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The emerging world social movement within which the WSF refounds itself

A contribution by Tord Björk to the Zoommeeting on the future of the World Social Forum initiated by Jai Sen and Gustave Massiah 2 May 2020. The full title of the subject I was invited to talk about was: What is the nature and character of the worlds of alterglobalism and emerging world social movement within which the WSF exists and of which it is one constituent part, and to which it – as it re-founds itself - must relate?

Due to overload of work this contribution is may be somewhat different from what I said in the online discussion although in general the same.

This contribution build primarily on empirical analysis of the statements from the main international peoples movement on the Covid-19 crisis as well as other NGO actors on the same topic. https://activistsforpeace.wordpress.com/2020/05/11/the-implosion-of-walls-between-movements-in-reaction-to-covid19

The contribution also builds upon experience of international movement building since the first UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm 1972 and the environmental civilization critical movement against EU in Norway that contributed to a victory in a referendum the same year. A movement for environment and solidarity that as been carried forward in the antinuclear movement, peace movement, climate movement and as international coordinator of the ESF in Malmö 2008. Today primarily in coperation between Friends of the The Earth and Via Campesina in Sweden and internationally as well as Activists for Peace involved in the European/Prague Spring 2020 meetings and the European process towards the WSF in Mexico anas well as International Peoples Assembly in Europe.

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The implosion of walls between movements in reaction to Covid-19 crisis is a key to understanding the emerging world people's movement. The pandemia have unleashed a development within all main people's movement during some decades to address not only its own main issues but also relate to issues of concern for other movements. The kind of nuanced way to develop both a multi issue resistance and alternatives often attributed to spaces like WSF or the exchange of experience between movements have now occurred within each movement.

This opens up new avenues for anyone seeing global democratic movements as crucial in solving the general social and ecological crisis. It comes in a time when the movements are weak apart from several temporarily outburst of protests mainly on national level the last ten years with peaks in the beginning of the decade and at the end. At the same time corporate power, privatization and austerity politics seems stronger than ever penetrating every aspect of life including the way movements and political parties communicate more and more in the interest of US based digital platforms.

The result is a situation for the emerging movement were centrifugal forces are strong. The necessary combination of tightness between sufficient knowledge and action is hard to achieve when each moment of such a mobilization is professionalized. We het numerous educational and single issue campaigns but no amassing able of change the power relations in our societies or the world.

To understand the present situation for the movements it is necessary with generalization. One can describe the emerging world people's movement with the help of three parameters. Two concerns issues and another form. We have the tension span between movements focusing in one end social issues and in the other end ecological issues. Another content span is between focusing on resistance here and now and in the other end so called prefigurative struggles or building of alternatives. When it comes to form we have the span between open space and representative forms of uniting a movement or alliances.

The span between social and ecological has been manifested not only in more explicit ways as that between movements addressing primarily environmental issues and those addressing primarily social issues. It can also be seen in terms class base were those focusing on social issues are more urban and industrial focused with development as a key concept and trade unions as one of their main pillars of attraction. Those focusing on ecological issues have often a more rural and agricultural, forestry and other rural economy focus with civilizational critique as a key concept and small farmer and similar movements as their main pillar of attraction. It is no coincidence that the only main people's movmemnts mentioning indigenous peoples in the Covid-19 cirisis statement is Friends of the Earth International and campaign Demand Climate Justice.

Of course there are in both cases movements and NGOs accepting the system as it is. Organizations addressing social issues as a form of charity or bureaucratic trrade unions seeing a movement among workers more as a threat than than a strength for the working class. Or organizations addressing environmental issues as piecemeal questions for technical and other changes within the system or farmers organizations adjusting themselves to the agroindustry and financial interests.

But when looking at the system-critical social and ecological movements there are differences that have played out also in the so called ”world of alterglobalism” and the social forum process. The use of the term globalism is such an issue. While the mass movements in the South as well as system critical ecological movements in the North never changed its antiglobalization identity or never took to its heart the alterglobalization concept many on the left and the social forum process made this concept central to their concerns.

Personally as an environmentalist and identifying myself with concepts supported by the mass movements in the global South and rural movements in the North I protested against the shift from antiglobalization to alterglobalisation. In Sweden it was carried out by the Anarchosyndicalist weekly soon followed by Attac and man others that saw in the WSF open space formula a way forward for peoples movements. The problem with the shift was its idiosyncracy showing the lack of interest in biological realities among the left. The material reality in the globalization concept is the claim that there is an ongoing compression of time and space in the world. Such a compression of biology or what we also can call ecosystems and relationships in the biosphere and atmosphere is an ecological catastrophe. This has been clearly exposed by the Covid-19 pandemia as this globalization of biology caused by agroindustry, industrial forestry etc creates more and more zoonotic virus in one end and health problem in the other.

The left in the North and their close cooperation partners in the South created instead their own globalization concept devoid of its material content with a focus only on the social side. Terms as globalization from below came into fashion and the less problematic concepts as internationalism for cooperation across all borders were replaced by a vision of alternative globalization and not alternative to globalization. A simplistic notion showing the disinterest among the left for biological realties. This conflict spelled out in the European Social Forum which was used by the left for their social and sometimes pro EU agenda thus never replacing the invalid WSF declaration at the official ESF website with the first version from April 2001 were only social conflicts are made central as capitalism and imperialism while the second since valid declaration from June 2001 putting equal emphasis on social and ecological concerns was dismissed while environmental movements were treated as junior partners.

In the present moment the strength of the cooperation between Friends of the Earth, La Via Campesina and the climate justice movement has grown while that of the left, trade unions and movements addressing social justice broadly has been weakened. This makes a more balanced socio-ecological cooperation possible built on the class alliance of rural and urban people asked for by La Via Campesina.

The other content span between those focused on large scale resistance here and now and those focused on prefigurative forms of struggles and local alternatives has also been present i different ways. At the moment one can see this expressed in initiatives like the Tapestry of alternatives, Transition Towns and many similar efforts are popular together with so called ”Coalitions of the Willing” bringing together urban municipalities that wants to go further on social and often climate issues, quite often with a blurred relationship to entrepreneurship and cooperation with companies while at other times far more radical than any movement focusing on large scale resistance.

The third tension span concerns form and can be expressed as a difference between open space and representative forms of organisation. The open space formula has been a tool for several initiatives to enlarge international participation in both discussing and action. Avaaz is a US based net campaigning platform claiming t have more than 50 million members world wide. The concept member used here lacks democratic rights to influence the decision-making of the organization. The content have also a tendency to slide from opposing wars in the 00s to promoting wars in the 10s with humanitarian arguments. There is in general a lack of a comprehensive system critical way of addressing issues. This is understandable as anyone can make their own appeal for something with the help of Avaaz, a sort of perfect open space. You are then claimed to be a member of Avaaz and used as a legitimation of the organization. You also receive the selected campaigning actions by the unaccountable leadership of the organisation. 

Many similar forms of open space models has become more and more dominating at least among middle class campaigning while working class and farers are becoming more marginalized in public discourse. Also left wing projects use this form of organization as Progressive International initiated by DiEM25 and Yanis Varoufakis supported by intellectuals as Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein as well as the Icelandic Prime minister and many pink tide politicians. 

Representative forms of organization as political parties can also strengthen their role in society but often more due to growing support from state funds or corporate funding than due to actual participation. 

Empirical evidence and exchange of experience seems of less interest among some of the main opponents in the debate. If such evidence is brought up by proponents of open space it is the problems that was caused by vertical decision making and factionalism among the Left in a state centric system. The experience of the ecological and other non-leftists movements that are not state centric are excluded as a point of reference. These movements have used different combinations of horizontal and vertical or representative forms of decision-making and discussion long before the Left believes they invented the wheel with the open space formula and WSF. Already in 1972 such multiissue alternative forums were held during the first UN conference on environment dealing with issues as war, development, urbanization and depopulation of the countryside, indigenous way of alternatives to the present world order, and working conditions in daily life, the last a social issue seldom seen at social forums. The fact that the Norwegian Social Forum was established in 1999 before WSF shows that the claim of being unique is not valid.

On the other side of the tension span the proponents of turning the whole WSF into a decision-making actor share som common theoretical limitations with their opponents. Both seems to believe that changing WSF or keeping it as it is is the key to come forward for the emerging peoples movement capable of addressing the socio-ecological crisis. This can be questioned from empirical and theoretical points of view.

Firstly WSF is not a unique place for bringing together the movements of movements” and creating learning processes among them. There has been long before WSF and since it started direct connections between movements and as expressed recently in relation to the Covid-19 pandemia also learning processes within a movement making it able to integrate several issues in a comprehensive way. It is generally accepted that the climate justice movement, Fridays for Future and extinction Rebellion have developed outside the social forum process. This is even more the case with the movement for food sovereignty started in Nyeleni i Mali 2007 by La Via Campesina in close cooperation with friends of the Earth and others. It was also expressed at the 125 year anniversary of the International Peace Bureau in 2016 when the chair of InternationalTrade Union Confederation ITUC and Friends of the Earth International was invited to speak about climate justice transition.

Theoretically the proponents of open space seems blind to the power relations created by market relationships in an open space giving priority to those who have resources to be present. They also seems naive in their way to claim the advantage open space have for creating learning processes when there is no common action outcome. That such a separation of discussing and action prioritizing the former for the latter might be a class interest for intellectuals and professionals in NGOs seems never to have occurred in their minds.

The proponents of turning WSF into a decision-making process seems blind to the problems of the power relationships built into vertical decision making processes. That such vertical decision-making processes might be part of a civilizational problem of bourgeoisie forms of representative associations making real change of power relations impossible seems not to have occurred in their minds, nor the class interest among intellectuals and administrators of such associations making them unable to see the limitations of this way of organization. 

My main concern has been primarily the lack of interest among main people's movements to unite for a common socio-ecolgical struggle to save our societies and the world. This lack has partly been due to the systematic erasing of the memory of how such movements can change history from public discourse. This situation has not been helped by intellectuals having more interest in discussing WSF than actual movements. How the goals of WSF actually is carried out by peoples movement outside the social forum process or in some cases as an opposition to the open space formula that have dominated and crippled many social forums have seldom been of interest.

But that said the inability of the peoples movements to untie is not mainly due to external factors but the faults of the movements themselves. The decision-making procedures of these movement can often be as byzantine as that of the International Council for WSF. There is also seldom a Jai Sen or Teivo Teivanen trying to make the process more visible although in general there are more open rules to follow.

It might be first now that the main peoples movements are mature enough to take next step and live up to the statements they made about the global crisis they made due to the Covid-19 pandemia. Walden Bello writes also concerning the difference between the financial crisis in 2008 and now that this time people are also more matyre and will not as easy accept going back to the way things were before that caused this and several other global crises.

This may open up for a schizophrenic solutions to the endless struggle between open space and decision-making opponents by inviting to a well prepared Assembly of Social Movements at next WSF with a coherent plan of action. A plan prepared by in depth seminars on the issues and focusing on possibilities for such mass actions that brings together broad popular movement across rural and urban and social and ecological cleavages.

Maybe both opposing strands are now so mature as well as man main people's movement that they are able to look forward for synergy possibilities rather than separating each others attempts. Maybe one can see that a far more stronger ASM than before with a key role for main movements will be a way to enable global action on a sale not seen before while maintaining the WSF as a whole as an open space. Maybe the time has come for such a combination of strength. I hope so.

Tord Björk

Member of Friends of the Earth Sweden and Activists for Peace