The World Social Forum of Porto Alegre: What future?

Francine Mestrum, PhD, ATTAC Vlaanderen (Belgium)

2006 is a very special year. The World Social Forum of Porto Alegre turned ‘polycentric’. It means there are three world meetings in three different places: Bamako (Mali) in Africa, Caracas (Venezuela) in Latin America and Karachi (Pakistan) in Asia. A fourth polycentric Forum will take place in Bangkok in October 2006.

This solution was agreed in order to end the squabbling about questions on where to meet and how often to meet. Many Brazilians are very keen on Porto Alegre. Mumbai in India in 2004 was a very positive experience, and no one knows whether Africa has the logistical and organisational possibilities for such a huge gathering. Nevertheless, the WSF of 2007 will take place in Nairobi, Kenya, and in 2008 Brazil is, most probably, once again the place to be.

2006 is also the year of the fourth European Social Forum in Athens. Many countries, like Belgium and Holland, will have a national social forum. One might wonder whether all these fora can have an added-value, or whether they just keep repeating themselves? Do any of the fora ever have results?

These questions have to be looked at and they are discussed in different seminars at the fora. Mobilisations of thirty, fifty, or more than a hundred thousand people is certainly very encouraging, but is also very expensive. Meetings without any perspective on real change might not be the best way to prepare ‘another world’. ‘Another world is possible’ is a very motivating slogan, but has time not come to say how it can come about?

A successful formula

The World Social Fora clearly are a formula for success: more than one hundred thousand participants in 2005 in Porto Alegre, twenty to thirty thousand participants in Bamako in 2006, more than sixty thousand participants in Caracas. In Karachi, the forum had to be postponed because of the earthquake end of 2005. There clearly is a growing demand for such meetings, especially by young people who want more debates and more campaigns. The media, however, do not follow. They have more interested in colourful festivals and in violence. They are also the ones who are saying and writing that the fora have no future. In Caracas, very little media attention was given to the WSF, and most were dismissing this meeting in ‘Chavez country’.

When 1400 organisations from all over the world gather to organise more than 2000 seminars, one might expect the media to be there. Surely, one could say that the mainstream media are part of the problems that are discussed at the fora since they are dominated by neoliberal capitalism. Nevertheless, even the World Economic Forum in Davos recieved little attention, and even alternative media were not massively present in Caracas. At the end of January 2006, all media focused on some Danish islamophobic cartoons. So, one necessarily has to question recent developments. What exactly is going on? Have the World Social Fora become irrelevant? Are today’s world’s real conflicts not situated elsewhere? Do the World Social Fora mirror the world’s most urgent problems?

In this article, I want to look at some of these questions in order to try and see what challenges the WSF is facing. It certainly is a very positive development that most of these questions have been discussed in Caracas. It means there is a willingness to question oneself and to seriously look at the future.

I will briefly analyse three topics: the content, the process and the strategy of the WSF.

Post- and anticapitalists, post- and antimodernists

François Houtart clearly outlined one of the major dividing lines in the ‘movement of movements’. On the one hand, there are neokeynesianists who do not condemn the neoliberal system as such but want to socially correct it. They want a globalisation that benefits all. They want real free trade, and they want to fight poverty. On the other hand, post-capitalists want to go further. They fight the neoliberal system. They call themselves post- and not anti-capitalists because they no longer believe in the possibility or the desirability of a revolution. They have become reformists and can therefore accept to work with the neokeynesianists, even if their objective is quite different. Social corrections are certainly necessary, even for post-capitalists, but they want to fundamentally change the capitalist economic system. The economy has to be embedded in society, therefore reforms will not stop before capitalism has been defeated.

Post-capitalists, then, are not less radical than anti-capitalists, but only adhere to a different strategy. However, one should not forget that revolutionary forces are also present at the WSF, and very often they consider it to be ‘too soft’. In Mumbai, they organised their own alternative forum. They clearly reject all proposals to take into account the existing reality of current neoliberal policies. ‘Correcting’ these policies is out of the question. Their proposals concern a totally different economic order.

Houtart’s dichotomy, then, is very useful in bringing some clarity to the debates on the forum, but it is clearly not complete. Moreover, many movements have completely different objectives. The best example comes from the advocates of an ecologically sustainable development that very often go beyond the anti- or post-capitalist dividing line. This certainly is one of the weakest spots in the WSF, since there surely exist very interesting analysis of all that goes wrong in our environment, but no one apparently can or dares to say how the rich countries of the North have to change their non-sustainable production and consumption patterns. Debates are organised on the privatisation of water, on the rights of indigenous peoples and on the ecological debt, but only very rarely on how the rich have to change. Little attention is paid to the dividing lines within these movements. Some are clearly post-modernists, condemning all ideas about progress and advocating a totally different development. Others are more or less openly and consciously anti-modernists, believing only in small scale economies, autarky and self-management.

The WSF lacks a comprehensive analysis of all different ideological stands. Certainly it has to remain an open space for debates and for networking, but that can be facilitated when everyone knows where he or she stands. Today, there are too many contradictions that are never discussed. To take just one example from my own movement, Attac, Attac is a progressive global movement, most of us support the Bolivarian revolution of Chavez, we are more post-capitalist than neokeynesian, but many do support the neoliberal poverty reduction policies of the millennium development goals, as well as the demand for an air ticket tax. This tax is not in line with our demand for a currency transaction tax that would slow down financial speculation.

Hard political questions

The political dividing lines within the movement are paralleled by differences on the process of change to which the movement aims. One has to wonder, indeed, whether the public outcry against neoliberalism and the demands for more democracy are equally understood by all movements. For some, democracy is an end in itself. Radical democracy is seen as synonymous with socialism. For others, democracy is only an instrument to dismantle neoliberalism, or even just an epiphenomenon.

Mostly, a rather negative analysis is made of national states, political parties and representative democracy. Although few seminars of the WSF are discussing these points, they permanently influence debates on what is possible within the WSF and what is not.

No one will disagree on the need for more participatory democracy. However, the question on how and if movements can ally with politicians and/or political parties is much more difficult to answer. The WSF in Caracas was a case in point, since many observers and participants feared that Chavez would try to appropriate the forum. There was a fair bit of resistance against possible funding of the WSF by the Venezuelan government. Civil society, it was said, has to be autonomous and cannot work with governments. This debate was sharpened by a letter from Chico Whitacker, one of the Brazilian founders of the Forum. Because of the corruption within Brazilian politics, he dismissed the PT (Worker’s Party) and fiercely defends a politisation of society, without political parties.

This debate was highly favoured by the ‘horizontalists’ who believe in a self-managed and autonomous movement. Horizontalists look at states and political parties as parts of the oppressive system of capitalism. The hierarchies they conceal are said to be hindering the emancipation of people and thus have to be dismantled.

Again, many contradictions have to be outlined. The Brazilian president Lula was surely as present in Porto Alegre as Chavez was in Caracas. One could even argue that the two first WSFs contributed to his election. And why is money from Chavez a problem, when no questions have been put on funding by Petrobras (Brazilian petroleum corporation), and money has been accepted from the Ford Foundation? Where should the autonomous civil society find the millions of dollars that the organisation of a world event inevitably costs?

The presence of political parties at the forum is also controversial. Surely the Charter of the WSF talks of a possible participation of elected representatives ‘in their personal capacity’ assuming they respect the principles of the Charter. Public authorities are not our enemies, as Bernard Cassen rightly states. But then, how to explain the presence in some seminars of civil servants from the World Bank or the UNDP?

Supposing they come in their personal capacity and are not representing their institutions, do they respect all principles of the Charter? Are they willing to speak against neoliberalism?

The argument that movements should only talk with governments and parties of the left is not always acceptable, since governments, necessarily, are holding power. It is ‘power over’, as Jai Sen observes, and not ‘power to’, the power that civil society wants to have. The Forum has to try to dismantle power relations and offer alternatives. In this context the example of the European Social Forum in London is mentioned, where one political party of the left apparently dominated.

These differences between the advocates of civil society and the politically minded participants would be easier to understand if there were no power relations within the forum. The WSF has created its own elite, people who decide were and when to meet, that are part of the secretariat or the International Council, people that do not have to queue and wait two hours in order to register for the forum, people that live in expensive hotels and know what is good for the ordinary activist. One might suspect some horizontalists to just defend their own interests and power. Those who want to avoid any hierarchy and are against any political influence, often just try to perpetuate existing and informal power relations.

This is not being stated in order to accuse anyone. Although I do think that the power relations within the forum should be formalised in order to have more transparency and democracy. The Brazilian members of the international secretariat repeat that we should change ourselves before we can start to change the world. They are certainly right. It is one more reason for the ‘hierarchy’ of the Forum to practice what it preaches.

Another world is possible, but how?

This is the background against which debates on the strategy of the movement take place. It is not an easy situation, since the dividing lines concerning content and process do not run parallel. It means that some radical democrats and horizontalists can be found within the neokeynesianists and within the post-capitalists. Those who are promoting sustainable development are to be found along with the advocates of strong states and along with the defenders of local autonomy.

One point seems to be beyond controversy. The objectives of the many participants of the forum are not equal, and some seem to be defenders of a more consistent neoliberalism instead of being against it. It remains an open question whether all are really for radical democracy. Some participants seem to think that all problems can be solved by giving a more important role to civil society. Sometimes, one even starts to wonder whether all are really for ‘another world’. Just think of all the movements that joined Lula – and six months later the World Bank – to defend the millennium goals against poverty. These NGOs now accept an air ticket tax, a consumption tax without any structural impact on redistribution or ecology. These measures cannot even be called neokeynesian. Or think of the NGOs that march against the WTO. Some of them are not against free trade but want ‘real free trade’ and are marching against the interests of poor countries.

If we concentrate on those who do want another world with other policies, two main groups can be distinguished as far as the strategy of the movement is concerned.

One group sees the WSF as an ‘open space’, a possibility for networking and for exchange. It is in favour of a ‘mural de propostas’, a collection of all proposals and alternatives, but is definitely against all attempts to make an official synthesis that pretends to represent all the proposals. They say the WSF has no mission at all to propose alternatives itself, since this would inevitably cause too many divisions and divergences. The different movements themselves have to publish their alternatives thanks to the ideas, the energy and the motivation they can find at the WSF.

In order to understand this reasoning, one should not forget that the Mexican Zapatista movement is seen as one of the founders of the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement. Their theoretical background has been excellently worded by John Holloway in his book on how to change the world without taking power. Holloway refers to the numerous local initiatives and the resistance of normal people. These practices change people and make them understand that another world is indeed possible. However, how the other world finally comes about is not explained in the book.

Holloway’s arguments, however, are very convincing. One cannot deny that the diversity of the movement is huge and that it would be very difficult if not impossible to unite it behind one single programme. The WSF of Caracas was certainly more politicised than all others, but even there unity was not within reach.

Of course, movements or groups of movements are free to propose their programmes and alternatives. A group of ‘social movements’ has been doing just that over the past couple of years, after each WSF. It is also what 18 men and one woman have done last year in Porto Alegre. They published a ‘Consensus of Porto Alegre’, a short text of two pages and 12 proposals that were supposed to meet the agreement of most participants. Nevertheless, resistance was huge, because it was interpreted as an attempt to force the WSF into a direction it has always refused.

In 2005, nothing was done with this proposal until the WSF in Bamako of January, 2006. One day before the Forum a number of movements gathered to discuss and adopt an ‘Appeal of Bamako’, a text of some 20 pages with an interesting programme. Most post-capitalists should be able to agree with it, certainly if they believe in strong states and the important role of political and social agency. The initiative was promoted by Samir Amin, François Houtart and the people of ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’, all founders of the WSF process.

Once again, this has stirred a huge debate. The movements that made the proposal are being blamed for trying to impose a single programme on the movement. Their answer is a denial. Everything seems to depend on the interpretation one gives to the ‘historical subject’ they see emerging from the collective conscience that the WSF is building. Most probably, the traditional Marxist terminology that is used in the text is what disturbs most people. Samir Amin pretends that a new era of socialism is now beginning. In the same way, in Caracas, Chavez gave a new interpretation to ‘Socialism or death’. According to the Venezuelan president, we have no choice but to introduce socialism if we want to avoid the environmental degradation that will kill us all.

This brings us to the delicate question of whether the WSF has to defend one or another form of socialism. In the Forum, most people avoid terminology that has negative connotations because no one knows exactly what is meant by them. There will not be many movements that defend a return to the socialism of the cold war. Consequently, discourse about socialism has no sense if it does not clearly define what it is about. It is about radical democracy, some participants may answer, and that may be acceptable. But can one define socialism without including an economic dimension?

The authors of the ‘Appeal of Bamako’ are also being blamed for not understanding the dynamics of the forum. They underestimate the importance of democratic processes. Last year’s text, the ‘consensus of Porto Alegre’ certainly was no consensus, but it was a clear and short document. Why has no one tried to organise a debate around it? This could have led to a new document in 2006. Now, movements are asked to sign the ‘Appeal of Bamako’, without any possibility of participation in the drafting of the text and without any possibility to amend it. This clearly is an old-fashioned top-down approach that is difficult to accept. Moreover, in Caracas the text was presented in a seminar by seven gentlemen – not one single woman – and again without any possibility for the audience to discuss it. The WSF deserves better than this hierarchical way of doing.

What next?

In fact, the strategy of the WSF has not yet become a real issue, precisely because some people think that there should not be any strategy.

Nevertheless, we should ask ourselves how the other world can come about? It cannot be a spontaneous process, the simple result of 100.000 people shouting that another world is possible. What the different movements in the WSF are talking about, one way or another, is linked to power relations. Those who have power never give it away willingly. Meaning nothing will change unless – as a start - the 100.000 people go and shout their slogans at the front door of the World Bank or the IMF.

At an international conference in Ghent in 2005 on the anti-globalisation movement, Anne Morelli told the astounded audience that not one single movement in history had ever enforced change without violence. That is a difficult lesson for all advocates of peaceful resistance. The WSF rightfully excludes the use of violence and that is the reason why the Zapatistas are never – directly - present at the WSF. Maybe the media attention for all Islamic movements is due precisely to the fact that one fears them, that they are seen as a threat. The WSF does not threaten any one, why should one listen to it?

I do not think that violence can bring solutions, though we must consider Morelli’s point. Those who are in power use fear, the fear of terrorism, of aids, of poverty or avian flu in order to legitimate themselves, in order to maintain and consolidate their power. The Global Justice and Solidarity Movement should confirm its existence, it should say loud and clear that we are many saying ‘no’ to the oppression of humankind and the degradation of the environment. Those in power should fear us. That is the challenge.

Let me try to make some concluding suggestions.

First, I think that all movements within the WSF have to make a critical analysis of their campaigns and their proposals. There are too many contradictions and every one should reflect on their position within the global movement and the possibilities of networking. In very practical terms one should look at the contribution to another world. This may seem obvious, but those who have read the WSF seminar list and have seen the proposals concerning apiculture or spirituality, will know that this exercise may be relevant.

Secondly, the WSF, the international secretariat and/or the international council will have to reflect on another kind of organisation. The WSF is a very expensive initiative – every global forum costs millions of dollars – and it is indeed a very positive step to give every one an opportunity to gather, to exchange ideas, to discuss proposals. However, many movements do not even respect their own proposals, they remain absent or they have no audience other than their own members. Edgardo Lander of the WSF in Caracas proposed to make a pre-selection of all initiatives. That is a very delicate mission. What criteria would have to be used? Who will decide? However, these ideas have to be studied in depth since the WSF has its financial and logistical limits. A solution that is acceptable to all has to be found.

Thirdly, the WSF should organise debates on the real relevant issues for ‘another world’. Most seminars in Caracas or Porto Alegre do not directly touch these issues. I think of ecologically sustainable development, pluralism and diversity, global democracy, social justice, global public goods, global taxes, etc. If there are no movements to propose activities on these issues, the WSF can co-manage them. Some topics could even be prepared during the year with a call for written contributions or electronic debates. In that way, the WSF could be an opportunity to present and check the results. It could lead directly to more practical proposals.

Finally, it could be interesting to try and make a synthesis of all debates. Concerning the most relevant issues for ‘another world’, most things have been said or have been written, but no one ever tried to bring all ideas together into a coherent programme. Who can pretend that no consensus will ever be possible at all? And if we do not need a blueprint for one specific type of world, why not three, four or five different programmes that can be discussed within the open space the WSF can continue to be? This does not conflict with the principles of the charter. It could significantly improve the convergence and the strength of the movement.

The discussion on the future of the movement has now started and that is a very positive result. However, binary dichotomies are better avoided, like civil society v the state, local v global action, etc. The main challenge consists of finding the right way of linking different levels and different agents. There are no political levels or agents that can be neglected. A political dialogue does not conflict with the autonomy of movements. We should not fall into the trap that neoliberal discourses are setting for us. WSF could usefully consult the feminist movement that has some experience with the re-invention of democracy. For the WSF, gender is a transversal issue, though women, their experiences and their issues are under-represented. Concerning issues of pluralism and diversity, their contribution could be very useful.

The WSF has to find its way, as François Houtart notes, ‘between a 5th International and a social Woodstock’. The WSF is a festival and the WSF is political. The WSF has to be politicised, which means that many political actions within the forum should be possible. The WSF should not become the victim of its success. Its process has to be deepened in order to find a number of practical, post-capitalistic, radical democratic alternatives. The WSF is an open forum and should remain an open forum. But it also should be able to encourage the wording of strategies and alternatives, in both a pragmatic and idealistic way. We will indeed have to change ourselves. As Peter Waterman says, the main problem of emancipation is not the enemy, it is us.

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