In the year 2000, when the World Social Forum was conceived, when the Seattle and other mobilisations shook the Bretton Woods institutions and the neo liberal system, the focus was on global popular resistance, on what we do not want. The World Social Forum appeared on the global scene with a slogan of hope, of the need for a vision “Another World is possible”. Global discourse rallied around this slogan, to envisage a better world, an alternative to neo-liberal globalisation and capitalism. Global media called this upsurge the new superpower of global public opinion. Social/peoples movements internationalised the resistance against neo-liberal globalisation, and were the backbone of the mobilisations in the social forums everywhere.
15 years later, the global situation has changed, essentially as a partial victory of this resistance, although this fact has not been enough acknowledged. In many countries popular parties came to power; in many countries, social movements found themselves in a position where they could influence and drive policy. If they wished. The world has not changed dramatically, but global civil society, the anti-globalisation, anti- capitalist movements and political parties have made a space, found a voice, in many parts of the world. Some parties which had actively supported the Social Forum were elected to power. Left of centre governments had to take into account what popular movements were demanding. If the ruling party was resistant, opposition parties built relationships with popular movements. And the question all of them had to address was: What is the other world to actually look like on the ground? How can we actually construct the new world?
When a left/popular party comes to power, it is confronted with the task of turning their grand vision into policy. They find themselves unable to do this. And they are seen to fail for not delivering at all, or not fast enough. The schism between the party in power and the social movements then widen. Social movements need to represent the constituencies they represent, but it is difficult to move their focus from resistance to the building of alternatives. Most of them hold that it is the job of government to find a way. Policy and on-ground steps are the job of the party in power. The issue we have to address today is is: is this position still tenable? We are not convincing unless we can also answer the questions: what does your vision look like on the ground? How does it solve the big problems? How can governments implement the plan? What needs to be done first, and what later? If we don’t have answers, our vision may have to be interrogated, without fear or favour. The question we will then be asked, and not just in the mainstream discourse is: is it the vision that is flawed? Or is it the implementation mechanism? Or is it the translation of vision to policy? Is it a problem of democracy: the challenge of how to aggregate different and opposing points of view, inside a grand vision? What should be a policy towards the elite which still has economic power? What is the response when they mobilise? Can solutions only be based on political, military force?
The time has come to unbundle the vision of another world. It is time to move seamlessly, from dreams to the drawing board.
Political parties in power are faced with one more critical challenge: the issue of democracy: both internal and in governance. Besides, the acceptability and effectiveness of monolithic parties, and even single parties, seems to be over. What has been successful is political alliance with some level of diversity around a central common agenda. This is closer to the methodology and practice of social movements, not that of the older, more ‘traditional’ political parties. Internal democracy is another ‘game-changer’. It is becoming increasingly clear that both political parties and social movements have to institute organised internal democracy within itself to be really effective, strong popular and relevant. People’s participation and internal democracy are both the greatest challenge facing political parties on the left. But this is easier said than done in the prevalent culture of tradition and hierarchy which assails many left parties.
The WSF is a forum where these critical issues can be addressed by involving an immense pool of experiences and knowledge from all over the world: Firstly, by facilitating the discourse on, not just strategies of resistance, but comprehensive, ground level alternatives and solutions. Secondly the WSF is an important exercise in democracy. It fosters debates across diverse points of view, and it is an exercise in democratic decision making based on consensus. It facilitates the building the broadest possible alliances. It is an opportunity to address the critical questions about a/ methods to institute internal democracy and b/ to commit firmly to peoples participation in, not just public policy, but also the policies of the party.
This is why the WSF is still relevant today, if it commits to directly addressing these issues. We are yet to pass that milestone which will make the social forum completely irrelevant, however appealing an idea that might be. However, the open space will need to decide some key focus points, in tune with the changes in the global scenario, right now and from time to time.
Meena R Menon