10 Years of the World Social Forum
The emeregence of the World Social Forum (WSF) occurred at a time when neoliberalism was determining the agenda of the ruling classes. Flamboyantly, they announced that “There is No Alternative” (TINA) to it.
The initiators of the WSF were determined to turn the world-wide protests against capitalist globalisation into an alternative movement. The traditional political left had not yet overcome its defeat which had manifested itself in the 1990s of the last century. To many who were opposed to neoliberal hegemony, they did not represent an alternative. In this context, the slogan “Another World is Possible” was not only courageous, but formed the rallying point for those to whom the proclaimed “end of history” was not an acceptable hypothesis. This is the main and undeniable merit of the WSF.
Ten years later, the picture has changed. The over-accumulation of capital and power prompted by neoliberal capitalist globalisation has led the world into the deepest crisis of capitalist economy since the 1930s. This has also confronted the Social Forums with new challenges. Economic and political conflicts have shifted to the global South, and Latin America – only 20 years ago a centre of neoliberal structural reforms – became a major site of the struggle for economic, social and political independence. In this development too the World Social Forums have played a role.
Transform! accompanied this process right from the start. Transform! was founded as a network of European left educational institutions in the context of the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. There it represented a platform for the joint appearance of different protagonists of the left in Europe. In 2006 Transform! was admitted to the International Council of the WSF. It is no secret that the political challenge which became evident in the organisation of the first European Social Forum in Florence played an important role in the foundation of the European Left Party. From our own experience we can therefore confirm that the Social Forum became an incubation space for the emergence of new structures and can indicate how this occurred.
We occasionally hear today that the original dynamic of the Social Forums has been lost. And, indeed, the original euphoria has somewhat abated. This is in part because every “new social movement” is new only for a short time. Its historical importance can only be adequately assessed later, when the innovation it embodied can exist even without the attraction of newness.
The innovation of the World Social Forum, as it finds expression in the Porto Alegre Charter, can be summed up in the following points:
The Forum is an open, pluralist space in which different social activists can meet at eye-level. In theory, there should be no hierarchy, either of activists or of struggles.
The diversity of activists is not regarded as a weakness of the movement which would have to be overcome as quickly as possible. Rather it reflects the reality of capitalist oppression and the forces of resistance against it. Thus the acknowledgement of diversity becomes an actual strength.
The owners of the Social Forums are not governments or political parties but civil society, i.e., trade unions, ecological and human rights movements and NGOs.
Are these methodological principles still relevant today?
In particular, the last principle has been a controversial one right from the start and is still regarded as such today. In part, this has even got to do with the success of the Social Forums which were able to exert their influence not only on the agenda of parties but also of governments. The question is therefore a highly disputed one of how the Social Forum should deal with governments and political parties which have a positive attitude toward the Forum’s goals. At times, this question is put forward not in a political but in an “ideological” way. However, in my opinion this question cannot be discussed from the point of view of what is right and what is wrong; rather, we have to be aware that the debate expresses a contradiction which exists in reality.
In the meantime, left parties have learned that social action is not exclusively levelled at the state. This leads to a problem. The traditional left, including reformist Social Democracy and Communism, regarded the question of power as “a fundamental question of any social change”. This understanding of transformative politics has failed, as became obvious by the end of the 20th century. The sometimes widespread agreement with John Holloway’s postulate of changing the world without seizing power, i.e. of ignoring the state, reflects the disappointment of many people with the traditional political praxis of the Left. Nevertheless, this hypothesis is delusional.
There is also a theoretical aspect to the discussion. Antonio Gramsci analysed two sides of the state: political power and hegemony. If we accept this point of view the two sides of the state correspond to two logics of political action: the struggle for power, which requires the ability for strategic action, for bringing about a relative political unity and making decisions, would be one such logic; achieving cultural hegemony on the level of argument, with the Aufhebung [simultaneous retention and transcendence] of difference, and at the level of communication would be the other. There is no formula for determining the right combination of these two dimensions of politics, which is true for all situations. Rather, what is clear is that politics must always consist of both these elements.
The innovation of the World Social Forum lies in providing a space in which it is possible to develop a vision of counter-hegemony to the global system of neoliberal capitalism. The innovation inherent in this has two aspects: one is going beyond the national framework in endorsing the struggle against neoliberal hegemony; the other is accepting the methods of political action within civil society, in accordance with the concept of hegemony. This means first and foremost accepting that the Social Forums have no guaranteed space for a priori self-defined “revolutionary subjects” and their political representatives. This is true no matter how important they might regard their own historical merits. Ways of acting such as conquering space for oneself in the struggle for power with other political forces did not work, or worked only to a very limited extent. In order to move within the context of the World Social Forum such groups had to learn to make useful contributions to the development of this vision of counter-hegemony and they had to acquire new political and communicative skills.
The profound crisis of capitalist global economy presents a new historical challenge. We are experiencing how neoliberal hegemony is disintegrating from inside. However, a new, progressive kind of hegemony has not yet developed. The struggle for an interpretation of the present crisis is in full swing. An adequate interpretation of the global crisis would not restrict itself to mere regulation to how the system is regulated. The cause of the crisis lies in the system of capitalist accumulation itself. This accounts for its systemic character. Therefore modifications of the regulatory system alone are not sufficient. What is required are interventions into the process of accumulation, a redistribution of property and income from top to bottom, which also comprises a “redistribution” of power in everyday life, i.e. bringing about economic democracy (in which a gender perspective is implicit).
Thus it becomes obvious that in the capitalist crisis it is not only ideas that are in conflict but also interests. The struggle for the assertion of alternative values, for a new hegemony, can only be successful if linked to the struggle for a political alternative. Also, from the perspective of social movements and the Social Forums, there is no formula for this which applies to all cases. In any case, the changes prompted by the crisis are leading to new strategic debates within the Social Forums. The Social Forums will not turn into a political movement, yet many of their activists want to make better use of the space they created, want to fill it politically, to turn it into a political space. We should be part of this process of politicisation.
The World Social Forum has come a long way. From an event taking place in Brazil once a year it has developed into a worldwide process. In 2010, 27 Social Forums will take place, including the pan-American and the pan-Amazonian Social Forums, the Social Forum on Education in Palestine, the US-American and the European Social Forums. Hundred of thousands of people are expected to take part in these events. And finally, in January 2011, the World Social Forum will take place in Dakar (Senegal).
The worldwide process of the WSF, is a practical precondition for interpreting the systemic character of the present crisis from a new perspective. It is generally acknowledged that we are not only experiencing a crisis of economy but also one of ecology. Thus, the crisis comprises global politics and the predominant capitalist mode of life and culture. The World Social Forum in Belém, the mega-city on the periphery of the Amazonian rainforest, has called this systemic aspect a “crisis of civilisation”.
This term is also linked to an epistemological principle. The global crisis cannot be understood from the perspective, and with the knowledge, of the capitalist and patriarchal civilisation ruling the world. This crucial modification also applies to that critical knowledge which sets itself in opposition to global capitalism. Understanding the crisis of civilisation requires “decolonising” knowledge itself. Or, as Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos puts it: Without global “cognitive justice” there can be no global social justice. In order to take steps in this direction, the native inhabitants of Amazonia, of the Andes, of the different regions in Africa or the excluded populations of India are specially addressed in the WSF-process. Their voices will also be clearly heard at the WSF in Dakar.
The crises which have seized finance, economy and civilisation are not simply added one to the other, but are interdependent. This has consequences for Left political alternatives in the capitalist centres of the global North. Expressed somewhat schematically, the left is facing two difficult tasks: On the one hand, it must defend, and speak in the interests of, today’s working-class, of men and women, of the unemployed, of those living in precarious conditions and of migrants in society, that is, of those who are expected to pay for the world economic crisis through unemployment, poverty and destruction of the welfare states, while the profits of capital are increasing and managers are pocketing millions in bonus payments. Who, if not the left will call this reality by its name as a “class war from above”?
On the other hand, in the face of the crisis, the discourses of class politics are experiencing a renaissance. Yet today, the terms of “class” and “confrontation of classes” refer to a new and above all global reality. There is thus no way back to the “Golden Age” of Fordist capitalism. Even if it deploys some it its traditional terms, the left must not be nostalgic.
New technologies, new labour relations, socio-structural changes, the pending climate catastrophe and the shift of world-political power relations present new challenges for political action and for forms of communication and organisation. They all must find their way into the imaginary cosmos of the left in an all-encompassing manner.
Alternatives cannot be devised in the field of economy alone. If the criticism of neoliberalism first and foremost demonstrated that neoliberalism aims at “disembedding” the economy from its social and cultural framework, it can more clearly be seen today how deformed this framework itself is. Therefore any change has to change the framework. The left has to focus on a change of mode of consumption, of relations to nature and of self-perception of the populations of the North in relation to the global South. Also this problem can be described using Gramsci’s phrase, as the need for a “political-moral reform”.
Human civilisation is facing transition to a new model of development which is full of contradictions and conflicts. The worldwide political subject which could initiate this transition has not yet developed. It must arise from present-day and future struggles.
The genesis of a global political subject of transformation and the development of a progressive hegemony thus represent two sides of the same historical processes.
Having drawn attention to this question and having created space for the debate is a substantial merit of the World Social Forum. The problem is even more relevant today than it was ten years ago. Moreover, many of the protagonists of the process today feel the necessity to go one step further. From “celebrating” their diversity they want to arrive at a joint capacity for political action. To take this step it is necessary to arrive at an understanding around the strategic centrality of certain struggles. Centrality here means something other than organisational centralism.
The Social Forum is trying to meet the need for an orientation towards action with modifications of the programme and of the forms of decision-making. Perhaps these changes are not far-reaching enough. Although it does not claim monopoly status, the World Social Forum will in the second decade of its existence still be the most important space in which the requisite debates around this problem can take place.