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An article I wrote last year for a book that was never published... maybe it can still be useful to contextualize the upcoming forum in Mexico

Reinventing the World Social Forum: how powerful an idea can be Input21

Francine Mestrum

CETRI, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

@1 Almost a generation ago now! It was in 2001 that the first World Social Forum (WSF) was organised in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the city of the Workers’ Party of future president Lula da Silva and the city of the participatory budget. There was hope, much hope, and a belief that ‘another world’ was possible and that we could shape it. This became the slogan of all future WSFs.

There were not that many people at this first meeting, though the fact that almost 15.000 people from all over the world gathered at short notice was a real surprise. Those who had taken the initiative, people from the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), intellectuals from Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia, such as François Houtart and Samir Amin, people from the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique… It was a real success and one year later they were 50.000 to make the trip to Brazil, with more than 1000 journalists! The World Social Forum was the answer to the World Economic Forum in Davos and wanted to propose an alternative to the neoliberal globalisation.

@2 An ‘International Council’ was created in order to strengthen the process and a ‘Charter of Principles’ was written containing the main rules for the events.

@3 One of the most important of these principles is that no one can ever speak ‘in the name of’ the Forum. Participants can speak for their organisations, possibly together with others, but not ‘as Forum’. Organisations involved in the armed struggle are not welcome. The Forum wants to be an ‘open space’, something that can be interpreted in different ways and at the same time needs to be seen as a guarantee for ‘horizontality’ – no hierarchies -, self-management and democratic participation of all.

@4 Initially, the international council was a closed gathering of intellectuals who jealously guarded their privilege, tried to control the Forum process and discussed world political matters. 

Big crowds

@5 After three very successful forums in Brazil, the event left for Mumbai, India, with as much success. Nevertheless, the first small cracks came to light when the anti-capitalists, refusing to envisage even the slightest compromise, organised their own anti-imperialist forum, parallel to the official WSF.

@6 Afterwards, we had a ‘polycentric’ Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, Bamako, Mali and Karachi, Pakistan.  @7 One year later we moved to Nairobi, Kenya, which was not a success because of a failing organisation and a lack of resources. @8 We went back to Brazil with a gigantic Forum (150.000 people!) in Belem and the focus on the Amazon region and its indigenous people. @9 We tried Africa once more but again the organisation was below zero.

@10 The rules which were set up to guarantee democracy and horizontality were not as solid as expected. At each meeting of the international council – twice a year – a new commission, a new working-party or another liaison committee was necessary to mend the cracks.

But the cracks kept emerging and the global left appeared to be as weak as its national counterparts: bickering, ego’s, divergent philosophies …@11 the European forums did not survive the endless squabbling.

@12The belief in ‘another world’ came under threat after the events of 11 September 2001 and almost disappeared with the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The WSF continued to gather, but became less dynamic.

@13 The Arab spring gave new hope and we organised an excellent Forum in Tunis in 2013 and another one in 2015.

@14 The Canadians proposed a new formula for the WSF and organised one in Montreal in the summer of 2016. It was fine, but there were hardly any organisations involved. As is the case for many young people today, its philosophy was focused on individuals with little vision of the global world.

Bursting cracks

@15 The Brazilians were fed up. They were no longer keen to organise international council meetings and had doubts on future world social forums. @16 A couple of times, there were real clashes at meetings and one had to be an expert with lots of empathy to understand what was being said during the debates. What was meant was hidden under several layers of newspeak and empty concepts. 

@17 It has often been said that the main problem of the WSF is the opposition between NGOs and social movements. NGOs are said to be reformist with little or no contact with their basis, whereas social movements are supposed to be revolutionary and very popular. I do not believe this. Some NGOs are very revolutionary and some social movements know perfectly well how to keep their members in line.

@18 A first real problem is the failing and vague definition of the ‘open space’, including its intrinsic ‘horizontality’. These are attractive principles but they do need a concrete meaning. @19 In any place where people are gathering, in small or less small groups, power relations will exist and these have to be monitored in a democratic way. @20 If the ‘horizontality’ means that the really existing hierarchy remains hidden behind a non-defined principle, problems with accountability and transparency will necessarily arise. If structures are so complex that no one knows who has to do what, misunderstandings are inevitable. @21 A small group within  the international council continued to request a light structure with clear responsibilities and transparency, to no avail. Those who have power, especially if it remains invisible, will not accept any changes.

@22 A second problem is that some of the Brazilian ‘fathers’ of the Forum fear political positions.  Even if the first Forum was organised just before the elections that made Lula president of the country – and promoting his candidacy – today, there is a tremendous fear of touching anything political.@23  This obviously is very absurd when one wants to shape ‘another world’, but it does lead to a permanent struggle between a small club of ‘fathers’ and the many dynamic and younger members of the international council.@24  The former do not want to organise general forums anymore and instead focus on thematic forums, such as on water, migration or nuclear matters. They keep focusing on diversity and the idea of ‘convergence’ makes them shiver.

@24 The third problem, finally, is purely material: a lack of resources. A meeting of the international council will easily cost around 100.000 euros, except if all pay their own ticket. @25 The budget for the forum in Salvador is around 2.5 million Euro, a very modest amount compared to previous forums. @26 The fact that the international council paid tickets for many of its members made it very easy to make alliances. Now that this has stopped, it is only the more autonomous members who remain and can put the ‘old guard’ in a minority position. @27 Financial constraints, all over the world, make it very difficult for many movements to make long trips. It explains why the last forums may have been a success but were not really ‘global’ forums anymore. The participation of Africa has dwindled, Asian participation has almost disappeared.

A new beginning?

@28 The international council meeting in Porto Alegre in January 2017 was a real turning point. Two and a half days long, discussions were serious and calm, everyone fearing to repeat the clash of Montreal, where even in spite of a consensus, @29 it was not possible to condemn the ‘coup’ against Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. @30 But the last half day, the old guard flatly refused to envisage a next Forum in Salvador de Bahía in spring 2018. They were defeated …

@31 In October 2017, another meeting of the international council took place in Salvador in order to concretely prepare the Forum. It was a very positive and constructive meeting, without any conflicts. @32 The movements in Salvador are very dynamic, a very interesting cooperation with the Federal University of Bahia, a public establishment with more than 200.000 students had been achieved. For the rector of the University, this was a unique opportunity for reaching out to society. 

This is where the World Social Forum took place, from March 13 to 17, 2018.

@33 But was it a real global Forum? There were a lot of people from Latin America and even from Africa because the links between Salvador de Bahia and Africa are quite strong. The European presence was much weaker and Asia was almost completely absent. @34 On the third day, it became clear that few workshops were political, beyond what is happening in Brazil. A very large majority of the more than 2000 activities are purely mobilizing, only a small minority is focused on the development of alternatives or on strategy. @35 The major themes of the past, the international financial institutions, free trade, conflicts, climate change: you had to look for them with a magnifying glass. 

@36 A positive note should have come from the various parallel large gatherings: a women's assembly, an assembly of democracies where Lula came to speak, an assembly of social resistance movements. Unfortunately, they were a bit disappointing. This WSF has certainly put feminism fully on the map, women played a huge role in this Forum, but their action program leaves much to be desired. @37 The assembly with Lula was a moment of mobilization and, obviously, mainly Brazilian. @38 The assembly of social movements was a failure, because of the active boycott of a few. 

A powerless International Council 

The international disappointment does not detract from the enormous success of this Forum for the Brazilians, in politically very difficult circumstances.@39 Despite the active boycott of a few, the organizers have succeeded in creating a Forum with almost 80,000 participants. There certainly is no reason for any criticism. 

However, questions have to be asked about the limited participation of Europe and Asia. The price of plane tickets explains something in times of austerity, but not everything.@40  Many intellectuals have abandoned the Forum and its IC some time ago and this deserves at least a thorough analysis. 

'Another world is possible', that was the mobilizing slogan when the first Forum was held in Porto Alegre in 2001. Thousands came to Brazil, intellectuals and grassroots movements from all over the world. @41 The objective was to give an answer to the World Economic Forum in Davos, to develop global alternatives and strategies, to build global counterpower in times of neoliberal globalization. 

@42 Over time, the charter of principles of the WSF has come to work as a brake on political action. Nobody can speak 'on behalf of' the Forum, fair enough, but does this mean that the Forum has no voice and never should have a voice? @43  That the international Council can never ever take a political position? @44 The founders of the Forum, who are still very present, are blocking everything, even on very political points on which there is a consensus.@45  Understandably, this is met with incomprehension and a lot of frustration.

A second difficult topic is the so-called horizontality. Again, while we all agree on the necessity of avoiding vertical hierarchies and paralyzing structures, the attachment to horizontality has now become a cover for hiding the really existing power relations.@46  There is no structure, no one has any responsibility and hence there is no accountability. There is no transparency, let alone democracy.

The same horizontality continues with the activities of the Forum.@47  Rejecting every hierarchy means that a workshop on 'women and football' or 'LGBT and hip-hop' is just as important as a roundtable about the financial crisis or about war and peace. @48 A proposal for a conference with prominent left-wing intellectuals is dismissed as 'listening to the gurus'. @49 Alternatives and strategies are hardly discussed, 'the movements themselves must take care of that', is the traditional answer.

Or in other words, the dog bites its own tail.

A lack of politics

@50 The key question, then, concerns the usefulness of such an apolitical forum? Certainly, for Brazil and even more for Salvador de Bahia this forum was very useful. But for all others?@51  If the Forum cannot exist as a Forum, but only as a sum of thousands of movements, it becomes politically irrelevant.@52  If the International Council does not exist as a political collective but again only as a gathering place for a few elected representatives of social movements, what is its role?

@53 Is there no longer any need for a global response, for a global political actor, for a global strategy? In Europe as well, many movements are withdrawing at the national and even the local level, and there should be no doubt that local actions are important. Local utopias can be particularly interesting, but can they be enough? When they come at the expense of national, European and global actions, there is a real problem. Because neither climate change nor digital data protection, nor fiscal or social justice can be adequately tackled nationally, let alone locally.

'@54 We are an open space, we create hope and have a different vision of politics': this is the answer, time and again, to all questions, doubts and criticism. In reality there is no political approach @55 and the objectives end with the mobilization. The most striking example is the 'success' which is always referred to, when, in 2003, millions of people took to the streets against the war in Iraq. A few weeks later, exactly fifteen years ago, that war started. Where, then, is the success? 

The articulation between different political levels is essential for any global and political meaning. The right knows this very well and acts accordingly. The left too often continues its navel gazing. @56 At a time when the anger and the resistance to neoliberalism and dispossession are so great all over the world, it is worrying that there is nowhere any attempt to channel and activate them. Because in the meantime the repression and criminalization of social movements is increasing and right-wing populist regimes are taking over.

@57 The old, apolitical World Social Forum has no future unless it can contribute to the coordination of actions and the organization of movements. @58  It is by no means the only global forum, but the only one with a potential for transversal work. It would be a shame if this was lost. Next year the WSF is 18 years old, the age of political majority. @59 Maybe also the age to become autonomous and disobedient?

New hope, a new future?

A World Social Forum on Migration took place in Mexico City, from 2 to 4 November 2018. @59  It was followed by a limited but very interesting meeting of the international Council.

The shock of the elections in Brazil, where a fascist president will take over next year, certainly had its influence. @60 We had a very good political debate on the threats to democracy, in Latin America as well as in Europe, where there will be European elections in May 2019.

At the end of this debate, @61 the initiative to make a network of sanctuary cities, to develop a world movement against fascism and to emphasize the need for convergence between the movements was agreed on : ' Nadie deja la mano de nadie ', the solidarity between us is essential. 

@62 These debates also led us to the conclusion that the next WSF will have to be more political and pursue concrete objectives. Our Mexican friends have expressed the wish to organize a WSF in Mexico City in 2020 or 2021. @63 They want to give a new dynamic to the WSF, if possible with a change in the rules of the Charter of Principles, at least with a very strong political vision. @64 This will require everyone to do his/her work in every continent in order to mobilize all energies and to get to articulate the various themes we are working on.@65  In this way we should make the link between the different thematic forums. This WSF will also be important in continuing to put pressure on the new Mexican government. All those who were at the IC before should be contacted and invited again. @66 The message of the WSF will have to be expressed in a strong and emancipatory political voice. 

@67 In this context it was emphasized that the methodology must always be at the service of politics and not vice versa.@68 The organizers will consider how to organize, apart from self-managed activities, meetings stimulated by the facilitating committee in order to preserve the possibility of a comprehensive agenda and guidance, at the service of our objectives. @69 This work must necessarily be collective and pursue the goal of making it a truly global and political forum.