WSF: Is Another World Possible?

WSF: Is Another World Possible?

At a time of economic, climatic and political crisis, advocates of social justice gathered for the annual World Social Forum to contemplate a new vision for a better world.


Belém, Brazil

The recently concluded World Social Forum is a good gauge for assessing the state of the world’s alternative social, economic and political movements. Organized in 2001 as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of global and corporate elites held in Davos, Switzerland, the WSF brings social movement organizations and activists from around the world together around the idea that “another world is possible.” If Davos represents a failed globalization from above, the WSF represents an emerging globalization from below. It’s a massive affair–this year more than 100,000 people gathered here for the five-day event. Part political convention, part carnival, part countercultural happening, the WSF serves as the center of gravity for the global justice movement that emerged in the late 1990s to contest corporate globalization.

The question on the minds of many was how to respond to what some call the “crisis of crises”–the economic, climate, political and cultural catastrophes that have engulfed the planet–and whether social movements can provide a unifying alternative vision for a better world. Economist Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South summed it up: “There is a sense of urgency and seriousness combining both pragmatism and principle. There is much less rhetoric. Things are taking place very fast outstripping what many predicted. There is a clear collapse of neo-liberalism. We have been triumphant over Davos…. Now we need alternatives and must get down to the hard work of creating them.”

Why Belém?

Even before the economic crisis broke, Belém was chosen as this year’s site to highlight environmental threats. Located sixty miles from the Atlantic on Guajara Bay in the Amazon estuary, Belém is no stranger to environmental conflicts or to impact of globalization. Originally built as an outpost of the Portuguese empire, it served for centuries as a gateway to Amazonia and shipping point for the region’s natural resources. Today it is a port of call for container ships picking up aluminum, iron ore, lumber and other riches of the rainforest.

According to climate change activist Oscar Reyes of Carbon Watch, the selection Belém was appropriate: “The deforestation issue is connected into the global negotiations and essential to dealing with climate change. The threat to the Amazon–an area that contains half the remaining rainforest in the world–is not primarily from small-scale deforestation, it’s pulp mills, mining, cattle, soy, and agrifuels. You can make sense of that in Belém where these are real and live issues.”

Hard economic times and the remoteness of the location skewed the turnout this year–the vast majority of the participants were from Brazil and Latin America–but there were still healthy contingents from every continent. While most of the 5,808 participating organizations were from Latin America, about 1,600 were drawn from the rest of the world, including 491 from Europe, 489 from Africa, 334 from Asia and 155 from North America. In addition to the rank-and-file participants, the presidents of Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay also made appearances.

The WSF also chose to highlight the Amazon’s indigenous people. Their attendance was not a folkloric touch: in marches and other events, indigenous participants demanded that their concerns be addressed and that their struggle for cultural survival be part of the global justice movement. From their perspective, the “other world” the WSF envisions must include space for those who have made a different pact with modernity.

This forum carried on its tradition of logistical chaos. The 2,310 “self-organized seminars” and other events were spread out over two university campuses along the banks of the river about a mile and a half apart and a few miles from the center of the city. Some participants complained of spending more time ferrying back and forth between campuses in taxis, buses and on a flotilla of old riverboats than they did in meetings.

The global economic meltdown made the Belém forum different from previous ones. The WSF and the global justice movement were formed in the expansive phase of globalization; now they must adapt to global economic contraction and impending environmental disaster. This year’s participants know that they were right about the failure of corporate-led globalization, but they also know that just saying no is no longer adequate. The prospects of a global wave of beggar-thy-neighbor currency devaluations and destructive trade policies in response to the crisis and the revival of virulent nationalism loomed over the discussions. Many wondered if what was once dubbed the “anti-globalization movement” could produce a global response based on global solidarity.

Impacts of the Global Crisis

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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