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Looking ahead : Revisiting the World Social Forum

Meeting in the Viral Open Space, May 23 2020,

organised on behalf of WSMDiscuss

The Relevance of the World Social Forum to the emerging

historical moment : The Process and the Debate

A Report

Gustave Massiah and Jai Sen, May 2020 ( pdf) 

(First draft, subject to revision and finalisation)

Introduction

The World Social Forum has been one of the great initiatives in the struggle for social justice. Initiated in

2001, it has adapted to the changing situation after the financial crisis of 2008 and to the movements that

emerged from 2011 onwards. It has found it more difficult to cope with the period of counter-revolutions

from 2013-2015, which has restricted the international scope for contesting globalization and accentuated

national, even nationalist responses. This situation has accentuated discussions and divergences in the

alterglobalist movement, in the World Social Forums, and in the International Council. As a process

however, the WSF continued to be active through national, regional, and thematic forums that have

affirmed the need for joint international action of and between social movements.

As a consequence of this, but more recently also because of the urgency of the worldwide irruption of the

corona virus pandemic since early 2020, there has been an intensification of interest among social

activists and activist-scholars in certain circles in the relevance of the World Social Forum – or something

like the WSF – at this desperately urgent historical juncture. One manifestation of this has been a spurt

of intense exchange on the WSMDiscuss listserve – which historically took shape inspired by the World

Social Forum (note on the WSMDiscuss list, attached).

Over the past some months, there have been many posts on the WSMDiscuss list concerning the corona

virus pandemic as such, the crises it is precipitating and the portals it is offering, and how people and

states are responding – and especially, given the focus of the list, on the positions and activities of

movements in relation to the situations created by the pandemic. More recently, and as a reflection of a

long-term and ongoing interest on the list in the World Social Forum, some posts have also discussed the

recent proposal by the International Council to see a WSF event being organised in Mexico City in 2020.

As list admin, Jai Sen opened a debate on the list on this proposal, but located in relationship to the

current juncture in world history, and based on that, he proposed an online seminar-debate to carry the

discussion forward. He requested Gustave Massiah to work with him in organising this event.

Based as it is on intense and critical debate, this Note is therefore a document that is both public in

nature (and will be posted on WSMDiscuss as well as on other international listserves, and also on

websites) and also an intervention in the life of the World Social Forum. As such, and with a background

understanding that something like the World Social Forum is far too important to be left to its office

bearers and council, this Note and its proposals are therefore also specifically addressed to the World

Social Forum communities worldwide and to the International Council of the WSF, with the objective of

drawing their attention to critically examining the WSF in the present moment and to frontstage certain

key issues; and to invite those involved in organising WSF related activities to critically engage with them.

The organisation of the debate

Gustave Massiah and Jai Sen accordingly organised an open and public debate on May 23 2020, from

17:00 to 19:15 (CET) / 11 am-1:15 pm (EDT). We drafted a preparatory Discussion Note for the debate

(attached) and a proposed Agenda (attached). An open invitation to this debate was posted on the

WSMDiscuss list and also copied to the WSF International Council (IC) list. We organised the event within 

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the framework of the Viral Open Space (https://www.viralopenspace.net/en/), at the suggestion and

invitation of one of its organisers, Carminda Mac Lorin.

Some twenty-six people were present at the online debate, from many parts of the world. A list of

participants is annexed to this Note (attached). All of them are members of alterglobalist movements.

Some are members of the IC and others are not, but all are concerned and interested in the evolution of

the World Social Forum in relation to the present and emerging moment in world history.

The discussions were introduced and moderated by Jai Sen. A first introduction was presented by

Gustave Massiah (attached). As per the Agenda, there were then three successive areas of discussion :

The nature of the period we are today in, from the point of view of movements; the situation of

alterglobalism and the WSF; and the prospective for the WSF, at this moment in history.

Each area of discussion was opened by two very brief prepared interventions by invited speakers,

followed by a debate; as outlined in the attached Agenda. We invited interventions both by people

closely associated with the WSF and also by independent movement actors.

In the debate, the positions expressed were sometimes contradictory on certain points. Noone

questioned the importance of the WSF or the World Social Forum’s idea of itself as being an open space,

but some were critical of the lack of presence of the WSF in the current moment and therefore its

apparent lack of relevance at this critical juncture. Most felt that the WSF can and should be much more

active and vocal, but locating itself in relation to local and national movements and to other global social

actors that have emerged on the world stage,

All participants were invited by the moderator to send in their thoughts on the topic of the debate and,

especially, on the fifth item on the agenda (and the third issue discussed here), the future of the World

Social Forum. The contributions sent in by participants – listed at the end of this Note - will be posted on

the WSMDiscuss list and on the IC list, and will also be posted on websites (to be announced).

The present world-historical situation from the point of view of movements

Gustave Massiah opened the debate with a presentation from the paper he had prepared for the event

(as attached), and proposed some elements for discussion. (The sections below in italics are based on his

paper.) The discussion on this agenda item was then opened with brief comments by Francine

Mestrum (of Global Social Justice, and a member of the WSF’s International Council) and Matt Meyer

(Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association), and was followed by open

discussion.

The pandemic and the crisis of climate change have openly exposed the veins of neoliberal capitalism and

precipitated a crisis of civilisation. The exacerbation of ecological, social, democratic and geopolitical

contradictions reinforces the hypothesis of a crisis of civilisation. The covid19 coronavirus pandemic has

revealed the low resilience of the international system, particularly the occidental one, to an unforeseen

event of such magnitude. The ecological rupture leads us to reflect on what a crisis of civilisation implies,

without falling into millenarianist fears, but by taking the measure of the upheavals that result.

Profound changes are building the new world and prefiguring the contradictions of the future. The

mobilisation of movements worldwide was very significant before the lockdowns. During 2019, 47

countries - a quarter of the world's countries - experienced civil revolts and massive demonstrations that

continued into 2020 and will restart in new forms and with new modalities.

In the debate, several points were raised. The pandemic is a direct consequence of neoliberal

globalisation. The importance of the decades of deregulation and their consequences was pointed out, as

well as the importance of resistance and struggles against them, the failure of the forces of the political

left to respond to these offensives and the rise of fascist forces; but at the same time, also the rise of

major, new, independent, intersectoral movements, especially those led by women and by racialised

minorities; and where people everywhere fighting for social and ecological justice is now the norm. 

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Global social change is already very considerable, and will quite possibly now take shape at an

unprecedented scale. From a geopolitical point of view, the fall of the US American empire that is so

evidently taking shape in our time will be analogous to the fall of the Soviet empire, and we must be

prepared for the violence that is accompanying that. In emerging countries, such as the BRICS, we are

seeing both the convergence of State and Capital and also the rise of a new populist, authoritarian right.

The options emerging will be between militarisation and democracy. Education will be at the centre of

political contradictions everywhere. Centrifugal forces must be taken into account.

The situation of alterglobalism and the World Social Forum

The discussion on this agenda item was opened by Jason Nardi (International Coordinator of RIPESS.org

and a member of the WSF’s International Council) and by Tord Björk (Coordinator of the EU Committee

in Friends of the Earth, and member of Activists for Peace).

Alterglobalism is the anti-systemic movement to neo-liberal capitalist globalisation; the WSF is a part of

the third phase of alterglobalism. The fourth phase is currently being reinvented and we do not yet know

all its forms.

The challenge of the new alterglobalist phase is to include all the different sets of social and citizen

movements. We suggest that there are five broad sets of movements that present different cultures of

mobilisation and elaboration :

• The social movements that represent the social struggles of the working classes, the salaried,

peasants, students and also part of the feminist movements, the defence of rights movements,

the international solidarity movements ;

• The movements of the popular suburbs, the racialised and part of the feminist movements that

define themselves against discrimination and that have an intersectional approach ;

• The climate urgency and ecological priority movements have worked with the forums several

times but have developed autonomously ;

• And the movements since 2011, that have emerged following the 2008 financial crisis. It has been

noticeable however that while many of their active activists have participated in Social Forums,

they refused to organisationally join them as movements; and –

• Since the beginning of the pandemic crisis in 2020, we have seen – and are seeing - the rise of

new local, national, and international movements, proposing and experimenting with new forms

of intervention.

Several points were raised in the debate; several issues identified. The failure to take into account the

change between anti-globalisation (the first two phases) and alterglobalism (the WSF) was contested.

How to build convergence between the different networks of resistance movements that have succeeded

one another (trade unions, liberation movements, NGOs, United Nations counter-summits, against Davos,

against Bretton Woods, against patriarchy, against multinationals, ...). The need to be alive to the

emergence of new networks and movements, including among and between the historically

unrepresented. How to build linkages between movements that want to build alternatives (municipalism,

progressive groups of citizens, civil society organisations, alternative economic initiatives, ...), and also

with older movements, such as trade unions; how to get past siloed thought and action. We must be

aware of the power of their movements and of our movements. Our movements can and should

represent the best emerging perspectives (ecosocialism, internationalism, a new phase of decolonisation,

...). What are the spaces for coalitions that are not limited to the national level ? The need to think and

to act both locally and globally.

In relation to all this, what is the essence of the World Social Forum ? What is it that it offers ?

Perspectives for the WSF

The introduction to the session proposed some elements. The discussion on this agenda item was opened

by Rita Freire (of Ciranda in Brazil, and a member of the WSF’s International Council) and Ole Mikal 

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Yong Pedersen (International Coordinator of the Norwegian Social Forum, and a newer member of the

WSF’s International Council).

The challenge of alterglobalism is to define a strategy taking into account the new period and the

evolution of contradictions. The approach is to articulate three strategic moments according to time

horizons. The first level is the resistance to the shock strategy, to the dominant racist, securitarian, and

xenophobic ideology. It is also possible that the resistance on social, ecology, democracy and geopolitics

could create contradictions in the dominant block. The second level is the definition of alternatives,

involving the overcoming of capitalism. This involves access to fundamental rights for all and a coconstruction of new universalisms. The third level of strategy is the midterm strategy. It depends on

regional and national situations.

In the immediate term, there is an urgent need to link alterglobalism and internationalism. Alterglobalism

is built by the diversity and convergence of social and citizen movements; it now needs to enter a new

phase, linked with internationalism. Internationalism in the past was concerned with organisational

capacities, the specificities of politics, and the articulation of the local, national, and global levels. It too

now needs to be reinvented, informed by an alterglobalist perspective.

What can we say about the WSF ? Speakers strongly felt that the old world is dying, that the situation

has changed greatly from the time when the WSF was formed, and in particular that many new

movements have taken shape, including at the international level - and so it is now vital for the WSF to

rebuild itself learning from and linked with social movements, in all their diversity. To do so, it needs to

understand each movement in terms of its own strategy, in relation to the new period and to the new

contradictions, and also the international dimensions of their strategies; and to participate with them in

the building of an unified common international strategy. The new form of the new phase of the

alterglobalist movement will be defined by the new movements that are emerging.

The WSF can and must see itself as just a part of this process, of the evolution and invention of new

movements and of the movements of movements that are now expressing themselves. The strength of

the World Social Forum has always been not in its formation, nor in its Charter of Principles, but in its

being validated and legitimised by social movements through their participation in the space it has

offered. Several speakers though felt that especially given the critical nature of the current moment,

movements will, in today’s context, not wait for the WSF or for its International Council.

Several other points were also raised in the discussion. In the given and emerging situation, several

speakers agreed that we need a political strong voice – and some argued that the WSF can, along with

others, play this role. But what kind of global voice ? We have to both open the dialogue and protect the

process. There are many questions, such as the relations with digital movements; our dependence on

corporations for the means of communication between ourselves – including the Skype that we were

meeting on; the need to discuss the future and to exchange on experiences and practices; and the need

for better organisation. Several points were also raised regarding the place and role for open space, the

opening of discussion on the WSF’s Charter of Principles, and the relationship of the WSF with other major

social movements that have emerged.

The next phase of alterglobalism has begun. The WSF is one part of it; it does not subsume it, or

summarise it.

We end by underlining certain key outcomes of our discussions, for the future of the World Social Forum

at this historical juncture :

1. That huge changes are today taking place in world politics and movement, at this point

precipitated by the sequence of crises that have opened up and engulfed the world since the

financial crisis of 2008, and now even more so because the corona virus pandemic has laid bare

to all, at every level of society and across the world, the nature of capitalism and of the state.

Resistance is growing, visions and demands of new worlds are emerging. Some participants

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believe that we are at the beginning of world transformative change, led by movements. What is

the place of the WSF in this ?

2. Most, and perhaps all, participants strongly welcomed the presence of the World Social Forum

and of its potential contributions, at all levels – local, national, regional, and thematic – in the

given and emerging situation in the world today.

3. Some felt that at this juncture in history, given the rise of authoritarian states and fascist forces,

the WSF needs now to speak with a strong voice; but knowing that historically, the WSF has

taken the position that noone is authorised to speak on its behalf. The nature of the actually

existing and emerging world is today urgently requiring changes in its policy and politics.

4. Many of the participants spoke to the need for the WSF – if it is to have a future, and if it is to be

able to contribute to struggles now and in the future – to recognise that :

a. Many movements, and some internationals, some great in scale and ambition, have arisen

since the time of the formation of the World Social Forum in 2001.

b. Even if activists belonging to different movements have taken part in WSF events and

processes, at all levels, many of the movements they belong to have chosen to stay away

and to not commit themselves to the Forum. The WSF’s leadership, at all levels, needs to

critically reflect on this phenomenon, including in terms of current proposals for requiring

participants to sign their adherence to its principles.

c. The WSF can and must now see itself as just a part of this much larger world process that

is opening up in our times - of the evolution and invention of new movements and of the

movements of movements that are now expressing themselves.

Attached

• ‘On the WSMDiscuss list’

• A preparatory note opening the debate, posted first on WSMDiscuss (Gustave Massiah and Jai

Sen, May 2020a – ‘A Note towards opening fresh discussion on the future of the World Social

Forum, at this world-historical juncture’)

• The Agenda for the debate at the online meeting on May 23 2020

• Introduction to the debate at the online meeting on May 23 2020 (Gustave Massiah, May 2020a –

‘Introduction to the Debate’. Note for online meeting on the Viral Open Space on May 23 2020)

• List of participants

• Contributions received from participants till date :

Francine Mestrum, May 2020 – ‘The WSF at 20’. Post May 23 2020 Call contribution on the future of the

WSF

Matt Meyer, May 2020 – ‘World Social Forum 2020 : Movements in the context of Movements’. Text of

presentation at ‘Looking ahead : Revisiting the World Social Forum’, Online meeting on the Viral Open

Space, May 23 2020

Ole Pedersen, May 2020a – ‘Viral Open Space : Future of World Social Forum’, Expanded text of

presentation at ‘Looking ahead : Revisiting the World Social Forum’, Online meeting on the Viral Open

Space, May 23 2020

Plus, as attachment to Ole Pedersen’s note :

Norwegian Social Forum and concerned friends of the World Social Forum, January 2017 – ‘What Makes

Us Inspired in the World Social Forum Process’, an open letter written by global activists - Another world

is still necessary - and possible !, dt January 17 2017

Note : All of the above will be posted on websites in the near future. The organisers of the debate also

have a recording of the session, which will also be uploaded, and the access links circulated.;