No more harakiri

Sometimes we are asked why this initiative for renewing the WSF is necessary. Is not everything going fine? Are we not already changing with the several enlarged IC meetings we organise? Is change not a matter of little steps that have to be taken, one by one?

All this is very true. But it is also important to know that the first steps for renewal were taken … almost ten years ago. We had meetings and discussions, with documents, interviews and concrete proposals, and we got … nowhere. A small group of people in the IC refuse every single change and since we have a consensus rule, everything is blocked. That is why we decided we could not wait any longer. The situation in the world is now so bad that we either act now or disappear.

For many of us the tipping point was the IC meeting in Montreal in 2016. It left many wounds. To give you an idea of what happened there, please read the article below. See it as a historical document, and also as a fundamental reason why we cannot go on with ‘business as usual’.

The political harakiri of the World Social Forum

Report on the WSF2016 in Montreal and on its International Council meeting

This is a personal report of the WSF and mainly of the IC meeting in August 2016 in Montreal. It was a very emotional event and may have consequences for the future of our global initiatives. Since I was directly involved in the clashes of the different meetings, I felt the need to give a detailed report. For the very first time, and for the same reason, I call people by their names. Some may have a different reading of what happened, but then a calm discussion is what could finally settle a couple of difficult points. Do we want to be political?

Francine Mestrum, CETRI.

‘Limited but good’ is probably the best assessment one can make of this latest version of the World Social Forum in Montreal, Canada. Limited, because once again, it was not really a ‘global’ forum, but a regional one, with participants of Canada and the USA. This certainly is linked to the fact that this was the very first WSF taking place in the North, with high costs for traveling and housing for those who have to come from the South, but also to the refusal of the Canadian government to issue visa to more than 200 applicants from Africa and Asia. However much we have to condemn this, it was perfectly predictable and had been one of the main reasons why the International Council was not keen on having this Forum in the North.

But the Forum was good. The officially communicated number of 35.000 participants is certainly exaggerated, 15.000 will be nearer to the truth, but all workshops were well attended, major topics were climate change, extractivism and free trade, commons, free media, agriculture and sustainability, peace. As usual, social justice was kind of missing, unless one accepts to see ‘basic income’ as an alternative. The conferences in the evening were a real success with famous speakers such as Garcia Linera from Bolivia, Boaventura de Sousa Santos from Portugal and Naomi Klein from Canada. Convergence assemblies were held every day, though the final act of the ‘agora of alternatives’ was seriously hindered by the rain…

I heard no voices of discontent, my own workshops also went very well. In the assessment we discussed with the organizers in the International Council meeting, lots of numbers were given such as on the high numbers of voluntary interpreters and assistants, the 125 countries that were represented, the 80 ‘extended’ activities, the more than 500 artists in the cultural events. But not one word on the funding, nor on the number of international participants. Again, as usual.

The International Council

The International Council (IC) meeting came after the WSF. It was a bit strange this year: we had a ‘preparatory’ meeting on the evening of August 13th, a full meeting on the 14th and an ‘informal’ gathering in the morning of the 15th. As will be explained below, these differences are not unimportant because of the ‘decisions’ that can or cannot be taken.

A first problem that has to be mentioned is that there is hardly any secretariat anymore, for lack of funding. It means the meeting is not prepared, there is no agenda and some hours have to be spent in the ‘preparatory’ meeting to decide on what we are going to discuss.

The second problem is that most of the time, for almost 4 or 5 years now, is spent on discussing the ‘restructuring’ of the IC, without much progress. I will come back to this below.

The third problem is that the IC was supposed to discuss and decide on where the next WSF is going to take place, but there are till now no serious proposals.

And the major problem is … politics. It is just not on the agenda, because some people simply do not want to discuss politics and this is now becoming a matter of life and death for the IC as well as for the WSF.

One might think that IC meetings, because of their current irrelevance, do not interest anyone. Yet, because of the way things have been going these past years, I consider it important to give a report on the slow death of what has been, in 2001, a fantastic initiative for the emergence and organization of global resistance to neoliberal dominance.

We have a wonderful tradition in the IC meetings: we are very kind to each other, hard and direct words are rare, we consider ourselves what Chico Whitacker from Brazil has called an ‘affinity group’. However, after the three serious clashes during this last meeting, one has to wonder what remains of this civilized way of working. Let me stress however that personally, however critical I am for the way some people have been behaving, I maintain my friendship and respect for my dear friends.

Restructuring the IC

Apart from a brief remark made by the expansion committee in 2005 on the necessary ‘restructuring’ of the IC, the point was put on the agenda in 2011 and the real debate started in 2012 at the meeting in Monastir, Tunisia. I have been an active member of these working groups since then.

This is now four years ago, working groups have been created, questionnaires and in-depth interviews have been made, reports have been written, summaries and synthesis have been presented, hours and hours of discussions have been spent on the topic. Just to say: we know what the problems are. And we even have solutions, but they are not accepted by all. In the meantime, more and more interesting people are leaving the IC, because what is the relevance of a meeting where arguments are mentioned and repeated and no answers are given? The important people who made the first IC’s, such as François Houtart, Samir Amin, Bernard Cassen, Candido Grzybowski, Roberto Savio, Joao Stedile or important organisations such as ITUC, Via Campesina, Focus on the Global South, Cosatu, Babels and many others have not been seen for some time. They have more urgent things to do.

Surely, answers could be given to more or less technical questions on who can be a member of the IC, on what kind of commissions we want and what we want them to do, on the need of an effective secretariat. And so on. But these are not the crucial points. Crucial is the mere existence of the IC, its ‘political culture’, and the political discussions. Let me briefly expand on these.

The existence of the IC

For our IC meeting in Salvador de Bahia, October 2015, Gina Vargas and myself made a report starting with the ‘easy’ points on which we thought a quasi-convergence existed, followed by the points that would need some discussion and ending with the real delicate political points.

The first question: should the IC continue to exist, took more than two hours to discuss, without leading to an answer on possible new members.

It is important to remember that in December 2012, Chico Whitacker, the now grandfather of the WSF, proposed to dissolve the IC and replace it  by a ‘new movement’ of individuals (and not organizations) and a new charter of principles. Organizations were said to be ‘bureaucratized’, the IC was described as a ‘dying white elephant’. There was quite some opposition to this proposal and Chico wrote several notes to ‘clarify’ what he meant. Till his last note of April 2013, he insisted that the IC should be dissolved. Oded Grajew, one of the powerful fathers-in-law, answered that no new movement was needed, but that the IC had to be totally changed and be composed of leaders involved in the organization of social fora in their countries. In the meantime, in Porto Alegre, a group called ‘GRAP’ (Grupo de apoyo al proceso del foro) was formed and some years later abandoned. It certainly played a role in the Brazilian thinking on the WSF, though the IC was never informed about it, until its dissolution. Chico proposed at a certain point that the IC should be replaced by decentralized local and regional self-sustained GRAPS.

It is my conviction that the ‘inner circle’ of Brazilian ‘dueños’ of the WSF do not want the IC anymore, but do not have the courage to say so. What they are doing is accompany a rotting process that will inevitably lead to its disappearance. They can then replace it with their own desired formula: no more organizations and people able to think and act politically, but a meeting of managers that can take care of a good ‘governance’ of the WSF.

The political culture

It was one of the major headlines from the first WSF in 2001: we need and we will introduce a new political culture. I still hear Candido Grzybowski say it from behind a large table with all the ‘leaders’ of the WSF: as long as we do not change ourselves, we will not change the world. One year and two years later, the same message was spread, with still as few women behind the table as before … Nevertheless, we all do try to promote this ‘new political culture’ …

This means in the very first place ‘horizontalism’. Officially, we have no ‘leaders’, no hierarchy, no structure or organization. There are many arguments to state the opposite: the stubbornness with which this ‘horizontality’ is defended is, I think, the ultimate means to hide the real power relations in the IC. I have talked in earlier articles[i] on ‘the inner circle’ of the IC, though it is difficult to know for sure who belongs to it and who does not, and who is part of the ‘hard core’, but I would say Oded Grajew, Chico Whitacker and Moema Miranda are certainly part of it. They seem to consider the Forum to be theirs and all those who try to promote more openness and accountability are ruthlessly ignored and disdained. In the usual NIGD (Network Institute for Global Democratization) workshop we had in Montreal on the future of the forum (with Immanuel Wallerstein), Chico explained once more there is absolutely no problem with accountability and transparency, everything is done in the open. ‘Structure’ is equated with ‘central committee’ or ‘politbureau’, which closes the argument … while it is, I think, a crucial condition for democracy.

In the in-depth interviews Giuseppe Caruso made for the preparation of the first serious report on the IC, many participants mentioned their dissatisfaction and discontent as well as the lack of trust amongst its members. Personally, I think this is a major point to acknowledge and not easy to solve.

What Chico Whitacker himself sees a the major achievement of the ‘new political culture’ in the WSF and IC, is the consensus decision-making, mentioned in different articles and notes. ‘It is one of the richest experiences of the WSF’, he writes in his ‘More notes on my proposal on WSF/IC’. ‘Firstly because it avoids the using of traditional antidemocratic methods to win when voting in assemblies: bring followers of our positions to fill the room. Secondly because we learn to hear, as we are obliged to hear what our opponent says and try to understand his truth, to see if it can be combined with our truth, as we will not vote but have to build a decision acceptable for all. This requires time, but the consensual decision can be more rapidly obtained if those who are facilitating the discussion try to identify as soon as possible the decision that seems to become consensual. Then they ask who considers absolutely inacceptable such decision. If some think so (and even if only one thinks so) the discussion must continue, till arriving to a proposal of decision that could be accepted by all, even if everybody is not completely satisfied. This process puts as main condition to take decisions the possibility of maintaining unity, avoiding the moving away of minorities defeated in the voting, as in the usual splitting of the left. Consensual decision taking is not to obtain unanimity but build the conditions to continue together.’ This quotation is important to better understand what has happened in Montreal last week.

Depoliticizing the process

We had three major clashes during the different phases of the IC meeting last week. Before explaining them, let me briefly refer to what is one of the rules of thumb of the WSF anchored in our Charter of Principles[ii]. As mentioned in its point 6, “the meetings of the WSF do not deliberate on behalf of the WSF as a body. No one, therefore, will be authorized, on behalf of any of the editions of the Forum, to express positions claiming to be those of all its participants. The participants in the Forum shall not be called on to take decisions as a body … it does not constitute a locus of power”. This rule was also adopted for the IC. What can be done is ask ‘members of the IC’ to give their support to an action or a position.

I have always fully promoted this point of principle, since, certainly beginning of the 21st century, the left was too divided to be able to adopt common positions and our common interest clearly was to avoid all sterile ideological discussions.

However, has the situation not changed since 2001? Has the left not somewhat matured? And most of all, does the fact that we do not take positions in the IC also preclude political discussions? My answer to these questions is yes for the first one, hopefully yes for the second one and certainly no for the third one. Not only do I not see what could stop us to have a discussion on Palestine, on the coup in Brazil, on the threats to democracy worldwide, on the faltering social justice, on the dangers of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, I also think that we need political guidelines and priorities for the organization of world social fora.

This is what happened in Montreal.

The ‘preparatory meeting’ on August 13th started with a petition of a Palestinian group to have the IC adhere to a demand to support the BDS (Boycott, Disinvest, Sanction) initiative against Israel. The discussion took an ugly turn when the Palestinian representative insisted to have the point on the agenda of the ‘formal’ meeting of the day after. It was clear from the outset that the demand would not be accepted. Clearly, we all want to show our solidarity with the Palestinians, but we know since long that German organisations will never be able to accept a petition for a boycott of Israel. Without consensus, it is impossible to accept anything. Moreover, the petition was worded in terms of ‘demand the IC to support’, so it would be weird to have the IC support a petition asking for something it should support. Another wording was the first thing that was needed, in order to avoid that the petition asked the IC to change its rules. It was a very difficult discussion that took almost two hours and was utterly useless. We knew from the beginning the demand could not be answered positively. It was a rather negative start for the IC.

The next day, after the assessment of the WSF in Montreal, we started the discussion on the restructuring of the IC. The introduction was given by Teivo Teivainen from NIGD, Finland. Our proposals were presented by Gina Vargas from Coordinacion feminista Marcosur. I made some closing remarks with (again) a strong demand for flexibility and compromise, after pointing to the need for the IC to maintain (or recover) its political relevance.

The first point we discussed was in fact the demand for a condemnation of the Canadian government for not issuing visas to the Asian and African participants of the Forum. The text was prepared by Boaventura de Sousa Santos and was agreed upon by consensus … well, that means there was a consensus on the content of the text, but not on the agreement. I do hope readers will grasp what I am trying to say. We all agreed on the text but we could not adopt it as IC. The discussion was very hard and at a certain moment we had to pause for ten minutes, to let everyone relax and calm down. When we started again, and I was the unfortunate person who had to facilitate this part of the meeting, the representative of Attac France proposed to see this text as an exception. It was not about politics, but on the basic conditions for the WSF to function. We committed ourselves, she proposed, to not use this as a precedent for other political issues, we saw this point as a matter of collective responsibility to have our protest reach the Canadian government. Again, this was a case where the meeting had a consensus, there was  no disagreement about the text. I then asked, slowly, in French, whether there was any opposition to the adoption, as IC, of this text. There was, as happens rarely, total silence in the room at that moment. I waited for some seconds, and looked at the person(s) who might disagree. They did not move. I then concluded the point was adopted and the debate closed. We moved to the next point on the agenda: the question of the commissions of the IC.

At that moment, the first person to ask for the floor said we had to change the wording of the text on the visas… my neighbour went to check with Chico, who had not reacted, and came back with the answer that he considered this to be… a coup. So nothing was decided and the debate was not closed. He later told me I had used ‘parliamentary procedures’, with social movements he said, debates are never closed, you can also come back to earlier decisions. So we spent the rest of the afternoon discussing the same old topic: do we discuss politics or not? Can we decide on something if there is a consensus?

The next half day we had an ‘informal’ meeting which means that at any rate, no formal decisions can be taken. What was discussed was a text of Brazilian social movements on the condemnation of the coup against President Dilma in Brazil. The only disagreement came from one movement who asked to not speak of a ‘coup’ but of a ‘coup in process’, since it was difficult to equate the events in Brazil with the real coup we had witnessed, e.g. in Chile in 1973. The Brazilian movements agreed with this minor change. Nevertheless, it was again Chico who protested against, not the content of the text, but about the procedure. Some very hard words were used, given the fact that among the Brazilian movements, some people have experienced, in their body, the former military dictatorship in Brazil. But the result was the same as the day before: no text adopted.

Harakiri of the global left?

Since very hard words were used in these three debates, also against myself, I want to insist on what I have been saying in the three meetings: the NIGD workshop, the convergence assembly and twice in  the IC. Personally, I am a ‘believer’, that is, I believe in the potential of the WSF and of the IC to play a meaningful role in the global resistance to neoliberal capitalism; I think that in order to play this role we have to  be politically relevant, to politically exist, to have our voice heard at the global level. I also insisted on the very obvious points on which a compromise was possible, having political discussions not meaning we have to take political positions, though I honestly cannot see the relevance of rejecting a decision when there is a consensus… It clearly did not help.

Since the day I entered the WSF process, in 2003, I accepted the rules and I have never asked for a change of the Charter of principles. I think it already gives us margins for acting politically. But I do think we need to be political, and this is what is so rigidly refused. I deeply regret it and I honestly think that Chico is making a big mistake. With all the friendship and the deep respect I have for him. I cannot know whether he is sticking to his own positions or whether he is acting in someone else’s name, but his absolute refusal of only a slight bit of flexibility is killing the whole process. One comes to think that maybe this is the objective?

Why do we need political debates? The experience of the latest WSF’s in Tunis and Montreal show it very clearly.

Tunis was OK, Montreal was OK, the organizing committees do not need the IC to do what they have to do. But there is no continuity. Tunis was very important for the regional dynamics, let us hope Montreal will play the same role for the North-American dynamics. But do we have a message? Is there a global dynamics? Do we know what we are heading at? Do we have a strategy? The answer, each time, is no.

In terms of peace, democracy, climate change and social justice, our challenges are exactly the same in the North as in the South. We have many reasons for working together and making intersectional alliances. This is not possible if we cannot discuss how to do this. It is very positive to see the WSF as an ‘open space’, giving room for everyone adhering to the Charter of principles, to have a voice. But within that open space, we should have political priorities and political action, call it a two-track WSF. This needs political debate within the IC.

Allow me to quote myself:

We still need big narratives. Abandoning them to postmodern relativism is what has weakened the left. One of our first tasks should be to try and make a counter-hegemonic discourse with our objectives: a fight for peace and cosmopolitanism, social, climate and economic justice, fair tax policies, human rights, democracy and participation. At this moment, there will be divergent strategies to try and achieve these goals, yet, there is no urgent need to unify them. We should not be afraid of using moral arguments, since today’s world is utterly immoral. Moral arguments are easy to understand, though they can only be efficient if there is a strong political motor for change behind it. We should thus better organize, with all the diversity we are so proud of, and try to go beyond the paralyzing slogans.

We should learn to be constructive and positive. Of course we have to condemn capitalism and neoliberalism, but we also have to make a convincing and attractive programme with which to broaden our audience. Also, we do not have to wait for the fall of capitalism in order to start and change the world. It will at any rate be a long term process, let us look at the millions of initiatives that are already being taken at the local level and that can help us to envisage the global level. […]

The right is as divided as the left, yet, it succeeds in looking for the points they have in common. This is what the left should learn to do. Our differences will not disappear so soon, but we can look at what binds us in spite of them. The enemy of the left is not the ‘other left’, neither is it an institution, but it is an ideology that has to be fought. This also means that one of the most important changes for the left should concern our political culture, the way we treat each other and the way we treat others. […]

What role could the WSF play in this exercise of renovation and re-strengthening? Its main advantage is that it exists and that it remains till to-day the only global gathering of different sectors of global civil society. Surely, other global movements exist, but they mostly are single issue movements. The WSF has the potential – though not yet the political will – of bringing these different movements together and try to promote their convergence. There is no reason why the movement for the cancellation of debt should not be able to work together with social justice movements, with environmental movements or human rights movements. This is what I see as the main task for a re-juvenated and strengthened WSF. Moreover, the big advantage of the new social movements is that they are not just defending their own interests, but are working on issues of global justice for all.

What does it mean?

First of all, the WSF can remain but should become more than a festival of separate and separated social movements. It needs to get organized and give itself the – horizontal – structures that are needed for democratic and accountable decision-making. This is a task for its International Council that should promote the convergence of participating movements.

Secondly, common objectives should be defined. This can be a minimum agenda in order to bring movements together. Paradoxically, more than in the recent past, movements are now working at the local level and experimenting with real alternatives. This is wonderful, but it will not bring about real change if these alternatives are not politicized and brought to a higher – global – level. This should not hinder all movements to go on and work on their own agenda, with their own objectives and strategies, but they also should be able to open up to others and look for the commonalities that can be jointly explored at the global level. The WSF is the ideal place to try and do it.

Thirdly, primary and secondary, short term and long term objectives should be defined that will also allow for strategies to be decided on.

Finally, the IC could try and make a small think tank in order to analyze the global situation and its changes, as well as to explore and promote the convergence of movements. It could look for important speakers on specific issues for the WSF. This think tank should consist of people who have time and are prepared to work at the future of the WSF. We have them in our movements and could look for some more young people, men and women, to join.

In that way I think it could be possible to  turn the WSF/IC from a passive into an active political actor, to really prepare for the future, to build a movement, with respect for the diversity that characterizes us but should not paralyze us, with a voice in the world. A real counter-Davos, a progressive social movement with answers to the economic forces that are destroying the planet. The WSF can and should re-become a common exercise of all participants.

Another world is possible and we can help to make it. The potential is there, what is still lacking is the ambition and the political will to do it”.

This is what I wrote for ‘Intercoll’, the excellent Canadian initiative on alterglobalism[iii]. It has published many more ideas of major thinkers, and other suggestions were made during the WSF and IC meetings, more particularly by Boaventura de Sousa Santos. During the informal IC meeting we said we would try to create another ‘assembly of movements in struggle’. All these proposals should be carefully examined, since yes indeed, we are at a crossroads, organisationally and politically. But our problems are political, not organisational. The WSF surely can survive, though it will not be ‘global’ anymore and will only be useful for local and/or regional movements and ngo’s. The formal task of the IC is to ‘facilitate’ the WSF, this also implies, in my view, political guidance.

If we do not change, we slowly die. Some may want it, I do not.

Francine Mestrum

Representative of CETRI (Centre Tricontinental) in the IC of the WSF.

[i] Mestrum, F., ‘The process is going well’,

[ii] Charter of Principles of the WSF,

[iii] Intercoll:

Almost all reports and documents mentioned in this article can be found on


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