For an institution which has recently moved to its second decade of existence, the time is ripe to undergo a thorough discussion of its future direction. The World Social Forum (WSF) - the great gathering of global justice activists, an inspiration for innumerable people worldwide, even hailed as “the world parliament in exile” in its early days - is in such a point.
12 years after its initial launch in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Forum has gradually become ever more global and engaging. On the other hand, some surely wished to see it become a political vehicle for global institutional change by its teens, a scenario which has never unfolded.
Furthermore, the world has changed considerably around the WSF. First, the financial crisis has distracted the self-confidence of the neoliberal elite, presumably with lasting effects, and pushed some formerly marginal ideas closer to the mainsteam. Second, new movements, such as Occupy!, are building activist networks independently from the WSF platform, and it would be no surprise if some of their acitivists viewed the Forum as an early-Millennium relic.
The moment calls for accessible scholarship, offering perspectives from within the Forum process, to facilitate a deeper identity reflection of the Forum. Naturally, The World Social Forum has spawned some social scientific scholarship throughout the years. Yet the extent of this literature is limited, and there is little work reflecting on the problems of the Forum and their mediation, as a social-scientific support for activist contemplation.
Here comes in Giuseppe Caruso's brand new e-book, Cosmopolitan futures. Caruso is a Helsinki-based scholar-activist, one of those best positioned to write on the WSF, with an insider-outsider -perspective. Social scientist on the other hand, engaged activist on the other, Caruso manages to be deeply (even painfully) criticial on some points of the Forum, though being very committed to the project itself. He derives his insights from having taken part in the social forum as organiser, volunteer, and scholar, and having followed the background process throughout the years.
Tracking the history of the Forum, Caruso discusses its peculiar and unique institutions and ideas in length. On its inception, the Forum was clearly something novel. It took the stance against corporate globalisation, thus being a political movement, but clearly denouncing any attempt to form a political agenda other than a “charter of principles”, or a political structure other than the forum itself. It provided “space” to discuss and network, and claimed that this manifests a symbolic opposition to the World Economic Forum.
The World Social Forum was thus not just any meeting, but its political idea was expressed in its very structure: a collection of horizontal networks; open communication; celebration of the multitude as the polar opposite to the “one-size-fits-all” logic of hegemonic globalisation. These ideas were drawn especially from the struggles against the military dictatorship in Brazil, the zapatistas, and other such movements. Of course, this is all very idealistic. The big question is, how does it work?
The main critical questions regard the functioning of the "open space". Theoretically, the concept is unambiguous. Yet practically, who can do what in the open space is always open to negotiation. Some participants have always been willing to stretch the implicit values of the space for the purposes of certain political goals, and some existing hierarchies simply creep in.
While the WSF celebrates the "open space" as a global transformative method, in reality it was very embedded in Brazilian activist tradition. Thus the big question in the early days of the Forum was, to what extent the functionality of the "open space" was always particular to the Brazilian scene, and to what extent it can be taken anywhere in the long march of the global Forum?
Further, the ideal of the “open space” has lead to questions, whether the insistence on the ideal erodes the very political opposition the WSF was created to express: being against neoliberal globalisation. Why should members of imperialist governments be allowed to take part in guiding the direction and agenda of the Forum, even in their "personal capacity", as one of Caruso's interviewees asks in the book.
In Caruso's analysis, it was the Mumbai WSF in 2004 where the tensions arising from the open space had to be dealt with, as this was a major test to the true global nature of the Forum. This was the first time it was organised outside Brazil. Indeed, Caruso devotes most of the space of the book to discussing the 2004 Forum and the preparations and tensions (sometimes taking the form of outright conflict) before it.
When it comes to tensions, the biggest issue seems to be the problem of inclusion and exclusion. Clearly, the WSF cannot be inclusive without limits, as it stands in opposition to neoliberal globalisation; at least the promoters of this ideology have to be excluded. Its charter of principles states certain key principles which cannot be compromised, although the charter has been every now and then interpreted flexibly.
On the other hand, several activists have expressed concerns that the WSF ends up renewing existing relations of oppressions and exclusion. To some extent this might be inevitable, as the WSF cannot revolutionise the whole social existence at once. Thus the complaints that the “open space” does not go very far in combating exclusion: everyday patterns of conduct and communication bring in some of the existing social hierachies.
Caruso documents with details the complaints about exclusion in the WSF particularily in regard to the Mumbai WSF. The documentation will be a disconcerting piece to read for any idealistic champion of the process. Caruso's documentation includes complaints about gender discrimination in the preparation process, exclusion of dalits and other India's marginalised minorities, and the Forum organisers' uneasy relation to religious minorities, which resulted in the exclusion of muslim groups.
Yet, to Caruso, this documentation seems to be a necessary task. Wounds bleed if not sought and healed. One of Caruso's main themes is indeed in conflict mediation. To this topic he could have devoted even more space, since here the book gets truly interesting and proactive. Indeed, getting beyond a conflict is one of the true arts of horizontal movements. Mediation at its best is not only about setting an agenda by negotiating a compromise from existing positions; it means also learning to imagine differently, looking beyond the dispute rather than to its middle ground. This art of living in a movement is a topic the author knows a lot about.
Apparently, the idea and the future WSF cannot be discussed without facing a plethora of dualisms. Dissecting these dualisms is a job also Caruso has to take, yet the author's voice sounds unsatisfied when descrbing WSF's ideals or the political disagreements within it with these concepts. Dualisms make too broad concepts.
The WSF has always withheld a tension between the "horizontal" and the "vertical", or rather, a tension between views on how throughly committed to horizontality the Forum ought to be. Does non-hierarchy function; are there not at least some technical issues which need to be handled managerially? And then, on the other hand, is not the sharp distinction between "political" and "technical" (“just managing things”), one of the cornerstones of neoliberal self-legitimation?
To provide an example, Caruso describes in detail perhaps the most illuminating debate amongst the WSF organisers, namely the dispute over using open software on Forum organisers' computers. In India back in 2004, this software was still something of an experiment. Seen as a foolhardy attempt by some, there was a lot of insistence on returning to Windows for getting things done. For others, open software as opposed to Microsoft was at the heart of symbolism on what the Forum stands for, and argued that some inconvenience needs to be tolerated.
Debates also arise from the sources of money. Frankly, organising a global event is not costless. The Forum has received money from American foundations, development agencies of OECD governments, and other sources which, inevitably, are suspicious players to some minds. Further, the role of large NGOs has sparked intense debates. They work for poverty reduction and such issues, but are very North-dominated, sometimes patronising, and apolitical. They put in lots of money and expect visibility in return. For many, they are something of a Troyan horse of Northern domination and hegemonic development discourse.
What is the future of the Forum? Will it continue institutionalised, beginning to resemble a scheduled conference with regular attendees and functioning routines? Or will it continue to stretch its tentacles to ever new locations, providing ever new platforms for discussing social struggles and for building new alliances? Or will it merely dissolve, having exhausted its best transformative energy? Caruso only touches the surface in discussing these issues. This is a pity, as his speculation would have been surely worth reading.
Whatever the future, the WSF has already spawned innumerable alliances and fostered political imagination in a generation of activists. Perhaps even more importantly, it has changed the activist culture dramatically. The virtues of horizontalism and inclusiveness will be impossible to ignore for anyone seriously building a transformative social movement. We already take for granted lots of methods experimented with in the Social Forums, without really remembering where they originated.
Carusos book clearly tends to be an expression of the spirit of the forum itself: the form and the method are inalienable parts of the content. Published by a Finnish radical publishing house with international readership, and distributed free of charge as an e-book, the book is in itself an expression of grassroots socialism. The author also wants to play with the ambiguous boundary between serious transformation and ridiculous jokes, by for example omitting the use of capital letters as “all letters are equal”. The point is, that we have to experience with forms of equality, not to predetermine what equality consists of and how it is to be promoted.
To quote the introduction: “This book is released under a creative commons licence and it is free. if you liked it, please feel free to buy us, its author and its publisher, a drink”.
The man surely deserves his drink.
Giuseppe Caruso: Cosmopolitan futures. Global activism for a just world. Into publishing 2012. Available at http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/cosmopolitan_futures/