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Some Hard Questions about the World Social Forum

By Jai Sen

11 January, 2006

Friends, greetings!

This note is to ask some hard questions about the World Social Forum, with the aim of raising some debate on it in the run-up to the world meetings that are coming up later this month. I ask these questions in the assumption of agreement that the World Social Forum, with all its limitations, is still a significant world institution, in terms of world politics and even more so in terms of civil politics, and that it is something that we need to understand and critically engage with as it evolves.

From this year (2006), the WSF is attempting a significant new experiment, a so-called polycentric World Social Forum (in Bamako, Mali; in Caracas, Venezuela; and in Karachi, Pakistan) is about to take off, in two weeks, though with one of the three locations (the Karachi one) postponed till March. The Bamako Forum is to take place from January 19-23, and the Caracas one from January 24-29. (For official details, see the official WSF website (external link))

The step, of moving from single-centric Fora to polycentric ones, is ­ as a step in the development of the World Social Forum - as important as the holding of the Forum outside Brazil and in Mumbai, India, in January 2004. But given this significance, and behind this the significance of the World Social Forum as an emerging world institution and as an institution of civil politics, it is important, and perhaps of no small interest, that there is hardly any debate about the polycentric Forum, either as individual meetings or as a collective. Even on the official WSF website, in its Library of Alternatives, there are only two articles ­ and then too, the two are both in Spanish, despite the fact that the three Fora are being held in English-speaking, French-speaking, and Spanish-speaking parts of the world, and where this distribution was presumably a very careful and intentional decision.

Compared with the storm of articles that the Forum generated in earlier years, this is stunning. What is happening? Why is there no discussion? Has the Forum run its course?

But within this context, there is also a need to carefully look at and debate certain specific patterns and questions:

  • To a degree that is decisively more so than holding the Forum in Mumbai in 2004, this year¹s Forum ­ by the choice of locations - is evidently trying to open up social and political space : In Venezuela as an apparent ally of anti-imperialist popular forces in Latin America (and now made only the more so, with the election of Morales in Bolivia and his visit to Venezuela and Hugo Chávez in this past week); and in Pakistan, still formally a dictatorship, with the army and a general in firm control (of state power, at least). What has the leadership of the World Social Forum hoped to achieve by doing this ­ by choosing these locations for this major experiment ? And what might be the actual possible outcomes of these events, in their respective countries and regions ?
  • Although there have been earlier years when more than one "World Social Forum" meetings have taken place within the same year (if we take into account not just the so-called "world" meetings but also the so-called "regional" ones, like the European Social Forum and the Asian Social Forum, and also the "thematic" ones, as was held in Colombia in 2003), this is the first time when a specific and presumably strategic decision was taken to hold a polycentric world meeting ­ ie several meetings at the same time, spread across the world. One consideration was logistical ­ meaning that more people across the world will therefore have access to the Forum (since it will be taking place closer to everybody in the world); another, perhaps, was to have an even greater and more widespread impact, across the world. This latter dream is spoiled a little by the necessity of having to postpone the Karachi Forum (because of the outfall of the earthquake last year), but the concept remains. But for this to happen, this presumably will require some degree of coordination between the Fora that are taking place at the same time, for synergy to take place towards a more global assertion of civil (if not actually Opopular¹) power; and at the minimum, some consciousness that Othe other¹ is also taking place at the same time (almost). So we need to ask at least the following questions / assess the Fora in at least these terms : Is the Forum this year in fact going to help a much larger number of people to gain access to the World Social Forum ? What ways are there for this synergy to take shape ? And will this polycentric design in fact create a greater impact than the single world meetings ?
  • More specifically, and despite the sometimes trenchant and even bitter discussion of the manner in which the Workers¹ Party in Brazil has influenced the emergence and politics of the World Social Forum as an idea, and also about the dominating influence of political parties in the continental / regional Fora (the SWP ­ Socialist Workers Party in the case of the London European Social Forum in November 2004, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Communist parties in the case of the WSF in Mumbai) ­ and all this despite the fact the WSF¹s Charter specifically prohibits the participation of political parties in the Forum - there is very little discussion of the fact that the Caracas Forum seems to be virtually being sponsored by Hugo Chávez and his government and to be completely dominated by them, and where the Caracas Forum will quite obviously be used by him as a platform and as a way of promoting his understanding of the Forum. (For a glimpse, see his speech to the Forum in 2005 - Mario Dujisin, January 2005, Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela : "The WSF Should Have A Strategy Of Power", January 31 2005 (external link).) And on the other hand, some reports suggest that his practice of politics is enervating independent social movement in the country ­ and one opinion is that the WSF being held in Caracas is a shroud for such politics. (Rafael Uzcategui, January 2006 - WSF Caracas: Shroud for Venezuela's social movements (external link)) To the opposite of fighting it therefore, the leaders of the WSF seem to be almost celebrating this profound contradiction to the very soul of the Forum (and in a carefully downplayed way, which makes it close to being cynical) ­ because, one has to assume, they think that 'Chávez is on our side' But what are the 'sides' in this game, in these politics ? And who is on which side?

These are serious questions. It is not enough just to innocently 'go and take part' in the World Social Forum ­ and to then think or feel that you have been sold down the river when you are there (or indeed, even if you do not go, because all this is being done in our name ­ the name of so-called "civil society", both local and global). In short: Do you agree that the Forum should and can be organised by political parties and by governments, towards their partisan ends? If Chávez in Venezuela, then why not Musharraf in Pakistan?

In a way, what seems to be happening is a kind of a creeping coup within the Forum; in the broadest sense, of old politics over new politics. Even if you happen to agree with or be sympathetic to Hugo Chávez, or Lula, or the CPI(M) in India, if they can take over the Forum in their respective contexts then why should other parties and politicians not do so in other contexts ? Or is it really ultimately only a question of left and right (where left is right, and right is wrong) ­and the alternative power and influence that so many have said that civil movements can exercise is, in the final analysis, not relevant? Or do you have another take entirely, on what is happening? If so, let's talk about it.

There is not much time : Just ten days. Let's therefore use this time, as best and as incisively as we can, to understand what is happening, what the stakes are, and what the likely outcomes are.

Towards this, here are a few links and articles in relation to the Caracas Forum, both in favour of what is happening and critical of it. Let's debate these ideas in this space, and also take them up for local discussions wherever you are, taking them as far and as wide as you can in this time ­ and also within the Forum/s, in case you are attending any of them.



Contributors to this page: Subramanya (Subbu) Sastry .
Page last modified on Friday 13 of January, 2006 10:51:01 IST by Subramanya (Subbu) Sastry.

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