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input9B  Beyond the World Social Forum (longer version input9) 


Thank you to Roberto Savio for his excellent introductory paper and for all the contributions I yet read. We all agree on the issue, the need for the progressive emergence of a global alternative involing not only « civil society » of a limited number of countries but all the stakeholders and it is timely to confront different ways of doing it, each with its own value added and contradictions in order to try and imagine new ways in front of the new challenges. This is what I would like to contribute here.

The foundation that I directed during the 1990s and 2000s had supported since 1974 the birth of a project based on an international approach, the Alliance for a Responsible and United World, which was founded on both the findings and the insights that would come to underpin the World Social Forum. The 1993 “Platform for a Responsible and United World,” which was at the start of the Alliance and was 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.” In other words, the current economic and governance models are not viable. To reject self-destruction as a prospect is, precisely, to say, “Another world is possible (and indispensable).” 

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up of individuals who no longer felt represented in traditional political parties, not in their analyses—often based on outdated realities—nor in their modes of action, where most of the time partisans were asked to “defend a cause” rather than to develop proposals collectively. 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. 

This analysis led us to organize the Alliance around some sixty workshops. This would be its strength, but its weakness too. Because in fact, although “experts” who were eager to deliver solid propositional work were comfortable with this systemic approach, those whose profile was more inclined to activism, who were wishing to engage collectively in a “cause,” found it more difficult to find their place, to become part of workgroups in which persons who had already given the subject a lot of thought were seeking counterparts from other disciplines or other continents rather than people to school and convince. 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. 

This brought about, at the time, a form of confusion that would weigh heavily upon the events that followed and sheds light, still today, on the causes of the emergence then the decline of the World Social Forum. It was the confusion between two concepts, which in French are clearly distinct: on the one hand economic globalization (globalisation in French), established on the utopia or the illusion that a free-market economy applied at the scale of the planet would guarantee prosperity for all and would even, provided a certain number of externalities were taken into account, subsume environmental protection; 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. 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 letal confusion: if you would be “globalist” because of the need to manage interdependencies, you were supposed to endorse the neoliberal agenda; and if ou would be “anti-globalist” it would mean that you would support the so called sovereignty of the states. To take just one example, where in the political history of humankind the “global community” is constituted by relations among national communities—the only “natural” communities—globalization (mondialisation) requires that we postulate that we will not meet the challenges of the twenty-first century unless we consider humankind’s community of destiny as a definition of the natural community, of which national communities, the heirs of history, are merely one of many other manifestations, where relations among socioprofessional spheres, for instance, have become as important as relations among nations.  

This semantic issue was to play a decisive role in the militant struggles of the 1990s and in the birth of the World Social Forum. It has been effectively pointed out that the World Social Forum was largely derived from the tremendous success of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests. This success did not come out of thin air. For years, “anti-globalization” movements, one of the most accomplished forms of which was the Forum for Global driven by Walden Bello, had articulated a critique of the neoliberal illusion of the “always, everywhere” efficiency of the free market and of the “always, everywhere” progress engendered by the globalization of markets. 

It is in fact significant, when reviewing history, to perceive the confusion between the potential represented by multilateral agreements made to manage globalization, and the denunciation of multilateral agreements made in a context in which neoliberal ideology was dominant. There are two illustrations of this: the WTO, and the negotiations on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. 

The WTO was instituted in 1994 and established an improvement over liberal ideology. It represented definite progress with regard to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which preceded it and was limited to an agreement to reduce barriers in international trade. The WTO preamble in fact recognizes sustainable development as a central principle. But these international agreements are of course part and parcel of the ideology of the time and, in the context of the 1990s, of the “triumph” of neoliberalism over the collapsed Soviet model. As a result, to take just one example in the field of agriculture, the conditions for sustainable agriculture were plain and simply ignored under the pressure of a global unification of the agricultural markets. Movements in favor of “food sovereignty”—deeply ambiguous terms, incidentally—were a response to this claim that everything should be regulated by the market. But by opposing the WTO in its principle rather than contesting the terms of the negotiations and the ideology of the negotiators, the anti-WTO movement effectively became a “neo-sovereignist” movement taking no heed of global interdependencies. And as previous speakers have clearly shown on the subject, the World Social Forum and the successful forays of today’s far-right identity-based sovereignism have common roots. 

A second example is the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. This agreement was being outrageously negotiated in secret. A number of civil-society organizations, having gotten wind of the negotiations, waged a vast campaign, as far as I know one of the first campaigns conducted through the new social media, which succeeded in forcing governments to stop these multilateral agreement negotiations. But even then I argued that civil society, whose emergence was confirmed by the campaign, had shot itself in the foot; what was at stake, as it had been for the WTO, was not the principle of a multilateral agreement on investment but its content and the ways and means of its development. And I’m afraid that unfortunately, the events that followed proved me right; this multilateral agreement in which overall the countries of the South and civil society could have had their voice heard was replaced by a multitude of bilateral agreements in which the correlation of forces between countries always serves the stronger ones. 

It is therefore rather strange to note that the “private” arbitration mechanisms adopted in nearly all of these bilateral agreements, which reflect the mutual distrust of states vis-à-vis the independence of their national justice systems, are criticized as an abandonment of sovereignty when these agreements have been signed… by the sovereign states themselves. 

The context of the time makes it possible to understand both the immense initial success of the World Social Forums and the reasons for which they had the causes of their decline in their genes. 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. It is infinitely easier to mobilize vast swathes of society by aggregating the possibly heterogeneous reasons of their opposition to the current evolution of society, than to engage in much more difficult work—given the complexity entailed—to develop an overall alternative. Which explains that from the start, though the World Social Forum’s slogan was “Another world is possible,” it never really organized to work out the ways and means and to act collectively to make it happen. 

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 implication of all the continents and all socioprofessional spheres. Civil society was however organized at the time, and still is, in extremely different ways from one country or region of the world to another, and furthermore, socioprofessional spheres with actual international networks capable of building shared perspectives are very rare. When such networks do exist, for instance in the world of major companies or that of territorial authorities, they were built on mostly corporate foundations and are scarcely prepared to develop overall alternatives to the current world order—or disorder—or even scarcely interested in doing so. Moreover, they are scarcely prepared—even though in twenty years some progress has been made, for instance, in relations among companies, territorial authorities, and civil society—to engage in a dialog with other spheres. 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. 

Preparation of the December 2001 World Citizens Assembly, which more or less coincided with the birth of the World Social Forum, brought the contradictions of the Alliance to a head. 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. As it happened, despite their remarkable diversity, the 4,000 Alliance members of the time were very far from reflecting this twofold distribution key. On the contrary, many wished the Foundation to direct its resources to creating a World Assembly of Alliance members so as to strengthen the dynamics. 

But the experience of a first “draft” of such an assembly of Alliance members in 1997 in Brazil had convinced me that the risk would have been to become a huge “happening,” which would have made it incapable of producing what at the time had become crucial: an agenda for the twenty-first century, in which the major challenges to be met would be identified. 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. This led to a divergence between the intellectual and geopolitical dynamics of the Alliance and its social dynamics. 

The World Social Forum was built on practically opposite hypotheses to those of the Alliance. Chico Whitaker, in particular, was extremely familiar with the far-left intellectuals of Latin America and their inclination to consider “the masses” as troops to be maneuvered into supporting their thesis; he wished, rightly so in my opinion, to make of the World Social Forum something completely different, firmly opposing many “engaged intellectuals” desire to use the WSF as a platform to make their thesis heard. 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 dialogs engaged during the Forum itself. This fear of a self-proclaimed avant-garde was a strong factor in the largely self-managed and, it really must be said, rather chaotic nature of the organization of World Social Forums from the start. 

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, 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 editions 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. 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. 

I do not know the numbers for the participants’ distribution in the latter years, but in the first three years, in many respects those that drew the attention of all the media, at least 90% of the participants came from a small number of Latin American countries and Europe. As we know, the numbers and the enthusiasm generated optical illusions; seeing the happy crowds rushing around in the lanes truly gave off the physical feeling that “the world was there.” But it was not. It was in 2003, I believe, thatFPH funded for Chinese participants their first trips to the so-called “World” Social Forum. 

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. As written by Candido Grzybowski, one of the World Social Forum founders, who recently gave his own evaluation,, this was also his belief. 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 (60 Proposal Papers had been developed for the Assembly) 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 (which I would later call “the great forward comeback from economy to œconomy”); 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. 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.” The great disconnect came from the decision to organize the World Social Forum each ear in a different continent. This is not hard to understand, for as long the Forum was held in Porto Alegre, it would be impossible to make it a truly “world” forum. Unfortunately, the Forum’s beginning to travel, at least in my opinion, is the source of its decline because in doing so it lost the benefit of the learning being built from one year to the next. The governing bodies became fuzzy and it seemed that with each new Forum and each new organization team, the learning—in any case the methodological and thematic learning—had been lost. 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.