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World Social Forum: Adding to the Debate
Amit Sen Gupta, Probir Purkayastha
The organisation of the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004 is both a challenge and an opportunity for those who are opposed to imperialist globalisation. It is natural, given the unusual character of the WSF and the profile that it has achieved over the last 3 ½ years, people would have a large number of questions about the WSF and the process that it involves. This piece should be seen as a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the WSF in India, and across the globe. It is not an attempt to answer any specific “critique” of the WSF, but it does try to address some of the common issues that have been raised.
What the WSF IS
Let us begin with what the WSF is:
It is an open space. What does this mean? Is it a space that is entirely open, that is, is it uncircumvented by any boundary conditions. Clearly that is not the case. The first point in the WSF charter of principles is:
“The World Social Forum is an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a world order centred on the human person”.
Thus, it is an open space that is circumvented by the boundary condition that the space is open to all who stand in opposition to neo-liberal economic policies and imperialism. Moreover, in India, we have further circumvented this open space saying that it stands in opposition to: patriarchy, war, casteism and racism, and communalism (religious sectarian exclusions).
How did the WSF come into being? The WSF was conceived as a response to the growing struggle against neo-liberal globalisation. While a number of events may be cited as the precursor, the Seattle protests against WTO was perhaps the defining moment in the birth of WSF. The second important milestone was the protests in Genoa in July 2001, where the Genoa Social Forum played a critical role and later helped develop into the European Social Forum. Various groups around the world were increasingly feeling the need that without global networks, it could not push back the offensive of global capital. Local actions, while extremely important, was not enough. Increasingly, groups used as occasions to come together in mass protests events connected to the institutions of imperialist globalisation: WTO, World Bank, IMF. G8. These groups were heterogeneous: they came from diverse political and social streams, had different historical experiences. It was felt that it was not enough to meet in protests but there was a need for movements to dialogue, share experiences and information and engage with each other. The World Economic Forum in Davos was used as the peg to organise the first WSF in Porto Alegre.
The WSF was consciously created as an open space for movements to meet in spite of their differences. The dialogue was designed to cut across not only ideological differences but also bridge historically and geographically disparate backgrounds. And it is this heterogeneity that makes WSF attractive for a large number of groups.
The WSF concept of open space is not located in a vacuum but in opposition to imperialist globalisation. The European Social Forum has added the vital component of War and militarisation, bringing the economic and military components of imperialist globalisation together. Yes, it is possible that this broadening of the canvas has also drawn into the WSF, as a part of its heterogeneous character, groups and organisations whose primary focus is not the struggle against imperialist globalisation. But it is preferable to have such groups come in and preserve the current heterogeneity than try and build a monolithic movement with a common agenda, which may immediately lead into competing agendas.
The forum, thus, provides space for alliance building for developing struggles. These are not spaces in which the WSF organisers are privileged but where resistance and movements are fore-grounded as the leaders of the global resistance to globalisation. These could encompass not one resistance but diverse resistances and multiple alliances: either issue based or larger ideological alliances.
What the WSF is NOT
Let us now turn to what the WSF is not. The WSF is not an organisation. Because it is not an organisation, it has no locus standi to declare itself to be party to a specific proposition or ideological position. The basic ideological position is laid down in the Charter. Beyond this the WSF itself takes no position. Does this mean that the WSF is a non-ideological space? No, what it means is that the space is not circumscribed by a specific ideological position, other than what is laid down in the Charter. This means that the space offers the freedom for all who wish to use the space, to take their individual ideological position. In other words, the space offers the opportunity for contending or dissimilar ideological positions to be debated, discussed or shared. The WSF takes no responsibility to homogenise these positions and push for a common position. But the very opportunity the space provides, may (and does), lead to common positions being forged between different groups or organisations who bring in vastly differing experiences.
Secondly, because the WSF has no position of its own, it is not meant to lead the struggle against imperialist globalisation – or against militarism, or patriarchy, or casteism, or whatever. The WSF just provides the space for people who are in these struggles to come together and share their varying experiences. In some cases this might lead to forging of common struggles based on a common understanding, in some cases it might just remain at the level of sharing of experiences and views. Whatever may be the outcome, the WSF’s role is limited to providing the space – it does not direct how this space will be used by people who come together.
A Talking Shop?
The WSF is, at times, accused of being a “talking shop” from which no concrete “actions” emerge. Interestingly, this is an accusation that is levelled by both those who are ranged on the side of imperialist globalisation as well as those who are among its ardent critics. Both reactions arise from the same premise: if so many people meet regularly, why do we not see an output in the form a common declaration, a plan of action, a blueprint of the “another World” that the WSF claims to stand for. The premise is flawed because it is attempting to assess the WSF with the presumption that the WSF is designed to take positions and “lead” the struggles all over the globe against imperialist globalisation and its myriad ramifications.
The premise is also flawed because, while the WSF itself is not doing any of the things above, the open space provided by it is doing precisely that. Not as a single output, but as a number of outputs. The blueprint of “another world” is emerging, not just from the interactions in the WSF, but through debates, discussions, and most importantly struggles across the world. The WSF is only providing the opportunity to enrich these debates, to bring in a larger number of perspectives – some contending, some complementary. Not just that. It is providing the opportunity to build common strategies for struggles, to synergise energies that come together. Such synergies do not involve all those who come to the WSF, or even the majority in many cases. But such synergies are built.
In the last one year the two major global campaigns were the campaign against the invasion of Iraq and the campaign to derail the Cancun meeting. The success of both these campaigns (unfortunately not with the same final result) had a lot to do with the strategies that were discussed and built upon during the WSF. A very large number of groups came together in Porto Alegre in 2003 to work on these strategies and to synchronise their activities as regards these campaigns. This happened not just in the WSF, but in practically all the regional forums that preceded the WSF, as well as in different planning meetings organised by the WSF. These were not part of the “official” WSF agenda, but nevertheless groups now use the opportunity provided by the WSF to come together to strategise where there are shared interests and concerns. Not just to deliberate upon issues but also to forge common struggles. This aspect of the WSF needs to be understood. The fact that the WSF did not give a call to oppose the invasion of Iraq or to derail the Cancun meeting does not mean that the WSF space was not used to address these issues. It was used, and as later events show, used very effectively.
Another example would illustrate how the WSF is seen by those who are today having to confront imperialism in its most naked form for their sheer survival. In Porto Alegre, when the discussion on the 2004 venue for the WSF was being discussed, the strongest opposition to moving it to India came from the Cubans. The large Cuban delegation argued that the WSF should not be moved from Porto Alegre. Why did they do so? They did so because they saw the WSF as an important window to the outside world, as an opportunity to reach out when they are being barricaded from all sides. Specifically, they saw the WSF as an important forum to oppose the signing of the FTAA in 2005. It was, in part, this concern expressed by the Cubans that led to the decision that the WSF would come back to Porto Alegre in 2005. Surely if Cuba sees the WSF as an important space to confront imperialism today, the WSF has come to symbolise something more than a “talking shop” or an event that has been hijacked by Imperialism.
WSF: A Contended Space
Now let us look at the character of the space that the WSF provides. Is it harmonious, tension free, uncontended? To the contrary! Much of the space in the WSF is taken up by varying contentions that include a large number of different views, experiences and ideological positions. It is a space that is contentious – by definition. Because the WSF is an open space there are such a large number of diverse opinions that contend with each other. Opposition to imperialist globalisation is a broad overarching position. But how is this opposition to be mounted? Through dialogue? Through struggles? What does one do to the institutions of imperialism – the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO? Can the WTO be reformed? Do we need to throw it out completely? Within the WSF there is no one unified understanding about this or very many other issues. If the WSF were an organisation, such diversity of positions would make it dysfunctional. But then, this is precisely why the WSF should not be an organisation. The very large and increasing participation that every successive editions of the WSF and more recently the regional forums have seen since 2001, has been possible because of the diversity that the WSF allows. This does not mean that organisations with clear positions and ideologies are not required. It only means that the role that the WSF plays is different from what organisations are supposed to play.
Role of “Violence”
Another contentious issue within the WSF has been the role of violence. The WSF Charter says: “The World Social Forum is opposed to all totalitarian and reductionist views of history and to the use of violence as a means of social control by the State”.... and further: “The meetings of the World Social Forum are always open to all those who wish to take part in them, except organisations that seek to take peoples lives as a method of political action”. These positions articulated in the Charter raise two kinds of questions. Does the Charter exclude those who believe in countering the violence of the oppressing classes. Moreover, what of violence by States against other states – does a State under attack have the right to defend itself? The bourgeois state uses violence to perpetuate its existence, to retain the hegemony of the ruling classes. The oppressed classes, in situations that may so require, counter this violence not because they see violence as a primary political tool, but because of the need to defend themselves against violence by the ruling classes. As Lenin wrote:
We set ourselves the ultimate aim of abolishing the state, i.e., all organized and systematic violence, all use of violence against people in general. We do not expect the advent of a system of society in which the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed. In striving for socialism, however, we are convinced that it will develop into communism and, therefore, that the need for violence against people in general, for the subordination of one man to another, and of one section of the population to another, will vanish altogether since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social life without violence and without subordination. . . . V.I. Lenin, Marxism and Revisionism, (1908)
It may be argued that the Charter is ambiguous in this respect. Perhaps it is, and this is really an illustration of the fact that the WSF space is a contended space. There can be different views of what constitutes a “reductionist view of history”. It is for all those who make use of this space to decide how interpretations will be made in the future.
Role of Political Parties
The WSF Charter of Principles states:
“The World Social Forum is a plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context that, in a decentralized fashion, interrelates organisations and movements engaged in concrete action at levels -- from the local to the international -- to built another world”.
The fact that political parties are not part of the WSF process has been pointed out by some as an example of its “non partisan” character. This is absolutely correct. The WSF is a non-partisan platform. By not having political parties as part of the WSF, the WSF space can be effectively used to attract the widest sections who are opposed to imperialist globalisation. But this does not mean that the WSF space cannot be utilised to conduct political debates. Nor does it mean that people who work with or are members of political parties, are barred from the WSF. To the contrary, a large number of persons who work closely with political parties participate in the WSF. The difference is that in the space provided by the WSF, they do not represent a particular political party. The WSF itself, of course, not being an organisation, cannot be seen as a political or a non-political entity. It is just a space – but a space nevertheless where political positions can be articulated and political alliances forged. In today’s world it would have been inconceivable for such a large and wide ranging mobilisation to be possible if the WSF was seen as an alliance of political parties. By keeping the WSF space distinct from alliances of political parties, it has been possible to bring together groups and individuals who would not otherwise come together on a platform as political parties.
Funding of the WSF
The WSF has been criticised for the funds it receives from international organisations. It is true that the WSF accepts funds from donor organisations. What needs to be understood is that, given the scale of the event, direct funds that are used to organise the WSF is actually not very large. The WSF, for example, pays for the participation of a hundred or less delegates – the rest of the tens of thousands who participate pay for themselves or raise resources that are not linked with WSF finances. On who the donor organisations will be, from whom the WSF can accept funds, the WSF India committee has had a clear position. To recapitulate, the position has been the following:
· Being an international event, it is not possible to avoid sourcing international funds to help support the event. However care needs to be exercised that such funds are not from sources that are clearly aligned to forces that promote globalisation. Funding agencies that will NOT be approached to fund the WSF in Mumbai include DFID (British Govt. funding agency), USAID, and corporate controlled funding agencies such as Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.
· Funding from large corporates in India aligned to imperialist globalisation to be avoided.
· The event itself should be modest and ostentations should be avoided.
· Attempt should be to access solidarity funding from organisations, individuals opposed to globalisation.
Here it may be noted that the Indian committee has departed from the practice of the previous editions of the WSF, where funding from Ford was accepted. This reflects the Indian committee’s acceptance of misgivings within the country about the past role of Ford in aligning with imperialism and doubts about its present sincerity in supporting a forum that stands against imperialist globalisation. It needs also to be noted that the costs of the WSF event in Mumbai in 2004 is likely to be less than half of the costs incurred for the Porto Alegre event in 2003.
There still however remain questions about the funding of WSF. It must be understood that the WSF process includes organisations who accept foreign funding, as well as those who do not. It should be clear that the fact that the WSF receives foreign funding, in no way endorses the acceptance of foreign funding by organisations who have a position against acceptance of such funds. They can, and continue to hold their individual positions vis a vis foreign funding.
But given the highly dispersed nature of resources that go towards the organisation of the WSF – the bulk of which is made up of a large number of individuals and organisations – it is difficult for a handful of donor agencies to direct the trajectory of the WSF. Donor agencies have their individual agendas. We may like to believe that their agenda is co-terminus with the stated objective of the WSF. It is possible that in some cases it may not be so. But the dispersed nature of funding and the fact that most of the WSF events are not organised by the WSF organisers, makes it difficult for a donor agency to subvert the WSF.
This does not mean that there is no need to be vigilant about the source of funding. Or, for that matter, look for means to make the WSF less dependant or even independent of donor funding. The participation of large mass movements provides us today to look for alternative methods of funding that are even more dispersed.
To Join or to Gesticulate From a Distance
For all those who oppose imperialist globalisation today, and yet wish to distance themselves from the WSF process, a few lines from Mao, albeit in a different context, may be instructive:
“For the present upsurge of the peasant movement is a colossal event. In a very short time, in Chinas central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly”
Yes, Mao was speaking in the context of a situation that was revolutionary in its potential. The WSF is being organised with no pretensions of such a backdrop. But the central issue is similar. Do we stand back and gesticulate when people are willing to come together and lend their might against imperialist globalisation. Are we so unsure of our politics, our positions, our ideologies that we feel afraid of coming together and risk being “tainted” by differing ideologies and positions. Or do we grasp the opportunity to lend our voice to the collective, to learn from others, and also to influence others? Not with a view to hegemonise. For the WSF cannot be hegemonised, by virtue of its very character. But to use the WSF space to build links that truly challenge the global shackles of imperialism.
Some, who oppose the WSF, wish to use the opportunity provided by the very same WSF to foreground their own positions. Is this not a contradiction in terms? For, what they wish to do, is precisely what the WSF is designed for. Does it really matter if the physical space to exhibit our ideology is outside the physical space that the WSF provides?
There is one other criticism of the WSF. It is argued that the WSF is a deliberate attempt to water down the response to imperialist globalisation. Critics have attempted to link the birth of the WSF to the protests in Seattle, and have argued that the WSF failed to tap the “revolutionary” potential of the post-Seattle situation. Some have even argued that the WSF was a deliberate ploy foisted upon us by imperialism – a ploy to co-opt the anti imperialist and anti-globalisation forces. The criticism is flawed on two counts. First, the WSF is not supposed to give direction to any movement, revolutionary or otherwise. This is the task that movements have to take upon themselves, by assessing the nature of emerging potential for such movements. To say that the WSF is preventing the emergence of movements that oppose imperialist globalisation is to give credit to the WSF for something that it neither deserves nor proclaims. If movements are not emerging, those who are supposed to lead such movements need to introspect about the reasons. Second, can we seriously argue that the protests at Seattle were led by those who stood for radical alternatives? This would be a serious misreading of the Seattle protests, where the American labour unions and assorted NGOs played an important role. The protests at Seattle was a significant event, but by no means did it contain the seeds of a revolutionary upsurge.
The WSF process in India includes a large number of mass organisations and social movements, in addition to NGOs. In fact a positive gain for the process since the Asian Social Forum in January 2003 has been the participation and deeper involvement of such movements in the process. These movements do not require their credentials in fighting imperialist globalisation to be endorsed by sundry critics who choose to remain away from the WSF. But what is important is to note is that large mass movements with a record of fighting against imperialist globalisation are looking at the WSF as an opportunity to link their struggles with the larger global struggle. Critics of the WSF need to reflect whether the fact that the largest mass movements see a space for themselves in the WSF is an indication that they have all compromised their “radical” or “revolutionary” credentials or whether this is an indication that the WSF is being seen as a platform that can lend strength to struggles against imperialist globalisation.
Need to Take Stock
It needs to be underlined that the WSF emerged, not out of a single planned process, but out of a large number of processes. These processes brought with them varied experiences and perceptions regarding the response to imperialist globalisation. In fact, when the first WSF was organised in 2001, it had not been planned that it would become a regular event. As the WSF has grown in size and influence, it has naturally thrown up a number of questions regarding its future direction.
Today the World Social Forum process needs to take stock of where this huge exercise is leading. Many participants at the Forum in 2003 felt that the Forum is becoming too large and unmanageable, putting inordinate pressure on resources, and losing a sense of focus. The Forum is already having to respond to the need to further broaden the process and ensure larger participation of people from different parts. The last three Forums in Porto Alegre has seen participation of larger and larger numbers (15,000 in 2001, 50,000 in 2002 and 100,000 in 2003) but the participation from Asia and Africa has remained small – a couple of thousand for two continents that represent two-thirds of humanity. This was the background of the decision of the International Council of the WSF to propose that the 2004 Forum be held in India.
An exercise in decentralising the process was initiated since 2002, which led to the organisation of Regional and Thematic Forums. Some of these too were huge successes, like the European Social Forum in Florence in September 2002 and the Asian Social Forum in January 2003. Today a large number of Regional Forums – European, Asian, African, Mediterranean, Caribbean, North American, and many country Forums are being organised regularly. Much of the vitality of the WSF is derived from this and not necessarily from the Global Forum. In the International Council meeting of the WSF in 2003 January, many members articulated the need to consider whether the WSF should continue to be held as an annual event. Many also felt that the huge size of the global event, while lending strength to the opposition to imperialist globalisation, also tends to inhibit fruitful interactions that can contribute to the development of concrete alternatives.
There are also differences in perceptions regarding the way forward in terms of designating roles for political processes and movements on one hand and that of NGOs and issue based or “non-ideological” (that is not firmly rooted in specific ideologies) movements on the other. The WSF process has thrown up a dynamic in the interaction between these, and there is a certain amount of tension in this dynamic – with each feeling that the “other” is trying to hegemonise the process. Many also feel that while the broad contours of opposition to imperialist globalisation is emerging, more planning and attention should go into detailing specific alternatives to current policies and trends.
These and many other issues will have to be addressed by the WSF process. It is by no means a perfect process. But, perhaps, if we wait for a perfect process to by handed to us on a platter, we shall wait in vain. Let us work with the process to make it more inclusive, more equipped to confront the challenge posed by imperialist globalisation.