There is an unmistakeable seduction that works to suck one into the global common good. Chief among the weapons of seduction is the lyricism of international mnemonics, which works like sacred chant and catechism: Porto Alegre, Seattle, Cancun, Mumbai, “another world is possible”, “democratise the budget”, “ethical globalisation”, Miami, Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), World Social Forum, WTO, IMF, World Bank, World Economic Forum, civil society, marginalised groups, “giving a voice to the voiceless”, “the indispensable nation”, and so on.
There is the thrill of the parallel sessions to the state-sponsored summits, the feelgood oneness of the protest marches, the delightful fringe groups, the right-ofcentrists, the benign Islamists, the occasionally pinko Hindutvavadis, the champagne socialists, the oddities of every flavour and hue. The party is a magnificent one. The euro-dollars flow. The presses clatter. Digital flashes record the moment onto gleaming Sony Memory Sticks’. It is the kandy-koloured kadillac, but now spray-painted with the tones of khaki and khadi. The mission is a globe-spanning one. The need is to create a network of networks and a movement of movements.
It is a valuable idea but there are dangers, which have been made clear by all variety of participants and observers ever since the eruption that was the first World Social Forum in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001. Is it all becoming too centralised? Speaking with too homogenous a voice? Being identified with too visible a set of locations? Moving towards a secretariat when all that it opposes also have secretariats, thus becoming the opposite of a network?
That ‘other world’ is mine
Are there emerging struggles for power within the WSF, undertones of political intrigue? The questions are endless and many come from within. Viewed antiseptically, the concept of civil society rests on the fundament of single-issue activism. Yet the World Social Forum and its habitués indicate the opposite is always true, and even were it not so before, the immutable logic of its slogan—”another world is possible”—makes it so now.
If we follow the argument that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, then isn’t one person’s civil society group another’s pressure group? Yes, of course. In fact, when it is said that civil society must be recognised as a new force in international politics, the implicit meaning is a certain kind of civil society, in other words a certain kind of political movement. Why should this be the case? Because a descriptive term is being misused as an ideological or moral one.
But this is getting ahead of the argument. Let us look at the charter of the World Social Forum. This document describes the forum as “a permanent process of seeking and building alternatives” and “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism…”
There is a substantial amount of feelgood declamation that talks about a “plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context” and so on. If one decides to critically edit the intent and concentrate on the content however, the conclusion one arrives at is that the World Social Forum, by its own definition of itself, is prohibited from embarking on any meaningful action. “The meetings of the World Social Forum do not deliberate on behalf of the World Social Forum as a body”, explains the charter. “No one, therefore, will be authorised… to express positions claiming to be those of all its participants. The participants in the Forum shall not be called on to take decisions as a body… on declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority, of them and that propose to be taken as establishing positions of the Forum as a body. It thus does not constitute a locus of power…”
How open is this meeting place? At the 2001 Forum, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which has been carrying on a long-standing armed struggle against the Colombian government and which is the main target of the US’s massive Plan Colombia, were kept out. At the forum a year later, the Cuban delegation was not given an official status nor a prominent role (however, one gathers, their cigarillos were appreciated). The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, battling ferocious US efforts at overthrowing his elected government, was not invited to WSF 2003. He decided to turn up nevertheless, to find himself shut out of from the official forum, despite his evident popularity among the participants.
The WSF’s diversity has its limits, and they far too often resemble the hierarchical boardroom-like universe of the multinationals, the very ones who are spreading the globalisation the forum is disturbed by. The forum, does however, need to be just as global, as Candido Grzybowski, one of the key organisers of the WSF in Porto Alegre, said recently, “We cannot remain only in Porto Alegre. Asia is half of humanity, we need to be there and be in tune with the people there, their needs and their demands”. Encouraged by the success of the Porto Alegre jamborees, the WSF organisers have been trying systematically to expand the forum’s influence even further. They have recently organised an Argentina Social Forum meet in Buenos Aires, a European Social Forum in Florence, a Palestine Thematic Forum in Ramallah, an Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad, and an African Social Forum in Addis Ababa. It is as part of this “internationalisation” process that the WSF bodies (the Brazilian Organising Committee and the International Council) decided to hold the next WSF gathering in India. “They see problems there we don’t have”, said Grzybowski of India. “And so the WSF in Mumbai will be looking at issues such as casteism and religious fundamentalism that we do not face a lot”. He thinks that moving the WSF to India “will be like a laboratory— it is a risk, but it is important for the WSF to take that risk”.
“Laboratory” and “risk” in the same sentence may well sound like a specialist fund manager debating whether to invest money in a biotech start-up. Moving to Asia however is critical in view of the aims of the WSF and its organisers. What after all are the reasons for these large assemblies of social movements, such as the WSF, the European Social Forum and their various transcontinental variations? They were specifically created as an alternative to meetings of global business and political elites, such as the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. However, they are not simply an anti-summit hodgepodge of rallies and raucousness. They have specific functions.
“The fact is that we were brought to the WSF so we could listen—not so the rank-and-file could participate”, says Hebe Bonafini, head of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an organisation of the mothers of those ‘disappeared’ by the Argentinean military dictatorship of 1976-83. The organisers aim to establish their credibility as leaders of the social movements. In this, once again, they blend into the behaviourism that defines the opposition. There is more, however the similarity with the global business forums also suggests that these activists see themselves as equivalent to the global business leaders. ‘Global’ is a touchstone of a word in this universe —one hears a great deal of “global civil society” or “global governance” or “global partnerships”. It is an evolving model, a work-in-progress, but one whose shape is beginning to reveal itself. The model implies that there are three main actors in global politics—global business, national governments, and transnational non-governmental groupings or organisations. Taken to its logical conclusion, the global governance model implies that this trinity should run the world together. The WSF in fact has also been cynically defined as a Greenpeace-Shell World Government.
As a supranational, non-governmental body that seeks to shape the global agenda, with no accountability to and far removed from those whose daily lives are affected, such a beast would be about as relevant to a just vision of governance as a winged sphinx is. Like the World Economic Forum, a WSF that is proceeding down an evolutionary path offers an informal, fluid and yet centralised networking environment for the globally influential—in this case, those in the ‘nonprofit’ and ‘movement’ sectors. Such influence on the world stage can soon translate into a power that rivals or may even exceed that of nation-states. That is perhaps the meaning of the “risk” referred to earlier.
Monopolising the movement
The Research Unit for Political Economy, a Mumbai-based group concerned with analysing various aspects of the economic life of India and its institutions, devoted its latest issue to the WSF and its provenance. “No less than three World Social Forums have taken place; they are only the beginning. The World Social Forum is a ‘permanent process’, one that is to spread to new parts of the world…” noted the group. “If one could quantify discussion, unprecedented quantities have been generated by the first three meets. Yet, in stark contrast to the movement to which it traces its birth, the WSF has not yielded a single action against imperialism. However, in entangling many genuine forces fighting imperialism in its collective inaction, the WSF serves the purpose of imperialism”.
Still, let us not be mealy-mouthed about the grandness of the vision that unfolds with each successive forum, each parade of multi-kulti world citizenry, each orgy of speechifying in the name of all those who are otherwise too occupied with survival to be there. Of all the new models that seek to establish a global authoritarianism (remember “with us or against us”?), the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) can be said to be the most avant-garde. It is certainly not alone in its quest to “further economic growth and social progress”, which is the flip side of “another world is possible”. Institutions from the World Bank to the European Union to the US military-industrial-media-government complex share the same pursuit. What sets the WEF apart is its deft use of the weapons of mass seduction. To borrow its own language, the WEF’s membership meets in “a unique club atmosphere”, and does so “to shape the global agenda” or to “mould solutions” with the aim of controlling socio-politico-economic processes to its own advantage. This is potentially dangerous stuff.
The Mumbai Resistance 2004 clearly thinks so, but has couched its views on the WSF in language that does much to indicate just how mainstream the Forum is seen to be by some grassroots organisations. The tone is polite but with an almost professorial irritation to it, as if from a senior member of the struggle against imperialism to a flashily-dressed upstart. “We find that the WSF, as it is structured – only for ‘reflective thinking’ without conclusions and plans for action – does not allow for the development of a clear anti-imperialist perspective”, says a recent Mumbai Resistance (MR) update.
The MR’s position is explained clearly; its logic vis-à-vis the universe of the Forum is laid out transparently, and above all its credentials as a coalition of groups that have fought and continue to fight the organs and executioners of world neoliberal government are evident. There is no waffling here, no recourse to a collegial atmosphere occasionally punctuated by pithy slogans. “Though the WSF claims through its charter to be against ‘all forms of imperialism’, it has in fact no clear understanding regarding this, nor are those in the leadership of WSF actually against imperialism in practice”, states the MR manifesto. “Further the charter of the WSF itself restricts constituent organisations to non-violent forms of struggle. It specifically closes the door on all other forms of struggle. At a time when the growing aggression of the imperialists has forced the masses in numerous places to resort to more and more militant forms of struggle, such restrictions can only serve to divide the forces standing up against imperialism”.
Who is the Mumbai Resistance? Among the list of “initiators”, as they are called by the MR, is the International League for Peoples’ Struggles, World Peoples’ Resistance Movement, South Asia, Anti-Imperialist Camp (Austria), Bayan (Philippines), Confederation of Turkish Workers in Europe, Militant Movement (Greece) as non-Indian partners. Then there are the All India Peoples Resistance Forum, Bharat Jan Andolan, Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, and Lokshahi Hakk Sanghatana among the Indian partners. The initiators seek to turbocharge the ‘anti-imperialist’ movement in India, using an Indian idiom and context, and spur international mobilisation against the growing concentration of capitalist forces across the globe and the ravages of their globalisation. The MR can see no other way out of the Western neoliberal dungeons in which we wander, apparently unfettered in the choices we may exercise in the shopping malls that showcase the baubles of globalisation, but certainly imprisoned thereby.
What these groups see, singly and together, is a cold futility in the processes that underlie the WSF and other allied fora. The “another world is possible” mantra does little to either light up or relieve the bleak landscape of the current international socio-economic structure. The remedy sought is a “total break from all controls, domination and subjugation by imperialism and the institutions of the world capitalist system – such as World Bank, IMF, WTO, TNCs”. The MR is for socialism, revolution, proletariat, nationalism, class struggle and action versus capitalism, reform, bourgeoisie, imperialism, civil society and reflection. its opposition is at work on several fronts, and in its repudiation of all these it is ruthless.
And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek
Of wind is flying through the court of state;
‘Here’, it proclaims, ‘there dwelt a potentate,
Who would not hear the sobbing of the weak.
– Tenth-century Arab poet al-Maarri
Peter Waterman, author of Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms, and a critical observer of the genesis and processes of the world of such fora, has described the MR as “a counterhegemonic movement from the period of national-industrial- colonial capitalism. This was a machine-age capitalism, and it gave rise to mechanical interpretations of Marxism. MR belongs, more specifically, to the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ (Maoist) tendency…”
Regardless of tendency, and resisting the urge to ‘locate’ the MR in an ideological matrix, the truth is that the MR approach is immediately refreshing when compared to the soup-thick fug that is the sum and substance of the pronouncements which emanate from the WSF and its allied gatherings. Like ectoplasm issuing from the mouth of a medium, the resolutions and calls to arms (whose arms? against whom?) are fascinating, but all too often dissipate into nothingness. Compare this with the robustness of the MR line. It is “totally opposed to the privatisation and disinvestment policies of governments”, it “unequivocally rejects the foreign debt accumulated by the anti-people rulers of the oppressed nations”, it “opposes the massive attack on the working class throughout the world, taking place under the signboard of globalisation”.
This is far from empty rhetoric, for it is backed by an impressive history of grassroots work. The Zapatistas of Mexico say that by asking questions we walk, and indeed the constituents of the MR bring with them a raft of questions. For them, human history and cultures have devised many different ways to allow individuals and communities to access a myriad of livelihoods, and to share them or exchange them among themselves. This is an interdependent social construction, a world, that needs to contain and encourage many ways to access different sorts of livelihoods. But the forces in our world are a sometimes brutal, sometimes dangerously charming combination of states, armies, police, transnational corporations and media that deny the different livelihoods, one after another, with just as much regularity as we see free trade agreements signed, contingent credit lines renewed, sovereign currency crises engineered, and hear of hopelessly indebted farmers who hang themselves from trees.
For the real ‘other world’, turn left
It is a fundamental critique of the WSF that its organisers appear to be rushing the process, attempting to establish themselves as the leadership of a movement that has developed without their participation in the first place. That they are adopting such an approach instead of taking the grassroots route, which takes some time to build up, has been pointed out by several observers from within and without the anti-capitalist universe. In a series of letters made public on the Indymedia UK website, Professor MD Nanjundaswamy, president of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), which is a farmer’s union in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, made clear that the KRRS could not participate in the Asian Social Forum because it “expresses its dissatisfaction about the way in which ASF is being launched by NGOs little known by the people of India”.
Tariq Ali, a longstanding editor of the New Left Review and author of more than a dozen books on history and politics, is not particularly critical of the WSF and its processes but sees the export of its model to Asia as ill-timed and probably unnecessary. “Just for the sake of moving to another continent, on this curious ground that this might trigger our social movements in India, I am not convinced by that argument”, he has said in an interview. Ali does however favour “a regional social forum in Asia, like the one held in Hyderabad”. Ali’s view appears to be that the WSF, as a product of Latin America, is a tool best utilised there and that, “maybe in five to six years time it could shift, but at the moment I think it is a mistake—I don’t think that there is that degree of mobilisation in India, from social movements or the Left, which is necessary to maintain such an enterprise”. For the practioners of the parallel, as the MR will be in January 2004 in Mumbai, the issue is not at all whether the scope for mobilisation for the Forum is there, or about who stewards the movement. The issue is one that provokes the thousands of localised assaults against the world economy model in place today. The andolans, the sanghas, the morchas and the sanghatanas—whatever their size and scope and ambit—are raising their voices against the all-encompassing market and its deadly side-effects, against the merciless tide of economic globalisation, the monstrous dominance of financial capital, and the crushing weight of national debt.
Can the Forum and the fora it has spawned ever be truly representative of an internationalism of the future? Examine the architecture. The Forum itself is a ‘mela’ in which there are a few large, well-lit and noisy circus tents. The media and the pundits converge on the biggest and brightest of the tents because it is in here that the luminaries of the new world social order are holding forth, and in attendance are the celebrities who endorse the “another world is possible” tagline. Around this central glitter are scattered dozens upon dozens of seminars, workshops, plenaries and what-have-yous organised by social movements, political organisations, academic institutions and even individuals. The marginal events compete for visibility, for actual real estate, for translators, equipment, and their subject matter often overlaps with or even reproduces those of others. Yes, it is gloriously plural, but rampant pluralism does not make for a statement or a course of action that would necessarily engage the attention of a member of the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha.
Nor would such a member swallow uncritically the notion that the rapid growth of NGOs/civil society is a social phenomenon. Earlier, financing by international financial institutions and governments went essentially to NGOs whose role was to accompany the dismantling of public utilities and services (NGOs active in the areas of medical care, education and garbage collection, for example). What is new today is that an increasing share of this financing goes to NGOs which the World Bank says are organisations that promote “social causes” and “social protest movements”. This can of course be read as a euphemism for political action.
The mission of such civil society – a term that is impregnated heavily with moral symbolism, and which seems to have been designed to convey the gravitas that a pillar of the new internationalism must possess – is contained not only in the tagline of the WSF but also in the meditations of the funding organisations. A reading of the World Bank’s Report on Development: 2000/2001 provides an indication: “Social tensions and divisions can be eased by bringing political opponents together within the framework of formal and informal forums, and by channelling their energies through political processes, rather than leaving confrontation as the only form of release”.
A face for globalisation or globalisation toppled, cooption or confrontation, the market or the working masses. Those are the issues that will define the difference between two sets of voices that will be heard in Bombay in January 2004. Building a civil society that can cope where nations have failed will be the continuing theme song of the World Social Forum, but the true anthem of the worldwide mass movement for social justice and equality is very likely to be heard elsewhere.