(DRAFT - for Another World is Necessary. Please don’t circulate. Comments solicited.)

World Social Forum at a Crossroads in Caracas: Fifth International or Solidarity Economy?

Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone Center for Global Justice

X http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/papers2006/bowmanstoneENG.htm (external link)

We had been to the first regional social forum in 2002, the European Social Forum in Florence. Our first World Social Forum was the 6 th annual one, whose main part met January 24 th -29 th in Caracas, Venezuela. It felt like part self-generated Woodstock, part global action center, part solidarity economy workshop, and part oversized university-for-five-days. We made our way to many stuffy rooms, some calmed by academics, others apulse with activists. The largest delegations came from Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia, but it was exhilaratingly global. One optimistic writer calls the Forums the “world parliament in exile.” All World Social Forums (WSFs) have debated who they are and where they are going. But at Caracas this “movement of movements” seemed to us to be facing particularly stark options with high stakes. We evoke this young but massive movement, review the debate, and propose a pathway.

A brief history of the Forums will provide necessary context.

It all started in February, 2000 when French and Brazilian opponents of the free-market policies of neo-liberal globalization met in Paris. A series of confrontations inspired by Zapatista “encounters” in Chiapas in 1996 and Spain in 1997 had culminated the previous fall in the great 1999 Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization. With 30,000 participants, it had brought the new movement against globalization to the world’s attention. In Paris the task was to maintain the momentum. The idea was born of a January 2001 social forum opposite the annual World Economic Forum in Davos , Switzerland — where bankers and politicians set global economic policy. As the Reagan/Thatcher decade started in 1980 economic orthodoxy switched from Keynesianism to a renewed Adam Smithian or “neo-liberal” capitalist faith in markets. “There is no alternative” was Thatcher’s mantra. In practice this had meant: privatize public goods, stop social spending, and regulate “free trade” by treaties favoring transnationals. So the Paris meeting badly needed to put a workable alternative on display. Porto Alegre, Brazil, cradle of “participatory budgeting,” was chosen. “Another world is possible” was to be the slogan. Its truth could be seen in Porto Alegre’s “solidarity economy.” A movement was born.

Participatory budgeting, is simple: a city’s citizens and not just its politicians, get to help allocate its capital expenditures by neighborhood. All civic groups may send representatives to regular meetings to prioritize spending on streets, education, whatever. The system’s own “goal,” apart from human intentions, is capital accumulation. Insofar as the goal of alternatives to it is set by joint human decision, that goal cannot be capital accumulation. Thus, like participatory budgeting, “alternative” economic forms typically involve democratic, local control of economic life so as to meet needs. Examples include producer or consumer co-ops, credit unions, or alternative media.

Such voluntary associations and their social property — i.e. neither individual nor public property — thus manifest a long-hidden capacity to meet needs and build communities, often without passing through the commodity form. They prove that governments and markets are not the only two ways to realize those goods. Multinationals suck out the value communities create, often storing it in tax havens. But such flows to the wealthy are short-circuited when plain citizens invent grassroots economic practices. Such practices are not only revolutionary, they work! Porto Alegre’s innovation has generated: fiscal transparency; regular budget surpluses; scores of successful worker co-ops; UNESCO designation as a model city; and emulation in some 200 Brazilian cities, with others in Canada, Scotland and elsewhere. The option for the WSF that we will propose involves reconnecting with these roots in the solidarity economy.

Except for one in Mumbai, India, all WSFs up to 2006 have been in Porto Alegre. The 2005 leaders, aiming at greater inclusiveness, set up a “polycentric” Forum for 2006. The first such “center” to meet was in Bamako, Mali, January 19-23, then 24-29 in Caracas , and then March 24-29 in Karachi , Pakistan . Drawing about 10k, 70k and 30k participants, respectively, this year’s total equaled the roughly 100k of each of the last four forums. Significantly, the 2007 Forum will be in Nairobi , Kenya , the first single-centered WSF to take place in Africa . In an informal survey of participants in the first two Forums, we asked what the Forums’ adversary was. “Globalization,” or “corporate globalization” were the usual answers. In Florence in 2002 “capitalism” was usually named. This radicalization is also expressed in new first-world/third-world and North/South alliances against the same system that have formed.

The Forums were started by social movements as distinct from political parties. The initial Paris meetings started with Bernard Cassen of ATTAC and Brazilians Oded Grajew and Chico Whitaker. In France, the Association for Taxation of Transactions to Help Citizens ( Association pour la Taxation des Transactions pour l'Aide aux Citoyens) advocates, among other reforms, taxation on all international capital transfers. An early Forum initiator in Brazil was the MST, the Movement of Landless Workers (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). Independent of government and NGOs, the MST helps the rural poor occupy unused land so as to establish cooperatives for autonomous production. Such social movements, not parties, still control the WSF. Hundreds of them animate the Forums, defending: women, workers, peace, the unemployed, the indigenous, rain forests, bio-diversity, immigrants, alternative media, access to water and food, and of course the solidarity economy.

“Solidarity economy” names not just participatory budgeting but any economic activity that democratizes economies, subordinating profit to human ends. It includes: local solidarity and mutual aid networks; producer, buying and selling co-ops; ethical consumption; fair trade; local and social currencies and barter networks; credit unions and micro-finance; and community gardens and restaurants. Venezuela inaugurated a cabinet-level Ministry of the Popular Economy in 2004 and Brazil and Colombia have national authorities charged with helping the solidarity economy. Organizational forms of the solidarity economy often seen at the WSF include: inter-cooperation bodies of the solidarity economy at national, regional and global levels; civic and municipal groups for democratic development; and research and advocacy groups. Socialists and anarchists debate in the WSF, but it is itself independent of all governments, political parties, and ideologies (see the WSF website at www.forumsocialmundial.org.br (external link)). At its founding in 2001, this independence was enshrined in the central clause 6 of the Charter of Principles: "The participants in the Forum shall not be called on to take decisions as a body, whether by votes or by acclamation or declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority of them, or that propose to be taken as establishing positions of the Forum as a body. It thus does not constitute a locus of power to be disputed by the participants in its meetings." This seemingly uncontroversial statement was to become increasingly controversial.

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