WSF: Is Another World Possible? | The Nation


WSF: Is Another World Possible?

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Impacts of the Global Crisis

About the Author

Brendan Smith
Brendan Smith is an journalist, oysterman and labor activist. He is co-founder of Global Labor Strategies, a consulting...
Tim Costello
Tim Costello is, with Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, co-author of the new book Globalization From Below: The Power...

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There was general agreement that the economic meltdown is spilling over national borders, but it is unfolding at a different pace and in varied ways across the world.

Gautam Mody ,of India's New Trade Union Initiative, told The Nation that "given the sheer number of irregular workers, most on contract, in India the crisis is as yet invisible...but millions of these workers have been pushed off the shop floor." These layoffs go largely unrecorded and workers receive no benefits. And Kjeld Jacobsen, of the Social Observatory in Sao Paulo, said that despite obvious signs that the crisis will rival that of the 1930s, "it's still hard to convince some workers of the severity of the coming crisis because it is just beginning."

In continental Europe, the crisis is still dubbed the "financial crisis," an indication that it is not yet being felt in the so-called "real economy" of everyday life. Bruno Ciccaglione, an Italian trade unionist, told us that "in the US the crisis helped to delegitimize the political class and particularly the Bush administration. But in Europe many of the governments that were very weak before the crisis--like Sarkozy in France, Brown in the UK and to some extent Berlusconi in Italy--came out stronger as a result of their economic packages and solutions, so the delegitimization of the political class for the moment has not occurred. But it will as the crisis moves into the real economy." The current strikes in France in response to large-scale layoffs are an indication that things are changing fast in Europe, he added.

There is also widespread worry in Europe over a possible right-wing backlash. Norwegian political activist Asbjorn Wahl explained why: "We have strong right-wing parties in many European countries, including my own country where they get almost 35 percent of the vote--and about that much of the working-class vote. If we don't come up with good alternatives that address people's needs, we may see that grow. It's a race between the right and the left, and at the moment, and for the last ten years, the right is gaining more. We have a history of the right taking over during in a crisis in Europe."

A recurrent theme in many of the discussions was that elites could use the crisis to reinvent capitalism in new and insidious ways. And many from developing countries raised concerns that the emerging crises piled onto to the longstanding crises of global poverty, migration and access to basic human needs like healthcare and clean water could have a devastating impact.

Networks of Networks

The World Social Forum has played an essential role in the "post-Seattle" world (a reference to the 1999 confrontation between anti-globalization activists and the World Trade Association) by serving as a center of gravity for a movement comprised of a diverse array of organizations, each with its own issues, agendas, programs and constituencies and with a global geographic spread. The WSF has been an incubator for the creation of many successful advocacy networks focused on specific issues related to labor, trade, finance, migration, the environment, human rights, poverty and alternative economic organizations. But there has been limited interaction among these networks. The networks remained "trapped in their own silos," in the words of one forum speaker.

That changed this year. A major push for "cross-network convergence"--creating networks of networks--dominated much of the discussion, and could mark a new stage in the global justice movement's development. French activist Ameile Cannone, of the Seattle to Brussels Network, described it this way: "The context is different; we face a global crisis, people have decided to put that at the center of their activities. It's a real opportunity to work across networks, a great first step to start working on climate, labor and development issues I don't think it would have been possible before and for us this is really a good step."

There is a great deal of work to be done. For instance, the discussion in Belém among labor organizations demonstrated that they have still not found ways to integrate action on climate change--something that will change the way their members live and work--into their daily strategies and practices. Indeed, the climate issue rarely came up in debates about labor's future, but when pressed most acknowledged it as a critical trade union issue.

It was also clear that environmental activists need to develop a better understanding of the effects of climate change mitigation on employment if they are to build lasting alliances with unions. Only a few trade unionists attended the climate change network meetings and only a few climate change activists attended the labor gatherings. But those exchanges are likely to increase as a result of actions taken in Belém

G-20 and Copenhagen

Amid the usual anti-capitalist boilerplate, the closing statement of the Bel& eacute;m Forum, says: "The challenge for the social movements is to achieve a convergence of global mobilization. It is also to strengthen our ability to act by supporting the convergence of all movements striving to withstand oppression and exploitation."

Two upcoming events will test this new commitment to "convergence:" the G-20 Economic Summit, to be held in London at the end of March, and the climate treaty talks, to be held Copenhagen in December. There is a general sense that these events offer a crucial opportunity for popular movements to mobilize and make their voices heard.

As for the future of the World Social Forum, it remains a flawed but essential institution of global civil society. Critics believe it has become too big and unruly--a carnival rather than a political gathering. It is not a setting for serious policy debates. And there has always been tension between those who would push the forum to be more of a social actor and those that want the forum to remain an "open space" for building relationships and sharing ideas. On her way home, Haeyoung Yoon, of the New York-based CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities as well as the Grassroots Global Justice Network, reflected on this tension: "The Social Forum has to be different. It should be an open space, but a partisan open space." Finding that balance in a time of crisis will be difficult.

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