In January 2021 the World Social Forum will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus will make a real and festive forum impossible. Nevertheless, we can try to turn this ‘bad’ into a ‘good’ and start a renewal process by using the virtual WSF of January 2021 into a stepping stone for a real political process towards a ‘real’ Forum in Mexico City in January 2022.
We have indeed always been speaking about the ‘Forum process’, but it fact it has never existed in between forums. Every Forum had to start anew, without taking into account results of a former forum, without looking ahead to the next forum. It is one of the failures of this whole ‘process’ and one of the mistaken formulas to describe it. The different WSF’s till now have been events, not processes.
Twenty years after the first and famous Porto Alegre forum, the time has come to take stock of all these different events. What have we achieved? What was the objective? How close did we come?
In 2001 the aim clearly was to build counter-power, to give voice to social movements so that they could answer the voice that came from the World Economic Forum in Davos.
There were several attempts in those first years to build that voice and to build alternatives to the dominant neoliberal policies. The ‘Manifesto of Porto Alegre’ and the ‘Appeal of Bamako’ will be remembered, but strangely enough these texts were rejected because paradoxically, the WSF had decided it did not want to have a voice of its own. The only voices allowed had to come from the movements participating in the forum. This is one of the strongest rules of the ‘Charter of Principles’ adopted in 2001, still valid today, and responsible for the impasse the WSF is in today.
But, one might think, the WSF surely did work on alternatives, on common political analysis, on power-building, on organisation?
Well, here again, the answer is no. Since everything was left in the hands of the participating movements and since very naturally nothing happens all spontaneously but needs some incentive and/or organisation, the WSF went on and on without anything concrete being achieved.
There surely were very successful forums, the first ones in Porto Alegre, the one in Mumbai, the one in Belem and the last one in Salvador de Bahia. They were successful because they gathered a huge number of dynamic movements, created hope and … the illusion of progress.
But in fact, the WSF has, in my opinion, only achieved two things.
First, in these early years, many global networks were built or strengthened. The WSF surely helped a lot in network building but it also had the negative consequence that once built, these networks did not need the forum anymore.
Secondly, as we had the opportunity to experience these past months, the WSF is and remains a very successful ‘brand’. People believe in it, expect great things from it. The WSF surely still has an enormous potential for transversal gathering and for putting into perspective an alternative that waits to be made concrete.
The consequence of all this is clear to see. The ‘International Council’ that was made in the early years to accompany the forum process, soon had around 150 members, from all over the world and it included some important intellectuals such as Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, François Houtart, Bernard Cassen, Ignacio Ramonet, Walden Bello, Joao Stedile and many others. Many have passed away in the meantime, but the others just left the IC since there never were any political debates. The IC, accused of being ‘secretive’, which it was not, soon became a meeting were only technical and logistical problems were discussed. Who would want to spend time and money on this? Also, the ‘founding fathers’ gained more and more prominence, jealously guarding the soon outdated rules.
There was a fear to discuss politics and there was a focus on ‘consensus’. While in the first years every problem could be solved by yet another commission, working group, liaison committee or ‘some patience, this is a learning process’ … by around 2010 all cans were empty.
Around that moment, the IC started a process of ‘renewal discussions’ with again working-groups, discussions, questionnaires, in-depth interviews and you name it. Nothing came out of it, since there just was no willingness to change anything. Demands for democracy, transparency, accountability, everything was said to be in place. We were a ‘horizontal’ group, without any hierarchy or power relations, clearly the perfect way to keep unchanged the power relations that functioned perfectly well for those in power.
By around 2015, most major global movements had left the IC, we remained with a group of maximum 50 members. Some very painful meetings took place with one founding father proudly saying ‘I am the forum’ and another one blocking decisions to condemn the coup against Dilma Rousseff in Brasil, the refusal of visas to African members by the Canadian government, or the assassination of Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro.
Twenty years ago, the WSF got lots of academic interest and many serious research was produced, again, mainly in the first years and up to 2015.
Academic research needs clear categories and while certainly not totally wrong, these categories remain in people’s minds and start a life of their own.
One of the major analysis of how the WSF got into problems was that social movements had been hindered in their political work by the wealthier and more powerful NGO’s. Again, the opposition between movements and NGO’s is valid, but it cannot explain the decline of the WSF. Some NGO’s are very dynamic and progressive, while some movements are more conservative and not necessarily more political.
A second explanation for the problems was worded in terms of horizontalism vs verticalism. The horizontal people were seen as the more progressive ones, being against all forms of hierarchy, while the ‘verticalists’ were the conservative ‘old left’ people wanting to dominate the forum. These differences surely exist, but they do not in any way correctly translate the current power relations. The horizontal proponents are those who, today, do not want any change, while the so-called ‘verticalists’ do want some political debate, some form of organisation and democratic governance rules. But they are certainly not ‘old left’.
In fact, the major blockages come from the ones in power today, mostly from Christian organisations and very very afraid of anything that looks like politics. The WSF cannot and should not speak for itself, the IC is against ‘the dictatorship of majorities’, we should not make a ‘politbureau’ or, just imagine, a 5th international. These accusations are still there today!
This is the context we have to work in today and in which we have to prepare the virtual WSF of January 2021. We had hours and hours of meetings, International council, enlarged international council, international council with selected global movements, meetings of thematic and regional forums, etc etc. It was mid-November when we finally were able to start with concrete preparative work. And as usual, all initiatives are conditioned to the respect of the charter of principles.
In the meantime, two groups of IC members proposed to start a serious reflection on the reform of the IC and WSF procedures: a group of Brazilian members and a more international group of so-called ‘verticalists’. A proposal to start discussions within the IC was politely rejected.
The so-called ‘verticalists’ are no verticalists at all. I am a member of a small group with Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Roberto Savio, Leo Gabriel, Oscar Gonzalez and Norma Fernandez. We just want to point to the lack of legitimacy of the current IC and the lack of democracy in the WSF.
We created a website (https://foranewwsf.org) and started with a reflection group and consultations with non IC members in order to prepare concrete proposals to be discussed at the virtual forum and most of all at the ‘real’ forum in 2022.
Our main objective is to have a representative International Council and an executive group able to make democratic political decisions with a qualified majority. The IC should also be able to discuss political matters with a real exchange of views and debates, instead of the usual three minutes-speeches without any conclusions.
It looks so very simple, but it is a very difficult debate and it is far from sure a majority of WSF-participants will be convinced.
In 2020, thirty years after the fall of the Wall of Berlin and the demise of ‘real socialism’ alternatives are urgently needed. In the midst of a sanitary crisis and with an ecological crisis looming, there is no more time to loose. For years, we have told ourselves we are in a transition period, and alternatives need time to emerge. All this is very true. But at the same time, identity politics and populist regimes emerged, ecologists got problems to distinguish the right from the left, ‘modernity’ is being rejected while in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East islamist terrorism is killing more and more people.
Never before have we had such an urgent need for new political thinking and for a new utopia of emancipation. We can fall back on our old basic principles, not those of a badly defined ‘modernity’, but of Enlightenment, the values that allowed us to leave the oppressing feudality. At the same time we definitely have to integrate knowledges of the South, as Boaventua de Sousa Santos calls them. Never before has there been a more urgent need to reconcile humankind with nature and to preserve the planet and all its inhabitants. And never before have we had a more urgent need to seek convergence between the millions and millions of micro small scale initiatives.
It is obvious that current economic and political dominant thinking cannot offer any solution. The left should know its history and be aware of the fact that without organisation and without international solidarity, nothing is possible.
The workers movement has been the only one in history, today modestly followed by the women’s movement, able to change the course of history, able to gain subjectivity, able to change the economic system. All these achievements are now being dismantled, and no global alternative is in the making. New initiatives are taken, the Grupo de Puebla, the Appeal of La Paz, social movements are meeting each other, but the road is very very long.
It should be clear for all that no ‘other world’ is possible without the building of counter-power, without the shaping of alternatives, without organisation, without international solidarity. Resistance movements clearly are local and national, but they cannot flourish without global contacts, without the solidarity of other movements in other countries. Collective power is built from below but can only become real power when it is globally organised.
The left will always be diverse, we should not loose time trying to make unified programs, but we should be clear about our basic values which have to do with emancipation, the fundamental equality of all human beings, a universalism based on the recognition and acceptance of all our differences, the ‘sapere aude’ – dare to know – of Kant, the possible self-criticism, separation of state and church, all this to be enriched with all the knowledges offered by friends in the South, about nature, about alternative knowledge, about other economies. We should stop to blindly condemn everything that is considered to be ‘western’. Our knowledges, which are not necessarily so different, have significantly evolved these past decades. We can learn from each other, we can open up the analytical spaces as, again, Boaventura de Sousa Santos tells us. A new relationship between humankind and nature, an intersectional approach to class, race and gender, care as central economic value, sustainability for people, societies and nature. These are the objectives we should be working at in the WSF, shaping concrete alternatives for local and for global policies, respecting our diversity, focusing on what we have in common.
That is why the World Social Forum remains so important. It is the only structure able to help us look for what we have in common, to learn from each other, to make steps towards a better world. The current WSF stops where in fact it should start: when meeting each other, we should very concretely look for what we can learn from each other, for all the things that are different in different parts of the world and for what, in spite of that, we all share. How, on that basis, we can organise, we can fight for our ideas, we can make real alternatives emerge. It is possible, I am very sure of that, but so much work remains to be done. The question is how much time is left? Before climate change makes cooperation impossible? Before a new fascism will silence us or put us all in jail?