Now that the world situation demands greater awareness and commitment, two decades away, it is discouraging to compare the hopes, enthusiasm and mobilization that accompanied the birth of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001, with its marginalization today in the large mobilizations that are shaking the foundations of a system infinitely more in crisis and de-legitimised than 20 years ago. The WSF at the time was a world reference. Holistic, non-sectoral, transversal, horizontal, participatory. Hundreds of thousands of people from various places and commitments came together almost a hundred times to debate, exchange and build a better world. This brilliant idea of some Brazilian activists was accompanied by the generosity and the political situation in Brazil at the time and the interest of various governments that believed in peace and international cooperation.
Today the situation is worse, so much so that in the last year we have had three major global mobilizations: one for the survival of the planet, another for the dignity of women, and the third against racism. Social inequality has reached levels previously unknown, with 99% of society galactically distanced from the 1%. Finance, detached from the real economy, exceeds in its speculative transactions 40 times what human labor around the world produces in goods and services. Right-wing and authoritarian governments rule 71% of humanity, spreading racism and xenophobia. The political parties have lost all capacity for long-term elaboration and live for a policy of merely administrative solutions, in which corruption and manipulation of citizens are daily practices. Bolsonaro’s Brazil, where the WSF was born, is the grotesque and tragic symbol of the decline of democracy, solidarity and the values that brought us together 20 years ago.
Today, the problem is not just debate. We know the problems like never before. Thanks to the mobilizations of civil society and the scientific and intellectual community, we have an unprecedented knowledge of the enemy, of capitalism without rules and without controls that is leading humanity on a path of misery, hatred and confrontation. The need today is to join forces, organize, mobilize, denounce and demand changes from national and international institutions. Without leaving the debate, we have to take action. This is the call that is heard in all the consultations of the International Council with global movements.
But the WSF in these two decades has been incestuous and was marginalized, because it is still anchored to a regulation from another era, from another world. The WSF cannot be an actor, a global political subject: it is only a meeting space, it cannot make statements, issue calls, join with other organizations or participate in the mobilizations underway, as a collective. With the result that in this dystopian world, the WSF has lost many of its participants. Large organizations consider that they do not need the WSF to find the ways forward. Its members ask above all for action. On the Internet, in addition to fake news and expressions of hatred and intolerance, they can find a lot of material for reflection and make daily exchanges, unlike in 2001. And the pandemic, in addition to exacerbating all the contradictions of the so-called normality, has been used for exchanging ideas and sharing experiences without the need for a physical encounter.
Not wanting to reflect on the global changes of the past twenty years is surely unscientific.
Defending the only governance document of the WSF, its Charter of Principles, as an eternal document is closer to the world of religion than to fighting against capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, xenophobia and greed as the supreme value. Wanting to keep the Charter as an untouchable, indisputable document, has created the extraordinary situation that in the Montreal IC, a declaration against the coup that was taking place in Brazil (the Brazil that made the WSF possible), supported by a large majority, was blocked by one single person in order to obey the rules of the Charter of Principles.
The theory behind this rule is that, if a decision is taken by a qualified majority, this will inexorably divide the WSF, and to avoid this, agreements can only be made unanimously. Therefore, the WSF cannot be a collective actor with its own voice. This has led to the irrelevance of the WSF, to the undemocratic fact that the impossible “consensus” can block any agreement, no matter how massive, and to an IC that out of 150 former members currently has now maximum 50 active members. A large part of the social movements and the large organizations that made it up have left. The same happened with many intellectuals and activists who fueled the great debates of the past.
This threat of division can easily be overcome by adopting formulas that ensure legitimacy and representativeness each time the WSF manifests itself as a global actor, adopting, for example, decisions with highly qualified majorities, but abandoning the demand for unanimity that in fact allows any action to be blocked. The success of a forum depends not only on the willingness of its participants to cooperate and seek convergences, but also on the flexibility and fairness of its operating rules. This is not about abandoning horizontality but rather about framing it in a more efficient organization.
There are many great issues where surely there would be no divisions, and on which the voice of the WSF would be important, reappearing in the ongoing struggles. We will mention just a few: the environmental catastrophe, a universal and free vaccine, social justice, the defense of the Palestinians to have their State, the rejection of racism and xenophobia, the permanence of the “me too” campaign, the incessant increase of military spending and wars caused by the powers, the harassment of democracies, the rights of migrants.
This is precisely what the WSF Renovation Group wants. That there be a broad and participatory debate on how to learn from the decline of the WSF, opening a debate on two topics:
1) The recomposition and democratization of the International Council, which needs to be representative and have new young forces, committed to the existing struggles and the diversity of collective rights, as well as the return of the great social movements that gave it sustenance.
2) A debate on governance, so that democratic norms can be adopted that allow sustaining diversity and dialogue, but also finding ways to carry out the necessary global actions that affect today’s world.
The WSF Renovation Group will open a Reflection Process on the above, inviting members of the IC and social organizations that do not belong to it, to successive meetings with not many participants, to facilitate the deepening of the issues. The conclusions reached in a meeting will be delivered to the participants of the following meetings. At the end of this process of reflection, open in time and transparent, the results will serve as the basis for the next World Social Forum, in which once the pandemic is over, we will be able to meet again.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Francine Mestrum – Leo Gabriel – Norma Fernández – Oscar González – Roberto Savio
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