Observations concerning the renewal of the World Social Forum process 

Tord Björk, Sweden

In January 2020 the International Council (IC) meeting decided to start a dialogue with main international movements to give new energy to the World Social Forum (WSF) process ahead of the 20 year anniversary in January 2021. This resulted in four digital international meetings between June 27 and September 27. An intellectual polarization also became explicit concerning the form of WSF. On the one hand between those promoting what is called open space saying WSF should not take common positions and those claiming that WSF has to become a political subject and make decisions, a conflict that has been evident in more than ten years but made more explicit this year.

Official reports from these meetings have been made or are on their way. My personal observation is that the sharp and sometimes seemingly endless intellectual controversy has been helpful in producing a unifying way forward. This has come about due to the love of the WSF child by both opposing parties in the intellectual conflict. Both sides have been given central roles in facilitating the renewal process. Due to this practical work together inviting new movements and movements that were engaged before this unifying has been possible. In the last meeting Francine Mestrum, a strong proponent of turning WSF into a decision-making body expressed this unifying message – The young do not care about whether WSF is an open space or a decision-making body, they see the need to come together and act in common.

The intellectual controversy is not over, but moving ahead acknowledging that there might be useful strength in both opposing positions while moving the process forward. This might be seen in comments from both sides acknowledging the need to be a political subject whether through open space and decision-making process by self-organized process or by the WSF as a whole. Partly the unity has been the result of glossing over the problems both sides have in showing how their vision can solve the great problems we have ahead. A certain degree of ambiguous language in a good sense has been necessary to enable the process to move forward.

Now we enter into a new era for renewing WSF. The sometimes ambiguous language must be replaced with more time consciousness and clear messages. The twenty-year anniversary in the end of January 2021 is the most pressing deadline. The Davos meeting will take place in digital form while their physical meeting has been postponed. What kind of actions WSF will do at the 20 year anniversary in physical and/or digital form needs to be planned urgently. The kind of mass mobilization needed to address the multidimensional crisis with its hunger, mass unemployment, poverty among filthy rich, suppressing trade unions for peasants and workers and other movements, destruction of biological diversity and creation of pandemics, climate crisis, repair of social solidarity and care work, economic and military imperialism against non-privileged countries cannot wait. The antiglobalization movement initiated by movements like the Zapatistas and carried forward by movements like Via Campesina as well as WSF is well placed to take an initiative if being self-critical. Antiglobalization demands are still important but need to be connected to local and daily life issues in a more clear way.

Here the discussions during the digital future of WSF meetings have developed considerably. From mainly addressing focusing on issues of concern for a single or local issue and ideologies while in the end addressing what issues are needed to address in general. Here the environmental issues came to the fore and then explicitly not only c,.imate but equally important the struggle for biological diversity. Several proposed to change the name of WSF to World Ecosocial Forum to explicitly show how social and ecological issues in the future will be treated as more equally important issues. Such a change of name might be important but might not take place, anyway upgrading environmental issues in the WSF process met only approval. The same goes for peace issues.

The key organizational change to renew the WSF was proposed by Ashish Kotari from Global Tapestry of Alternatives (GTA). He proposed the IC to establish a continuous dialogue with main international movements to find common ground. This might be a more historic change if taken seriously of both the IC and the international movements. It can bring about enabling turning the WSF into a key actor in becoming one of several catalysts for fomenting the political subject that all agree is needed to change the present world order. What it means is the end of proclaiming WSF as the unique actor enabling movements to connect issues and combine new ways of finding common ground. Instead, this puts different ways of multidimensional initiatives on an equal level. Which initiative is best at connecting an understanding of the multidimensional crisis with political action calling it practical, local, or international will not be an issue decided by normative statements but rather more humble by trying to find synergy solutions creating a change of relevance for people’s daily life.

Organizational changes need committed people and movements, especially those able to address multidimensional issues at local, national to global levels. So far several of the most relevant international movements needed for a common mass mobilization to address the global crisis and create alternatives have been missing like the International Confederation of Trade unions and Friends of the Earth International. Or if they have been present they have been silent in the discussion as La Via Campesina. Yet sufficient international movements have been actively involved to make enough strength behind organizational reform. The strongest actor has been GTA. This is crucial as this global network with strong participation in the South as well as the North brings energy into what the antiglobalization movements lacked the most, an interest in action on the local level and constructive solutions.

GTA has furthermore other specific strengths. One is that it addresses environmental and social issues as equally important thus bridging the gap between movements mainly addressing either of these issues. A second is that GTA has a clear strategy going beyond local issues claiming the need to connect to movements mainly involved in resistance finding ways to strengthen each other. A maybe third strength is that GTA is rather practical than ideological avoiding some of the pitfalls of splitting up according to ideological differences or long listing of intersectionality ideologies. In the other end of movements needed to address the present global crisis, the mainstream peace movements are also strongly present in the renewal of WSF through the two closely related 128-year-old International Peace Bureau (IPB) and the No to NATO movement. Their participation is built on a clear understanding of the need to address such issues that brings trade unions, environmental movements, and welfare movements together. The weakness of GTA is balanced by the strength of IPB.

But most importantly is the participation in the renewal by youth movements. The number of young voices has not been so many. But their voice has been heard. In Europe, they have been especially strong. Two youth environmental networks, YEE and IYNF has together with the youth anti-racist network United been among the organizers of the Europe/Prague Spring process including All-European webinars in April and hopefully a physical meeting in Prague December 5-6. This process initiated by the Prague Spring 2 network coming out of the European Social Forum in Malmö 2008 has developed self-organized youth sessions addressing the same issue as a general debate on internationalistic answers to the Corona crisis. Half of the speakers at the webinar in April came from young voices in movements and half came from Central and Eastern Europe including Russia, a region often marginalized in the WSF and other global processes. From United, Neringa Tumenaite has been active in the extended WSF meetings addressing issues beyond the concerns mainly addressed by her own network to support finding common interests. Another important voice has been young activists in the Fridas for Future movement. Her strength of the WSF process showed itself in terms of treating individual voices and voices representing organizations equally. The formal Fridays for Future international organization is far from explicitly building on the understanding as formulated in the WSF charter. But individual members or national parts of this movement from Italy and Argentina have been present in the meetings discussing the future of WSF. Lourdes from Argentina played a central role in the English-speaking working group on the last extended IC meeting on September 26-27 and as rapporteur in the final common session. It is clear that the need to drastically enlarging youth participation in future WSF processes. A meeting will take place on September 29 to support the idea to suggest other continents to start a process towards WSF including an Assembly of Social Movement 2021 were half of the speakers are young voices from different movements.

Meanwhile international people’s movements have developed multi-issue answers to the global crisis intensified by the Covid19 pandemic showing a growing awareness of the need to address the connections between issues. The understanding of how issues as peace, environment, and social justice need to be combined also have been developed by direct cooperation between different movements on such issues as food sovereignty, disarmament to enable just ecological and social transition and common action against the repression of movements. New initiatives have also emerged like Progressive International and International People’s Assembly doing some of what before was seen as taking place primarily in the WSF process.

There are less well-known intellectuals actively involved in the WSF process today. Many as Naomi Klein, Vijay Prashad, Noam Chomsky, Yanis Varoufakis are instead involved in PI with an active web site addressing many issues. Strong peoples movements as the landless movement MST are involved in IPA together with mass movements in the South and political parties in a democratically organized cooperation taking common decisions and organizing an Antiimperialist week October 5-6. Other initiatives have taken care of some of the functions some believed WSF would provide. The growing understanding of the connectedness of peace, democracy, social and environmental issues among all main international movements may result in that also others than IPB and GTA will become part of the synergy that a decision to renew the WSF process by establishing a regular exchange of experience and possibilities for cooperation between WSF and other forms of international cooperation.

Tord Björk

Member of environmental and peace movements in Sweden and the international networks Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and Prague Spring 2 network

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