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  > Make a comment-input  on 11a    see the published article here november 8th after end of GTI discussion farewell to WSF? 



Please In the first part of this essay, I reflect on the divergences of opinion that have always existed in the process of the World Social Forum. This first part was written before the elections in Brazil last autumn. Since then Jair Bolsonaro has been installed as president of Brazil and the divergences I discuss in that first part have cooled down, at least in Brazil. Nevertheless, it remains important to record those divergences when we try to take further our debate about the future of the WSF process, as I do here as well, in the second part of my essay.

KEYWORDS: Divergences of opinion, exclusion, open space

Since the inception of the World Social Forum there have been divergences of opinion concerning the character of the World Social Forum and on how to organize it, on the content of the WSF Charter of Principles – especially where it prescribes that Forums should not have a Final Declaration – on the nature and role of its International Council (IC) and on the possibility for it to take political positions in its collective capacity.(1)

These divergences have also been being discussed in the internal circuits of the IC and of the Brazilian Organizing Committee (OC) of the World Social Forum. Moreover, since the seventh global gathering of the WSF in Kenya – this kind of event is commonly also referred to as editions of the WSF – there has been at least one seminar or debate on the future of the WSF in all WSF editions taking place, often at the initiative of some of its Finnish participants.

These discussions were at one point becoming repetitive and tiresome, almost like dialogues between deaf persons, but gained more intensity at a Council meeting held in Montreal, Canada, in August 2016, and in Porto Alegre in January 2017, when the IC decided that Salvador da Bahia, in Brazil, could host the 2018 World Social Forum. But with the success of this Forum the debates about the future of the WSF have resumed in roughly the same form as earlier.@1 The lack of effective consensus on revisions in the Charter has led, still at the IC in Salvador, to postponing decisions about the revision issue, without a prevision of resumption.

In fact, what is often made explicit, as a general feeling, is the need not to weaken a space like the WSF, which has become unique in the world, as a forum in which organizations that want to build the ‘other world possible’ can meet to search for ways of resistance and to construct alternatives. So it is that, stubbornly, ‘the ship sails on’ (la nave va – is the title of a famous Italian film) in a process broader than the biannual editions of the World Forums. These large gatherings have at times dwindled, but twice they gained new momentum, as in Tunis in 2013, at the time of the Arab Spring, and again last year in 2018, in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.@2 Moreover, at the same time, Regional, National, and Local Forums have also multiplied, some of which persist, such as the Thematic Social Forums which have emerged lately, even at the world level.

The WSF stands, as we know, on the left of the political spectrum. We all know the history of divisions of the left. Bearing these in mind it is necessary to continue the effort to overcome the divergences in the WSF that can divide us. @3 We are all aware that several of the founders of the WSF have moved away from the organization of the Forums and also that three World Social Forums have been held parallel to those facilitated by the progress made through the deliberations and work of the IC and the Organizing Committee in Brazil. But we may also remind ourselves that it is astonishing that the WSF exists now for 18 years without being victimized by the tendency of the left to implode through its internal divisions.

The WSF has experienced glorious moments, like the Forum held in India in 2004, with 120,000 participants, and then 2 Forums with 150,000 participants, one in Porto Alegre in 2005 and the other in Belém do Pará in 2009. Since then its power of attraction has in fact diminished but has not disappeared. In the early years of its existence – a decade after the collapse of the Soviet socialist experience when the Berlin Wall fell – the WSF sent a message of hope that reverberated around the world: ‘another world is possible’.@4 But soon after its sensational start the WSF disappeared from the radar of the mass media (this happened especially after its dates of completion no longer coincided with those of the World Economic Forum in Davos). The relative loss of interest in the WSF is also shown if we look at the International Council. At first it had representatives from more than 150 organizations, but today just over 50 consider themselves to be its members.(2)

The Gordian knot of divergences

In order to understand and analyse the divergences within the WSF, it seems to me that we must understand how they derive from conflicting visions of what a World Social Forum is or can be, even though we all have socialism as the same utopian reference. Should the WSF be an Open Space Forum or a Movement Forum? This question reflects a difference of vision that has existed since the first WSF. I will use the terms Space Forum (or Open Space Forum) and Movement Forum as a shorthand for referring to the two basic alternative views of how to build the WSF.

@5 If the Open Space Forum option is chosen, it would have to be a place of mutual information and debate on the ongoing struggles to overcome neoliberal capitalism. This option would deepen reflection on these struggles and create new articulations to be fulfilled after or outside the Forums.

If the Movement-Forum option is chosen, it would have to organize its participants into actions for well-defined objectives, with priorities and strategies for such actions, clear decision-making processes and an adequate distribution of responsibilities.

@6 In the first case, the Forum would not be a political actor in itself but it would have a supportive function for the political actors that participate in the WSF meetings. In the second case, it would have to assume its own role as a political actor, among all other acting in the world, seeking to contribute as effectively as possible to the struggle of humanity for the ‘other possible world’.

@7 This being said, it is the first option that has prevailed in the organization of World Social Forums.(3) But it has not in fact been supported unanimously by the members of the Brazilian Organizing Committee, and its support has been even smaller among the many militants and intellectuals who have accompanied and helped, either closely or less closely, the work of this Committee. That is why in all the Forums the divergence has resurged and expressed itself in different ways.

@8 One expression of the divergence has been the ‘Social Movements Assemblies’, an activity that has been realized in all the Forums, and to which all the Forum participants have been invited. Based on the vision of the Forum Movement, the organizers of the Social Movements Assemblies have proposed orientations and struggles priorities and sought to get them accepted as a Final Declaration of the Forum. Those who have organized these assemblies have always sought to organize a meeting of the Assembly as a special space at the end of each Forum. This objective has also been achieved, opening up the possibility of presenting the ‘Assembly’ as a conclusive activity of the WSF as a whole. However, many misunderstandings have been created around this in the history of the WSF, even when it has gathered most successfully as an OpenSpace Forum.(4)

Overcoming the divergence between the Space Forum and the Movement Forum therefore still requires a clarification of what these antagonistic views mean to those who organize Social Forums.

@9 It does not seem to me that a Social Forum, still less at the world level, can be both types at the same time. If that is what we try to achieve, we will lose both. The WSF is either an Open space or it is a movement. But as long as they do not compete with each other but support each other this does not mean that these two entities cannot exist concomitantly. That is, the Open Space Forum and the Movement Forum – even as a ‘movement of movements’, as has been proposed – may exist autonomously but also in interconnected ways. This was the conclusion I was reaching when I began writing this text and before I was drowned by the political events in Brazil leading to Bolsonaro’s presidency.

How did the forum-space option come about?

Above, in my pre-election reflections, I made an effort to remember the paths that led us to the proposal of the Open Space Forum. I had realized that this proposal was the result of a collective process of reflection on the particularities and potentialities of the instrument that we were creating and that the new proposal had grown to a magnitude that surprised us.@10 Let me add that the reflection that led to the idea of the Open Space Forum was also stimulated by other political initiatives that have emerged in this period of human history, in particular by the Zapatista movement in Mexico.

In this process of conceiving the WSF as an Open Space Forum, @11 I think a decisive factor was the proposal to hold an alternative meeting in Davos. That fact explains why participation in this meeting was restricted to civil society, understood as the existing movements and organizations having social objectives and why governments, enterprises, and political parties were excluded, although their members could participate as individuals, as has always been the case with many of the Forum organizers themselves. For the reason that we also agreed on non-violence in political action, organizations that fought capitalism or the governments serving it with military means were also excluded when the WSF was conceived.

The prioritization of civil society was justified by its emergence at that time in the political landscape with its own initiative and autonomy. Civil society had until then been mobilized only in supportive functions for parties and governments and been manipulated by them from top to bottom. It also had not had its own space for planetary articulation. However, this space could now be provided by the WSF.

Before forming the WSF the new role of civil society had become visible for instance in the action that blocked a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 and also before that, when pressure from social movements prevented the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) that had been secretly discussed in the OECD in 1998 between large companies, investors, and governments.

The exclusion of political parties

In the early years, the exclusion of parties was considered by many to be misplaced. As the critics rightly noticed, the Forum was a political initiative and the parties, in Brazil as in many countries, are the only institutional instrument which can try to interfere from within State power. However the decision to exclude political parties had a special reason.

When at the time we looked more closely at the civil society organizations that were interested in participating in the Forum, we saw, first of all, that they were bringing to the WSF a huge cluster of interests and types of action that were very fragmented and extremely diverse. Even if all of them were opposed to capitalism,@12 as the WSF also is, there were differences between those who were beginning to criticize this economic system and those who had been fighting against it for a long time.@12 We soon concluded that respect for all kinds of diversity would have to become an organizing principle of the WSF.

We then realized that we could not attempt to reduce the fragmentation of this multifaceted civil society by ‘organizing’ it, as if it could become a ‘movement’, which always presupposes the existence of a direction and a distribution of functions, as well as discipline in the action of its members. What we could do was just offer it a ‘meeting space’.

We also saw that the organizations composing it were often competing with each other when acting in parallel in the same area. We saw then that the place of encounter that we would offer would allow them to hear each other – from oratory to ‘conversation’, as one of our good thinkers said – and, in recognizing one another, overcome prejudices, find convergences, and even unite to gain more political power in their action.

We concluded that the achievement of these objectives would be hampered if political parties as such participated in the Forum. Parties have, in their own DNA, the competition for political power, or at least for hegemony. This struggle for power is central to their identity. Each party comes with its proposals, and each needs to capture State power to realize them. This aim brings to the internal dynamic of the party the struggle for their direction.@13 That is, the parties are naturally and structurally competitive, to the point that they may even decide to postpone the conquest of political power rather than submit to the hegemony of another party.

By participating in the Forum, these ‘atavistic’ tendencies of the parties would lead them to try to ‘instrumentalize’ it in order to achieve their objectives, reducing it to one more venue for recruitment of militants and of party disputes – pushing away from the Forum a large part of its participants. Even worse, the competitive dynamics in which they operate would necessarily contaminate the meeting, pushing aside the civil society world that tries to build their union and cooperation with autonomy, as well the efforts to make alliances and articulations for the construction of the ‘other possible world’.

If we consider what happened in the presidential elections in Brazil in 2018 we see that one of the many reasons for our defeat was our neglect of the political formation of all citizens, and also, even more, our difficulty to unite, as we had been very busy in competing even in our ability to mobilize people.

Non-directivity and self-management

The multifaceted character of the civil society that has been interested in the WSF has shown us the great quantity and variety of the yearnings for a world different from the one in which we live. But more than that, in the WSF we have seen clearly that while we have all wanted to get as soon as possible to the ‘other possible world’,@14 the construction we have had before us is a huge, time-consuming, and complex set of tasks that would have to be developed over several generations, including cultural changes. Evidently, no political power could organize and still less command this complex task of construction from top to bottom, even if it had artificial intelligence and enormous computers.

This is why some of us have come to the conclusion that it would be unrealistic to bring together all the participants of the Forum to some programme of unifying action that could be adopted by all as a single Final Declaration. After the highly diversified Forum of 2004 in India, we created, at the risk of an excessive dispersion of debates and reflections,@15  thematic spaces within the larger framework of the WSF. But we did not set out to articulate these spaces in a single direction. We left it to each organization, or group of organizations within the same theme, to formulate its own programme of work.

All these findings led us little by little to decide that the Forum would be fundamentally non-directive and would be defined as an open space. And it was from this same perspective that we adopted the principle of self-management for the Forum’s own programme of activities – within parameters that would fit them in the space and time of each Forum –@16  and that we went on to call our Committees of Organization (the OC and the IC) Committees of Facilitation.

In effect, these decisions had the effect of giving all participants in the WSF the certainty that they would not be used or manipulated by occult political organizations, at the same time they could discover that the Forums were open to experimentation. Participants would be allowed to take advantage of the opportunities created by the meetings for the struggles of each organization and could articulate themselves at the national and global levels.

In this self-programming, the traditional tendency has been to organize conferences and panels, with speakers – most often without gender balance – addressing an audience of listeners.@17 But there have also been many examples of methodological experimentation. One example is a group of Brazilian doctors who met on the first day to share what they were doing, participated on the other three days in activities in other areas, and reconvened on the final day to evaluate what they had learned and to define new initiatives. Another example is provided by the French participants who, inspired by a North American author, organized a workshop on the question: what to do to make a Social Forum fail? This made it possible to identify more clearly what organizational options would guarantee the success of the World Social Forum. In the experiments with self-management the experience of young people, who have come from several countries, has also been significant. Since the first Forum, young people have taken part in the administration of the great camps that they have set up.

New networks have also emerged, an organizational option only possible with organizations independent of parties and governments. Resistance and protest activities have been organized up to the planetary level. One example is the birth of the organization which later succeeded in blocking the acceptance by the Latin American countries of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an agreement that aimed at imposing clauses drawn from the MAI on the continent.

These factors explain, in my view, the attraction that the WSF exerted, with an increasing number of participants, from 20,000 in the 2001 edition to 150,000 in 2005 and in 2009. @18 The participants have not been the people who are most ‘oppressed’ by the system – a fact that has often been pointed out by people who have criticized the WSF for this absence. Nevertheless, even if participation from the most oppressed has been nearly impossible in a world meeting, requiring long travel for many participants, in the second Forum in Brazil many Brazilian popular groups were present who had crossed the country in caravans. The same occurred in Africa in the 2011 WSF. And in 2004 in India 20,000 of the WSF 120,000 participants were members of the lowest caste of that country, the Dalits, known as ‘untouchables’.

Moreover, many of the participants have been people who represent the oppressed sectors of the society or fight for their causes. These people have been able to create open spaces such as a Forum in their own countries, closer to the reality of each country, without asking for anyone’s authorization. Already in 2001 such Forums began to emerge. This made it possible to say at the World Social Forum in 2009, where the concept of common goods emerged in the discussions,@19  that the WSF no longer belonged to anyone but had become a common good of humanity. It left room for what is now called the ‘WSF process’, which is a much broader reality than the regular global meetings or ‘editions’ of the WSF, which have since 2005 been held every two years.

Horizontality of the networks and the decision by consensus

So far we have made some observations about the self-management principle of the WSF process. Now we can shift our attention to some further aspects of the WSF as an event destined to receive civil society. @20 One such aspect is the adoption of the horizontality of the networks as an organizational principle. This principle had shown its efficacy in the mobilizations of Seattle in 1999. As already indicated, this aspect of how to work within the WSF has not always been appreciated by everyone. There are many who still believe that only disciplined pyramidal structures are effective (although capitalist firms themselves have long ago adopted the network formula for growth – with the franchise system, for example).

Nevertheless, the conclusion we arrived at is that the adoption of the kind of self-management that is characteristic of civil society in the very programming of the Forum’s activities, would also have to be a basic characteristic of the WSF, giving all its participants the same importance and power.

These principles, or orientations, for work within the WSF were also experienced by the Organizing Committee itself, which had to consider the diversity of the political activity and size of the organizations represented therein.@21 Against the backdrop of this experience we have decided in the OC not to have coordinators or spokespersons, and to act as a collective of equals, with attribution of responsibilities according to the possibilities of each individual.

Although many still consider that only decisions made by a majority of votes allow one to move quickly into action, @22 we adopted decision by consensus as a procedure appropriate to the horizontality and to the non-competition for power inside the collective. Adopting this orientation, we took into account that the decision by majority vote is historically an achievement of democracy, but also that within political movements voting often leads to divisions when losers separate from winners to create new organizations to promote their causes.

Considering the history of the Brazilian Facilitation Committee – which has never been divided and continues to exist as an affinity group, even though it has been reduced in number @23– we see how decision by consensus can help in the construction of unity. This is an essential objective in political action because, according to popular wisdom, it increases the force of such actions. Consensus is not the same as unanimity. It is a consentment. We consent to accept decisions which we do not fully agree with if this acceptance results in maintaining our union. Sometimes the divergence of a single person may have the effect that a decision is not taken. This could be interpreted as the right of veto given to that person. But it is not, in fact, a veto. We only postpone the decision until the person who does not agree, after discussing the matter, informs the others that he or she accepts the decision in order to ensure the most important thing that is to keep the union.

Decision by consensus has also been adopted by the International Council, although many doubts and resistances have emerged, which have been overcome only when we have been reminded that the Council is neither a trade union nor a political party, and that it would be better to delay decisions than to become divided.

@24 It is always worth remembering that a lack of unanimity has marked all these decisions. This topic is clearly pointed to already in the very title of the book I wrote about the WSF, launched in 2005 for the fifth edition of the WSF that took place in Porto Alegre (Whitaker, 2005). In that book I presented the WSF as an open space, and I placed in the Portuguese edition a careful subtitle: ‘a way of seeing’, as if to say: ‘there are other ways of seeing the WSF’. At roughly the same time another more daring member of the Forum’s organizers group called his book ‘World Social Forum – a political invention’ (Leite, 2003), showing that we were facing the birth of a new kind of political space.

The invisible contradiction

What possibly has started to create problems in the WSF process has been that we have, without realizing it, ended up in a contradiction. On the one hand, the Charter of Principles, elaborated after the first WSF (and not before, as many may imagine), listed guidelines that in fact only consolidated the forum-space option.@25 On the other hand, the International Council of the WSF was created and structured on exactly the same occasion but was based on organizational principles more appropriate to the forum movement option. Moreover, the IC has been formed mainly of representatives of movements engaged in struggles.

@26 This is possibly why present tensions and divergences do not arise within the Forums among its participants but within the Council. The main point of controversy is usually the possibility of the IC taking positions as a political actor, as if the WSF were a movement. The solution to this dilemma has been that motions and statements have been signed by the members of the International Council on behalf of themselves and their organizations, but not on behalf of the Council. Nevertheless, this solution has not always satisfied those who hope that one day the WSF will become a movement.

@27 This contradiction would also explain why some propose that the IC should include the organizers of World Social Forums (and also regional, national, and thematic ones), that is, people and organizations proposing to organize Forums themselves as a service to the WSF process.@28  The same contradiction would also explain why more thematic Forums have emerged, focusing on specific areas of struggle, while at the same time the number of regional, national, and local Forum spaces has declined. Some regional and national fora have had only a few editions, as in the case of the European Social Forum. Probably among their organizers the number of those concerned with the ongoing social and political struggles was greater than those concerned with creating spaces for encounter and reflection.

A changed world?

But those who would prefer the Forum-movement option have become stronger, at the same time as Forum spaces have been weakening – with the exception of the Tunis 2013 WSF, in the midst of the Arab Spring – from the moment they began to be held outside Brazil.@28  The reason may be that the open-space forum character of the WSF reflects more closely the experience of Brazilian civil society. The success of the WSF in Salvador in 2018 may possibly confirm this conjecture.

Advocates of the Forum Movement have had an unbeatable argument for questioning the open-space orientation of world events: the world has changed a lot since 2001 and the WSF needs to adapt to these changes. In fact, only an ostrich would disagree with this statement. But I would say that the world has not only changed, it has changed for the worse. @29 With the capitalist system totally dominating human activities, the ‘other possible world’ became an even more distant utopia than it was in 2001, despite our enthusiasm when we were surprised at the success of the first World Social Forum.

In these last two decades the wheel of history seems to have once and for all followed the path that it had already laid out: the destruction of the human race under the command of a suicidal economic system. The earth has been transformed into a single production area and a single consumer market, with the insatiable pursuit of profit leading, by the unlimited increase of production, to the predation of the planet. Personal enrichment (‘prosperity’) has become the life goal of the majority, even on religious grounds. Margaret Thatcher’s famous expression from 1997 – ‘TINA’: ‘There Is No Alternative’ – has become a characteristic of the world economy, in which even the Chinese call their system market socialism.

What’s the output?

If the above analysis is correct, the output that would appear most straightforward to overcome our divergences would be to fully assume one option – space or movement – making the other option disappear. Perhaps many would prefer this outcome.@30  But I do not believe it is the best one not only because we do not want to be divided but because in fact, the two options are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they can coexist and ideally they would have to coexist and even to be articulated.

@31 In addition, the disappearance of the Forum space would not be desirable. These spaces have become even more necessary precisely because, as the world has greatly changed and the struggle for a ‘possible other world’ has become even more difficult, the effective action of a ‘movement’ towards the ‘other possible world’ will require much reflection. Deepening such reflection is precisely one of the most important functions of the Forum space.

For example, in the debate about parties, if we create a new ‘movement’ linked to the WSF we will necessarily have to find how to dialogue as much as possible with parties without losing our autonomy.

We should also bear in mind that the reflection made possible in the Forums-space is aimed at the construction of the ‘other possible world’. This necessarily means that many @32 proposals for action will emerge from the Forums, reflecting their internal diversity. These proposals for activities presented at the end of the Forums are designed especially for this occasion and neither the facilitators of each Forum nor the IC have been able to make them visible after the Forums, as asked for in the Charter of Principles. The ‘movement’ that could be created out of the WSF could in its actions assimilate the proposals that fit into its strategy, thus linking in practice the movement space vision with the ways the Forum as an open space is realized.

We should also note that, on the other hand, the Forums space has not contributed as much as one might have hoped to the accomplishment of @33 another of the WSF objectives: experimentation with new political practices. That is, we have not yet sufficiently multiplied the spaces where we can ‘learn to unlearn’ many of the political practices familiar to us – to use the expression of a French Communist Party member who so understood the meaning of the WSF when he participated in one of the first Local Forums organized in that country. We still need to search for ways of strengthening spaces where we can concretely experience more cooperation than the competition.

Consequently, if we leave aside the space FSM as an instrument of this kind of experimentation, in order to create a new movement from a Forum-movement perspective, we will surely continue to be bogged down indefinitely in old practices until we are totally crushed by the heavy boots of the ultra-right.

Politics as it is?

The WSF places itself inside the effort of humanity to ensure that politics will be what it should be – a collective action searching for the best for all, respecting the diversity of interests. But the distance to such ideal practices is immeasurable. Current political practices destroy political parties and politics itself and open the road for the ‘saviours of the motherland’.@34 To contribute to the renewal of political practices might, in fact, be one of the most important roles that the WSF can assign to itself – through the Forums-space – in the construction of ‘another possible world’.

The competitive spirit that is the mainspring of capitalist dynamics, has contaminated the whole of society. ‘You always have to take advantage’ said a Brazilian football world champion in an advertising campaign. Competition floods our lives, from school benches, with competitions, championships, prizes, contests, in which the greatest satisfaction is obtained by being the first, number one, not by what is achieved or produced. In the present capitalist dynamics, it is difficult to accept a secondary position on the stage. Who does not promote themselves is necessarily behind.

And, of course, the same competitive spirit has also contaminated political action, influencing people more deeply than even class or group interests. This contamination is partly also because political action is affected by factors related to human weaknesses, like vanity, egoism, and the taste for power. Thereby politics becomes the space for ‘coups’, in which the smartest always wins: the most opportunistic, the pragmatically coldest, those who jump faster on the horse ready to be mounted, the ones most capable of surprising and deceiving their opponents, so that their options and interests prevail. And even more, the winner will be whoever accepts without hesitation the principle that the ends justify the means; a perverse principle that in wars raises the level of barbarism and in peace the corruption of corporations.

What happened in Brazil ĺast autumn was the victory in the election of a candidate who was able to lie brazenly and to deceive voters with false information and by the manipulation of information directed through social networks. And as the pinnacle of hypocrisy one of his most repeated slogan was: ‘Enough of lies. Now it will always be the truth!’ – a direct translation of one of Trump’s most frequently repeated slogans.

Old politics inside home

A small episode experienced by the first WSF Organizing Committee shows how these practices are very close to us. It occurred around the decision about not ending the Forum with a Final Declaration, adopted by consensus for the reasons I have already indicated.

As we gathered after a break, we were informed that a ‘Call for mobilization’ had been published on the WSF website along with the ‘Final Information Note’ of the organizers. Some participants, who saw this call as a Final Document of the WSF, had already said that they would not sign it and on that account would move away from the WSF.@35 Obviously, the dissemination of the call for mobilization on the WSF website caused a lot of anxiety and almost led the people present if the OC to decide not to continue together, although we were already committed to the realization of the second edition of the WSF. Nevertheless, we continued to discuss at length and, regaining calmness, we decided to rebuild our relationships of trust. As everyone had political experience, we knew that other such incidents would occur, as they in fact did. We modified the position of the ‘Call’ on the website, and a note explained it was a proposal emanating autonomously from Forum participants.

In fact, we had been victims of a small ‘stroke’ from someone who had the password to administer the site. Smarter or more daring, he decided, acting on his own account or not, to insert the ‘Call’ that his organization had tried unsuccessfully to have adopted as the Final Declaration of the WSF.

A new challenge ahead

@36 In conclusion, what we now have to do is to find creatively – and quickly – a way of connecting the two options (‘Forums space’ and ‘Forum movement’), though each with its own function, so that we can simultaneously act and reflect on our action. We also need to work in collaboration to link people who participate in discussion meetings and in concrete struggles, according to the possibilities and needs of each individual.

From this perspective, it would be preferable, and less stressful, for us all to leave aside the dispute over the revision of the WSF Charter of Principles. It is intended to guide the Forum as an open space (which makes its helpful reading for those who want to organize such open-Forum spaces).@37  Its principles are all linked to each other, in a logical set aimed at this type of Forum. Changing something inside it can deconstruct this logic and create a Frankenstein monster that would be difficult to understand. In creating a new movement, it would be better for it to be endowed with its own Charter of Principles, which would follow the logic of movements aiming at concrete struggles but experimenting with new practices, according to Gandhi’s principle saying ‘be yourself the world you want that exists’.

It would in my opinion, not be beneficial to organize a World Social Forum movement alongside the World Social Forum open space, as that would generate useless confusion.@38  We should instead create something different, something that will be an effective civil society movement and not a Forum, but which can refer to the WSF and coexist with the Forums as open spaces. From this point of view it would even be possible to organize a Thematic Forum Space based on the organization of this new movement, in which we could gather the experiences of a new type of civil society movements that have emerged in many places around the world, possibly inspired by the WSF and its proposals of horizontality, non-directivity, and autonomy in the political struggle, such as Occupy Wall Street in United States, the Indignados in Spain, the Nuit Debout in France and, more recently, in the same country, the Gilets Jaunes.

Some will certainly say: is the proposal to maintain the WSF space not an untimely insistence of the organizers of the first WSF, attached to the open space idea, coming from fathers or mothers with limited maturity, who do not accept the independence and autonomy of the beings they have given birth to? That’s what many have already said. And the same question would possibly be a question that comes from those who have not joined the WSF process from the beginning or who have not participated in the organization of Forums. I hope, however, that this text can bring clarification about this.

To conclude, we might even dream of many WSF spaces in place at all levels (from the local to the global and using fully all the new tools of intercommunication created by technological progress), at the same time as a new movement is constructed.@39 One part of that dream can be that a worldwide event takes place from time to time (without fear of being called a Woodstock of the left) serving as a periodical meeting for participants of both the Forum as open space and as new movement, who see each other as united in the search for new paths of action. Such an event would nourish the mood of all and serve to celebrate the size and strength of an ever-more diversified and more articulated ‘civil society’ struggling to truly change the world.

@40 All that has been proposed above would require a review of the International Council’s function, composition, and functioning. But, as already pointed out in the second footnote, it is not the moment to address this topic now, as it would lengthen the present text too much. So I close with the hope of reaching out to interested readers who can increase the circle of those who want to make the WSF continue on its path.


1 The text of this article was originally written in Portuguese. The English translation has been revised and edited by Thomas Wallgren. The final version has been checked and approved by the author on 2nd May 2019.

2 This figure also explains why there has been more than one proposal to reconstruct the IC according to new criteria. @41The debate about the reform of the IC is important. In this text, I will give the background to the debate but not deal with the various proposals for discontinuing and reconstituting the IC, nor with the various stages of the history of its search for identity and function in the WSF process, for example, when it substantially changed its mode of functioning at its 2004 meeting in Miami, or when at the IC meeting in Copenhagen the IC assumed the task of completing the Charter of Principles in order to overcome doubts in relation with the understanding of its content and to go into more detail about the IC task of facilitation, formulating some guidelines. The treatment of these issues would lengthen the present text too much and divert it from its objective of indicating the genesis of the options regarding the character of the WSF. @42 But for a careful analysis of the WSF and IC, it would undoubtedly be worth researching all the material for reflection on the WSF and on the IC that has appeared in articles written by members of the IC and in comments on the IC mailing list.

3 It is useful to remember that the organizers of a mobilization against the war in Iraq, scheduled for 2003, asked twice for a call for this mobilization from the WSF or from the WSF International Council (in January 2002 and in January 2003).@43  The IC decided on both occasions not to make the call as the Open Space nature of the WSF was already consolidated in the guidelines of the WSF, making it clear that neither the WSF nor the IC could operate as a political actor alongside of social movements. The force of those organizing the mobilization, even when the WSF as such was not leading it, was fully demonstrated in the largest demonstration for peace in world history, when on 15th February 2003, 15 million people went to the streets in 600 cities in 60 countries.

4 The same concern about the Social Movements Assemblies as producers of a single final document to speak for the entity WSF, was reflected also when the so called Porto Alegre Consensus text was presented in the 2005 Forum to international journalists in a room of a large hotel in Porto Alegre. The statement, written in direct opposition to the Washington Consensus, which since 1989 had guided the actions of the capitalist system governments and companies, was signed by 19 internationally renowned personalities. It listed 12 goals as a programme of action to which all 150,000 participants of this F5M could converge.@44  In practice, it was impossible to verify whether all 150,000 participants would agree to adopt the ‘consensus’ and hence it was only offered as a proposal, to be accepted and used by anyone who so wished.


Leite, J. C. (2003). World Social Forum: The history of a political invention. São Paulo: Fundacão Perseu Abramo. [Google Scholar]

Whitaker, C. (2005). The World Social Forum challenge – a way of seeing. São Paulo: Fundacão Perseu Abramo and Loyola. [published also in five other languages] [Google Scholar]

Author information

Chico Whitaker

Chico Whitaker, Brazilian catholic social-justice advocate and architect, worked in urban research and planning until the military putsch in his country in 1964, then in pastoral planning in the church. In 1966 he was exiled with all his family. He worked in France in various organizations and as advisor for UNESCO, and in Chile as researcher in the CEPAL until Pinochet's putsch. Returning to France he worked in the coordination of the ‘International Study Days for a Society Overcoming Domination’. In Brazil from 1982, Whitaker has co-founded the ‘Plenaries for Popular Participation’, which led to the presentation of 122 amendments to the Brazilian Constitution, with 12 million signatures, and movements against electoral corruption. In 2001 he co-founded the World Social Forum, being its International Council Member. In 2006, Whitaker received in Sweden the Alternative Nobel Prize from the Right Livelihood Award Foundation. He is the author of one book and many articles about the World Social Forum.