The WSF in Search of Itself

The World Social Forum pioneered new forms of global activism and democracy. Now it is being pressed to take the shape of an older politics, reports Solana Larsen in Caracas.

By Solana Larsen - OpenDemocracy
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When 100,000 optimistic activists get together in one of the most colourful and dynamic events the world has ever seen, you've got to expect a good deal of music and dancing, clapping and stomping. But as the sixth World Social Forum slowly unravels, first in Bamako, Mali and now in Caracas, Venezuela, there is also a great deal of frustration over the fact that "nothing" seems to be coming out of this enormous effort.

Certainly, the world is still a terrible mess, and many of the participants of the forum – or in most cases the people they represent – live in extreme poverty and face early deaths. Neoliberal capitalism is still king, and in spite of victories across South America especially, the global left still has less impact that their counterparts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland who are also gathering this week.

"This forum will not lead to anything; we'll just hear the same speeches," said a teacher from Bamako to South Africa's Mail & Guardian on 18 January, the eve of the forum. "Before, it was politicians putting us to sleep with their words – now it's those who question globalisation..." Similarly, the secretary general of Civicus, a world alliance of non-governmental organisations, Kumi Naidoo, called for the forum to agree on and propose real solutions instead of only complaining about the world’s problems.

The impulse to raise the stakes and turn the World Social Forum into a more consolidated political force is in some ways an expression of frustration. But several of the founders of the WSF, among them world-renowned social activist Chico Whitaker, are unequivocally opposed to the growing number of calls for manifestos and proposals.

"If people are frustrated, it's because they are expecting something they can never get from the forum, " said Whitaker over the telephone from Brazil on 20 January.

The end of the WSF?

Whitaker insists the primary purpose of the forum is to create a space for free dialogue between social movements, and that its openness should not be compromised by confining participants to any narrow statement of intent. More importantly, he says it would be "impossible" to represent the views of such a diverse gathering in one statement. "The forum would be finished," said Whitaker. "Those who disagreed would stop coming – I would stop coming." (This year, Whitaker was in Recife, Brazil planning a national Brazilian Social Forum.)

One group of very influential intellectuals at the forum disagree with him. At the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil "a group of 19" – including Frei Betto, Immanuel Wallerstein, Eduardo Galeano, and Tariq Ali – signed a document they called the Porto Alegre Consensus Manifesto and urged others to sign on (openDemocracy translated it into English, here). It created intense controversy and an uncomfortable divide between those who agreed with the manifesto and those who didn't. Many also questioned the undemocratic way the document was conceived and proposed.

It doesn't take much imagination to foresee a situation where the global social-justice movement spends all its time arguing about how to phrase joint statements. As if the world needed yet another arena for internal power struggles and empty words in place of direct action. Consensus language could also easily provoke more wrath of the type offered by Fred Halliday in the Observer in the aftermath of the 2005 forum.

But a year later, the Porto Alegre Consensus Manifesto has not been forgotten, and the mere mention of it makes Whitaker huff. "It was an initiative by only a small group of participants at the forum," he said. "Their views do not represent the forum as a whole."

Alarm bells rang again for Whitaker and his colleagues, when they heard that WSF organisers in Bamako – among them Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum and a signatory to the original Porto Alegre Consensus document – were planning to use the opening session of the Forum to revive the Bandung initiative, an alliance that brought twenty-nine African and Asian countries together against American and Soviet power-blocs fifty years ago.

Concerned that they were trying to represent the views of everyone at the forum, Whitaker says he helped write a letter to Amin a few days before the forum began. It politely asked whether this session was simply a separate "initiative", or whether they in fact were launching the Bamako forum in a manner that goes against its charter of principles. The response arrived shortly after the forum began. It was simply an initiative, and it was presented as such.

But Whitaker – whose book on the WSF will be published in English later this year – said he was also concerned about talk of "countries" doing anything at a gathering of social movements where neither governments nor parties are invited. Of course, judging by the number of different socialist party banners at these conferences, you would think someone had forgotten to tell participants this. Star speakers at the Brazil Forums in 2003 and 2005 were President Lula of Brazil and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

"As 'people' from parties they can show up," says Whitaker, explaining that participants organising sessions are free to invite anyone they want. In 2005, Lula was invited to launch the Global Call Against Poverty (GCAP); and the Brazilian landless people's movement, MST, invited Chávez. This year, in Caracas, many feel Chávez's people are playing too strong a role in the organisation of the forum. A group of young activists have even organised an Alternative Social Forum, which many local youth and Venezuelan bloggers are attending instead.

This struggle between governments, parties, and WSF organisers is inevitable. From Porto Alegre to Recife to Caracas, it is impossible to organise a Forum without the support of local government. "They always try to interfere," says Whitaker, adding that it is ultimately up to the local organisers of any event to stand their ground against interference with the programme. "If they don’t say no they will be manipulated," he said, "I hope this is not the case of the organisers in Caracas."

This was the case of the European Social Forum in London in 2004 which was so dominated by the Socialist Workers Party that people left in frustration, and it has been difficult to find backing for a new European Forum since then, says Whitaker.

A forum without "-isms"

The autonomous structure of the programme and stubborn refusal to transform into a united movement is actually one of the best defence mechanisms of the World Social Forum against government and party interference. If the forum became a platform for proposals or joint statements, it wouldn’t take long for some party or local government, or even a clever group of academics, to license the views of thousands of participants without their knowledge or consent.

Do the people at the forum represent the views of the organisation whose name they carry around their neck? Do they represent all the people their organisations claim to work for? It wouldn’t be democratic to pretend they always did. A new study by Ibase in Brazil actually shows the majority of participants to belong to an "unaffiliated leftist elite", that rejects hierarchical structures and "the old practices" of power politics.

Having a space for social movements to meet away from the politicking they deal with at home is crucial to their growth and success. The amount of information and ideas exchanged at a gathering like this is impossible to quantify. It’s the ideal occasion to develop "new practices" for power politics – of the kind described by Simon Zadek in openDemocracy's "Peer Power: reinventing accountability" debate.

However, there are ways the forum could become more effective without falling into old power traps. The 2005 forum left openDemocracy's bloggers in despair at the sheer amount of boring and repetitive events. It was also difficult to get a clear sense of what the forum is for from the programme and organisation of activities, in spite of an inspired attempt to create a system of "thematic terrains". This year's programme has six themes (the online version seems to be nonsensically ordered by alphabet).

If organisers offered more guidance on what participants were supposed to leave events learning, they could steer organisations into offering different events with stated outcomes. The first kind could be for learning and information exchange; the second, for planning specific campaigns and events with interested participants; and the third, a networking space for meeting other organisations. Finally there could be a space for discussion about the WSF process itself, where participants could partake in debate about the process.

By organising the events of the forum primarily by "purpose" instead of themes (or the alphabet) the forum process might help direct participants (individuals and organisations) to create more new initiatives and campaigns that transcend global borders. It might also help quell critics who say nothing concrete is gained from the forum. Plain old statements on behalf of thousands of activists are boring. It might seem cowardly not to propose "anything" as a group, but the most courageous thing the World Social Forum can do is to resist calls to turn it into a version of politics we see in plenty of other places, and continue to pioneer and develop new forms of global activism and democracy.