• wsfic icfuturecontribution 24

last modified April 17, 2013 by facilitfsm

The World Social Forum, A Decade and Four Paradoxes Nicolas Haeringer


The WSF was invented a decade ago, at the peak of transnational mobilization and organizing. Its novelty doesn’t lie in its components but in the WSF as such, as a whole, as a social form. It is no wonder that in such a short period of a decade all the potentialities of the WSF have not been explored. Yet, it is possible to come to a good understanding of the nature of the WSF, which helps analyzing the challenges actors seeking social transformation confront to when they try to organize across borders.


The WSF is a conflictual space, whose main feature is to put into tension organizational and political elements, which might first appear as being incompatible.


The following paper will try to reflect on its main paradoxes, which respectively deal with its nomadism, its plasticity, the role and limits of speeches and its cosmopolitical ambition.


First paradox: the process, the event and their contexts


Tunis hosts the tenth edition of the World Social Forum (26th to 30th of March). The choice of Tunis owes much to the revolutionary process, which started a couple of weeks before the former edition of the WSF (Dakar, February 2011) – a forum whose closing ceremony began at the very same moment Mubarak withdraw from power in Egypt.


Indeed, many of the next WSF’s challenges deal directly with the political situation in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and, by extension, Mali and other countries with the wider region. The WSF as an event always has local or regional echoes, and, conversely, the local and regional dynamics and mobilization shape the global event.


In this perspective, the next WSF will occur in a paradoxical context. The first free elections have actually shed light on the political strength of Islamic movements and parties, whose economic orthodoxy is not the least characteristic. The ongoing discussions with countries from the European Union on trade agreements are one proof among many others, that it is hard to consider those parties and movements as progressive. Stemming from civil society (and, actually, from the unorganized civil society), these uprisings have entered a complex and contradictory stage once the focus moved to electoral campaigns. Clearly, to be seen on balance as successful this Forum should contribute to strengthen the progressive camp(s). It could succeed in helping raise discussion about and elaborate on the challenges that are not directly national, be it debt, models of development, the tourist industry, etc., beyond, of course, conversations on religion and politics.


Nevertheless, believing that the WSF can have a direct and profound impact on a national context might purely consist in overstating its role, as well as being a way of patronizing local actors. Past editions have helped building civil society, opening new spaces for cooperation among national organizations – but that this happened has rather to do with the organizing process and the capacity of actors to create a large front rather than with the event itself. It should also be acknowledged that some editions of the Forum in the past have simply failed to impact the national context.


This is not specific to this WSF. Ever since the Forum left Porto Alegre, the way the WSF “travels” has been an issue. There lies another aspect of this first paradox. The WSF is a global process and an event. As a process, it draws from ongoing dynamics at the transnational level. But, once it is about one specific event within the WSF process, local and regional contexts gain importance. It has always been difficult for WSF organizers to make the WSF compatible with the local and regional contexts in which it eventually takes place. When the global context and dynamics have more weight than the local and regional ones, the WSF’s overall project is at stake.


The WSF participates from the affirmation of the “global South”, understood not under geographic factors, but as a project, which refers to “this concatenation [series of interconnected events, concepts] of protests against the theft of the common, against the theft of human dignity and rights, against the undermining of democratic institutions and the promises of modernity (…): a world of protest, a whirlwind of creative unity”1. In this view, the global South does actually include groups based in the geographic North. It is part of the long story of building an alternative to the North, its models of development, rising inequalities and its extended commodification of human beings, natural resources and, eventually, nature. However, this “concatenation of protests” is not flat. There are inequalities among their actors, some of them depending on geographic factors – the insertion of civil society actors from Brazil or India in transnational networks is not the same as, say, one from within Kenyan civil society or from Tunisia.


The global context is thus double-sided. It has to be understood as part of the attempts to build a commonality of interest from the South, through governmental halls and transnational institutions – the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the UNCTAD, etc., whose project was affected by the 80s’ debt crisis and the very same processes that now affects the most industrialized countries. The failure of these attempts gave room to the hegemony of the industrialized countries’ vision of globalization and to the new importance of informal foras such as the World Economic Forum.


But by the late 80s and early 90s, attempts to build alternatives where either weak and disperse or very questionable (armed guerrillas in Latin America, for instance). The Zapatista uprising, and, later on, the counter-summits and the WSF belong to the same straight line, and mark the fact that “the global South might indeed have regained the initiative in the streets”, and that the opposition (and the building of alternatives) to North-driven globalization left UN and governments halls to go into the streets.


This is the context of the invention of the World Social Forum. The 1st edition of the WSF happened more or less at the peak of transnational mobilizations. After 2001 (WTC attacks, increased repression of activists participating in transnational protests, etc.) participation in the other global spaces than the WSF started to decline.


The rise of what will be later (2009) will be known as the BRICS (as well as alternative institutional projects such as regional integration in Latin America) opened possibilities for a connection between halls and streets, and movements appear to be divided on their perception of these opportunities. The fact that the BRICS have proven to be less ambitious than the NAM is not alien to these divisions.


It is then quite understandable that the echo, and, from then on, the perception of the political relevance of the WSF varies depending on whether it happens in a BRIC country, in one of the prominent ALBA members or in a country whose political regime was a dictatorship two years ago.


The WSF doesn’t always “travel” well: its journey sometimes takes the form of local appropriation and adaptation, while under other circumstance, it rather seems to be imported as such into a context that turns out to be pretty different from the original one.


This paradox deals with the notion of WSF nomadism. The Global Justice Movement’s privileged forms of apparition are global gathering. Activists are convened to undertake long journeys to either 1 Vijay Prashad, the Poorer Nations, a Possible History of the Global South, Verso, NYC, 2013. protest against an institution or participate in an alternative forum. Their knowledge and experience of the local context can sometimes be secondary as compared to the extroversion of discussion and experiences such events facilitate.


Second paradox: the open space and centralizing temptations


Every edition of the WSF also sheds light on other elements and challenges, which have more to do with the WSF itself – the WSF process and the WSF as form. One of the main challenges of this year's edition is to manage bridge-building between the actors of the WSF process and the “new” movements, which emerged in 2011 (beside the actors of the “arab uprisings”, these include the Indignados and Occupy dynamics, as well as the Senegalese Y’en A Marre, the Chilean and Quebec students, or, more recently, the Slovenian movements, etc.). This challenge raises the issue of inclusion – i.e. of the nature and dynamics of the “open space”.


Indeed, those movements share obvious features with the WSF process – such as an attraction to horizontality; reluctance to any form of delegation; the choice of consensus building as the decision making process; mistrust vis-à-vis “old” and traditional forms of organization; celebration of diversity; etc. It is thus tempting to consider that they proceed from a same flow, that they are genealogically connected – the latter being the product of the former. In this perspective, those new actors would gain from participating in the WSF process where they could learn and acquire experience in challenges such as building loose yet sustainable forms of coordination at the transnational level. It would even be “natural” that they join the WSF process, as they (more or less directly) come out of the WSF process. The promoters of the WSF and the Indignados or Occupy-activists have chosen similar organizational constraints to avoid mechanisms of power-centralization, exclusion or cooptation.


But these similarities hide contrasting shades and nuance.


Both dynamics do break with the mainstream centralized aspect of social and political organization: the representative bodies, boards, committees or secretariats expressing themselves on behalf of their members. But within the WSF process, this break was only a partial one. Nobody can speak in the name of the forum, but the basic structures of the forum, on which it is founded, are social movements and NGOs whose own structures are often themselves “traditional”, i.e. hierarchical and directive.


The “new” movements from 2011 mark a multiple break. They are indeed organized around different tactics, strategies and principles. They do for instance represent a more radical exploration of horizontality than the WSF. The encampments’ Assemblies are aggregating individuals. Participants don’t represent an organization, even if they actually do belong to one (or several) organizations. They only speak on behalf of themselves. It is then impossible to balance voices, whether this can be done in a consensus among organizations (as within the WSF process): there, every contribution can be weighted depending on who speaks, and the group he or she represents (the criteria are numerous, from the groups size to its symbolic importance, through its expertise on the issue addressed, etc.); whereas this is impossible to proceed as such in an assembly composed by individuals. In spaces such as the WSF, organizational belonging and membership determines individual interaction (within the WSF space). It is the opposite in dynamics such as Occupy: collective identities and projects come out of individual interactions.


The WSF model proved first to be a huge factor of innovation. There were deep and radical learning processes from one edition to the other at the early stage of the (short) WSF history. Later on, this organizational choice has contributed to rigidity, through the inflation of procedures. Discussions within the WSF International Council have started to deal more with methodologies than with political substance. At first, it contributed to crucial organizational innovations (such as the cancellation of plenary sessions from the 5th forum on). But consensus can also be a factor of conservatism: its mark is not the formulation of new proposals or projects. The existence of a consensus is checked (and acknowledged) when everybody renounces (explicitly or not) use of its own right of veto. This gives more importance to those who oppose change than to those who want to transform the organizational model or principles.


This principle contributed widely to the shape of the open space. Voices expressing dissent with the way the WSF process was lead gained importance and weight. Autonomous spaces blossomed around the WSF main event, and these “margins” where sometimes the actual core of the participants' experience in the forum. Actors could participate in the WSF as well as in its critical space but still had a coherent experience. “One step inside, one step outside” could be considered as the motto of many participants in the first foras. Since 2005, however, margins have shrunken and autonomous spaces tend to disappear, or, at least, lose visibility. The WSF open space has proven to have a centrifugal force. The space turns into the center of the attention of its organizers and participants. The WSF can thus proceed from a logic of centralization – the space having the ambition of being the container of all mobilizations and actors who engaged with the challenge of building “another world”.


In this perspective, inclusion should be understood as a two sided process: it is not only about how the WSF can manage to integrate new actors, but how it can join other spaces. The WSF sprang from the wave of mobilizations against North-driven globalization and might now flow into the wave of “new” movements2.


The WSF organizational principles where chosen in order to guarantee the space’s looseness and openness. The WSF appeared thus as a very plastic form. But those principles, paired to the WSF nomadism have later proven to be a source of rigidification, early institutionalization and, eventually, to a temptation towards centralization.


Third paradox: between promises and practices


The WSF central event is mostly dedicated to speeches. Each edition is composed of sometimes thousands workshops and seminars. If the activities of one single WSF would happen one after the other rather than simultaneously, the forum would last three months. The profusion of speech is, as such, a tremendous and striking feature of the WSF. It is a concrete way of stating that (almost) everybody has the right to speak, and the political conversations don’t belong to transnational elites. It is also a way of recognizing the strength and value of popular and collective knowledges. It is also the most radical way to celebrate (and stage) the diversity of opinions, of political cultures, of approaches to an issue, etc.


In this perspective, it is remarkable that the WSF has managed to articulate sustainably such a huge variety and set of actors, whose opinion might deeply diverge. It is a notable break with former political tradition, which are based on the assumption that strong ties are needed in order to undertake social change – i.e. that diversity can nothing but prevent transformation to happen. The WSF was based on the assumption that weak ties can prove to be very efficient and powerful, and that sharing a common “horizon” of opposition might be enough to elaborate on a commonality of interest.


2 Spring and flows are ideas borrowed to Giuseppe Caruso’s book “Cosmopolitan futures, global activism for a just world”


Speeches held at the WSF have different functions and roles: tribunician, sharing of experience, revitalizing one’s determination or belief that another world is truly possible, elaboration of alternatives, sharing of experience, building expertise, etc.


Diversity has been celebrated at every forum – be it the diversity of positions, of forms of speech, of visions of what social transformation is about, etc. Contradictory positions have been put into tensions, and the WSF has managed to be a vivid container of what first seemed to be political oxymoron.


This, however, has been mostly done through the juxtaposition of speeches rather than through the confrontation of diverse opinions. Celebrating diversity contributed to creating momentum. After a decade of social foras, it is still absolutely remarkable to contemplate the diversity and wealth of the WSF program.


WSF activities have enabled an elaborately articulated and integrated set of proposals. They have shaped normative anticipations, provided an array of demands that policies institutions could endorse and implement.


They do, however, most of the time belong the polity of promises. Speeches are thought of as eventually leading to set of proposals, of claims, of demands, which should at some point be concretely implemented – most of the time by institutions (at the local, national, regional or transnational level). As such, the conversations held at the WSF belong to the regime of declaration. They are thus participating from the logic of promises. Actors in the official public sphere (at any level) are expected to commit to implement the claims, demands or proposals formulated in such spaces. At the WSF, or during events such as the People’s Summit in Rio, workshops end up in declaration whose mark of success would be to be adopted by the UN, a government, etc. The discussions are speeches on alternatives.


The WSF autonomous spaces, and, more strikingly, the Occupy and Indignados dynamics are attempts to break with the polity of promises and the speeches on alternatives, while opting for politics of prefiguration and the practices of alternatives.


There have been concrete attempts to articulate both of them at the WSF – the most notable one being the so-colled “territorio social mundial” (world social territory) at the WSF 2005. However, nomadism and the deterritorialization it creates, happens to be a prohibitive barrier for a deep exploration of this articulation. Small scale fragmented prefiguration can, on the other hand, prevent the elaboration of global (in the non geographic sense) alternatives to inequalities.


Nomadism, centralizing temptations and the articulation of promises and practices raise the following challenge: creating forms of solidarity across borders while keeping a grassroots anchor is probably one of the most important issue movements and civil society groups face, in their attempts to shift from transnational to translocal solidarity.


Fourth paradox: cosmopolitism without universalism


The difficulty to go beyond declarative formulations is not reducible to the polity of promises. Other factors have to be considered to understand the nature of this difficulty and eventually managed to overcome it.


Endorsing diversity through celebration rather than through the confrontation of opinions (or working on dissensus) also stems from the cultural nature of the shifts the WSF addresses. Its actors have committed to spread alternative values to those of neoliberal, north-driven globalization. Their ambition was first to tackle the cultural hegemony of neoliberalism.


Building the WSF as an open space, i.e. as a loose coordination of weak ties was coherent with this ambition. Rather than gathering organizations sharing the same frames of describing injustices, the WSF was conceived as welcoming all the organizations and movements that share a common horizon of opposition.


Weak ties proved (and they still prove) to be very strong and powerful. In less than a decade, actors of the Global Justice Movement and the WSF have indeed managed to tackle the idea that there is no alternative.


While concrete (yet often declarative) successes (proposals around TFTs, patents on medication, separation of banking activities, etc.) now irrigate political programs, the actors of the WSF still confront the impossibility of building shallow roots for a renewed and robust internationalism – one which would articulate the WSF organizing principles with a shared horizon of emancipation rather than of opposition.


This has much to do with the increasing contradictions within the current stage of neoliberal, northdriven globalization: what would be the commonality of interest between a Italian worker fighting against delocalization or a US indebted family, and a Chinese peasant, a Tunisian student working in a call center, a Thai fishworker or a Indigenous women from the Amazon? How can one even imagine the possibility of such a commonality of interests when this same Italian worker or the indebted American tank their cars with oil extracted from a soil which used to be part of the Indigenous women’s communal territory?


Notwithstanding the complexity of such a challenge, the WSF has proven to be a valuable tool to overcome those divergences. The progress accomplished around issues dealing with food and peasantry are remarkable proof of the WSF’s political relevance and efficiency. Not later than a couple of decades ago, few where those who considered small peasants as key actors of social transformation. In the left corpus of ideology, peasants were either ignored or dismissed as a potential historical subject. The rise of La Via Campesina and the WSF helped in staging their transformative potential. These spaces enabled apparent unbridgeable division among peasants to be overcome, such as European peasants benefiting from the EU prodigal grants and small farmers confronting desertification in Mali. They managed to elaborate shared claims, which articulated global demands within local contexts, laws and norms – it is almost certain that they would not have achieved this without transnational spaces.


The paradox can be framed as follows: the undergoing commonality of fate (such as climate change) calls for the building of a chosen positive commonality of interests that cannot not deny or hide local disparties – this is the challenge of building a rooted (translocal) cosmopolitism, or of a cosmopolitism which acknowledges the impossibility of universalism.


Usually, four components are required for the emergence of a sustainable alternative project: a debate on the transition and its hoped for outcomes; short term defensive action (which can include participation in elections); interim-middle range goals and a vision of the long term meaning of social transformation.


The WSF opted to focus on the three first components, endorsing Immanuel Wallerstein’s statement that “we need to stop assuming what the better (not the perfect) society will be like and discuss and experiment with the first three parts”.


This challenge probably also applies to the articulation of speeches on alternatives and practices of alternatives. Too often, actors engaged in prefigurative politics tend to isolate their attempts from the system they want to break with. They opt for alternative communities with little contact and exchanges with other social dynamics whose actors have made a different choice. Dynamics such as the Indignados, Occupy, or the Transition Town movement seem to break with this choice of isolation, as they intend to build and strengthen communities’ resilience.


About hope and frustration:


The WSF is a form like no other in the sense that it was invented as a space open to apparent contradictory visions and political or organizational oxymoron. It proved to be very mature in refusing to choose between one or the other of the options (e.g. between transactional or transformational approaches; affirmation of the importance of the Nation State or acknowledgement of the dismantling of its strength; etc.) but rather to seek ways to maintain those tensions and look for their innovative potential.


Located between the daily experience of the injustices of neoliberal globalization and the wait for another world; backed by daily concrete practices of alternatives its actors engage with “at home” while being almost entirely dedicated to speeches as an event; being a global process and event, yet happening in specific contexts; it is no wonder that the WSF has eventually generated as much hope as frustration.


Yet, it is still confronted with numerous dilemmas and issues, among which the accountability and transparency of its organizing process is not the least.


Changes in the global and local contexts over the last decade imply changes in the ambition and concrete shape of the WSF process.


While it remains almost the sole and lone transnational space among the manifold ones that blossomed from the mid 90s on, its promoters should not conclude that this makes the WSF the only space in which to tackle global issues. The rise of rooted civil society and movements opens perhaps a new stage of translocal solidarity and organizing, where the WSF process appears to be one dynamic among others. This will probably change the shape of alliances, and give a renewed importance to robust grassroots organizing.


Ibid. Immanuel Wallerstein, « New Revolts Against the System », New Left Review, November-December 2002.