This paper argues that the World Social Forum and larger Global Justice and Solidarity Movement of which it is a part are important sites for the elaboration of a new form of cultural politics. Although culture is often considered secondary or subservient to supposedly more serious political issues, various actors and practices, as well as the events of the Forum, demonstrate that culture is a key site for transformative political action. The paper argues that in order for concerned actors to both understand and develop the potential of the new political tools presented by the World Social Forum, and other actors critical of neo-liberal globalisation, we must dispel common misconceptions about the nature of culture and politics. We must recognize the centrality of culture to all political action. The paper considers both the way the Forum has been written about and particular struggles within the social forum processes that demonstrate the salience of these cultural politics.

Bio note

Michal Osterweil is currently a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States. She is currently working towards a PhD in the Department of Anthropology on the Italian “New Global” Movement. Her research interests include social movements, globalisation, resistance politics, feminist and post-structural theory, and the relationship between knowledge production and political change.

E-mail : osterwei@email.unc.edu


Introduction: “culture” everywhere!?

One of the things that I have found remarkable about the way the World Social Forum has consistently been reported on and written about is the prominence of descriptions and conceptions that evade traditional political critique and analysis. Having immersed myself in the reading of myriad articles and pieces – anything I could get my hands on because I had not been able to attend the 2004 Forum in Mumbai – I was struck almost immediately by the choice of emphasis: Rather than spend a great deal of time discussing the contents of particular workshops, or even of central debates over forms of governance, specific policies and alternatives – things which we would typically expect out of a political event – many authors tend to focus on another register. They point to the Forum’s lively sounds and colors; the exhilarating mix of different languages and cultures; and even the uncanny and ubiquitous presence of a sense of magic and possibility. In other words, they focus on a register that includes feeling and energy, that values difference and subjective location – a register that is predominantly cultural. (It would be sufficient to glance quickly at reports on the Internet magazine Zmag (www.zmag.org) in the weeks following the last Social Forum in Mumbai to get the sense that what people took home with them went far beyond political programs or policy alternatives.)

Notably, those that do not speak only in positive terms about the Forum also tend to refer less to the Forum’s content, and more to its form and structure. They refer to the way it has been put together, to the modalities by which workshops and plenaries are run, and even to the way the physical dispersion renders certain movement realities more visible than others.

Even the metaphors and adjectives used to assess the Forum seem to orient themselves to this cultural register. For example, in a foreword to a recent volume on the World Social Forum, Hilary Wainwright, a prominent activist and intellectual, writes, “At its best the forum is like a political jam session with people bouncing off each other in harmony and in counterpoint. Like the jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis the Forum is experimenting with a politics that can cope with uncertainty and is not constantly straining for formal harmony (in political terms, programmatic unity).” (Wainwright, 2004, p. xx). Similarly Chico Whitaker argues that one of the most powerful aspects of the Forum is its ability to “draw on the most important recent political discovery, of the power of open, free, horizontal structures” (Whitaker, 2004, p. 112-3). In addition, Boaventura de Sousa Santos has referred to the Forum as an “epistemology of the south,” a process and event that through its very diversity and openness works to produce ways of knowing (and being) that work against the monocultural and scientistic logics upon which Western modernity depend (Santos, 2004a, p. 237).

Moreover, in describing what many of us consider to be one of the most important political inventions of recent times in such cultural terms, these authors do not treat these cultural aspects as “extras” – good decoration to accompany what are the “really important” political and economic issues at stake. That is, they do not seem to suggest that these elements are secondary to the “true” political business of the Forum which many would argue is to influence the political and economic bodies of governance such as nation-states and the set of transnational institutions that currently impose and enforce neo-liberal globalisation upon the entire globe. Rather, for Hilary Wainwright, it is the Forum “at its best” that resembles a political jam session that can cope with not reaching final harmony. Similarly, for Whitaker the Forum is a “powerful instrument of struggle” because of its use of “open, horizontal and free structures”. As such, and as the statements quoted above demonstrate, these authors see these cultural, formal and micro-political aspects as some of the most important reasons why the Social Forum has proven such a vital and powerful instrument for struggle against neo-liberal capitalist globalisation.

Now some might argue that that is all well and good, but that really it is just an effect of the way the Forum is being described: that description begs embellishment and subjective assessment. And therefore these cultural aspects are merely secondary to the key political matters at hand. However, having been to several Forums and having experienced the power of these “embellishments” in my own flesh and bones, I want to argue that this is not the case. It is not simply a matter of coincidence or stylistic preference that so many authors from so many geographical and political backgrounds have chosen to speak about the World Social Forum in this manner. Whether they are describing their own experience of the Forum by pointing to its smells, sounds, and magic; or whether they criticize the forms and structures through which the Forum has been organised; or whether they see the Forum in its totality as producing a new form of political engagement, there is something else at stake.

In fact, I believe the prominence of culture compels us to ask fundamental questions about the very nature and potential of Social Forums. We must ask why it is claimed that the most powerful instrument of struggle is derived from the power of open, free and horizontal structures. Why is it so crucial that contemporary movements produce and live a political modality that is capable of coping with partiality, incompleteness and diversity? What do plural “ways of knowing” have to do with our concrete political projects? If we are all already against neo-liberal capitalist globalisation, why are people so bothered about the organisational structure, workshop form, etc.? And more generally, why has discussing the World Social Forum, originally conceived of as a new political tool that might eventually provide us with new forms of governance, come to mean discussing its culture(s)? In other words we are confronted with critical questions about the nature of culture and politics, or more precisely, about the function of the cultural in the political – both in the Forum and in world politics more broadly.

In taking these questions seriously, I think we will at least begin to get a better idea of the true political potential of the Forum and of the larger “movement of movements” 1 of which it is a defining part. As I hope will become clear, the centrality of these cultural elements is indicative of the fact that, when conceived of as a broad category that includes both the meanings of social practices, the unwritten rules that constitute and malleably structure everyday life, as well as a space for creativity that can break and recreate those rules, culture must be understood as political in and of itself. In fact if we consider schematically the prevalence of culture I pointed to above, as well as the practices of a number of political actors that I will discuss more thoroughly below, the political centrality of culture becomes evident.

This recognition is particularly important because despite the fact that the salience of culture to the WSF is more than evident, for the most part, the implications of this centrality have either been underestimated or have not been fully understood. More often than not, culture is perceived – notably, by many who have substantial influence within the Forum process – as subordinate to more serious political issues. As such, cultural elements such as diversity, internal democracy, epistemology, narratives, etc., are conceived of as desirable, but not nearly as important as the “real” political issues at stake. These misunderstandings around the political nature of culture have been at the heart of some of the most visible tensions within the social forum process, and have been among the main reasons it has been so hard for existing social scientific and political vocabularies to make sense of, or evaluate, the political “effectiveness” of the social forums and the larger Alternative Globalisation Movement (AGM).

In this paper I will flesh out the notion of cultural politics by focusing on the tensions and debates that I believe are a result of an underestimation of the political nature of the cultural. I will also consider the specific practices and strategies that both derive from and constitute a “cultural-political” approach to social and political transformation. These practices and strategies themselves point to the coming into being of a new political repertoire, one that even those inventing them have yet to fully articulate and understand. Overall, I want to argue that only if we understand the highly political nature of the cultural politics being elaborated by specific actors in the larger Global Justice and Solidarity Movement (GJSM), as well as what is taking place in the “open space” of the Social Forum, will we be able to grasp the great potentiality of this “movement of movements”. For as Santos has noted, this is “not just one more movement, but a different kind of movement” (2004a, p. 236), a movement that, I will argue, is itself a re-conceptualization of what social and political change look like. This also means that beyond being spaces where the struggle against capitalism and neo-liberalism are being elaborated, the Alternative Globalisation Movement (AGM) and World Social Forum are also sites where the struggle to assert the centrality of culture in politics is itself being played out.

Beyond “political cultures” to cultural politics

One of the greatest obstacles to a more productive understanding of the role of culture in politics is the current definition and predominant connotation of the terms “political culture” or “cultures of politics.”

It is certainly important to note that 1) the Forum has been the site for encounters between, and elaborations of, new political cultures, and 2) that the Forum’s Charter of Principles explicitly works to shape a particular political culture by promoting certain values – including justice, solidarity and democratic participation – that all who participate in the Forum are expected to follow. However, this understanding of “political culture” has two fundamental limitations. First, it is based on a rather simplistic notion of what counts as political. And second, it does not address the more fundamental question of what the function or relevance of culture is to politics. If we look at the definition of “political culture” (or “culture of politics”) put forward by Keraghel and Sen in their introduction to this issue, we can see both of these limitations. They write that “A given culture of politics can be said to constitute a homogenous unit, within which the components are interdependent and can be regarded as comprising a coherent whole”.

However, a political culture cannot be produced solely through the enunciation of words from above – as in a charter of principles – nor can its coherence and actual manifestations be fully controlled. Just as politics and power are never limited to the laws, policies and enforcement agencies employed by governing bodies, but actually work through social norms, institutional practices, and ideologies – i.e. the various systems that order and shape our experiences and conceptions of the world –,2 a given “culture of politics” is lived (not decreed). A culture of politics is embodied in the practices, relations and processes that define a given space and event. But this does not happen in an isolated cultural or social realm separate from politics. It happens because cultural and social elements are themselves imbued with and constituted by relations of power that are themselves political.

A direct consequence of the lived and practice-based nature of culture is that there is no way to expect or ensure the homogeneity or unity of the “political culture” after its enunciation. As such, and as happens in the case of social forums, there is often a large discrepancy between the culture of horizontality, openness, multiplicity and democratic participation stated in the charter of principles, and the way it is actually experienced. This discrepancy, however, is not inevitable. One can make the cultivation and coherence of a culture more probable by building (or encouraging) institutions and social relations that reinforce the stated norms and values.

In fact, making the organisation and structure of the Forum consistent with its principles and with radically democratic, anti-hierarchical, and anti-authoritarian principles more generally, has been precisely what many actors, referred to as the “horizontals”, have been trying to do within the social forums. These “horizontals” have sought to promote a truly democratic politics by focusing on the micro-practices, organisation processes and bodies of the Forum itself. They have sought to challenge unequal and undemocratic relations of power by, among other things, changing how meetings are run, how space is organised, how authority and expertise are distributed, and how knowledge is conveyed. However, rather than recognize these as important political interventions, for the most part these efforts have been consigned to a difference in “political cultures” – something at best to be worked towards, but not prioritised.

This inability to recognize the political nature of the horizontals’ interventions is inextricably related to the second limitation of the term “political culture.” Although the term is useful in allowing us to articulate differences between ways of doing or practicing politics among actors that might claim to have the same goals – i.e. bringing an end to neo-liberal capitalist exploitation – the term (political culture) tends to be used in a way that leaves the definition of what counts as political unchanged. It accepts that there are different ways of going about organising, deliberating, facilitating, etc, and it even acknowledges that some might be better or more democratic than others. However, it ultimately it holds on to the belief that the political is itself an obvious or objective part of social reality in which political institutions and governance bodies make decisions and govern, and are thus, logically, the necessary sites for political action.

The effects of this compartmentalization of culture as simply a modality or “way of doing” politics are far from benign. Rather, they produce a limited vision of where effective political action takes place. This in turn leaves certain tendencies and behaviors of even leftist or progressive organisations unproblematised, and renders a series of practices and political strategies that deliberately value and move within this cultural and micro-political terrain incomprehensible and “ineffective”. Furthermore, it retains the belief of “the political” as necessarily acting towards a future to come, rather than as something that can be effectively changed in the present.

This understanding of culture and politics has also been at the core of why the GJSM has been consistently criticised for its inability to move beyond symbolic contestation to actually intervening in politics. While such criticisms do have some validity, much of this validity is derived from the fact that the epistemological framework and political categories with which these movements, actors and spaces are being judged are themselves misoriented.

Rather than manifesting an inability to produce real political change, for many of this movement’s protagonists, effecting real change requires moving in cultural or micro-political terrains. For them, a focus on the symbolic and cultural is not an inadequacy, but the direct result of strategic and ethico-political choices. It is at once an attempt to address many of the contradictions and authoritarianisms that have historically accompanied even progressive efforts at social and political change, as well as an outcome of a particular analysis of power and of capitalism. Their analysis recognizes that it is in the terrain of culture and micro-practice that the hegemonies of the current economic and political regimes are maintained. This means that the dominance of these systems are both manifested in and dependent on various cultural elements, including subjectivity, social institutions and social relations, the unspoken rules that govern the micro-practices of daily life; as well as the cultural logics such as progress, individualism and identity. As such, successful strategies of resistance must confront not only the political-institutional and economic manifestations of neo-liberal capitalist globalisation, but also, and at the same time, the foundational cultural logics and the quotidian practices and social relations that both constitute, produce, and make the dominance of these systems possible. (This is especially important because these logics and practices all too often manifest themselves among organisations that call themselves progressive – including social forums.)

This means that for a significant part of the AGM, as well as within contemporary politics more broadly, culture is a key site for transformative political struggle. As such, “cultural politics” does not refer simply to the means and modalities of doing contemporary politics, but to its very goals.

The “horizontals” vs the “verticals”: more than a clash of “political cultures”

Nowhere was the importance of culture, its simultaneous marginalization, and the inadequacy of the concept of “political culture” more apparent than in the struggle between the “verticals” and the “horizontals” in the preparations for the European Social Forum (ESF) that took place in London in October, 2004. For months the organizing process for the Forum was a veritable battle-ground between the so-called “verticals” – a more dominant group comprised largely of NGOs, trade-unions and party-like structures that believe the focus on the Forum should be its results – opposition to neo-liberal globalisation – without much regard for how one gets there; and the self-named “horizontals” – a more marginal or “radical” tendency that has spent a great deal of effort trying to democratize and flatten out the Forum organisation and structure while working to retain its multiplicity.

The name “horizontals” refers less to a fixed group and more to a loose network of rather heterogeneous groups – including anti-authoritarian, autonomist, feminist, anarchist and other groups and individuals – who believe that “the most important thing in the politics for a New World is how we relate to each other in making it happen” (http://esf2004.net/en/tiki-index.php?page=WhoAreTheHorizontals (external link)). The term came into widespread use shortly following the ESF in Paris when a document titled “The Horizontals Come To Town” was widely circulated on various listservs as a call to democratize and pluralize the London ESF. It was written in specific contestation of groups like the Greater London Authority, trade unions and political organisations that were perceived by the “horizontals” as hijacking the Forum for their own purposes and according to their own singular visions of social change, and marginalizing and silencing myriad voices as a consequence. Despite the fact that a network of these “horizontals” worked from the outset to participate in, rather than abandon or contest, the preparatory stages of the Forum,3 their efforts were frustrated by the closed nature of the self-appointed organising committee. As a result, at the time of writing they are working to build autonomous alternative events that they hope will not only be spaces for horizontality and radical democracy, but will also be included in the official program of the Forum, as well as on its maps, to ensure greater visibility and the possibility of more outreach and impact.4

Although the term “horizontals” was only taken on as a common name in preparations for the London ESF, the principles and practices of the horizontals, as well as many of the groups who now call themselves such, have been in existence since before the first World Social Forum. In fact these principles have been at the heart of less visible but important movements that many associate with the Intercontinental Encuentros Against Neo-Liberalism?, organised by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, in 1996 and in Spain in 1997. Although the Zapatistas themselves are not permitted to attend social forums, others affiliated either ethico-politically or directly with Zapatista networks, such as People’s Global Action and various other organisations, have consistently worked to both utilize and introduce radically democratic, anti-hierarchical, and anti-authoritarian organising practices into the Forums and the larger movement of movements. In fact doing so is considered a central element of their struggle against capitalism. Although their practices have been multiple depending on the scale, event and objectives, one important strategy has been to set up autonomous spaces at various Forums. These spaces included Intergalactika at Porte Alegre, HUB in Florence, GLAD in Paris. Each was slightly different, but they have tended to be based on a commitment both to working with and to elaborating political practices that enact, in the present, the kind of social relations and institutions another world should be based on – what these actors call “prefigurative politics”. This means creating spaces and workshops that are themselves democratic and anti-hierarchical; spaces that allow for difference, as well as spaces that focus on creating new forms of relations among people and with respect to knowledge and power (for more on these spaces, see Osterweil, 2004).

Most of these experiences (though not all) did not directly oppose or contest the existence of the mainstream Forum. Rather they sought to build independent spaces that were not forced into the format and structures of the larger Forum. According to them, these formats tended to duplicate, rather than oppose, many logics and oppressions their movements were (and are) fighting against. However, and as was the case with the preparations for the ESF in London, this heterogeneous set of actors has consistently faced difficulties in interacting with the more “official” parts of the social forums. Their projects have been repeatedly weakened and marginalized either intentionally, or more often as a result of the lack of recognition of their value. The result has been that these actors rarely have an equal chance to share their visions with the larger world of the Social Forum. Clearly, these difficulties, and the current struggle between the “horizontals” and “verticals” have everything to do with the fact that their emphases on micro-political and procedural aspects of the Forum have been dismissed as being stylistic and cultural, rather than as part of a coherent ethico-political vision of social and political change.

In writing about the current and ongoing struggle between the horizontals and verticals, De Angelis and others have described the current situation as a clash of two political cultures (2004). While on one level this captures precisely the nature of the struggle – a veritable and insurmountable lack of commensurability between these movement actors –, on another, it misses the true and more fundamental nature of this clash, and even risks reinforcing a reductive definition of culture. For if we look closely, these internal struggles are not a matter of two political cultures vying to prove theirs is the better way of doing politics, nor of their finding a way to co-exist conflictually. Rather, they are far more complex and difficult struggles precisely because they are working on two different registers: whereas one side (the horizontals) sees culture itself as a critical political terrain – a site where real change is effected –, the other (the verticals) believes that culture, form and structure are subservient to “real politics.”

Referring to the differences between the horizontals and verticals as a clash of political cultures can also obscure the difficulties the horizontals themselves face in pursuing an effective cultural politics. It is important to note that although the “horizontals” may very well be more committed than the “verticals” to internal democracy and respect for multiplicity in principle, the movements that comprise this network of horizontals tend to be overwhelmingly from the Global North (specifically from Western Europe and North America.) As such, they carry with them particular traditions and cultures in the ways they eat, dress, and organize; practices that are themselves culturally particular and might (even unintentionally) exclude or alienate people who do not come from, for example, a white anarchist culture where vegan food, grungy dress, and meetings with funny hand gestures are the undisputed norm.

Interestingly, another unexpected outcome of the lived and messy nature of the Forum’s political cultures is that, although the official Forum may work undemocratically, favour hierarchical and reformist organisations, and otherwise belittle cultural politics, it is still an important site for the elaboration of cultural politics. The very act of providing the space for the official event creates possibilities for diverse encounters that far exceed the limited views of the organisers. This is especially true because the official Forum attracts many newcomers and others who have no way of knowing about the anti-authoritarian networks. In this sense, despite the validity of the horizontals’ contestations, the sheer numbers and diversity of encounters, which cannot be prevented or produced by a stated charter of principles or a discursive commitment to horizontality, are an aspect of multiplicity and democracy that the horizontals alone cannot organize for.

Notably, current discussions among horizontals (and others) reflect a recognition of this fact, as well as a more mature understanding of the nature of cultural politics. To this end, many organisers have recognised the need to move beyond the model of previous autonomous spaces, including GLAD and HUB, to create a space that can better articulate the vision and practice of horizontals to the wider world of the Forum. For while in the past these alternative spaces created an event that was theoretically democratic, anti-hierarchical, and open (all were welcome, and there were no real barriers to inclusion) they were often so strongly based on Northern alternative culture that they were unintentionally, or de facto, exclusionary.

As Massimo De Angelis, a well known London organizer and movement theorist, recently wrote on a discussion listserv, “I personally would consider this alternative space a disaster if, entering it, I felt as if I was entering an event like the predominantly white anarchist book fair (…) I hope to come to this alternative event and breath, hear and taste Africa, Asia, Latin America, Middle East as well as Australia, Europe and Britain. I would like us to learn horizontal ways of organizing from all traditions (…) I want us to face the challenges that cultural meshing poses while producing things (…) getting scarred by some of the conflicts, fears and hesitations that meshing always brings about, getting a sense that we have accomplished something very deep and important, and that is a new sense of ourselves and the other” (email posted to the democratise_the_esf listserv, April 3, 2004).

As such, in addition to his own critique of past alternative spaces, De Angelis includes his hopes about what the autonomous space will be. In doing so, he does not only speak of the alternative space as a microcosm of social relations that can work against the dominant cultures based on hierarchy and exclusion by enacting other forms of relating. He also points to the importance of diversity in and of itself. Somewhat like Wainwright and Santos, whom I spoke of at the outset of this paper, he argues for the importance of a space that in its diversity will be able to produce different subjects. These subjects, in turn, “have a new sense of themselves”, a new sense of what it means to be as a result of the meshing and exchange among diverse cultures. Here, culture and micro-politics are not only sites for challenging the logics and practices that reproduce the systems these movements oppose. They are also considered positive and valuable in and of themselves. In other words, spaces that are truly open and plural are treated not simply as technical necessities to accommodate difference, but as the basis for creating new subjects that are already part of the “other worlds” the “movement of movements” is trying to build.

As such, for this network of actors, the objective of true horizontality is not simply to challenge hierarchical practices and oppose the current hegemonic systems. It is also to create spaces where subjective or epistemological permeability allow for cultivating a new kind of cultural exchange, where, as Santos writes, “host-differences replace fortress differences”(2004b, p. 342). This is in turn part of a larger process of producing new subjects and ways of being that in their very creation defy the rationalistic, mono-cultural logics of capitalism, a process that is key to an effective cultural-political approach.

Beyond a liberal definition of “the political”

The reductive treatment of culture and narrow definition of what counts as political are not simply manifest in exclusionary organisational practices. They also reflect – and are directly related to – a specific analysis of power. According to a mainstream, western or liberal perspective, “the political” is generally understood to be a discrete set of governing institutions and policies – including states, multinational corporations, as well as political accords such as NAFTA, or the Bretton Woods institutions. In other words, according to a mainstream definition, politics happens in those places and by those subjects that possess power to rule over others. This view of politics as limited to a given political terrain that is strictly separate from social and cultural elements is very pervasive within the Forum and GJSM.

According to this view – which is related to but not the same as that espoused by the verticals – the raison d’être of the AGM is to successfully oppose the neo-liberal policies of the transnational institutions mentioned above: either to reform the institutions themselves, or to find other national or transnational means to protect particular nations and counter-balance the institutions’ power. This position, which tends to be held by many northern NGOs and other “mainstream” political actors, sees the function and priority of a social movement as lobbying or putting pressure on existing organisations of governance, via existing channels. Furthermore, it quite explicitly sees neo-liberal globalisation as a de-limitable set of economic and political-institutional policies. For this segment of the movement, an effective AGM primarily involves constructing global campaigns, such as the campaign for the Tobin Tax, or the successful efforts to stop the Multilateral Accords on Investment (MAI). As the success of the campaign against the MAI exemplifies, these campaigns are critical parts of the opposition to neo-liberal globalisation. However the problem is that, for the most part, their politics go no further. They work against policies, but do not acknowledge the systemic, cultural or micro-political aspects that make possible the existence and enforcement of these policies. As a consequence, the alternatives they posit tend to rely on and reinforce the current political culture.

This lack of systemic analysis and faith in “a peaceful pressure movement” is far from a politically obvious or neutral approach. Instead, it tends to be based on an implicit faith and belief in old political models, including liberalism, national sovereignty, and the centralised, institutionalised forms of organisation and governance these imply. For example, on its website, the International Forum on Globalisation writes: “Globalisation is the present worldwide drive toward a globalised economic system dominated by supranational corporate trade and banking institutions that are not accountable to democratic processes or national governments.” (http://ifg.org/analysis.htm).

Whereas this definition might seem accurate and benign, it seems to suggest that by restoring the economy to presumably democratic national governments, our campaigns have been successful. This is problematic not only in its assumptions about the benevolence of nation-states, but also – and like the treatment of “political culture” – because it has a limited definition of the political: the only viable political spaces are the institutional and supranational. As such any form of movement or campaign targeting these institutions is the same, regardless of how they go about pursuing these ends. Politics is about concrete ends and objectives that must be part of a separate political sphere of society.

The prevalence of this sort of position among many of the key NGOs and political organisations that constitute the WSF is another source of tension in both the WSF and the AGM. For, as we have seen above, many participants in the AGM regard the choice of targeting cultural and micro-political spaces as itself a result of a particular view of power. Those parts of the movement that I consider to pursue a more cultural-political approach recognize neo-liberal capitalist globalisation as a complex and ubiquitous entity and process. This entity far exceeds any identifiable institutions or policies, and both pervades and helps produce every aspect of human life – from our very conceptions of individuality, to our beliefs in progress and rationality. As such, no campaign or easily identifiable set of demands or objectives can constitute a sufficient or effective political approach. Resistance must be far more ambitious and variegated.

According to this analysis, an effective politics must not only work to change existing policies and economic agendas, but must also seek to oppose neo-liberal capitalist globalisation in all of its iterations: from the individualistic, atomised and controlled human subjects it produces; to its monopoly on value and elimination of difference in all spheres of life; to its dependence on mono-cultural and hegemonic logics.

This view of power and politics conflicts greatly with the mainstream and “vertical” understandings of politics. But while on the one hand this conflict is a direct result of the narrow definition of politics that prevails among a majority of political actors, on the other, it is a result of the fact that we lack the vocabulary and tools to better articulate the ways in which a formal, cultural and micro-political level impacts upon the more commonplace definitions of “the political”. For while it is true that the Social Forums and GJSM certainly emerged in opposition “to economic globalisation (…) war, patriarchy, caste, and religious fundamentalism”, what we tend not to recognize is that they have also emerged in opposition to older political models, and a general crisis of politics and its categories.

In a sense, my own effort to flesh out a “cultural-political” approach in this article is itself an initial attempt at articulating the nature, practices and strategies that can help pave the way for a new sense of “the political”.

Towards “narrating” a cultural political repertoire

According to the cultural-political approach, overall, successful opposition must confront the cultural logics, micro-practices and social institutions that underpin and sustain the system or amalgam of systems that tend to be grouped under the label Capitalism, but actually refer to the entire complex of authoritarianisms and oppressions that currently make up too large a part of our world. The struggle of the horizontals to democratise the social forums is one example of an attempt at confronting the manifestations of a hierarchical, authoritarian logic within the space of the Forum and in the ongoing lives of progressive organisations.

However, a cultural-political approach involves much more than simply opposing a given system and its logics. It also requires undermining the monopoly that dominant narratives and logics have on our conceptions of truth, reality and possibility. This requires on one level making these cultural logics visible and comprehensible as such – as particular cultural visions and systems of meaning that have no essential or inexplicable relation to truth and reality. On another level, it means finding ways of producing and diffusing other systems of meanings and visions that can in turn make possible other ways of knowing, being and relating to one another in the world.

As such, another important aspect of a cultural-political approach is the refusal of a hard division between reality and myth. This goes hand in hand with the belief that how we think and narrate the world has everything to do with how we live it. That is why art, carnival and myth-making, as well as the pursuit of new social logics and forms of relation, are a critical part of these movements’ tactics.

As said earlier, capitalism does not only work through coercion and political-economic power. It also works by claiming a monopoly on all that is real and true. It works by convincing us that all value is reducible to an economic or rational sum; that individualism, order, progress, hierarchy are not culturally specific models, but the way things are “naturally”.

In contrast, artistic invention, focus on the present, and an emphasis on communication work to undermine capitalism’s monopoly on value, meaning and truth. They have the capacity both to destabilize what is given as reality and to demonstrate that value exists apart from consumption and money. Art and carnival work on affective and aesthetic registers and prove that not all value can be accounted for economically or rationally.

As propaganda for the Infernal Noise Brigade – a militant samba band that initially came together for the occasion of the protest against the WTO at Seattle – declares: “We attempt, through our aesthetics and our fierce commitment to the politics of joy and desire, to create a space of carnival, where all rules are broken and anything is possible. We seek to dissolve all barriers between art and politics, participants and spectators, dreams and action.” (Whitney, 2003, p. 224).

Furthermore, many actors work to remake reality by actively writing and telling new narratives and then producing new forms of relationships and organisations accordingly. These narratives are never complete or closed, but they allow people to live according to different values than the current dominant narrative of capitalism allows them. This is why Peter Waterman argues that the Forum needs to “think of itself in cultural / communicational terms” (2004, p. 155), because cultural and communicational work is itself a powerful political tool that the Forum has a great capacity to contribute to.

Seen in this light, the choice to work in networks or meshworks – organisational forms common to many groups and individuals that participate in the Forum and the AGM movement – is not simply, or necessarily, a technical matter of efficiency and organisation. When articulated to compelling and convincing narratives – such as those about the democratic, sustainable, and durable nature of self-organised systems – they become part of a complex and ongoing strategy for living social reality according to logics that do not fit with those of capitalism or modernity (for discussion of these terms as well as examples of the sort of narratives one might find, see Chesters, 2002; Escobar, 2004). Ultimately, my interest in teasing out the nascent and potential aspects of this “cultural-political” approach is itself an attempt at narrating a different view of politics.

Overall, the cultural-political approach can be grouped into three general strategies or sets of practices. 1) Pointing to the importance of organisational form and political structure. This includes working towards internal democracy, the use of networks, as well as opposition to hierarchical and institutionalised political organisations. It is also related to a focus on the micro-processes of daily life, including social relations, the production of subjectivity, as well as many other aspects of daily life that are usually excluded from political reasoning. 2) Placing a high value on diversity and multiplicity. These should be seen as valuable in and of themselves because they provide the basis for a new modality of knowing and being – and are therefore also inextricably related to the production of new subjects and social relations. 3) And finally, working towards disrupting dominant truths and creating new narratives and notions of value. This is often done through the use of art and carnival, as well as other forms of communication that try to tell new stories and create new meanings about social reality.

Understood in this sense, cultural politics means having a multi-level strategy that at once recognizes the variegated and ubiquitous presence of capitalism, which these movements must oppose, while at the same time working to build in the present – starting from the most intimate of levels – the societies they are striving to create. This certainly does not mean ignoring or opposing campaigns that work to oppose specific policies and institutions that contribute daily to the material suffering of millions of the world’s poor and oppressed. But it does mean that one cannot do so without also acknowledging the power and politics inherent in the very means we use to organize such campaigns, as well as the power we ourselves have to challenge and undermine the dominance of these systems in many spaces not typically thought of as political.

Conclusion: re-inventing the political

I could describe for pages on end examples of practices and experiments that have been emerging throughout the world in recent years both within the social forums and in the larger AGM – from the street parties organised by Reclaim the Streets, to cooperative living projects, to alternative media sites, to re-learning indigenous printing methods. They have been struggling innovatively and persistently – at times even unconsciously –to assert the validity and necessity of a cultural politics as central to what the movement of movements is actually about. As such, these movements and actors are not simply working against “neo-liberal capitalist globalisation”, they are doing so by re-inventing the political and radically shifting what social transformation looks like.

Speaking in myriad voices, they deliberately choose languages hard to translate into our current political lexicon: 1) they work locally, in the everyday, and in the present – connecting in intricate networks – to build new worlds globally; 2) they move in the micro-political terrains of culture, subjectivity, and modality, employing myth and multiplicity to make it impossible for the macro-political to dominate them; 3) in all, they evade and work against all tendencies to closure, unity, harmony – the modes of Western Capitalist Modernity – to make room for new and different senses of beauty and goodness. Perhaps it is no wonder, considering the strength and depth of the Western hegemonic gaze, that many of their practices have been ignored or interpreted as anarchistic, disorganised and ineffective – forms of escaping “real political” issues.

But if we learn to move beyond this universalizing and either / or logic, if we learn to see the political potency in the everyday, the affective and aesthetic – without completely excluding traditional political spaces –, we will begin to recognize that it is not only Capitalism that is ubiquitous: the possibilities for these movements are indeed everywhere. They are everywhere but they need help, they require a shift in our very ways of seeing and being to become visible, a shift that is itself a move in the cultural and micro-political terrain of epistemology.

The “horizontals” and other networks mentioned here are just one moment, one part. They certainly cannot produce these fundamental cultural and ontological shifts on their own. In bringing together so many different realities, stories, and political perspectives, the Social Forums provide one of the most promising spaces in which to live out, develop and spread this understanding of cultural politics. According to many who write about the Forums, the cultural novelties already stand out. We simply need to help articulate them to a political narrative. This requires, however, that we move beyond either / or logics that see the Forum as either “open space” or “movement”, as either “cultural / communicational” or “political.” As the World Social Forum has taught us, it is both at once.


1. This “movement of movements” is perhaps best known as the “anti-globalisation movement” although this title has been rejected by many activists. When I use it here I am referring broadly to that “movement” or set of events, political critiques and projects that are generally associated with the protests at Seattle, Genoa, Chiapas, etc. and are oriented against neo-liberal capitalist globalisation. It is also known as the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement, or the Alternative Globalisation Movement. 2. The list of texts discussing these notions of power is vast. A good definition of the diffuseness of power looked at specifically with respect to social movements can be found in Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar (1998). 3. See the Proposal that preceded the Horizontal Call, in the archives at http://lists.riseup.net/www/info/esfdemocracy_eurodebate (external link), and also http://esf2004.net/en/tiki-index.php?page=HorizontalsStatement (external link). 4. A full copy of the text and others documenting this struggle, including the exclusionary practices of the organizing committee, can be found at www.esf2004.net. (external link) The evidence log specifically is at http://esf2004.net/en/tiki-index.php?page=EvidenceLog (external link).


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