti-utopian 
criticism can be easily applied to NGOs: how can the uncoordinated 
collaborative work of a few people here and there undermine the power of 
giant companies, which are today much bigger than in Marx’s time? To 
look at the same issue from another angle: in a world where a small 
percent of the global population controls an immense part of the whole 
world’s wealth, any effort that will put their privileges in question 
risks being marginalized, repressed, or incorporated. Building 
alternatives to the world they have built needs to go hand in hand with 
efforts to redistribute their wealth. I cannot imagine that happening 
without a fight. And I cannot imagine the big fish leaving us alone if 
we don’t spread out the wealth they have monopolized.

The limits of both negotiation and building small-scale alternatives, in 
short, are much starker in the era of globalization. Statism is an easy, 
but misleading, response to these limits.


In one exceptional panel, the calls to fight against capitalism and to 
build alternatives to it were combined. The generational divide that 
marked other North African presentations was not there either. People of 
all ages, men and women, quite energetically participated, not only 
through questions, but often by intervening (kindly or rudely) in the 
presentation. Loud, messy, angry, not always efficient, but extremely 
informative and clear-cut—this was one of my favorite panels. It would 
have been even better if the sole male speaker had been accompanied by a 
female speaker as assertive and well-informed (most other panels 
exhibited more gender balance). The presenter was a professor affiliated 
with the Popular Front. He frequently switched back and forth between 
French and Arabic (without always waiting for the consecutive 
translation), despite loud protests from the Francophone audience. In 
his long speech, he first provided a detailed picture of the Tunisian 
political economy and then offered a statist way out. “The state needs 
to be the motor of development,” he asserted. It should directly invest 
in the productive sectors, especially industry and technology, which 
have been forsaken by the market-oriented developmental model of the 
past four decades. It should protect agriculture. Energy, 
transportation, and mines should be state property. All resources should 
be nationalized.

The cross-generational and cross-cultural energy in this room was both 
promising and frustrating. It demonstrated the presence of a feisty 
spirit ready to confront transnational capital and shoulder the burden 
of replacing it with a concrete alternative. But it was disappointing in 
that the alleged alternative was not really one. I asked: “Why should 
the state be the motor of development?” We have seen in the past that 
statism can be as oppressive and inegalitarian as capitalism. Why put 
all our eggs in one basket again? In response, the speaker modified his 
sentence by saying “the state should be one motor of development among 
others.” This is a nice answer, but in practice, it is very likely that 
the state will be /the/ motor if capitalism is toppled, especially given 
the political energy in this room and the lack of /political /commitment 
in other discussions that focused on alternatives (The NGO panels were 
quite energetic, but lacked a political bite). Our way out of this 
impasse passes through a politicization of the “third sector.” The state 
can become a non-oppressive motor of development only if its activities 
are subordinated to a self-organizing society.

*An Alternative Economy or Barbarism*

Our earth faces an imminent danger. In a few decades, our sources of 
nourishment and energy will be depleted. If we do not create an 
alternative path, food and water riots, civil and international wars 
over basic necessities, and similar events will be the order of the day. 
Even free market capitalism cannot survive such unfavorable conditions. 
In that sense, a badge I saw at the WSF summed up the situation pretty 
neatly: “Another world is inevitable.” If we do not build a more 
egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world soon, savagery (rather 
than neoliberalism) will be the victor. The rise of ISIS after decades 
of free ride(s) for business is only one harbinger of the coming world. 
Freedom through the market will no longer be possible in the foreseeable 
future. Either humanity creates another way to experience freedom, or we 
plunge head on into ecological dictatorships, statisms, warlord states, 
and walled, fearful city-states.

The creation of that path can be debated at forums and assemblies, but 
can only be realized through testing, living, and experiencing 
alternative models of production and exchange. The work of “those who 
want to build” is essential. But without massive upheavals, their work 
is bound to remain a whisper. As long as we depend on the state or on 
capital to produce at a mass scale, these small experiments will remain 
marginal, or worse, will get incorporated into market or state 
mechanisms. The NGO activists might be uninterested in anti-capitalism, 
but only at their own peril (at their own peril /as/ NGO 
activists—certainly, there will always be more lucrative careers in a 
neoliberalized NGO universe). For the survival and generalization of the 
principles that many (if not all) NGOs hold dear (sharing, reciprocity, 
equity), we need a new economy at both the regional and global levels. 
This is impossible without fighting transnational capital (and national 
big business), which would be the big loser(s) of such a transition, and 
would therefore deploy all possible resources to block it.

The WSF has been around for more than a decade, and so has public 
criticism that lays bare the ills of neoliberalism. If most (even 
relatively more non-neoliberal) NGOs can still flirt with neoliberal 
techniques and discourse, this shows propaganda and direct action are 
not enough. Anti-capitalists too have to engage new venues to win these 
fence-sitters over. Today, many NGOs have an array of practices and 
discourses that could go well with both neoliberalism and an alternative 
economy. They will be decisively won over, not through words or 
demonstrations, but through the creation of new social economy 
techniques and practices that more clearly break away with the 
neoliberal mantra. Cooperatives that self-identify as post-capitalist 
might be one of the keys. If coordinated with the work of such 
cooperatives, NGOs could also move in a more non-capitalist direction. 
But this is easier said than done. And of course, even such relatively 
more anti-capitalist organizations will always walk on slippery ground, 
always facing the danger of incorporation into the market or the state. 
What can keep them on a non-capitalist path?

Here we come full circle to our starting point. Revolutionary 
mobilization is necessary not only to sweep away the meanest enemies of 
alternative economies, but also to keep alternative organizations free 
from marketization and bureaucratization. Revolution is no silver 
bullet. Some exceptional revolutions can create new forms of economic 
organization, but even those organizations cannot survive as 
alternatives without ongoing, autonomous, alternative work. We therefore 
need revolutions not in order to resolve all of our problems, but to 
remove the most merciless impediments to the alternative economy and to 
keep the alternative economic organizations in line with their higher 

The WSF has, over the years, clearly communicated the message that the 
source of the problem is neoliberal capitalism. What needs to be done 
next, globally, is getting out the message regarding what 
counter-globalization activists are for, not just what they are against. 
What will replace capital and the market as the organizations and 
principles guiding production and exchange? Organizations based on the 
free association of workers, peasants, and professionals as a 
replacement for capital; reciprocity and the Commons as a replacement 
for the market—these can be our beginning points. Taking fears regarding 
capital flight and other forms of market punishment seriously, we need 
to convince the fence-sitters (even before the broader masses) that we 
don’t need big business; we can do it ourselves. Still, these vague 
principles mean nothing if we do not live them, embody them, and put 
them into practice as of today.

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