In this paper, I want to engage with the concept of “open spaces”, such as the World and other Social Forums (SFs), as an organisational form and discuss its relevance within the framework of a discourse on the politics of alternatives and the overcoming of capitalism. I suggest that we have to understand the organisational form of open spaces to contain elements that are alternative to the organisational forms of power that arise from capitalist disciplinary markets and other exploitative and oppressive relations. This emerges out of the SF’s Charter of Principles, which proclaims the SF to be a space, a process and a framework, within which not only resistance to neo-liberalism is strengthened and struggles circulate, but alternatives are actively promoted. I suggest that the question of how struggles circulate, organise and are able to coordinate alternatives is the key question around which an alternative to capitalism as a mode of organising social production can emerge. In other words, the alternative to capitalism is an alternative mode of relating, and hence also requires and must manifest alternative processes of social production.

Bio note

Massimo De Angelis is a Reader in economics at the University of East London, UK. He has published extensively on subjects linking critical political economy with social movements and struggles for alternatives. He is currently working on a book for Pluto Press on these issues. He is also the editor of the web journal The Commoner (http://www.thecommoner.org) and an activist in the London Social Forum. E-mail : M.DeAngelis@uel.ac.uk



In this paper I want to engage with the concept of “open space”, as exemplified by the Social Forum (SF), as an organisational form and discuss its relevance within the framework of a discourse on the politics of alternatives and the overcoming of capitalism. I suggest that we have to understand the organisational form of open spaces to contain elements that are alternative to the organisational forms of power that arise from capitalist disciplinary markets and other exploitative and oppressive relations. This emerges from the SF’s Charter of Principles, which proclaims the SF to be a space, a process and a framework, within which not only resistance to neo-liberalism is strengthened and struggles circulate, but alternatives are actively promoted. I suggest that the question of how struggles circulate, organise and are able to coordinate alternatives is the key question around which an alternative to capitalism as a mode of organizing social production can emerge. In other words, the alternative to capitalism is an alternative mode of relating, and hence also requires and must manifest alternative processes of social production. The SF might represent an important element in the constitution of this alternative.

In making my argument, I follow this structure. First, I briefly discuss the conflict that has emerged in a variety of contexts between those who see the importance of the SF as a process and those, like the orthodox left, who see it mostly as an event. I then argue that the latter share important features with neo-liberal TINA (“there is no alternative”) discourse. Second, building on some of my previous research, I discuss more in detail this TINA as the mode of articulation of the social body by capitalist disciplinary markets and as a heteronomous creation of norms of social interaction. Third, I argue that for an alternative to the discipline of the market as a mechanism to be able to take shape or for the coordination of social production to be democratic, norms must not be imposed by a blind mechanism (or by an alien planning agency), but emerge out of processes of horizontal co-operation and democratic decision-making by the producers themselves. The conclusion therefore is that the SF should move a step forward towards becoming a self-declared space for the constitution (rather than simple promotion) of alternatives, and an open space through which this de-fetishising is promoted. It is important that the Social Forum (whether at the local, regional or global scale) increasingly become a space of experimentation for democratic inclusive processes and co-ordination and facilitation of existing alternatives.

“There is no alternative” versus “There are many alternatives”

I begin with some reflections on a recurrent conflict within the Social Forum movement between those who regard the Social Forum principally as process and those who regard it principally as an event. Obviously, the Social Forum, whether considered at the local, regional or global scale, is both. As a process, it involves practices of cooperation and relations among the organisers for the production of an event; that is, it involves particular modes of relations that lead to a particular “product”. In turn, as an event it is a space in which participants enter into relational practices, constitute and reinforce networks, and process information and knowledge. Yet, if it is true that process and product are interrelated, it is also the case that centring our reflection on one rather than the other leads to importantly different political consequences.

If we consider the SF mostly as an event, than consequently we apply methods of event management, in which all our concern is that an event of given specification be produced by a given date. If, in this case, problematisation of process has to take place, this occurs subject to the constraints posed by the event parameters fixed ahead. In a word, an event is planned, and the relations of production of this event are largely subordinated to pursuing this goal. In this case, we face vertical forms of organising with political-institutional goals.

On the other hand, if our main concern is that issues of process and consequently modes of social relations among producing actors take centre stage, then the event itself takes form and shape as a result of ongoing negotiations among the many actors involved. The event, in other words, is an emerging property of a process in which the goals are largely relational and communicational (see for example Waterman, 2004).

This dichotomy in conception of vertical versus horizontal, event versus process, and political-institutional versus communicational goals is reproduced in a variety of scales of SF production. At the world level, for example, Jai Sen, a member of the WSF Indian committee in 2002, the first year of the WSF process in India leading to the Mumbai WSF in 2004, writes that “when looking back over the first year, it is clear that the idea of building a broad ‘process’ within the country was undermined at an early stage, by virtue of WSF India focussing all its attention on the event. This has only been all the more the case in the second year, leading up to the world meeting in Mumbai” (Sen, 2004, p. 296).

This managerial focusing on the event is related to the type of “political entities” that “clearly dominated the Forum and its organisational structures” (Sen, 2004, p. 298), namely political parties of the orthodox left or the “front” organisations that they set up to circumvent the Forum’s rule that prevent political parties affiliating. The political discourse of these “entities” is highly inadequate even to conceive the strategic, relational and communicational complexities of a political process of building a new world here and now. This because the aspirational horizon embedded in this discourse is entirely directed towards the future of “after revolution” in which these complexities will be dealt with – or so we are told – while in the present it is eager to subordinate this or that struggle, this or that relational demand for openness, democracy and participation, to the goals it sets itself. This is also evident for example in the experience of the “horizontal” movement for democratisation of the European Social Forum during the preparation of the London edition in 2004 (Horizontals, 2004a, 2004b, 2004c), as well as, at a more local level, in the challenges faced by the London Social Forum within the context of a traditional political culture (De Angelis, 2004a).

Indeed, accounting for his experience of the WSF process in Mumbai, Sen points the finger at the key issue, a sectarianism that does not reveal itself in traditional ways (actively keeping people out). There is another type of sectarianism, which we might call discursive sectarianism, namely “the insistence on the superiority of a particular discourse – more commonly, the use of language, the choice of terms, the approach to analysis – also plays its role in alienating others, and even those who may feel sympathetic to Left opinion and positions but do not feel themselves as being of the left and do not want to have to fit within orthodox Left discourse” (Sen, 2004, p. 299). And it is not just a question of alienating others, but also of framing others within categories that already allocate organisational work to them: in dominating an “Organisation Committee”, the orthodox left is inclusive, but only inclusive of representation of given identities. They are not inclusive of the ways of doing, hence of modes of producing identities, because this would threaten the premise of their own discourse, namely that another world is possible only after revolution, namely after they or organisations like them have seized power.

And it is not only a question of the superiority of a discourse. The question is also whether these discourses (which, let us not forget, echo ways of seeing, hence of acting upon the world, hence also ways to make another world) are porous or not, whether they are permeable to other discourses or not, whether they are programmed to engage constructively with other discourses; or whether even the remote possibility of such an engagement would threaten the identity of the “party”, its democratic centralism and the discourse itself. These are discourses that run contrary to what Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2004b) hopes the WSF should create “in every movement or NGO, in every practice or strategy, in every discourse or knowledge, a contact zone that may render it porous and hence permeable to other NGOs, practices, strategies, discourses, and knowledges” (Santos, 2004b, p. 342). By not being permeable, these discourses seem instead to reproduce within the Forum the same social subjects that “hegemonic epistemology and rationality” produces in the world at large by making the subjects and their different needs, desires and modes of doing invisible. These subjects are “the ignorant, the residual, the inferior, the local and the non-productive” (Santos, 2004a, p. 239).

The WSF – both as event and process – therefore faces a fundamental paradox. On one side, its Charter of Principles proclaims it to be a space, a process and a framework, within which not only resistance to neo-liberalism is strengthened and struggles circulate, but alternatives are actively promoted; and “alternatives” should logically include alternatives to prevailing cultures of politics. On the other hand, it contains and tends to be dominated by a deep-rooted political culture that, despite the formal exclusion of parties from the WSF, means that it reproduces traditional party discourses everywhere. In the middle, of course, there is an ongoing struggle even within the WSF, a struggle fundamentally between two cultures. I suggest that this struggle can be read as opposing two political conceptions regarding modes of articulating social cooperation that we can name, borrowing from current terminology, the “there is no alternative” (TINA) and “there are many alternatives” (TAMA) conceptions. Indeed, this problematic is common to the relation of our social movements to capital and to the relation among the process versus event poles within the Social Forum movement.

We must notice that TINA and TAMA refer to two different things. TINA – a term associated with Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s – proclaims there is no alternative to a mode of articulation among social practices / subjects, in other words an alternative to capitalist markets as modes of articulation of difference (different products, mode of producing, locality, and so on). In other words, TINA represents the neo-liberal project of disciplinary integration across the global social body. It says that there is no alternative to the centre of gravity of capitalist markets: all human action must be coordinated by this. But neoliberalism is not the only locus of TINA; for the orthodox left sectarian discourse is also a TINA discourse in this sense that there is no alternative to the mode of articulation it represents and manifests, and there is no alternative to the way it prefigures social transformation.

The orthodox left celebrates the diversity of participants, but only to the extent that they are brought together through a process that is defined in a particular manner – vertical – and that is ordered by a certain discourse. In other words, it is closed to the emergence of other ways of articulating, and of producing, because it is a political culture that embeds a deeply-rooted belief in what the alternative is (or better, will be) and how to get there (obviously, various sects can differ in the details of this knowledge and vision, but they all share the conviction of their belief that they take for granted as being valid). Thus, when confronted by diverse social movements, i.e. forces that are bearers of practices of social transformation here and now, they act in such a way as to pull together the creative forces of diversity, to restrain them and to channel them into “events” that they can then use to feed on their fantasies of social transformation. The organisational effort of the orthodox left is thus managerial, event-focused, culturally closed to democratic participation, to experimentation of practices of grassroots democracy that are necessary in the process of constitution of a new world in the here and now. It is a methodology that has not learned from the African saying “I am who I am because of other people” (quoted by Waterman, 2004, p. 154).

In the next section I discuss in more detail the meaning of TINA with respect to capitalist markets. This will enable us to appreciate why it is important for the Social Forum to be an open space and process in which the many alternatives of TAMA are articulated horizontally and democratically, and to reject the TINA of “sectarian discourse”.

The working of TINA: global disciplinary markets

To better appreciate the importance of promoting a political discourse that rejects TINA as a mode of articulating diversity within the SF, it is important to reflect on the role of capitalist markets as a way to articulating social cooperation. Indeed, when we say that we are against the TINA discourse inside the SF movement, it is important to recognise that we are not only against neo-liberalism but everything that produces or reproduces TINA; and that we are against the TINA discourse in society at large.

In this section, we will look at current capitalist markets with a view to problematising the types of social relations they entail, rather than focusing only on the types of outcomes they produce. When doing this, we obviously must not underplay the many “horrors” that contemporary processes of neo-liberal global integration are producing, which are discussed by many critics and participants in the alternative globalisation movement. From the perspective of an analysis of social processes and social relations, what I am suggesting is that the key problem of capitalist markets is not so much the creation of “losers”, but a mode of articulation of productive “nodes” across the social body that constantly creates “winners” and “losers”. Indeed, the very social constitution of capitalist markets involves the continuous dispensation of “rewards” and “punishments”.

Importantly, this locks all of us, both supporters and opponents, into a certain discourse. Whether we are ideologically “for” or “against” capitalist markets, we have no difficulty, in this mode, in selecting the outcomes that weave a narrative that support our claim: those who are critics of capitalist markets tell stories of restructuring, low wages, poverty, environmental degradation, displacement and unemployment, all of which can be easily linked to market processes. And on the contrary, those who are ideologically committed to various strands of neo-liberalism, will instead select out the stories of the winners, higher wages, more localised environmental and social indicators and so forth. Both are true, because, when we look at capitalist markets as a process rather than outcome, they are two inescapable sides of the same coin.

The relational meaning of capitalist markets – often obscured by economic discourse corresponding to the daily practices that Marx had called “commodity fetishism” (Marx, 1867; De Angelis, 1996; Holloway, 2002) – can also be seen for example when we read the conventional understanding of globalisation as “increasing interdependence between people, regions, or countries in the world”. Interdependence means we depend on each other, but it also implies that what we do has effects on others somewhere else in the world.

Indeed, the double meaning of interdependence as “depending on each other” and “affecting each other” is today increasingly obvious in many spheres of life, and it points at one thing: interdependence means you and I, perhaps inhabiting life worlds apart, are caught in the same loop, and the form of the loop, its rules and methods of articulating the dependency of what we do and how what we do affects each other, is the invisible thread ruling our lives. And this is a form of rule that is independent of our positionalities and perspectives, our own drives and passions, our own calculus and reasons, our own affects, feelings and emotions – and yet it is one that articulates all these positionalities. This form of rule loves difference to such an extent (geographical differences, difference in powers) that it relies on subjects stuck in their differences, never reaching each other without the mediation of the market.

Thus for example, dam construction in a country in the South might be financed by Europe’s future pensioners, whose pension fund managers put their money into those dam companies paying high returns on the market, but imply the uprooting of millions of traditional communities, thus contributing, directly or indirectly, to the flows of economic refugees that pour into European countries. It is not just, as Giddens puts it (1990, p. 64), that “local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away, and vice versa”. The fact is that when the value of my pension depends on the successful uprooting of communities in some parts of the world (Schmid, Harris & Sexton, 2003), we have a form of interdependence that, to put it very mildly, is quite problematic. We have here a clear example of how capitalist markets articulate different communities’ needs for livelihoods (the community of workers forced into private pension funds and the community of villagers forced out of their land) in such a way that they are opposed to each other.

The forms of global interdependence predicated on capitalist markets are all of this kind, an “interdependence” among human beings whose life preservation strategies are articulated by a global mechanism that sets them in opposition to each other. Capital’s form of global interdependence means that my going to work today and eagerly complying with all the requirements of a competitive society and economy implies that my actions have an effect on somebody else somewhere in the world. To put it bluntly, the competitive market logic implies one of three things: “we” are more efficient than “them” and thus we contribute to their ruin; “they” are more efficient than us so “they” are contributing to “our” ruin; or both opposites are true and alternate in an endless rat race that runs both “their” and “our” lives.

This form of interdependence represents the underlying basis of the dangerous and pervasive character of globalisation that is today so widely contested. It is not interdependence per se that is the problem, not even global interdependence. More people coming closer to each other, better able to share resources, knowledge, ways of doing things, cultural forms, experiences, musical traditions, and so forth, in many cases means enriching the lives of people and communities, opening up new horizons for creativity, and deepening forms of solidarity and mutual aid. Furthermore, human societies, understood more correctly as networks of individuals who cooperate and therefore inter-act to reproduce their lives, can only be understood in terms of degrees and forms of interdependence. The problem with capitalist markets is the form of this interdependence, the type of globalisation processes. The problem therefore is how this integration is brought about – that is, how markets are created – and how this integration operates once it is set in place.

There is not the space here to discuss the processes of market creation. Suffice to say that it is possible to theorise them in terms of “enclosures” (Caffentzis, 1995; De Angelis, 2004b). To put it simply, enclosures refer to those strategies promoted by economic and political elites that “commodify” things. In general commodification is to turn resources that are held in common among communities, or exchanged as gifts among its members or across members of different communities, or administrated and distributed by central institutions (Polanyi, 1944), into things that are bought and sold on the market, commodities. The “things” turned into commodities often represent important resources necessary for communities to reproduce their livelihoods, and their “enclosure” represents at the same time the destruction of those communities and their increasing dependence on markets, which in today’s context are increasingly linked to global commodity chains. The consolidation, development and deepening of capitalism in our lives heavily depends on enclosures. Indeed, as others and I have argued, enclosures are a continuous feature of the capitalist mode of production (Caffenzis, 1995; De Angelis, 2004b; Parelman, 2000)

Today, enclosures, the commodification of resources upon which people depend for their livelihoods, take many names. They may involve the dispossession of thousands of farming communities from land and water resources following international bank funding of dam construction, as in the case of the dam project in the Narmada valley in India or the Plan Puebla Panama in Latin America. Or they may take the form of cuts in social spending on hospitals, medicines, and schools, or, especially in countries in the south, cuts in food subsidies so as to have money to pay interest on a mounting international debt. In all these cases, cuts, dispossessions and austerity, namely “enclosures”, are imposed for the sake of “efficiency”, and rationalisation and “global competitiveness”. Enclosures are therefore any strategy that push people to depend on markets for their livelihood.

Enclosures only create a context for market social interaction to occur. If enclosures push people into increasing the degree of their dependence on markets for the reproduction of their livelihoods, then markets integrate their activities in a system that pits all against all. The increasing intensification of planetary interdependence brought about by global markets implies that any “node” of social production, at whatever scale – whether an individual on the labour market, a company in a particular industry, a city and country in competition to attract capital and investments vis-à-vis other cities and countries – faces an external force that forces it to adapt to certain standards of doing things, to adopt certain forms of social cooperation, in order to beat the competitor on pain of threat to its livelihood. But “beating the competitor” is also, at the same time, threatening the livelihoods of other communities we are competing with, to the extent that they also depend on markets to reproduce their own livelihoods. The more we depend on money and markets to satisfy our needs and follow our desires, the more we are exposed to a vicious circle of dependence that pits livelihoods against each other. Some of us win, and some of us lose, but in either case we are both involved in perpetrating the system that keeps us reproducing scarcity when in fact we could celebrate abundance.

It must be noted that the competition that runs through the global social body is not similar to the competitive games we play with friends. When I play table football with my friends I aim at winning. But whether I win or lose, I end up sharing food and laughter with my friends, whether they lose or win. Competition in this realm is innocuous; it is a practice that might strengthen communities’ playfulness instead of destroying it. But competition in the economy – whether “perfect” or “imperfect”, whether real or merely simulated (the latter being increasingly the case in public services where, in the absence of markets, government agencies simulate their dynamics by setting new benchmarks) – ultimately finds its very energy in its threat to livelihoods. It is a mode of social relation that is based on pitting livelihoods against each other. In so doing it continuously reproduces scarcity and community destruction.

From the perspective of any “node”, this mode of articulation across the social body is disciplinary because, borrowing from Foucault’s (1975) analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon, or model prison, the market is also a mechanism in which norms are created through a social process that distributes rewards and punishments (see De Angelis, 2002). By norms of production I am here referring to the variety of principles of allocation of resources and distribution associated with social human production, as well as ways of doing things, rhythms and forms of cooperation, that in capitalist markets are synthesised in prices. Norms of production (that is, ways of relating to one another) are answers to such fundamental questions as: what we shall produce, how we shall produce it, how much of it we shall produce, how long we should spend working to produce it, and who shall produce it – all very concrete questions that define process and relational questions concerning the reproduction of our social body and the ways in which we relate to each other and to nature.

These questions are not answered by people themselves taking charge of their lives and relations among themselves; thus, equally, the norms of social production and of their relations to each other are not defined collectively. Instead they are defined by an abstract mechanism that we have created (actually, that states have created at sword- and gun-point: see Polanyi, 1944, and Marx, 1867, as classical accounts) and that we take as “natural” in the daily practices of our lives. It is the abstract process of disciplinary markets that articulates the social body in such a way as to constitute social norms of production, rather than individual social actors negotiating among themselves the norms of their free co-operation. In this market mechanism, individual actors must respond to existing heteronomous norms imposed by the blind mechanism of the market by meeting or beating the market benchmark (or the simulated market benchmark imposed by neo-liberalism’s state bodies), an activity which in turn affects the market norm itself. In this continuous feedback mechanism, livelihoods are pitted against each other. When rewards and punishments are repeated in a system, norms are created. This is a process that the paladin of market freedom, Friedrich von Hayek, well understood, although he ignored the question of power and enclosure processes in explaining the emergence of capitalist markets. For Hayek, the abstract mechanism of the market is a spontaneously emerging system of freedom (De Angelis, 2002).

Thus, if another world is possible, the minimum condition is that we coordinate social action in a different way, one in which the norms of interaction among cooperators in social production are defined directly by them, and not by a blind and abstract mechanism that pits livelihoods against each other.

The politics of alternatives, commodity fetishism and the Social Forum

Neo-liberal TINA proclaims that there is no alternative to the way disciplinary markets coordinates our social action, our many powers to do things and create. We say “nonsense”. The alternatives are many, if we understand alternative not as a system, but as a process, an open process with relational and communicational goals. Then we realise that an alternative to the discipline of the market as a mechanism, or democratic coordination of social production, require norms imposed not by a blind mechanism (or an alien planning agency), but emerging out of processes of horizontal co-operation and democratic decision-making by the producers themselves. The object of these decision mechanisms would be for example those criteria of allocation, remuneration, modalities of self-management and of social production that are discussed by a long tradition of environmentalist, socialist, communist, and anarchist literature, and well synthesised by the contemporary participatory economics paradigm (Albert, 2003). We must however recognise that these insights and visions are not mere guidelines for a future society, but a present practice in many occasions of social production that do not accept capitalist discipline or other heteronomous processes of norm creation. Thus, all the political processes that declare themselves “for another world”, or for an alternative to capitalism, as processes of production broadly understood, not only must themselves be an example of such an alternative mode of relating among social subjects, but also constitute themselves as social forces that facilitate, deepen, consolidate and extend the realms of processes of social production beyond capitalism.

This view depends on two things. First, I understand social production very broadly, including both waged and unwaged activities of reproduction. Second, and I elaborate this more in detail below, such a claim is grounded in an approach that believes that the constitution of new social relations cannot be left to “after the revolution”, because revolution is this process of constitution of the alternative articulation of “many yeses” as the central problematic of social transformation, of the constitution of “another world”.

The problematic of the alternative articulation of “many yeses” is left wide open to the discourse that the SF movement has counterpoised to TINA, that is TAMA, or “there are many alternatives”. Indeed, TAMA is specifically the counter-proposal to the logic of TINA put forward by critics of neo-liberalism and the participants in the many movements that constitute the Social Forum. It is a vision that emerged perhaps with greatest clarity during the second Encuentro for Humanity against Neoliberalism promoted by the Zapatistas, held in Spain in 1997, where the final slogan became known as “one no, many yeses”: the one “no” to neo-liberal promotion of markets in all spheres of life, and the “many yeses” expressing the plurality of needs, desires, aspirations and ways of doing of a diverse social body. It is a discourse that is clearly evident in the inclusive principle of the WSF Charter of Principles, and manifests itself in the diverse and colourful carnival of identities at any large SF event.

Unlike the approach of TINA, under which there is no alternative to the market, the approach of TAMA voices the diversity of yeses, of needs and aspirations that the market leaves behind, or satisfies only to the extent that the livelihoods of others are threatened. While for the TINA discourse everything is possible to the extent it is brought to us by a given mode of doing (disciplinary markets for capital, or vertical “representative” decision-making for the orthodox left), for TAMA there are many alternative modes of doing, alternative both to disciplinary markets that pit one against the other and to representative democracy, which is the basis of power politics. Note that what is left open for the TAMA perspective is left closed from the perspective of TINA, namely the ways of articulating the many needs and desires across subjects, hence the many modes of doing. The fact that the mode of articulation of the many yeses in TAMA is open presupposes the fact that the emergence of these mode(s) of articulation can only be a product of continuous interactions and relations among those who practice these alternatives, of the continuous need to exchange, learn and teach, create affects and trans-local communities, and so on. This is the broad field of democratic horizontal processes.

But what is the role of the SF with respect to TAMA? It already plays three main roles connected to the principles of TAMA, although in different degrees. In the first case, the SF is a space of education and outreach for those who are new to particular campaigns, struggles and issues or new to the practices of social movements. Second, the SF is also a space of circulation of struggles and networking, facilitating the intensification of trans-local solidarity relations as well as flows of information. Third, the SF is a space for the promotion of concrete alternatives.

When we reflect on these three overlapping “functions” of the SF and contrast them with the functions of disciplinary markets discussed in the previous section, we realise that all three instances are moments of awareness and development of our many powers-to. It is this process of empowerment, which empowers not mere individuals but individuals as conscious articulations of communities and networks, that is, social individuals (Marx, 1844), that promoters, producers and participants in the SF must become self-reflexively aware of – and in which, I would argue, they must find their centre as a political movement.

To say that the SF is the space in which we become aware of our powers is to say that the “other world” we proclaim to be possible is at the same time another world that we are contributing to constitute. It is thus no longer only a question of breaking with the discursive closure of neo-liberalism and opening up a horizon of hope, but also of promoting a discursive practice that turns hope into a material force for the constitution of a new world. The latter – after all – uniquely depends on the ability of the social body to become aware of its many powers, to act upon this awareness, and to find corresponding organisational forms that allow it to constitute the new.

This perspective is of course predicated on a conception of social emancipation that is quite distant from the traditional “seizure of power” as a condition sine qua non for transformation of the world we live in. It is a conception of power that does not see it as something that can be “taken”, but that can and must be exercised. John Holloway’s (2002) critique of traditional concepts of power is perhaps the best overall treatment of this conception. In a nutshell, Holloway’s argument is this. Capitalist relations are everywhere, they are embedded even in the state. Thus the old debate between seizing state power through reformist or revolutionary means is a false dichotomy. In either case, the problematic of “seizing power” leads to the reproduction of the hierarchies of capitalism. The seizing of power is the seizing of power-over, of the structure of hierarchies and powers over the social body. But revolution is certainly not this; rather it is the abolition of power over people, the living of relations of what he calls “anti-power”. Capitalism is thus not something out there; rather it is everywhere because it is essentially based on a separation between done and doing, between object and subject.

Holloway makes this argument by going back to Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism as central to the problematic of understanding, critique and transcendence of capitalism. This critique tells us that human relations (such as market relations) take the form of relations among things, which ultimately means that the object dominates the subject, the done the doing or, as we have put it in our treatment of disciplinary markets, an abstract mechanism dictates to human subjects the norms and modes of their interaction. The all-pervading power that dominates us, according to Holloway, is not a power outside us, such as a capitalist class, a state, an army. Rather it is this power-over, dominating the power-to, that must be dealt with by revolution today, a revolution that therefore must take the form of an anti-power struggle to liberate power-to from power-over. “The struggle to liberate power-to is not the struggle to construct a counter-power, but rather an anti-power, something that is radically different from power-over” (Holloway, 2002, p. 37).

To pose the question of commodity fetishism is thus an attempt to reground revolution on subjects and the problematisation of their relations rather than on fetishised categories (class, state, markets and so on). Yet commodity fetishism is no illusion, since relations between people really do take the form of relations between things (Marx, 1867, p. 166). How then can we break with it?

For Holloway the answer is clear: commodity fetishism is transcended in resistance, struggle, “the scream of NO!” (2002, p. 56). But Holloway’s solution is also problematic. You can scream as a result of the rule of the object, of the deed, over your explosion of power, yet this is not transcendence of market-fetishised relations. The scream – which Holloway uses as a theoretical category – perhaps opens the way, points at a direction, opens an horizon. Ultimately, the scream, the NO, the refusal sets a limit, draws a line in the sand, vis-à-vis fetishising forces. But it is not yet the creation of social relations beyond capital.

The scream is a result between a positing of the subject and the frustration of this positing, it is a tension between the NO and many frustrated yeses. To break the spell of commodity fetishism, relations between things have not only to be recognised as relations between people, but also acted upon. De-fetishising is recognising that the only constituent social force of those many yeses is articulation with the other, a relational dance that produces life.

How then, can we get out of the fetishised rule of disciplinary markets? Following a long interpretative tradition, Peter Hudis (2004) points out that, in Capital, Marx presented commodity fetishism as all pervasive, or, we could say, as the sea in which we are all immersed in our daily actions. A fish certainly cannot see the sea since, to our knowledge, fish cannot imagine or cannot construct a reality in thought different from the one they are surrounded with (McMurtry, 1998). Thus the problem of “how can we get out of it?” is addressed by Marx through a discursive trick: “let us imagine, for a change, an association of free individuals”, he suddenly argues in chapter one (Marx, 1867, p. 171). For Peter Hudis, de-fetishisation is therefore about imagination of human relations in the future, a projection into a different society, an answer to the question “what happens after the revolution?” as in Albert’s participatory. And imagination is a positive, affirmative standpoint, not a negative one. In other words, according to Hudis (2004), for Marx “the veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life process (…) until it becomes production by freely associated individuals.”.

This is quite correct, but it is wrong to conceive, as in the case of Hudis’ interpretation of Marx, our being in the world as an all pervasive presence of capital and its fetishism, as if we have not moved beyond fetishism in a multitude of relational processes of production in which we act as freely associated individuals and negotiate with each other our norms of interaction. As if communities around the world were not striving to organise around imagination and diversity of dreams. As if we were not already constructing realms of social action and communication in which we strive to recognise one another in dignity, as if we were not continuously “negating the negation” every time we posit the new and act upon it in our organising, as if we were not learning from our mistakes, learning to listen to the voices we became accustomed to exclude through our stale modes of thought and discourses. As if Seattle 1999, Chiapas 1995, Argentina 2001, London 2003 and other millions of large or small “revolts” were not also breakthroughs of constitution, moments of a long and complex social process of making of relations, world views, things, questions, answers, de-fetishising, visions, affects, moments that are certainly ridded with contradictions, limitations and paradoxes, yet … revolutionary moments nevertheless because they break with the old and posit the new. As if the times were not ripe for asking how we relate to one another on this planet.

At this junction between the centrality of the affirmative standpoint in the struggle against fetishism and the refusal to see fetishism as all pervasive – since it is rather as a process of fetishisation (as correctly pointed out by Holloway) –, we have opened up a space for the positing of a strategic and organisational question that is missing in Holloway (and in many of his critics): how do we articulate the many “screaming” me’s, the many struggles, so that we not only say “no” to fetishism and the rule of capital but are also able to articulate the many yeses constituting another world?

It goes without saying that this redefines the question “what happens after the revolution?” (Hudis 2004) and what happens to “life after capitalism?” (Albert 2003), and instead asks what happens here and now?, that is during the revolution and despite capitalism; and it asks: “what kind of human relations” are we creating so as to transcend capital?

Ultimately, these questions point to the problematic of organisation, of building bridges, of establishing links, learning from mistakes, de-fetishising our relations to others, reaching out and being reached, sharing resources and creating commons, reinventing local and trans-local communities, articulating flows from movement to society and vice-versa. What is de-fetishising if not a relational practice: a “how” and a reflection on the how? And this is why the question of organising becomes so important, because it is in the relational dance of organising that we bring together the drawing of lines in the sand, the screaming “NO” that sets a limit to capital, with the constitution of a social force that learns to articulate many yeses, that takes responsibility for the production of new social relations.

When we put it this way, it is clear that it is not only possible to change the world without taking power. It also becomes obvious that the exercise of the multiplicity of powers to is the real bottom line, the ordinary life stuff of revolution. But power-to is always exercised within a given context and scale, and it is always exercised for something. There are some critical scales of action in which, if one exercises power, “they” send the police and the army. So power is certainly to be exercised and not seized, but we are in self-denial if we do not recognise and therefore problematise the fact that there are modes of exercising power-to that clash, for instance the power of the landless to reclaim the land, build schools, homes and hospitals and community, and the power of the army to shoot, murder, clear the land and return it to the “lawful” multinational owner.

And here, it seems to me, is the problem in Holloway’s discussion of the relation between power-over and power-to. Perhaps there is no doubt that “power-over may come out of the barrel of gun, but not power-to”, as he suggests (Holloway, 2002, p. 36). But let us not forget that pulling the trigger (as well as producing the gun, distributing it through the army, establishing logistical supply lines that work and are effective, brainwashing the soldiers’ minds to accept orders, brainwashing the mind of the population into patriotism, etc.) is also power to … shoot. It is the end result between different powers-to goals and aspirations set in opposition to each other that, it seems to me, defines power-over.

Power-over is a type of relation among powers-to, it is constituted by this relation. And certainly it is true that in our relation to capital, we exercise power-to in “the mode of being denied” – but denied by what? By power-over? No, by other powers to – the characteristic of which is to move in the opposite direction with respect to the many yeses that are being denied, powers-to that aim at constituting another reality, that have an organisational force that is able to overcome the organisational force of needs and desires that go beyond capital.

In other words, power-over is an emergent property, it specifies the extent to which we are alienated from the social body, the extent to which we must comply with the mechanisms of a world that sets each against the other, a world ruled by disciplinary markets. To put it in this way is to redirect our eye to the effectiveness of the organisational reach, vis-à-vis the organising of capital, of a social force that wants to move beyond capital (in terms of the multiplicity of our powers-to through discourse, practices, networks, culture, affects, and so on). It is also to defeat the self-fulfilling prophecies of cynicism. Because if power-over is not something opposed to power-to, but the end result of clashing between powers-to running in opposite directions, then strategic self-reflection on “our powers-to” is a moment of our own empowerment.

This, I submit, is what the Social Forum is all about. And we must therefore regard the Social Forum as an emergent open space of this process of empowerment.

“Another world is under construction”

The discussion thus far helps us to derive few strategic coordinates that we can use to map the horizon in front of us in the journey for the constitution of another world, one that contains many worlds. In particular, I would like to define these coordinates in terms of the problematic of “open spaces” which, drawing from our analysis, can be put in these terms: 1) open space as a space of TAMA; 2) open space as a space of de-fetishisation, empowerment and horizontal norm creation; 3) open space as a space of commons. Following these three coordinates, we can then understand the “exploration in open space” that this issue of the ISSJ is proposing as an exploration of the practices of constitution of new social relations and corresponding modes of doing. Let us see this in more detail.

1. Open space as a space of TAMA that is, openness to alternative ways of doing and articulating social cooperation, at whatever scale of social action. This is in direct opposition to the TINA of capitalist markets and the TINA of the orthodox left or any other authoritarian approach.

In section two, we have seen that, through what Hayek calls the “abstract mechanism of the market”, we create and recreate the norms of our interaction, without even being aware we are doing precisely this; and we define the values we give to things and to people, without being aware that our daily purchasing of commodities implies relations to people: in other words, commodity fetishism rules. While in the market TINA the articulation of diversity is brought about by a mode that creates norms of interaction through an abstract system that presents itself as a mode of articulation of diversity and acts as an external and alien force on the individual nodes constituting the interaction, for the critical perspective of TAMA how to articulate the many yeses, the many alternatives we believe exist beyond the logic of profit of disciplinary markets, remains an open problem the solution of which has to be discovered by the interactive “nodes” themselves. This open process of discovery is a relational process. And freedom here acquires a deeper meaning, since it includes the freedom of choosing communally the norms of interaction constituting the social body, unlike the market, in which freedom is confined to the choice of a product given the modes of its production.

Thus, unlike the TINA of the market or of the planner and the orthodox left, in which the mode of articulation is defined a priori, hence closed to alternative modes, from the perspective of TAMA this is an open problem, which can be only contingently closed through this or that concrete solution (mode of articulation). A contingent solution is one that is not an a priori, but the emergent outcome of a process of negotiation. Hence, from this perspective, the attention to the qualitative features of the relational process of articulation and the emphasis on horizontality, inclusiveness, openness, democracy. These are broad values that do not determine in themselves the specific character of the outcome, the operational closure that defines what mode of articulation is adopted; rather, they shape the context in which subjects themselves design, in specific circumstances and within given material conditions, the operational closure of the mode of articulation of their collective doing.

2. Open space as a space of de-fetishisation, empowerment and horizontal norm creation. As we have seen in the last section, TAMA opens up a problematic of empowerment and de-fetishisation of social relations, the two basic “ingredients” for the constitution of a social force that moves beyond capital. But empowerment and de-fetishisation are nothing without the recognition of “the other”. From within our movements the awareness must grow that the reclaiming of our many powers to do, to think, to dream, to imagine, to relate, and their transformation into a material force that creates a new world, are fundamentally processes in which we regard others as dignified subjects. We learn this from the struggles of the subjects that have been most “devalorised” by capital accumulation: indigenous populations, migrants, women. It is known that the Zapatistas have, in recent times, voiced the problematic of dignity in the most coherent and articulated way. We learn from them that dignity is the common value we must recognise in all subjects, the gravitational centre around which the subjects find modes of articulating their diversity (in experience, in know-how, in imagery, in ideologies, in religious beliefs, in access to resources, in needs and aspirations). An open space is therefore a space that recognises dignity as a core value. Through the recognition of dignity we de-fetishise our relations to the other; we recognise in others what we want others to recognise in us: human subjects. Dignity is therefore the core value of a relational horizontality that articulates diversity.

The SF has already emerged as a space of empowerment and de-fetishisation, in the sense that, through participation in and production of the “event”, individuals belonging to a large array of organisations, movements, and networks cross-fertilise and contaminate each other and become aware of a broad range of struggles (hence of many needs, aspirations and “yeses”), of their ability to change and affect the world, and of their relations across the social body as mediated by markets. In so doing, they therefore contribute to producing another world, through the production of strategies, visions, and tactics, the sharing of resources and skills, and the building and reinforcing of networks of mutual aid, solidarity and support. From this end therefore, the “output” of SF is already the emergence of social constitution. Yet to turn this feature into a virtuous cycle, the SF must move a step forward and become a self-aware and self-declared space for the constitution (rather than the mere promotion) of alternative modes of articulation across the social body.

Just as capitalist disciplinary markets create norms of interaction, so should the SF be a space of norm creation. The process of production of the forum can itself become the ground on which we learn for ourselves as well as demonstrate ad hominem that norm creation among a broad range of diverse actors and complex social cooperation of production at whatever scale can be done without vertical methods of political managerialism or disciplinary market mechanisms, both of which are heteronomous ways to impose norms on the subjects. Norm creation must occur through participatory horizontal processes that fully respect the dignity of subjects.

The more participatory and inclusive we can make decision-making in the phase of production, the more we can live up to our core value of dignity, the more we can hope to motivate segments of society that are at the margin of our movements to participate. Our practices of outreach from movement to society would, therefore, start from the acknowledgment that the differences between movement and society are not ideological, cultural or religious differences, world views, or the like. Rather, as individuals belonging to emancipatory movements, we are also part of society at large, and we share with large sections of society needs and aspirations to reproduce our livelihoods in dignity and respect with one another and nature. What differentiates our movements from society are therefore only patterns and modes of organisation of the social body that are different and in direct opposition to those in which we are all implicitly involved when we act as agents in capitalist markets, unaware of how we do things, of how we relate to each other, how we envisage social relations, and how we act upon these visions. As a space centred in the self-awareness of our relations, the SF can constitute concrete “evidence” that different ways of doing do exist and we can invite people in to join the process in full respect of their skills, knowledge, needs, desires and aspirations. This is something that only horizontal processes can offer.

3. Open space as a space for commons. Just as capital’s enclosures create a context for the creation of fetishised social relations in which social norms of cooperation are defined by the abstract mechanisms of the market, so an open space such as the Social Forum can also seek to develop a different type of context of human exchange, a common space in which, to a variety of degrees depending on the developments of the powers-to of the participants, resources are shared, needs are met, and gifts are offered (see for example the idea of an assembly of gifts and needs described by McLeish?, 2003, with respect to the European Social Forum). It can also become pro-active in the facilitation and coordination of alternative ways to exchange resources and reinforce networks of mutual aid and solidarity.

To regard an open space as a space of commons, and thus to present it publicly, could help to recompose politically the many diverse struggles for commons that are already occurring, and contribute to their consolidation and extension to other realms. Commons are forms of direct access to social wealth, access that is not mediated by competitive market relations. Commons take many forms, and awareness of them often emerges out of struggles against their enclosure and transformation into commodities. Thus, struggles against intellectual property rights open up the question of knowledge as commons. Struggles against privatisation of water, education, and health, raise the question of water, education and health as commons. Struggles against landlessness open up the question of common land. Struggles against environmental destruction open up the question of environmental commons. In a word, struggles against actual or threatened enclosures open the question of commons.

Commons therefore suggest alternative, non-commodified means to fulfil social needs, e.g. to obtain social wealth and to organise social production. We must not think however that commons are a free-for-all space. This is indeed what some economists think when they talk about commons in order to privatise, to enclose them. They claim that common resources lead to the “tragedy of the commons”, when every individual’s attempt to get as much of the common resources as possible ultimately destroys them. These authors forget that whenever there is a commons, there is also a community of individuals who define norms, conventions and relations with each other. We have already discussed this extensively.

The ability to develop a space of commons, presented as such to the rest of the world, would enable our many movements to firmly counter capital’s enclosures with a new political discourse that is not only in opposition, but also propositive and constitutive. Politically, commons sacrilegiously break with private appropriation of social resources and with the capitalist market dogma that we can only reproduce our livelihoods by threatening others’. Recognising, instead, the other as a dignified subject, our political project is to explore how, in the open space of commons we constitute, it is possible to reclaim community with the other in the way we define norms and access things we need; and, in thus exploring, to push back the realm of capitalist markets from our lives. Open space is thus the space in which the “other world that contains many worlds” is under construction.


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