updated on 10/11/2006

Towards Kenya in 2007

Chico Whitaker, representative of the Brazilian Justice and Peace Commission on the organizing bodies of the World Social Forums.

28 February 2006

X http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/dinamic.php?pagina= bal_whitaker_2007_in  (external link)

The 2006 World Social Forum was multi-centred: it took place in Bamako (Mali), and then in Caracas (Venezuela). The third forum which was scheduled – but postponed because of the earthquakes in Pakistan – will be held in Karachi at the end of March. The fourth Europe Social Forum will take place in Greece in May, and an Asia Social Forum will be held in Thailand in the second half of the year. At almost the same time as the two first multi-centred forums, an assembly was called in Morocco to set up the Maghreb Social Forum, scheduled for 2007 shortly after the next World Social Forum, which once again will be centralized, this time in Nairobi, Kenya.

The World Social Forum process can be said to be expanding strongly. More than just expanding, though: that expansion is bringing something new, a qualitative change in the kind of unity that has been forged among those who want to build the “other possible world”, a unity that respects diversity and in which everyone plays a leading role. The Forums do not result from decisions by an international summit that schedules and monitors them: they are always the initiatives and the responsibility of the civil society movements, groups and organisations of the country or region where they are held, with support from an International Council on which those groupings also participate. The Forums’ organizers – or facilitators, as we call them – in turn encourage participants to self-organise their activities at the Forums.

This is evidence of the increasing assimilation of the way of doing politics that is written into the WSF Charter of Principles: by horizontal action in networks, without internal struggles for hegemony, making room for civil society to emerge as a new political actor, autonomous of parties and governments.

After the multi-centred Forums, it is now time to draw up balances and make the evaluations that are so essential to moving ahead in the light of our methodological advances and setbacks. This paper raises some of the questions that may come to be discussed in that light at the International Council meeting planned for late March in Nairobi.

The five running sores of neoliberalism The aim of the political process launched in 2001 by the WSF remains the same: to permit encounters among “groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth” (1).

The thinking and action that have taken place in the course of the Forums since then, are making it possible to identify better the great sores that neoliberalism, domination by capital and imperialism have opened up on the face of the Earth. To me, they seem to be the following: - war and the militarization of conflicts; - terrorism, as a desperate response or a mistaken strategy for combating domination; - the progressive, increasing destruction of planet Earth; - the enforced misery of ever-larger portions of Humankind; - the corruption that is decaying the fabric of society.

Their severity varies in different parts of the world, as does the importance of the mechanisms or instruments that perpetuate them. But they affect all peoples. They feed on one another and they worsen, as a result of the same egoistic, competitive and suicidal logic that leads capitalism.

At WSF International Council meetings the proposal very often comes up to bring the Forums to focus on just one of these sores – war, for example. The concern is to be more effective by concentrating efforts and reducing the extent and variety of the struggles that can be discussed – and turned into plans of action – at the Forums.

This proposal however corresponds to a way of doing politics that is different from what is experienced at the WSF as an “open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action” (2), according to the specific nature of each struggle and the type of action of each leading participant.

It may be that holding the next World Forum in Africa – a new social, economic and political reality – will reduce the scope for proposing that kind of single focus. The way of doing politics that it expresses, however, is the same as lies behind four challenges that the WSF process faces if it is to continue and expand, which may be a subject to be discussed by the International Council in March. Two of these challenges could be said to come from outside the Forum, and two from inside.

The challenges that come from outside the Forums The two challenges that come from outside result from the action of governments and parties. Continuing with the political struggle in the same way as it has always been pursued, they find it hard to understand – and therefore to accept – what the WSF intends. This difficulty shows up clearly in the way parties and governments – and with them, international intergovernmental organizations – very often seek to associate themselves with the Forums. The WSF Charter of Principles establishes that they may not organise activities at the Forums, although they may take part at the invitation of participants, in activities that those participants organise (on the self-organised basis of the Forums).

The Forums’ organisers ask something even more difficult of governments that dialogue with the WSF process – because they take a position on the same field of battle against neoliberalism: they ask them to help without interfering. Not all governments are willing to do that. It is hard for them to resist the temptation for self-promotion at the event. This difficulty in respecting the autonomy of civil society is a natural result of the political culture that prevailed throughout the last century.

That difficulty is also experienced by political parties, which until now have enjoyed a hegemony over political activity, the aim of their activities being to take government power. To their leaders there is no sense in acting outside of them or in intending to do anything without taking power. That difficulty grows to the extent that parties’ hegemony is threatened by civil society as a new, emerging political actor.

Why should governments and parties not be given the central place they have always enjoyed and their activities be supported through the WSF process? That would risk reducing the whole meaning of the Forums to dust. Of course, governments and parties have a role that is very often decisive in bringing about the changes required to build the “other world”. But why not let civil society reinforce the battle fronts and do so autonomously?

It is not a question of bringing the Forums as such into those battle lines. In themselves they are not political actors – and thus cannot set themselves to become the new “subject of history” that the experts in politics hope to encounter. They are just a space. But they are a civil society space, for the different sectors of society to exchange ideas and experience and find avenues to effective political action, including the means to pressure and constrain governments and parties, and to contribute to bringing about changes by doing whatever is within their grasp without depending on either. Never before did civil society have an instrument of this kind with which to develop its interrelations autonomously.

It is quite true that as the World Social Forum was being organized, in the early days, certain ambiguities hung over these issues. To this day there are participants who rely on those ambiguities to reinforce their arguments in favour of governments and parties being present and participating directly as such in the Forums. This is because most of the organizers of the early WSFs were members of the PT, and because they took place in a town – Porto Alegre – where the state and municipal governments were held by that party. The doubts grew with the presence of Brazil’s newly elected President, Lula, at a major public rally at the 2003 Forum.

Much has been written to explain what in fact was happening and why Lula was there in 2003. But only practice and time will persuade people that neither the party itself nor the governments command the organisation of the Forum nor do they interfere in it. One reason is that they passed up none of the opportunities that arose to promote themselves. To complicate this situation still further, WSF 2005 practically started with Lula, President of Brazil, and ended with Chavez, President of Venezuela. In fact those events were organized by participants, who made use of the freedom the Forum affords to self-organise their activities there...

In 2006 (at the two multi-centred Forums held to date), the risk of hijacking by parties seemed smaller. In the case of Venezuela, however, many people pointed to the risk of government interference. Its President is a strong presence in the country and has many resources that can help, but also create dependence. According to observers, however, the Forum’s organisers managed to maintain the autonomy of the activities at the event. In fact what happened there was once again what constitutes the wealth of the Forums: participants were most interested in the free exchange of experiences and in developing new interaction among the movements and organisations of civil society.

The greater presence of Chavez, personally, and of the resources that he made available – even for the Bamako Forum – was exploited fully by the mass media seeking to undermine the WSF’s image. It was less exploited however than another strong presence: the Brazilian government and its state enterprises. Both of these resulted from activities self-organised by participants in the Forum. This brings us, in turn, to the challenges that come from within the Forum.

The challenges from within the Forum These challenges are in fact the stronger. Coming from inside the WSF, they have greater power to undercut any resistance. Both originate in the same approach that seeks to “focus” the Forums, as mentioned earlier in this text, and in the difficulty of accepting the innovations proposed at them as regards how to do politics, which was mentioned in relation to the challenges coming from outside the Forum.

The problem here lies in accepting innovations in the practices of those engaged in the struggle against neoliberalism. As occurs with any cultural change, this is a recurrent difficulty on the WSF International Council and on the various organising bodies.

It results from the enormous weight of the conception according to which all and any political struggle must have leaders or vanguards to mobilize the militants and direct the action. When that combines with the authoritarianism fostered by capitalism and which marks many positions, including those of the left, it leads to struggles for hegemony over leadership of what action is actually to be taken. This is expressed in permanent competition for power among the forces that oppose the dominance of capitalism, meaning that the prevailing logic is one of dispute rather than mutual openness, and space is opened up for all kinds of anti-democratic manoeuvrings and coups to gain terrain.

The first of these challenges arises out of the actions of those who are being called “intellectuals”, and who are invited to conferences and debates; the second stems from the so-called Assembly of Social Movements, which, at the close of the Forums, puts out appeals for mobilization in the struggle against neoliberalism and at times holds demonstrations that make its presence and strength more visible.

both the first and second challenge give rise to the risk of splintering and re-splintering that is already so much a part of the history of the left – as a result of the all too well known strategy of the dominators, to divide and rule. If union is a necessary condition for building a political force really capable of standing up to capitalism, and it is urgent that we build such a force, the temptation is to try to achieve it not by conviction – which however militant takes time – but by unified commands capable of imposing discipline and obedience – which are purportedly more effective.

Experience shows that this second path is not effective, and also that it is contrary to any construction of the “other possible world” – which must necessarily be characterized by respect for the diversity and differences in pace among people, or it will not be “another” world. Nonetheless, union has been maintained – the WSF process is now in its eighth year – and that is probably because, from the outset, the rule among the Forums’ organizers has been that decisions are made by consensus. That too takes time, but it means that decisions are upheld by all those who take part in them, for the good of preserving union.

“Intellectuals” in Bamako A the Bamako Forum, there was an attempt to do something similar to the “Manifesto” launched at Porto Alegre in 2005 by 19 leading figures, in an endeavour to bring all the proposals and struggles that emerge at the Forums together around certain main themes. This time, the effort was directed to relaunching the coalition of the “non-aligned” countries of the 1955 Bandung Conference, now that it is commemorating its fiftieth anniversary. An international seminar, held the day before the Bamako Fórum began, featuring leading figures from intellectual circles and the anti-imperialist struggle, sought to present itself as an opening ceremony of the Forum – as a prior orientation for the discussions that would be held there.

The guests has the good sense not to let it turn into an opening ceremony, and it was thus not considered as setting any course by the Forum’s participants, who were moved more strongly by its proposal for horizontal relations. But a final “appeal” by the seminar, drafted after it happened, was taken to Caracas, perhaps with a view to its gaining the importance it had not commanded at Bamako. It is currently seeking further subscriptions in the circles of those active in resisting imperialism. That, incidentally, is making for healthy discussion of its content on the Internet.

The Bandung Conference, in the struggle for economic and political independence for Third World countries, was a conference of heads of state, not of peoples – even though the former may present themselves as representatives of the latter. Its proposal thus presupposes that everything depends on governments, and that real action for change depends on taking political power. Now that is a hotly debated issue in the WSF process, which is a space for peoples to interrelate through their organisations. In that respect, the initiative taken at Bamako adds to one of the challenges coming from outside the Forum, that is, the endeavour to increase governments’ presence in its actions. Caracas offered na unparalleled opportunity to gain a vigorous ally: President Chavez, who is notorious combatant in the anti-imperialist cause, and presented by some at “the leader we were needing”.

“Intellectuals” have the means to present their analyses but they do not have the whole truth. For that very reason the World Social Forum offers a special space to showcase what is growing out of the social grassroots. According to its Charter of Principles, however, all the activities that take place there are equally important and given the same priority, so it is not always a simple matter to expect proposals to prosper because they are persuasive, rather than because they are presented by some kind of authority.

The concern for total consensus-building also runs up against another of the fundamental principles of the WSF Charter: that there should be no final document – as would be required if it had leaders – but rather the greatest possible number of “final documents”, diversified in their aims and in the levels at which their proponents are active.

The Assembly of Social Movements at Caracas In fact, the Assembly of Social Movements, which poses the Forum its second challenge from within, faces this same difficulty in accepting that there should be no single “final document”. It seeks to meet this difficulty by proposing that “its” final document should be put forward as being the whole Forum’s. To that end, it nearly always schedules its concluding meeting for the day after the end of the Forum, as if it could thus gather together and systematise the most important things discussed and proposed there.

With the help of ill-advised or ill-intentioned journalists, its message ends up coming across. This occurred at Mumbai, in India, and now again at the Caracas Forum: a meeting of the Assembly with a limited number of invited participants, held after the Forum had ended, offered “a rendering of accounts by the Forum to President Chavez”, which TV Globo broadcast to all of Brazil as if it was the Forum’s closing ceremony, although it was an initiative by the Assembly and not by the organisers of the Caracas Forum. That interpretation of Globo’s was doubtless facilitated by the fact that at the meeting Chavez spoke in front of a large banner bearing the logo of the World Social Forum. These are the minor details that taint good intentions...

Unlike the challenge posed by intellectuals who position themselves as leaders and guides of the Forums, the challenge from the Assembly of Social Movements comes from below, an option that the Forum is designed to strengthen. In that sense, it represents one of the best results that the Forum is making possible, because it interlinks a growing number of civil society organisations. Among the Forum’s aims is the ideal that many interconnections like this should emerge and grow up with it. And that is indeed happening. The problem is that the Assembly of Social Movements intends to command a hegemony over the Forums, and to become the main grouping to grow out of them. It is as if it wished to hijack the Forum to achieve the aims of the movements of which it is composed.

This challenge is the greatest of the four mentioned here. It first arose at the 2001 Forum, where for the first time the organisers of the Assembly wanted to put out their final “Appeal” as coming from all the participants at the event, and using the official Forum website for that purpose (3). It associates the value set on action by the social grassroots – which is an option taken by the Forum – with the feeling of urgency of calls to action. But instead of integrating naturally into the process that is underway, it holds to the type of competitive political action that is felt has to be changed in order to build the necessary union.

The final effect of the Assembly’s actions may be fatal to the Forum, by transforming it into a movement with a single line of action and a single direction, thus alienating all those who do not accept that action and direction. How can that be prevented? Meeting that challenge will call for open and frank dialogue among those who advocate for one position or the other. If we manage that we will have managed to take a decisive step towards a new political culture that is needed in order to build the “other possible world”. Preparations for the Kenya Forum may just offer us the right opportunity.

FOOTNOTES 1. WSF Charter of Principles 2. WSF Charter of Principles 3. For more detail on this fact and other issues addressed in this article, see O Desafio do Fórum Social Mundial – um modo de ver (The Challenge of the World Social Forum – a way of seeing), published in Portuguese by Edições Perseu Abramo e Loyola, and in Spanish by Editorial Icaria, Barcelona.

Translation: Peter Lenny