A Few Considerations for the World Social Forum

, by  Canet Raphael, Pierre Beaudet

From one crisis to the next

The WSF started at the turning of the century in the wake of the first massive economic and financial crises created by neoliberal globalization, which affected the peripheral nations of world-systems theory (Mexico, Brazil, Asia, Russia). The forum is composed of many organisations and activists that participate in massive rallies against free trade agreements, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G8. The WSF is therefore a place to assemble and articulate struggles; a place to create and share alternative propositions for neoliberal globalization. Neoliberal globalization reached a new stage following the financial, economic, social, and political crisis of 2008: a crisis which has struck the center of the global capitalist system, demanding a reform of the balance of power. This crisis incited a new cycle of social struggles which began in Maghreb with the “Arab Spring” in 2011, and continued with protest demonstrations in Europe and the Occupy movement in North America. Since then, the forum has witnessed escalating confrontation across the planet, between the global oligarchy (the 1% monopolizing almost 50% of global wealth) and the people of the world. What is the place and the role of the WSF in the changing balance of power on a global scale? In what manner does the relationship between new emerging movements and the WSF operate? How can the WSF be certain that local conflicts are equally supported? What new challenges does the WSF face and how can it contribute to the construction of a world that is united, fair and sustainable? The following five proposals were created to further develop these debates.

First proposal : To avoid the trap of identity politics

Identity politics and scapegoat theory were often used to divert popular attention from the real issues of society. To avoid responding to social issues that denounce the inequalities and injustices of the system, the oligarchy instead poses the identity question. This diversion strategy was clearly used in 2011, a peak time for mass protests against neoliberal globalization (April 2011, in Quebec against the FTAA; June in Gothenburg against the EU; July in Genoa against the G8). The events of September 11 enabled a neoconservative shift on neoliberal globalization. In the name of the War on Terror, a crusade draped in the questionable rags of “just war”, the oligarchy was able to continue its enterprise, extending the global market by force. On one hand, we continue to sign free trade agreements, and on the other, we repress all forms of social protest while demonizing Islam. Recent events in France and Canada are once again contributing to the escalation of violence and excessive security measures, encouraging xenophobia, hatred of “the other”, and paving the way for the darkest extremism. To avoid the trap of this question of identity is to reaffirm the centrality of the social question. The veil covering the clash of civilizations must be lifted, to better acknowledge the relevance of class conflict. Faced with the globalization of a capital widening the gap of social inequalities, a globalization of resistance has emerged, to which the WSF has contributed by promoting the conference of movements and the articulation of conflict. We must pursue this essential dynamic. In these uncertain times, the global oligarchy will not hesitate to rekindle old xenophobic and racist demons, pitting us against one another. The solidarity of the people emerges with an advantageous urgency. For this reason, it is crucial we come together in great numbers in Tunis for the next WSF (March 24-28, 2015) to express our solidarity with the Tunisian people and more importantly with the people of Maghreb-Machreq, who remain in the heart of the storm. Widespread international participation at the WSF in Tunis will be the best response to intolerance, the fear of “the other” and xenophobic and racist cultural entrenchment.

Second Proposal : To overcome the North-South divide

The oligarchy reigns by dividing us, whether within our respective societies or between different regions of the world. The Orient against the Occident, the East against the West, the North against the South - such divisions create gulfs between people and fuel oppositional identities. We must not give in to this fragmented conception of the world and of humanity. There are no developed or undeveloped sides of the world. There is only one world and it is badly developed. Social inequality is increasing everywhere. Henceforth, there is no difference between the North and the South. If the Oligarchy today is universal, mobile and deterritorialized, then poverty is spreading inexorably across vast territories whose borders we cannot escape. But we all share the same humanity and the same homeland. Despite those who still want to make us believe our near-sighted leaders, no one can avoid the global dangers which await. Climate change, migratory pressures, and speculative crises will remodel the map of the world. Overcoming these divides, the North-South polarity in particular, will stop the anchoring of problems and solutions to specific regions of the world. Today, it is important to unite all positive global energy, to share innovative experiences and to mutualise the specific advances of different movements. Through this perspective the organisation proposed, for the first time since its creation, a World Social Forum in a northern country (in Montreal, Canada, August 2016). This would permit the social movements and organizations of the northern hemisphere to benefit from the mass momentum of the WSF; to shake conservative political structures, which halt all social innovation. For this monumental task, the social movements of the North need the dynamism and the experience of the movements of the South. Imagine for a moment what the world could be with a progressive North America and Europe…

Third proposal : promoting the reunion of social and environmental justice

The topic of a collective program and articulating social issues has been the at the very heart of substantive discussions on the purpose and practicality of the WSF since its foundation. The Charter of Principles for the WSF was partly created to answer this question after the first WSF in Porto Alegre. However, the WSF is not a deliberative space in itself, and therefore no one can speak on its behalf. Beyond the question of strategy and orientation, a question of power arises here, spreading the World Social Forum’s unfortunate tendency to recover to partisan purposes. This power struggle may appear futile or counter-productive; it is clear to us that the WSF will not change the world, but rather its participants. And if the fratricidal struggle on behalf of solidarity among people is surprising, it certainly stops a large number of young activists, only a few supporters of regimentation. Nonetheless, it is essential to look past the debate as to whether the WSF is a meeting place for the antiglobalization movement or a real actor in social change. Identifying a platform of common demands, or at least shared values, that allow different components of the antiglobalization movement to meet and act together, is important. On this point, it appears as if the history of the WSF is seeing a gradual merging of the classic theme of social justice and the more recent theme of environmental justice. In fact, clearly derived from the critique of neoliberalism, the WSF strengthened its anti-imperialist component following the massive mobilizations against the war in Iraq in 2003. Then, the WSF in Belém (2009) enabled the two to combine, with environmental demands and the respect of Mother Earth long-held by the aboriginal people of South America. The notion of the destruction of civilization then unfolded to encompass this radical critique of the occidental model - a model that far from leading mankind to paradise on earth, plunged the future into darkness. Since then, the evolution of international climate negotiations are revealing the incapacity of the oligarchy to make necessary changes, making the contribution of social movements and forums even more essential. Here in the Anthropocene Era, we have the responsibility to act and to build a sustainable world. The inaction of our governments on this issue contributes to the legitimacy crisis. Promoting a conference around the construction of a just, sustainable, and inclusive modern society may be viewed as a major contribution to a global civil society and the future of humankind. The next Climate Change Conference (COP 21), which will take place in Paris next december will be an excellent opportunity to take action.

Fourth proposal: preserving openness and respect of diversity

However, the description of a common set of values and the unmistakable will to implement principles of social and environmental justice is no excuse to avoid the question of power. This question is fundamental to reflect on the aspirations that have emerged in the wake of new movements springing from the wave of indignation and activity that has been sweeping the world since 2011. The “Arab Spring”, in effect, paved the way for a multitude of movements, triggering a new cycle of social struggles. More spontaneous, horizontal and innovative, focusing on new technology and social media, decentralized and structured around affinity groups, these new movements attracted a precarious youth. This generation is often disaffiliated and hit hard by the economic crisis and the social consequences of austerity measures. It is important to understand these new forms of mobilization in order to avoid the trap of the avant-garde and to avoid extending the generational divide to the activist world, which is already very present in our societies. This difference of perspective in regards to the principles of organizing movements has been present in the operation of the WSF since its origins. It is particularly evident in the coexistence of two areas: the WSF and the Intercontinental Youth Camp. This dichotomy peaked in 2005 during the WSF in Porto Alegre where 19 intellectuals signed the Porto Alegre Manifesto, which outlined 12 proposals for another possible world. While this group of 19 appeared to speak for the 150 000 WSF participants, in the youth camp, which gathered 35 000 young people to the heart of the WSF site, the resonating slogan was “rather than a mass solution, a mass of solutions”. Is it to say that these youth, or even the thousands of participants of the WSF in 2005 did not endorse the proposals of the group of 19 intellectuals? Not at all, on the contrary in fact. The problem was not of substance but rather of form, in the manner of completion. In fact, the challenge lies in consistency. It is not enough to criticise the principle of representation when it is detrimental and to praise it when we benefit. This type of pragmatism is very discouraging for youth, who lack integration and are suspicious of all forms of distortion or manipulation. In order for the WSF to keep up with new emerging movements and continue to inspire a new political culture focused on participation, it must respect the diversity of tactics and strategies and promote the autonomy of groups and initiatives. This was the genius of the WSF; to provide a global meeting place, built at a local level, for diverse actors of change. The difference should not be seen as a separation. Rather it is the temptation of individuality, even in the name of supposed efficiency, that must be avoided. This critique of single thought was one of the central themes that contributed to the rise of the anti-globalization movement at the turning of the century. Do not replace it with a single alternative.

Fifth proposal: prioritize the process beyond the event

Rather than a proposing a collective program developed by one enlightened forward thinker and applied by dedicated activists, the WSF promotes the rise of a participative political culture that stimulates transformative initiatives and brings together new communities. This implies abandoning the pyramidal model of organization choosing instead to function as a network. Now, for a network to function optimally and improve, it needs moments of assembly, congregation and exchanges. This is something that the oligarchy, with its World Economic Forum and many icons, understands very well. All is about relationships. It would be valuable to concieve the position of the WSF with this in mind. This will remove any differentiation between a locational-forum and an acting-forum. The WSF is above all else a moment of congregation for the antiglobalization movement - one that allows people to better discern issues and solutions, strengthen existing networks and construct new alliances, rally new enthusiasms and showcase ongoing struggles, to share successes and to anticipate the challenges to come. We must therefore make the WSF through its duration, one specific event within a broader process of social transformation. This transformation relies on an abundance of actions on various fronts : social, political, cultural, global, national, local... In this aspect, we must extend social forums to every level (global, national, regional, local…), because they each constitute moments that allow other movements to meet and create visions that work in harmony. This also enables movements to organize and coordinate their actions. However, this is not to say that the WSF should substitute or try to hide other forms of transformative action. Political parties and progressive governments also have their place in the fight against the global oligarchy. The reforms undertaken over the past 10 years by the governments of the new Latin American left, just like the more recent anti-austerity policy of Syriza in Greece, have their place and are fundamental to the overall process of world transformation. A dynamic and creative civil society is capable of organizing itself from a local to a global level, while protecting itself from the power struggles that necessarily arise from a desire to prioritize the struggles and causes.

Practicing solidarity in the 21st century

In these perilous times, when the global oligarchy will stop at nothing to defend its privileges, it is vital to maintain a spirit of hope. To break the cycle of violence, which fuels the reinforcing of security in our governments, the stigmatisation of foreigners and the trivialization of hate speech. To overcome the divisions and antagonisms that tend to isolate problems, regionalize struggles and divide the family of humankind. To build a unifying global vision of demands for another world. To open our horizons to new possibilities and to work with a mindset of inclusion, rejecting the strategy to divide and conquer. To strengthen the immense undertaking of opposing the domination of the global oligarchy, but also to reinforce proposals to build a better world, a new way of living and to consider next, a more harmonious relationship with our environment. The oligarchical project of neoliberal globalization has driven to the division of humanity. To draw on the provocative title of a recent work, the 30s are back and the left is in the fog, more than ever the practice of solidarity is necessary to break from extremist and fratricidal speech. Today we need a revolutionary youth, not only a youth revolt. The key to our future lies in our youth. We must not neglect them. The revolution should not be a reaction, but a creation.

Raphael Canet and Pierre Beaudet