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input#4/ The World Social Forum: now what? (by Francine)  

So much has been said already about the World Social Forum (WSF), its past and its future, its successes and its failures. There is certainly no consensus about any of these four elements. There is a past with many successes and some major failures.@1 Whether there is a future will depend on what the objectives are.

The world has changed since 2001, the year of the first WSF. Looking back, while thinking of a possible future,@2  I wonder if our major mistake has been that we have never clarified what exactly we wanted. “Another world is possible”—certainly, it still is, but for whom and from what perspective? And what do we need for it? It was an excellent slogan, but it allowed us to never say how “other,” how different, and in what way, that new world would be.

Let me first take a brief look at how the world and the WSF did change since 2001. As Roberto Savio rightly says in his introduction, the direct reason was an outcry against neoliberalism, structural adjustment, the austerity policies of the international organisations, and the financialisation of the economy. While at the same time, there was still some hope that, ten years after the end of the Cold War, there was a possibility for peace, for better international relations, for global governance, for progress and development.

In an analysis I made of major contributions to the first three WSFs, the conclusion was, somewhat surprisingly, that demands for real system change were rare. There was very little talk of anti-capitalism, socialism, or revolutionary strategies. While some radical alternatives were worked at, they were of the post-development type, focusing on social relations, participation, and a solidarity economy beyond markets.

There was very little anti-globalisation, but more alter-globalisation with demands for a fair global order, based on the United Nations and against the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

There was a strong belief and trust in democratic values of participation and citizenship.

@3 In sum, the first World Social Forums were mainly reformist, succeeding in delegitimating the existing neoliberal system but without achieving convergence of demands and strategies.

A market for alternatives

Today, none of the problems have disappeared, though the priorities and demands of social movements are different. There has been a shift towards more local topics, on the one hand, and more post-development topics on the other hand. Both go hand in hand: concerns about indigenous people, against modernity, against infrastructural works, in defence of nature. NGOs continue to talk of issues which already are on the agenda of international organisations, such as the SDGs. Other topics that are on the agenda since 2001, such as the environment, gender, and migration, have gained momentum.

Climate change rightly became priority number one, and while it is said time and time again that climate justice and social justice go hand in hand, this link is never made concrete. Some people talk about the “shrinking space for social movements” and try to redefine democracy. The resurgence of fascism, worldwide, is barely mentioned.@4 But at the last Forum in Salvador de Bahia there were workshops on “hiphop” and “mulheres y futebol.” As far as I understood, in the preliminary conversations on the upcoming WSF in Mexico (autumn 2020), around 30 proposals have been made for “thematic axes.”@5  When someone refers to the apparent contradiction between the huge global problems we are facing and the lightness of the topics discussed, the answer of the founders is that we should respect the Charter of Principles. No topics are more important than others…

This lack of focus and of hierarchy are co-responsible for the decline of the WSF. Its founders have been neither able nor willing to adapt to the reality of our times. @6 Most intellectuals have left the International Council, discussions are now mainly on technical matters and are auto-referential, and decisions are in the hands of weak and mostly local movements and NGOs.

Some power struggles are still going on, though not many people are left to take a real interest in them. The WSF and its potentially important concept of “open space” have become a kind of festival where all can come and do whatever they like. @7 At the end, there is a kind of market where they come and offer their alternative, at whatever level and to whomever is interested. There is no effort anymore to “agglutinate” initiatives, to achieve convergence, to propose concrete and unified positions and actions. And since no one can speak in the name of the WSF or the IC, media are not interested anymore.

Two small but telling examples may clarify what this means for the political existence of the WSF and its IC. At the IC meeting of Montreal in 2016, after the “coup” against Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, a proposal was made to denounce this anti-democratic event. @8 The founders refused, stated that a first agreement in the IC was a “coup” in itself, and declared that even in case of consensus, no declaration should be made. A similar attitude existed during the WSF in Salvador de Bahia, after the assassination of Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro. No, this was not a matter for the WSF, another founder declared; we had nothing to say on this brutal act.

@9 It should be clear that a “market forum” without political voice has and should have no future.

The need for a World Social Forum

Today’s world is in a worse shape than the one of twenty years ago. Structural adjustment is now called “austerity” and is applied the world over; climate change is hitting most countries, including the rich ones; thousands of people try to migrate and are dying at sea, in the desert or at some fence. Slavery is re-emerging. In all continents, proto-fascist and authoritarian regimes are killing democracy, violating human rights, and reducing the space for social movements.

Never before has there been a bigger need for a strong global voice to delegitimate this state of affairs and to propose alternatives.

However, most movements are now turning inwards, taking the slogan “think globally, act locally” very literally. These local actions are certainly very valuable, and it is true that at city level, with the new thinking on municipalism, concrete alternatives with a direct impact on people’s lives, can be very important.

However, as was already said twenty years ago, it can never be sufficient. The choice is not between local and global; we obviously need both. We should not leave the global capitalist system untouched.

@10 Unfortunately, the traditional political advocates of alternatives—social democracy and the radical left—remain silent. Social democracy largely was converted to neoliberalism and lost much of its legitimacy; the radical left forgot to analyse the failures of “real socialism” and largely remains stuck with old recipes without any traction for today’s youth. As for the Greens, they do not succeed in achieving any convergence and are too often focused on the single environmental question. Political ecology, however important it is, remains marginal.

Yet, global action is needed to face the global problems. Moralizing discourses to not use planes, to not eat meat, or to not use plastic straws are worthless when all these things keep being produced and offered. Moreover, however different development levels may be in the South and the North, the problems are similar. We all have to fight neoliberal capitalism if we want to preserve the environment and achieve social justice.

Can the old WSF, then, be resuscitated? Should it? The advantage is that its formula—its “brand”—exists, that it has some beautiful principles such as horizontalism and open space. I see four conditions if we want the WSF to have, once again, a potential to play an important global role:

1)  @11  First of all, we should clearly know what we want. As I recently experienced, for some, the Forum never was a space for building a global movement for political alternatives, but for shaping anti-imperialist alliances, in favour of some countries and against others. If we do not know what we are heading for, we should not even start to build something new.

2)    The WSF’s principles should be redefined. The “open space” is fine, but it should not be used to make political acts impossible. It is indeed great if local movements can come and discuss the topics they work on, whether it is “hiphop” or “futebol.” @ 12 But next to these activities, there should be political conferences, where analysis and convergence are the main objectives. And these messages should be widely spread.

Also, horizontalism and the fear of hierarchies are very justified. But these should not make accountability impossible@13 . A light structure, with responsible and democratic leadership, is perfectly possible and badly needed.

3)    The founders of the WSF have done a great job. They took the initiative for the organisation of the first global gatherings of social movements. We should be very grateful for the wonderful tasks they took upon them. We respect them.@14 However, today, a younger generation of men and women is needed, with knowledge of world matters, with enthusiasm and energy for bringing together the existing movements on all continents that want to work for a better world and that understand that global and local actions are needed.

4)   @15  A WSF without a political message is useless. @16 A new International Council with the academics and intellectuals of today should be made in order to guide and help the organisation of the WSF. They should organise political debates on all major topics and limit the proliferation of thematic axes and events.

Of course, everything depends on the available resources. But if these can be found, I am convinced there are interesting people to be found as well, of different generations, to steer the WSF in new directions. Mexico is probably the last opportunity we have to do just that. @17 If this WSF again resembles a big Persian market with purely Mexican colours, we should definitely stop.

Francine Mestrum

[1] https://opendemocracy.net/francine-mestrum/reinventing-world-social-forum-how-powerful-idea-can-be 

[2] Francine Mestrum, "Forum social mondial : une alternative démocratique", in Delcourt L. Duterme B, Polet F. (coord.), Mondialisation des résistances - L'état des luttes 2004, Paris, CETRI/FMA/Syllepse, 2004.