World Social Forum: space or movement? Thinking about the WSF International Council future in new perspectives

More than ten years after the first World Social Forum, in the context of the emergence of « new » mobilizations (Occupy, the Indignados, the uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world), Chico Whitaker reflects on the future of the WSF.

Although its radicalism, I consider this proposal reasonable. I hope therefore it will deserve the attention of the Working Group on the IC future.

The World Social Forum is a space or a movement? The option for a FSM-space, that is behind the principles of its Charter, was discussed more and more clearly as the World Social Forums were realized and appeared the so called « WSF process », which comprises the realization, all over the world, of general or thematic social forums on several levels.

Today perhaps one can say that this option prevailed: the Social Forums are seen generally as « open spaces » for horizontal meetings - therefore without leaders, spokespersons or hierarchies – of civil society movements and organizations aiming at, autonomously in relation to political parties and Governments, the overcoming of neoliberalism.

The invention of these « spaces » has as objective to create the conditions so that these movements and organisations could, through activities organized by themselves, recognize mutually each other and exchange analyses and experiences, respecting their diversity, as well as identify convergences and build freely new alliances and agreements, to initiate new struggles for the construction of « another world that is possible « .

The non-directive character of the Social Forums, in turn, was stated by the non adoption of « unique final statements” of all participants –intending to unify under some slogans the extreme diversity and heterogeneity of their struggles – as well as by the possibility of so many « declarations » as the many participants of the forums decide to adopt, to demarcate their own engagements.

It is in fact a new political culture, which construction is in process, becoming little by little another specific goal of the WSF « spaces ».

Ten years however have passed. Many new movements or networks of organizations emerged from the Social Forums. The economic, social and political reality of today’s world are increasing the pressure to build increasingly new « movements » and even a world movement, to make more effective the struggle for « another world ». Some « Social Forums », although structured horizontally with self-organized activities, do not resist the pressure for having final statements as if they were movements.

On the other hand, in recent years important mobilizations of civil society have emerged around the world, adopting also the organisational principle of horizontality and autonomy in relation to parties and Governments. But, despite the fact that the Social Forums are « spaces » that also belong to them, because they are civil society movements, the organizers of the forums are not finding the way to integrate them to these « spaces ».

So, without questioning the utility and even the absolute need to create increasingly « open spaces » for non directive civil society meetings, with the objectives mentioned above, it may be appropriate to resume the discussion espace/mouvement looking to take into account all these issues.

The discussion on the WSF International Council future offers us an opportunity to do so.

#The creation and evolution of the IC

The IC was created after the first WSF, on the initiative of its Brazilian organizers, to make possible that the world process that had been launched could be taken over by movements and organizations from around the world and not only from Brazil.

Initially formed with representatives from around 50 movements and organizations from different countries and sectors of civil society, this number increased, until we get presently to more or less 150.

However, its role in the WSF process has never been very clear. As a body that does not « directs » the Organization Committees of each Forum but exists above them, the IC carried with it an ambiguity that creates a permanent tension on the non-directivity of the process.

Over these ten years the iC sought to clarify its identity, its mission and its way of working. But so far it has not reached satisfactory answers and its functioning was always precarious. After three years holding its meetings in plenary sessions, with a number of participants that made difficult the debate (each member ended up with only a few minutes to speak and almost only once), it has structured itself in Commissions. At the beginning these Commissions functioned, some more other less. But today, unless one or another situation, they are virtually innefective.

The WSF counted in the beginning on a secretariat, this function being fulfilled by the Brazilian Organizing Committee, which had promoted the first WSF. The Secretariat supported also the IC operation, preparing its meetings, and maintaining the WSF site. Later these functions were transferred to an International Liaison Group, which had a Support Office in São Paulo. But at the last IC meeting, in Monastir, the Liaison Group was nearly dissolved. And an special Working Group was created, with its remnants and IC members who volunteered, to fill the only function of the Group that remained, that is to prepare the agenda of the next IC.

#Decisions taken by the IC

In fact, in recent times the only really important decision that the IC takes, besides the almost bureaucratic acceptance of new members (prepared by the Expansion Commission), is about the place of realisation of the next WSF. But this decision ends up being a simple endorsement that the IC gives to a decision built up over previous years (in which fulfils also a role the IC Expansion Commission), and that depends on a lot more of the existence of organizations and movements applying to promote a WSF in their country.

As for the Methodology – the dimension that characterises the most the novelty of the WSF - the Commission that deals with this subject and which absorbed (in my view wrongly) the Content Commission, hardly has much to say now: it was approved at the IC meeting in Copenhagen (in September 2008) a comprehensive text with Guidelines for the Organization of Forums, which details and complements the principles of the Charter with practical indications. It is still little used, and that is why some Social Forums have still « co-ordinators » rather than « facilitators » - and others have « Presidents » and even « final declarations », passing over the Charter of principles…

Of course there are always methodological innovations introduced in every World Forum, respecting the Charter, based on the experience of the previous one. But who decides in fact about these innovations is not the IC Methodology Commission but the local organisers themselves, more or less helped by members of the Commission. These organizers are also who decide to adopt a more general theme to characterize each Forum, although what will be discussed in it depends in fact on what its participants register as activity.

The Communication Commission sought to fill a role with a non-consensual understanding of its role, and the deepening of the question was hampered by the very imprecise way used by the IC to take decisions about resources to be allocated to each Committee.

The Resources Commission, in turn, initially composed also of representatives from organizations that offer funds to finance the WSF, was little by little also running out, with each Forum organizers having to claim by themselves the resources needed to carry it out, with greater or lesser help of the IC members that can do it.

Given the fact that, theoretically, the IC cannot fail to take into account, in its decisions, the changes happening in the world situation, its strategy Committee undertook the preparation of political analysis about this issue. These are complemented, when the IC meetings take place on the occasion of the forums, with presentations on the situation in the country or region in which they are held.

But in fact such analyses – and any discussions that they provoke - end up to be reduced to an opportunity to update IC members’ political views, since the IC does not have to define a strategy beyond that allowing the continued expansion of the WSF process, to reach all corners of the planet with the message that « another world is possible » (or, as we say today, « necessary and urgent »).

In this process experienced by IC something important was however obtained, for the purpose of building a new political culture: the adoption of the principle of decision-making by consensus, that allows to build the union respecting the diversity, essential for civil society – by its very nature diverse and fragmented – making possible to this new political actor to earn the force it may have. Such a union which, by the way, the left in general have to chase, if it wants to tackle effectively the giant of neoliberalism.

But the IC is in fact, now, in the WSF process, a heavy body: it is not seen with clarity the usefulness of its meetings but it must have meetings; and these meetings are expensive for organizations of the host countries and for the coming of their other members, when its dates are independent of the dates of the forums. It became almost a « white elephant ». And the worst: a dying one…

In fact, for these but also for other reasons, related to the evolution of the WSF process and to the activities of its participants, many members of the CI no more attend all of its meetings. There is a tendency to its bureaucratization, and the participants of its meetings tend to be no longer the animators or leaders of movements and organizations but their employees.

It can be said, in conclusion, that the IC is living now a deep crisis: it is significant that in its last meeting, in Monastir, which was especially difficult, a working group on its future was created, consensually; and this group, in turn, is experiencing great difficulties to carry out its task.

#What to do? A radical proposal

I dare to think that it’s time to do a « Copernican shift » in the IC, as we did in Miami when we structured it in commissions.

In fact many members of the IC which have participated more actively of its meetings are diverse and may diverge on many issues, but they constitute what we could call an affinity group, all more or less convinced that the WSF process is useful in the struggle to overcome the neoliberalism. Plus, they are united by friendship, respectful of differences and even pleasant, built in the long series of the IC meetings – something that can also happen in political action, when it seeks a new world…

People who participated in the organization of the FSMs already realized, and even of regional or national Social Foruns can be aggregated to this group. The IC have already decided to realize (in Santiago de Compostela, transferred later to Brussels) a meeting of these people, to make an evaluation of the methodology and other aspects of the WSF process. But also as a sign of the current IC difficulties, this meeting has never happened.

So, what I would like to propose is radical: in our next meeting, on the occasion of the WSF in Tunis in March 2013, decide to dissolve the CI, as it have already fulfilled the functions it could meet, and because the regional and thematic forums of the WSF process are already multiplying around the world without needing it; and the World Forums only require a world body endorsing the achievement of the following one, in the place best suited politically and with better conditions to host the event.

It is certainly a difficult decision, as it is the interruption of treatments in somebody with a terminal illness. But it makes sense if in place of the IC we create a « new movement » (which could be called, for example, « Action for another possible world » …).

We would render our homage to that IC that would disappear, thanking all its members for all the good things they have done for the WSF process over these past ten years, calling nevertheless all to come to the New Moment. And we would open up the space for the new generations, who are arriving with great force and concerned about not harbouring, in their initiatives, no trace of verticalism, which lurked the IC, we like it or not, behind its own function in the process.

With this proposal I return to the issue space/movement, but without considering it as an alternative – or space or movement - in which one eliminates the other: on the one hand the « spaces » WSF would disappear if the WSF becomes a movement; on the other, as many think, we would not have the transformative effectiveness if we only create « spaces » for exchange and convergences.

I put the question now in a relationship of complementarity - space and movement – in which the parties do not mix or dissolve into each other; they remain intact, each one with its dynamics and functions but feeding each other mutually: we would continue to create (and multiply) « spaces », as an important tool in the struggle to overcome the neoliberalism, at the same time that we would have a « movement » that would set its own strategies and specific actions so that this overrun was effective.

The more direct relationship between the two (spaces and movement) would be possible through the New Movement General Assembly, opened, with two parts, one before and another after each World Social Forum. In its first part (before the forums) would gain full sense and usefulness the political analyses, so as its militants would take into account, in the discussions to be held during the Forum, the political, social and economic reality of the world (the presentation and discussion of these analyses, that would be a Movement activity, could even be accompanied by Forum participants wishing it). And in its second part (after the forums) the Assembly would discuss the possibilities of realization of the next WSF, and would give its endorsement - which is currently given by the IC - to the decision that would be taken.

But beware: this Assembly would not be mixed up with the WSF activities being realized, with its own dynamics and its assemblies of convergence. It would be even very important to show very clearly this distinction, in order to avoid misunderstandings that can be created: the Forum is the Forum and the Movement is the Movement.

So, the participants of the Assembly would be the militants of the movement and not all the Forum participants, even if they can come to follow it. This would remove of the Forum dynamic the tension to realize an Assembly of Assemblies, at its end, with the pressure to present a « Final WSF Declaration ». Because the actions arising from the proposals discussed during the Forum, brought to their assemblies of convergence, would be assumed by the organizations that have proposed it - the « space » created by the WSF ending with it its role. And the New Movement could even incorporate them to its own strategy, if it was the case when deciding about it, making or not its own « declarations » – what it could do, if its militants would consider it possible and advisable, after the end of the WSF or even in later occasions.

#Features of the new Movement

I call this movement a New Movement because it would have to be necessarily of a new type, in coherence with the new political culture built on Social Forums: structured as a network, horizontally, as the new movements that arise everywhere, but with a global reach; making decisions by consensus, in the organisational bodies created for specific initiatives; with militants but without the appointment of leaders or spokespersons; in dialogue with parties and Governments but maintaining its autonomy in relation to them. These features would allow it to more easily integrate new social movements referred to above.

The militants of this New Movement, in parallel with the initiatives they would take to realize specific objectives, would have also, as one of their permanent goals, to multiply the creation of « open spaces », at all levels. All this could be made explicit in a possible Charter of Principles of the new movement. So, its structure could consider the establishment of specific Working Groups related to this goal, to follow for example the methodology of Social Forums or its expansion, or even the contents of the assemblies of convergence of Social Forums; or to prepare the situation analysis to be provided in their biennial meetings.

Though necessarily horizontal, it could count on « support Offices » interconnected, allocated in different countries, to facilitate a permanent intercommunication among its members.

It would create its own website and other tools for an immediate and horizontal intercommunication, allowing keeping a permanent consultative system of their militants, about decisions interesting all.

It could also seek resources specifically for its functioning, through contributions from its militants around the world and financial campaigns that the internet makes today possible. These resources could also be managed on a decentralised basis, with the « Support Offices » interconnected and with pre-established rules and mechanisms - avoiding the creation of power centres - with specific projects submitted to the query and the site ensuring complete transparency in the use of resources.