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Some considerations for the debate on the renewal of the World Social Forum

gustave massiah


Thanks to Francine for her excellent, stimulating and inspiring text. And thanks for launching the basic debate we need to renew the World Social Forum.

This text, whose reflections I broadly share, analyses without complaisance the situation of the WSF and emphasizes the limits of the functioning and the responsibilities of the forms of organization. It underlines the frustrations and limits of the process in its current state. It also highlights some past successes of the WSF. And it emphasizes the expectations that are still very high with regard to the WSF in the social and citizens' movements.

I would like to enter the debate by addressing a complementary aspect, that of the evolution of the world political situation. While an uncompromising analysis of the weaknesses and limits of the orientation and organization is indispensable, the consequences of the evolution of the situation on the vitality of the process must also be taken into account. I would like to address a few ideas and proposals by suggesting that we collectively reflect on the history of the WSF in relation to the issues and questions raised by the current situation.

The World Social Forum initially played an innovative role and contributed to a period of struggles and mobilizations, following Seattle in 1999 until the financial crisis of 2007-2008. It will be interesting to look back over this period, from the Porto Alegre and Mumbai forums, to reflect on the advances that it would still be useful to take into account today.  

The World Social Forum had dealt well with the crisis in 2008, and the forum in Belém in 2009 had been an excellent one from this point of view. It saw the rise of new movements (women's rights, La Via Campesina, indigenous peoples), it highlighted the relationship between the human species and Nature. He outlined a strategic approach by underlining the necessary resistance (proposals against financialisation and neo-liberal globalisation) and highlighted the search for alternatives and ruptures by putting forward new notions (the commons, the buen vivir, social property, the democratisation of democracy, etc.). In the coming period, we may update these questions: emerging movements; ecology; strategic approach.

This Belem forum had been well prepared by the 2006 polycentric forum in Bamako, Karachi and Caracas. This forum had put forward two questions that are still relevant today: a tricontinental organisation and the opening, sometimes difficult, of the debate on the nature of the WSF with the Bamako Appeal. Among the questions raised, which are still pertinent today, let us recall the questioning of the relationship between the forms of movement and the party forms and that of the relationship between the movements and the governments and the place of the role of the relationship with the States in the strategies.

From 2011, the WSF is questioned in relation to the evolution of the movements with the movements of 2011 in the Maghreb and the Mashreq, the indignados, the occupy, ... The WSF is no longer the recognised space where all the movements fighting against neoliberalism can be found. It remains a reference and maintains links. The movements of the Maghreb and Machek are very present at the Forums of Tunis in 2013 and 2015.  The debate with the ecologist movement is initiated at the European Social Forum in Malmo in 2008, in Dakar in 2011 and in Tunis in 2013. But the ecologist movement, without breaking away from the WSF, will build its own dynamic. Several attempts with the occupy, (in Porto Alegre and Montreal) remain cordial but not conclusive. The Salvador of Bahia Forum was marked by the Afro-feminist mobilization that renews the women's movement and the movement against racism.

Several lessons can be proposed for the future of the WSF. The new movements

did not reject the World Social Forums but did not recognise themselves in them and did not join them. My hypothesis, which needs to be verified, is that the drop-out has been deeply cultural. The movements that found themselves in the WSF share a culture that refers to the labour movement and the national liberation movements. The new movements and the new generations do not reject this culture, but they do not fully recognize it in its presuppositions and modes of action. The debate focused in particular on the forms of representation and delegation. Some movements can make the link, the women's movement, indigenous peoples, anti-racist movements. This is why intersectionality (class, gender, origin) needs to be explored in greater depth. The alliance with the ecological movement and the climate urgency is fundamental. The WSF must be the space for new movements. It was also in Dakar that the evolution towards a WSF process was recorded with the rise in power and the multiplication of national, regional and thematic forums. And even in some countries there have been unsuccessful attempts at local social forums.

From 2013 onwards, the change of period is dramatic. A period of rising struggles is followed by a period of recovery by the ruling classes of world capitalism. Neo-liberalism becomes austeritarian and the repressions harden. Securitarian, identitarian and racist ideologies strengthen and impose themselves in several countries with fascist outbreaks. Progressive governments, especially in Latin America, have been overthrown or have exhausted themselves. The World Social Forums marked the coup of the change of period. Mobilisations continued but resistance became predominant. Movements tended to refocus on their national space and international relations between movements weakened. The absence of a common project that emerged and was carried by the movements resulted in a withdrawal at the level of each country, sometimes at the level of large regions. The North-South opposition has become more complex, but it remains very present, as we saw at the Montreal Social Forum.

The pandemic and climate crisis has reinforced this trend of authoritarian states taking control. It has upset situations and balances; it calls into question international solidarity, internationalism and alter-globalism. To a crisis that is by definition global, the responses have been mainly national and state-based. International institutions have been little listened to and have been marginalised. Movements have responded with local solidarity actions and resistance to their states. The contradictions have become more pronounced. In many countries, the confrontations oppose right-wing populist securitarian alliances to movements demanding democratic freedoms, the defence of social rights and ecological emergencies.

The debate will allow lessons to be drawn for the future of the WSF. The pandemic and climate crisis extends the trends of the period since 2015. But it introduces many new discontinuities that the movements will have to take into account when defining their strategy; it will have an impact on the possible evolution of the WSF. In particular, what will be the evolution of globalisation and neo-liberalism; what will be the evolution of state security policies; how will international institutions react to their marginalisation; how will the battle against the cultural hegemony of neo-liberalism evolve from an awareness of the need for the equal access to fundamental rights. In short, what possible evolutions of class struggles in their different social, political, ecological, ideological and cultural dimensions will take place. This is the main debate of the immediate period.


The good surprise comes from the capacity to recover which marks the evolution of the WSF. I'm not going to insist on this since this is the moment we are living together. After a moment of questioning, many initiatives have been launched to rebuild international networks of movements. They demonstrate the resilience of the alterglobalist and internationalist movement. While seeking an international opening, the initiatives have had stronger bases in the major regions. The question has been raised as to the place of the World Social Forums (WSF) in this situation. There was agreement on the need for a profound renewal of the WSFs and even a new phase of the alterglobalist movement. It was pointed out that the alterglobalist movement is not just about the World Social Forums. The movements still active in the WSF International Council are to be complimented on their decision to raise the question of the situation of the WSF and its renewal. Especially the few people who have been involved in the facilitation group and the finance and communication groups.

The meetings demonstrated the interest and vitality of the WSF as an international alterglobalist network. They showed the determination of the movements to build common responses to the neo-liberal capitalist globalisation aggravated by the pandemic and climate crisis. They made it possible to verify that the World Social Forum remains one of the important references of the alterglobalist movement. At the request of confirmation of their participation in the International Council, 77 associations have done so or are in the process of doing so, including more than thirty important international or continental networks. The IC thus remains one of the rare international networks of movements and the World Social Forum the largest and most accepted international space for alterglobalist movements.


Not all the weaknesses and limitations of the WSF can be explained by internal organisational problems and the inadequacy of the political debate; the changes and consequences of global change and its ruptures cannot be underestimated. All the more so as no international network has been successful. However, the forms of organisation are essential to take account of the evolution and to make the process evolve. The debate is about how to analyse the new period, what strategies, what proposals, what mobilisations, what forms of organisation. This will be the challenge for the next World Social Forum at the end of January 2021, for a mobilisation against Davos in May 2021, for the next World Social Forum, probably in Mexico City in 2022