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input#9/ Beyond the World Social Forum   by Pierre

Thanks to Roberto Savio for his excellent introductory paper and thanks to all for the very interesting contributions. @1 We all agree on the need for the emergence of a progressive global alternative involving not only the “civil society” of a limited number of countries but also all the stakeholders across the globe, and it is timely to confront different ways of making it happen, each with its own value added and contradictions.

The Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, which I directed during the 1990s and 2000s, had long supported the birth of a project based on an international approach, the Alliance for a Responsible and United World. The Alliance’s 1993 “Platform for a Responsible and United World,” signed by persons the world over, began with the statement, “If our societies maintain their present ways of life and forms of development much longer, humankind is bound for self-destruction. We reject this prospect.”

At the start, the Alliance was made up of individuals who no longer felt represented in traditional political parties, not in their analyses—often based on outdated realities—nor in their modes of action, where most of the time partisans were asked to “defend a cause” rather than to develop proposals collectively. @2 The Alliance instead spearheaded the idea that a new reality required inventing, collectively, new responses, which in turn required truly in-depth work.
The 1993 Platform also reflected the conviction that the needed transition was a systemic transition; in the Platform, we called this a “coordinated” approach, stressing that salvation was not to be expected as the outcome of a breakthrough in a single field, be it technological or political. Transformation needed to occur as much in thought systems as in value systems, ways of life, and governance.

In the ensuing years, the Alliance organized some sixty workshops. This would be both its strength and its weakness. @3 Although “experts” who were eager to deliver proposals were comfortable with this systemic approach, those more inclined to activism found it more difficult to find their place. As a result, after three or four years, the number of persons engaged in the Alliance reached a ceiling of about 5,000 or 6,000, and those who had been hoping for a new form of mass political activism took a step back.

@4This engendered a confusion, present in the World Social Forum as well, between two concepts, which in French are clearly distinct: on the one hand economic globalization (globalisation in French), established on the illusion that a free-market economy applied at the scale of the planet would guarantee prosperity for all; and on the other hand globalization (mondialisation in French), which is the factual recognition of the irreversibility of interdependencies at the global scale among human beings, among societies, and between humankind and the biosphere, which entails the need for completely new forms of governance and economy. @5 The fact that in the new lingua franca, English, there is only one word to address completely different issues has introduced in the international networks a lethal confusion: if you would be “globalist” because of the need to manage interdependencies, you were supposed to endorse the neoliberal agenda; and if you would be “anti-globalist,” it would mean that you would support the so-called sovereignty of the states.

The context of the time makes it possible to understand both the immense initial success of the World Social Forums and the reasons why the seeds of their decline were present from the start. I had summarized this in 2002 in a memorandum entitled, Le fossé entre une coalition anti-globalisation et une Alliance pour une autre mondialisation [the gulf between an anti-globalization coalition and an alliance for another globalization]. The approaches are necessarily deeply different.@6 It is infinitely easier to mobilize vast swaths of society by aggregating the possibly heterogeneous reasons of their opposition to the current evolution of society, than to engage in the much more difficult work—given the complexity entailed—of developing an overall alternative. @7 Though the World Social Forum’s slogan was “Another world is possible,” it never really organized to chart out a pathway and to act collectively to make it happen.

@8 Most of the Brazilian World Social Forum initiators had taken part in the Alliance dynamics. They knew its scope but also understood its limits. The major concern of the Alliance was that building another possible world supposed a balanced participation of all the continents and all socioprofessional spheres.@9 However, civil society was, and still is, organized in extremely different ways from one country to another, and socioprofessional spheres with actual international networks capable of building shared perspectives are very rare. When such networks do exist, they are usually built on corporate foundations and are scarcely prepared to develop overall alternatives to the current world order—or disorder—or even scarcely interested in doing so. This made it necessary for the Alliance, and more specifically for the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, which had supported its birth and development, to be prescriptive.

At the time I was director of the Foundation, and it seemed crucial to me to establish a prototype of what might someday be a World Citizens Assembly, hence the idea of limiting the number of participants—to 400—who were to be selected according to a twofold distribution key: by world region and by socioprofessional sphere. @10 The experience of a first “draft” of such an assembly of Alliance members in 1997 in Brazil had convinced me of the risk of making an event so large that it would become incapable of producing what at the time had become crucial: an agenda for the twenty-first century. Furthermore, given the non-representativeness of the Alliance members in terms of the diversity of global society, these could only represent a minority of the World Citizens Assembly, and many were asked to identify distinguished persons from the different spheres and world regions.

The World Social Forum was built on practically opposite hypotheses. Chico Whitaker, in particular, was extremely familiar with the far-left intellectuals of Latin America and their tendency to consider “the masses” as troops to be maneuvered into supporting their theses;@11 he wished, rightly so in my opinion, to make of the World Social Forum something completely different.  @12 And I was able to observe through to the 2012 thematic forum at Porto Alegre that these militant intellectuals had never given up their desire to obtain the endorsement of an assembly quite incapable by nature of voting in a democratic process, their desire to have it endorse declarations that were previously prepared or at least prepared independently from the dialogues engaged during the Forum itself.

The confusion between alter-globalization and anti-globalism, the mobilization of already structured activists in countries where the standard of living was sufficient to allow activists to treat themselves to international plane trips, the self-managed organization of the workshops, the absence of collective outcomes—@ 13 these were all in a way the reason of both the huge initial success of the World Social Forums and of their inexorable decline. Right from the start, going to the World Social Forum—which meant that non-Brazilians in the first forums in Porto Alegre had to have the resources to get there—was tantamount to a sort of militant tourism.

The World Social Forum thus juxtaposed “major concerts”—featuring, in plenary assemblies, the stars of the anti-globalization movement quickly converted to alter-globalism—and the multitude of workshops, which, like in all major trade fairs, allowed geographically distant partners to meet every other year. From this point of view, particularly in its early editions, the World Social Forum had all the virtues of a world fair of alter-globalism allowing a great economy of means as everyone there would be able to meet up with a large diversity of partners and make new contacts.@14  But, in reality, this “fair” dimension (no pejorative meaning of the word intended) of alter-globalism actually moved it away from its self-proclaimed world dimension.
In the first three years, for instance, at least 90% of the participants came from a small number of Latin American countries and Europe.

@15 Was it not possible to generate complementarity between the two very different Alliance and World Social Forum dynamics? That is what we believed at the time, and fifteen years later, I am still convinced this would have been incredibly fruitful. This was also the belief of Candido Grzybowski, one of the World Social Forum founders, who recently gave his own evaluation. In his speech at the 2001 World Citizens Assembly, he argued in favor of such complementarity; the Alliance could contribute its rigorous approach to developing proposals and its transparent methodology for summarizing the various collective works, a necessary methodology if one wishes to avoid the syndrome of a small “avant-garde” group imposing as a summary its previously prepared outcomes.

There was also an interest in an Alliance-WSF partnership for the structuring of themes. The World Citizens Assembly had in fact brought to light four major challenges for the twenty-first century: changing the economic model; the new dimensions of responsibility, the backbone of twenty-first-century ethics; governance from the local level to the global level; and the emergence of a global community of destiny. Obviously, in the early World Social Forums, the themes remained rather distant from this agenda and were largely inspired by the anti-globalization movements, but it was possible that an evolution would take place over time. In actual fact, the 2003 World Social Forum, in which many Alliance members were involved, gave hope that such complementarity would progressively gain a foothold.@16 Sure enough, many of those who were part of the group that initiated the Forum were alert to the need to improve the methodology in order to progressively bring common themes out of the proliferation of workshops; this would later be called the “aggregation approach.” @17 The great disconnect came from the decision to organize the World Social Forum each year in a different continent. This annual change of location fueled the Forum’s decline because the Forum, as a result, lost the benefit of the learning being built from one year to the next. Under these circumstances, instead of becoming a “world” forum, for want of an approach built over time for alternative proposals, for want of methodological rigor, for want of reaching for more than a large civil-society event, the Forum, as I see it, was doomed to wither away.