“Their crises, our solutions!” The World Social Forum and the 2008 Global Crisis.

It exploded in September 2008. It started as a circumscribed financial crisis but it soon developed into a real economy crisis. It started in the United States as a crisis of the sub-prime mortgage market, but it soon became a crisis of global proportions. While the immediate consequences seemed to generate an unprecedented loss of jobs in the capital centres of Wall Street and the London City, epitomized by the brokers of Lehman Brothers carting their boxes out of the Lehman buildings in September 2008, soon the drama of the crisis affected lower middle class house owners whose houses were repossessed at an unstoppable speed. The drama turned into tragedy when the crisis affected the labour market and deepened the food crisis turning into a full blown social crisis. With millions losing their jobs across the world and food prices soaring beyond control the ability of the weakest sectors of society to procure the necessary food for survival was dramatically challenged. It became soon clear that the 2008 crisis was of an unprecedented scale in living memory. The immediate comparison became the 1929 crisis, and that comparison contributed to paralyse world markets which braced themselves for the unthinkable. While the governments of the 8 most powerful economies prepared mammoth rescue plans and invited an enlarged group of growing economies as partners in the new restructuring of the global economy, activists the world over struggled to resist the direst consequences of the crisis. When in the most difficult moments of the crisis a flu pandemic broke out in Mexico, it seemed to many that there was no end to a dramatic change in the way life on the planet was going to be reshaped in the months to come: airports screenings and hundreds of people quarantined seemed the metaphorical images of a post-neoliberal world, one in which the myth of the progressive nature of unfettered mobility of capitals, goods and people had to give way to a renewed localisation of existence and the resurgence of the fear of the infected foreigner spreading deadly viruses.

Against this bleak backdrop, the World Social Forum (WSF) held its seventh world convention in the Amazonian city of Belem, in Brazil. Its activists convened from the four corners of the planet to share their daily struggles for survival, their critical analyses of the causes of the crisis and their alternatives to capitalism. The analytical and practical work of the world activists continued in the following month within the framework of the myriad of regional, national and local initiatives gathered under the WSF umbrella, and the crisis was at the centre of the discussions of the WSF International Council (IC) meetings. If in Belem it was recognised that the global crisis could constitute an opportunity to end the hegemony of neoliberalism, it was deemed necessary to imagine alternative paradigms of existence on the planet. Facilitated by the members of Strategy Commission of the WSF IC, the members of the IC trained themselves in exercises of imagination of alternatives for a more sustainable and humane global society. The reflections reported in the following pages were collected at the IC meetings of Rabat (May 2009), Montreal (October 2009) and Mexico City (May 2010). The structure of the following sections is as follows. First, the members of the WSF IC discussed nature and origins of the current crisis; second, they reflected on the responses by social movements around the world and their future development; third they considered the role of the WSF and of its IC in facilitating further convergence and shared reflection and actions by the world progressive movements; fourth, they acknowledged a deep crisis in the global left that affected both the WSF and its IC and thoroughly assessed possible ways out of the WSF crisis; fifthly they considered wide ranging initiatives to develop alternatives to the failing hegemonic capitalist culture, like a convergence of movements’ activists with the Bolivia lead Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth convened in Cochabamba in April 2010; finally, following the development of the WSF vision over its ten years of existence and responding to the demands to inspire a viable alternative global culture stemming from shared negotiations of social movements activists, the African organisers of the next global WSF proposed to focus the Dakar event on the imagination of a “New Universality” that is emancipatory and alternative to the exploitative and oppressing capitalist and imperial universality.

What is the crisis?

“We observe a concentration of technologies to transform the world:nanotechnology, genetic engineering, nuclear energy, mass cattle rearing for human consumption, etc. The swine flu is a metaphor of the disasters of neoliberalism, of pharmaceutical industry and of the current conceptions of health.”[1]

The complex configuration of the crisis has been at the heart of the analyses of the WSF IC members over the past months. Whereas each aspect was given attention what emerged in the conversations was an overall picture that knitted together the economic, social, cultural, financial (and others) aspects in a composite picture. The image of the swine flu was used to summarise the complexity of the interconnections of apparently unrelated and independent factors in generating a catastrophic outcome. Engaging each single aspect may result in momentary relief but not in a global solution. The dynamic relation between all aspects needs to be unlocked for the transformative solution to be accessed. Such approach would reveal, according to some, how “crisis is the form of regulation of the capitalist system. The social crisis is at the heart of the system and the ecological crisis is at the heart of the crisis of the system. These are the origins of the financial and economic crisis.” Moreover, “The economy is controlled by few actors, big companies and some governments. (…) these crises will continue to take place because of the structural nature of this” and because this “superstructure of power” is “maintained through the policies of the multilateral institutions”. A holistic approach to the crisis would expose the power dynamics it implies and their structural nature.

Further, a focus on the “horizontal” interconnections would reveal that this crisis is foremost a social crisis and it is determined by decades of “jobless growth”. “Jobless growth” is expression of the fundamental limitations of the capitalist ideology and social structures and determined a Western “civilisational crisis”. Capitalist culture, imposing itself through economic and military might as expression of the highest achievements of human rationality, was the original cause of the crisis and its transcendence is necessary to ensure a stable and durable solution. Economic and military domination are not inevitable and the latest crisis has profoundly challenged them both allowing activist spaces for the imagination of viable alternatives. Social movements and civil society organisations, it was felt, should take advantage of this window of political opportunity to promote their alternative visions of a better world.

Some members highlighted how the expression “civilisational crisis” risked to aggregate different measures of political magnitude under the same rubric and be opaque to internal complexities and differences. Someone said “I do not like civilisation crisis. Which civilisation? Western, Egyptian whatever? (…) ‘Western civilisation’ is wrong; there is American, European and more. Civilisation is a wrong term”: capitalism is going through a deep crisis, and the world is witnessing the agony of a dying empire both in the geopolitical sense and in the biopolitical one. In the former sense, the empire born after WWII is not able to regenerate any more. In the latter, the culture of consumption and competition had permeated human relations the world over and subjected and enslaved individuals at all latitudes.

The empire was not able to maintain its supremacy and its tumbling structures could be observed the world over in its attempts to gain control over resources and markets and failing in winning its wars. The change in the American administration, though it has given hopes to some, generated disappointments as expressed in the following words: “Capitalism is ever more aggressive as it is possible to observe in Gaza, Darfur, Iraq”. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge “the return of the generals in DC in this administration. They were put aside, now they came back. It is a decade long evolution of an endless war. (…) First: transforming battles for employment into civil war, see Iraq. Second: extermination wars like in Gaza and Sri Lanka, there are no more red lines and governments go all the way. Third: revamping of NATO and subalternisation of Europe. Fourth: increase in military spending in Africa (…). The weakest link in this strategy is Palestine due to the friction between different outlooks on the solution of the Israel/Palestine conflict. We need to put pressure on that contradiction with a campaign like boycott disinvestment and sanction to break and expose that contradiction and to stop the endless war.”

Given the evolution of these imperial strategies it was felt that the role of American activists is central in raising an alternative consciousness among American people. As someone put it, activists are conducting in the US “a battle for the hearts and minds of the people.” This is an “ideological battle to win the people over”. But the implications of this ideological battle are material and tangible for “capitalism has created in US tens of millions who had no future inside capitalism (…). This situation has been going on even before the crisis, the crisis has accelerated this process not started it. The rise of new shanty towns because of foreclosure, affects all colours and races. Criminalisation of the poor is the reason why the poor are not organised in the US. But the crisis has created a unique opportunity to organise as for instance previous middle classes have now no more future in capitalism and this might lead them to organise themselves and this is how we are trying to think around the United States Social Forum in Detroit as we think that Obama is neither able nor willing to make the changes we really need.”

While activists argued that the current crisis, started as a financial crisis had developed in a fully fledged civilisational crisis, others claimed that the current is not a global crisis, but an American crisis whose consequences were global. This correct attribution was deemed crucial in order to establish responsibility and to understand its origins and nature. Indeed, such crisis could have not happened anywhere else than in the US given the structure of its financial market and it cultural disposition to speculation and consumerism. Understanding this will also help to reflect on two further points. First, it was necessary to recognise that other countries, like India and China, were less affected by the crisis and following on from this observation it was crucial to recall the specificities of the left on the global crisis: “What distinguishes diagnosis and prognosis of the left is the advocacy of a more or less radical state which suggests that forms of state capitalism like those practised in China and India should be considered as readymade solutions to be embraced by the world social movements to understand and solve the current crisis”. This reading generated a line of tension with other reflections that suggested that India and China were less hurt not because of alternative policy dispositions by the Indian and Chinese governments towards the market but because of the lengthy progress through which their integration was taking place. It is therefore not appropriate to indicate India and China as models as “neither India nor China was implementing Keynesian policies. They tried to integrate in the global economy but this crisis happened before they were fully integrated that’s why they are hurt less”. Second, the reason why people in large parts of Africa were less affected, and indeed fared relatively unscathed during the crisis, was simply because they did not have much to lose. Realising this will help activists to keep clear in mind the extent to which those people are not “affected by crisis” but rather their daily life “is” lived in deeply critical conditions. Further sophisticated distinctions were added to this conversation. It was suggested that bounded geographical categories, like Africa, had to be abandoned as they hid more than revealed. While they created fictitious coherent spaces on the bases of geography they obscured the dynamics of exploitation and oppression within those spaces.

Differences notwithstanding, some analytical points recurred in the analyses reported. First, the crisis did not start in September 2008 and governments’ rescue packages are creating the conditions for new crises to arise in the future as historical experience shows. Second, “the dependence of global economy on extractive industries” generates destruction of people’s livelihoods, life, language and culture and indeed crisis like the current; the environment is the most important thing of all especially considering that “the climate crisis (…) will not rebound like the economic crisis”. Third, the poor are criminalised the world over rather than supported in their daily struggle for survival. Fourth, “this moment is an opportunity as the people will listen to us whether in other times they would not”, a moment in which the internal dynamics of the system can be exposed and radical change inspired. Fifth, complex analytical categories, like Western civilisation, North, South, and several others need to be used with sophisticated awareness to their limitations. Finally, a set of shared questions should guide analysis and inspire action. Among them, the following:  what change should it be advocated? Who would be the actors of change in the current conjuncture? What are the current resistances and responses to the crisis mounted the world over? What can be learnt from them?

Responses to the Crisis

Movements worldwide have responded to the crisis in very specific ways, but some recurring features help to draw some global trends. “The first kind of response from movements linked to WSF was a kind of celebration that yes another world is possible! We told you so! Ecstasy first, then more nuanced and realistic considerations: perhaps capitalism is only bruised and it will rise again. Ideological victory, the market cannot self-regulate itself, states have to intervene. The second wave started as unemployment hit due to fall of consumption. So, labour movements in export oriented places like China and India. This could be an ideological victory but it has dire effects on people. So we need to try to think ways to rejoice while at the same time help people to face the crisis.” What are then the alternatives, theoretical and practical, that the movements of the WSF have developed so far? What are the lessons to be learnt from those experiences of resistance?

There was a general recognition that social movements had a crucial role in proposing, and struggling for, alternative solutions that would stem from the recognition that “Capitalism is sick but does not die, it has to be killed. Capitalism revives itself after each crisis.” Moreover, and most importantly, “we must ensure that the end of the crisis is different from the latest global crisis when neoliberalism was imposed as dominant global ideology. (…) the solution to this crisis could be even worse than that.” Whereas governments propose flavours of Keynesian policies to re-establish the confidence of markets, and whereas it is legitimate to imagine that the cycle of regulation and de-regulation will lead inevitably to a next global crisis the consequences of which may be harsher than the present, it is necessary to design alternative exits from the crisis. Moreover, the Keynesian solution is “a Eurocentric proposal, colonial and racist”. Therefore, “if we do not want a solution that is more or less Keynesian we must hit capitalism. (…) as this crisis is going to be very long and unemployment is going to reach unprecedented levels, social movements must ally themselves with trade unions: work less, work all! Another focus of struggle has to be the new slavery and economic migration. As the right is putting precarious workers against migrant workers, our task is to build new strong and lasting solidarities” and coordinated struggles on social services as “common goods” in order to ignite a radical “change in production and consumption”.

Other broad institutional alternatives were proposed by some movements that wish to engage in the global design of a new global financial architecture and structure of governance. “Some movements are interested in the South Bank project of ALBA (but there are also criticisms that SB will look too much like the WB). Some say give up WB and IMF but others say we can’t do without a global finance system that has to be reformed. Perhaps a regional system of finance could be the response where civil society has a fundamental role. The Special Drawing Rights financing systems will be discussed in Rome in June [2009] and on these issues we should have a saying”. As far as the reform of the UN system is concerned, some activists stated energetically that “if we go to the UN then we can make a difference.” Although they recognise that “the inclusion of India and China in the G20 is just a token attempt to give legitimacy to the system while at the same time reduces the power of UN itself that has lost legitimacy both in finance and trade”, nonetheless they call for a wide support to the initiative of a respected intellectual and member of the IC, Francois Houtart, that was appointed as member of the Stiglitz Commission that would address, in June 2009, the UN General Assembly with a proposal for the reform of the global financial system. For these reasons it was stressed that “the UN Assembly is an important opportunity to gain voice and the Liaison Group should push the IC into the Economic and Social Council so that we can discuss from the inside the building”.

Whereas on the single strategic moves to follow there was a wide creative range of proposals, some issues generated a degree of convergence. In particular it was felt that, as the comparison with the ’29 crisis recurred in the media, it was necessary to highlight a crucial difference. Global progressive movements have a unique advantage today that they did not have then. “Unlike ’29 we have a much more integrated movement (…). We have the chance to mount a serious global challenge to capitalism”. The obvious consequence of such consideration was that “if WSF constitutes a space to catalyse such global challenge then we have a future. Movements want the WSF to promote and facilitate challenges not just analysis. Can we be innovative? Otherwise we are finished. We must harmonize the rhythm of WSF to the rhythm of movements. Otherwise movements will leave us behind.” This final warning was to inform the debates that followed on the role of the WSF vis-a-vis the crisis and the global altermondialisation movement which centre on the recognition that “today there is not only a crisis in capitalism, there is also a crisis in the left”.

The Crisis of the Global Left and the Role of the WSF

“The Paris uprising is paradigmatic, resistance had no slogan as if it had lost the words to express itself. Even at the beginning of the second intifada this group inside Israel went to the streets with no slogans. We are losing our capacity to express our political resistance and maybe this is the reason of fragmentation and maybe this has to do with de-politicisation. We cannot only blame the system as the cause of our fragmentation maybe we need to criticize ur way of organising.”

What can the role of the WSF be in the process of resisting the consequences of the crisis and inspire another world? What would be the role of its International Council? According to its mandate the IC should, among other things, disseminate information and analysis like those circulated by its Strategy Commission, stimulate the discussion, inspire and incubate new forms of action, and raise money to support its process and the global events. The WSF strength is in giving the chance to all differences to fully express themselves in a safe environment where they can get the recognition they deserve while contributing to shape a practice oriented theory of society and transformation: “the WSF is just a reflection of the movements (…), a space to think about how to face the crisis and a space to construct the exit of the crisis.” To fulfil this mandate the WSF must avoid generating closed agendas that would select among those differences generating power dynamics inside its space.

However, some activists found that the mission of the WSF had to be adapted to the changing times and stressed the need to radicalise its politics. “To save the WSF we must go against capitalism. We have to target the American system that consumes all the resources, we do not have to be like those NGOs that give some money to this woman or that kid, we need to fight western capitalism, we need to fight the culpable not use very difficult terminology, we need to fight the western system.” To fulfil this radical agenda it is necessary to organise mass mobilisations like those called by the Assembly of Social Movements during every edition of the WSF which draft global agendas of action for the following months. This debate is not new in the WSF and among its commentators and it has indeed produced a wealth of literature showing perhaps that this is the topic that excites the most the creativity of activists and social scientists of all latitudes. The debate is referred to as the space/movement debate and it tackles issues of identity and nature of the WSF and its claims to transformation. During the meetings reported here, this debate generated further comments and suggestions of mediation. A member of the strategy commission suggested that “Beyond the space/movement debate, the WSF can stimulate discussions and facilitate articulations for potential actions. Belem has been the most important edition after 2001 because of the crisis, as we are able to suggest ways out of the crises. It was the first time that the movements got so much recognition in Latin America. The assembly of assemblies in Belem was a good experiment. After 10 years of life of the forum how can we use all the knowledge we accumulated? How can we get 2011 stronger on the basis on that knowledge? We have a responsibility; the movements are demanding that the WSF offers a way forward.”

Whereas on the success of Belem it was possible to generate a convergence of opinions and feelings, on the perception of the responsibilities that the activists of the IC are called to by the world social movements there was less convergence. A decade-long debate was not going to be solved in any single session of the IC meeting. What made it more vibrant in the last months, especially during the Montreal meeting, was its congruence with the overall debate on the global crises. Whereas the calls to move beyond the space/movement debate were often renewed, a new element was added to the debate, a new frustration that resonated with something bigger than the WSF and extended to the global left as a whole. What follows is a summary of those reflections and the way in which they were linked with current challenges and future opportunities for the IC, the wider WSF and the global left.

The recurring debate in the WSF took a new form in Montreal “we are not able to better organise this debate on the crisis!” burst an IC member. “We pretend to be an alternative pole of convergence but we really have no idea what that convergence would be. While we are very good at talking we have no idea how to design a strategy and implement it” added another. The crescendo  went on: “When I go back to my people I want to know what to tell them when they ask how we managed to strengthen their struggles”, and on: “the IC is removed from the reality of the drama of the people affected by the crisis” and on “The WSF is at a crossroad between relevance and irrelevance” and it closed with a bang “if the crisis is systemic then the WSF has no meaning because revolts against that system will follow internal logics on which the Forum has no influence”. The frustration gave room to a thorough analysis of the crisis of the WSF and of the global left as a whole.

The crisis of the world left and of the social movements involved the following challenges: criminalisation by states, fragmentation, internal competition, lack of solid democratic practices, lack of vision, inability to design and implement strategies. Montreal was the moment of recognition of the difficult moment for the progressive movements all over the planet. Whereas some of the previous analyses were repeated some novel articulations showed the extent of the development of the thoughts on the crises. But soon enough the central topic of the debate became the crisis of the global left and of the WSF itself. After the G20 in Pittsburgh a new language had taken the centre stage among world leaders, the language of confidence and self-assurance. The crisis was over, the governments of US and UK were implementing the Keynesian policies that were supporting the economic recovery of their countries and the planet. There were no mysteries about the consequences that the crisis had and will still have on people but it was forcefully stated that the initial state of dismay had been superseded, that a solution was in sight and that the advanced economies were bouncing back. The activists of the IC reacted to this with a mixture of astonishment and self-criticism. If the claims by the world powerful sounded unrealistic and based on limited interests, they also felt that a window of opportunity was closing for the social movements meeting in the WSF. However, someone stated, hopeful, that “if we put our foot in the window we might keep it open”. What was necessary was to conduct a thorough analysis of the missed opportunities in order to develop analysis and practices of transformation. The process started in earnest.

It was felt that organisations and social movements of the global civil society were going through a crisis reflected in the WSF. The, then, coming mobilisation to take place in Copenhagen during COP15 might have provided the global movement with new momentum if the global movements had tried to expose how a carbon market would eventually generate, inevitably, a subprime-like crash. But even if that were the case and the movements with the support of allied states would manage to build new momentum, it was true nonetheless that those organisations and movements were going through some profound difficulties that might not be simply wished away by any contingent enthusiasm. They were related to a “major crisis of working together” and this crisis would affect future mobilisations as well. It was therefore paramount to address its causes. It was possible, someone suggested, that, in part, this had to do with the present economic crisis as “our funds depend from the wealth of funders” and that “increased the competition between organisations”.

The fragmentation of the global civil society was not only due to issues of resources. It was also due to the fragmentation into thematic struggles. In this sense “working in transversal manners can conduce to move beyond the women groups, environmental, labour etc. and recognise that they are all interconnected and we need to work together”. Fragmentation weakened the movements and it reduced their analytical and transformative potential. In fact, if activists “understand the fragmentation, the way the crisis affects women, children and other affects them differently” they also call for an urgent reconsideration of the “need to make deliberate actions to reconnect these struggles”. The transversality of environmental issues offers the ideal opportunity to reconstitute a global convergence of progressive movements and to design a strategy of transformation and a global vision.

The transversal convergence is more necessary than ever now that the WB and the IMF or even the WEF have ceased to be the unique target of the global struggle. Further, fragmentation is a liability vis-a-vis the vicious attacks of the coordinated right, as reported by the members coming from the United States, and the repeated criminalisation of social movements by governments in countries where those governments have been supported by the social movements, like Brazil and South Africa. If such a strategic convergence is not discussed in the WSF and practised by the social movements, the WSF risks becoming irrelevant. As a member suggested, looking at the history of the WSF, “there was a time when the forum was relevant when people would come together to talk about their common strategy, this is not any more. We don’t have a common vision, indeed we do not have any vision at all. If we do not have vision we are destined to irrelevance”. Someone else echoed that: “we fight a lot for very little, because we don’t have a broader unity and this is because we don’t have a grounded ideology and vision so we do not trust each other, people do not trust anyone in the forum and that’s why others are not here anymore. There is no trust, no vision, no ideology”. One more voice sealed this moment of reflection: “We have lost the confidence to fight; this is because we are not clear about what is an alternative to capitalism and this is the crisis of the resistance. We do not have our principles straight!”

What were then the origins of the crisis of the global left that affected the progressive movements that met in the WSF and eventually the WSF itself and its IC? “In the first stage of the WSF until 2005 we all came to agree on our common struggle against neoliberal globalisation. There is a limit about how long you can celebrate this convergence and how long you can be against something. Now we are at a stage that we need to address alternatives.” Furthermore, “we were strong with our first slogan and we are not any more maybe we should find a new one that has to do perhaps with ‘sharing’, and we need to find best crafted messages to communicate to the people”. The conversation soon developed in highly sophisticated upward spirals and touched the nature of the politics of some, wide, sectors of the global left: “in the difference between transactional and transformational politics the left does the first”. In other words, it focuses on getting the best possible deal given the circumstances instead of challenging the assumptions on which politics and the economy are constructed. A clear example of the frustration generated by the politics of the IC and the inability to challenge the assumptions on which that frustration is actually based is given by the conversation between two frustrated activists: the first says: “It is incredible that we needed a whole morning to establish a working group” and the second answers “in our organization we never discuss procedural issues at meetings”. Whereas procedural issues are at the core of the new culture of politics that the WSF is pursuing, its outcomes are often frustrating for its members and that frustration is projected as resistance of any procedural approach to organisational culture.

That frustration, tough, has to be taken in the utmost consideration as it generates a widespread feeling in the activist that the WSF and the whole of the altermondialist movement is “going through a deep crisis of credibility because it was not able to take advantage of this moment”, among other reasons also because of the complexities of the procedural negotiations taking place within the IC and about which some members are highly sceptical. The current global crisis, therefore, “is not only a manifestation of the problems of capitalism but it is also a crisis of the left because it has not challenged capitalism coherently and strongly enough to the present day”. The outcome of such tensions between global capitalism and the progressive movements is reflected in the WSF IC in the following manner: “there is so much more pessimism today [in Montreal] than in Rabat. Because capitalism has shown its resilience and the left has not been successful in taking advantage of the crisis”. The solution offered is articulate and complex but lucid at the same time: “The WSF should provide the opportunity to the left to present on the global stage a larger coherence in terms of the alternatives it suggests. I know that the open space it’s been a celebration of differences but I think that now the time has come that we also talk about what we have in common.”

The role of the WSF was then analysed and discussed in great detail and a sobering recognition soon arose that some of the frustration traversing the IC could be due to some confusion as there are, or so it seems, several layers of ambiguity. “First, confusion between WSF and altermondialisation movement. (…) Second, confusion between WSF and IC. This kind of debates is useful but should be done in the forum not here. (…) Third, confusions about the four levels of the WSF: WSF as space where encounter happens; as framework where there is an agenda setting exercise (something that Belem has started to do); as process, the expansion of the forum itself; and as actor that takes action with governments, UN etc. (…) At this point we should facilitate the activities decided by the movements in Belem, not set more agendas.” A further clarification of the mandate and role of the WSF IC was articulated by someone else in the following manner: “we are developing here analysis not a strategy, but at the same time analyses are important. But analysis in the IC is of limited utility as it is not IC mandate to make an analysis on behalf of the movements. What we can do is think about how we can create opportunities in different regions of the world to do the legitimate analyses.”

If the WSF and its IC are indeed spaces of convergence of ideas, the endless talking that takes place in it is the perfect fulfilment of its mandate. It is however clear to all that there are moments when the contrast between a symposium of ideas and the death of starving men and women is too stark not to affect deeply the humanity of each activist. Frustration is inevitable, feeling of impotence and of incapacity to help generate perceptions of irrelevance and desires to give up. In a tense climate like the one described some heartfelt calls invited the activists to re-consider our contextual and limited role and the tasks faced by this convergence rather than the overall task facing progressive individuals the world over to transform society. So, regarding the inspiring talk that this meeting are limiting themselves to, someone suggests that “aspirations and discussions are necessary to be brought in this space. We bring our practices of struggle in our places and see how we can speak to each other. Those struggles give this space a meaning”. And someone else reinforced the point: “It is not true that we do not offer alternatives but the WSF is not the right actor to take ahead those initiatives”. Yes someone else says, somewhere, in this precise moment, progressive activists are struggling for the “decolonization of life”.

“Their Crises, Our Solutions”

What should the activists do to create opportunities of political convergence and spaces for the elaboration of alternatives to capitalism? They should, in the appropriate (and fast changing) contexts of struggle, engage the youth, whose approach to politics is “pragmatic” (as opposed to ideological) “because they face crisis, unemployment and precariousness”, and construct ambitious and transformative visions of another world drawing from transversal alliances on issues of climate change and civilisational crisis, alternative models of productions and consumption, and resistance to imperial hegemony. To achieve that it was considered strategic to “create fronts of NGOs, social movements and trade unions in order to practice change.” Ideologically it was suggested to update the blind trust in the primacy of the working class as actor of change because in several places “the working class is supporting the populist right like is the case of Italy and is excited by the success of Italian capital like in the case of FIAT for instance. This generates the strategic need of our left to ally itself with all those who are against the capitalism that exploits human beings and environment”. Crucially, “we need to invent an alternative alliance of the left without hegemony. Not like the PT in Brazil”. Moreover, as far as strategy is concerned “we must include the indigenous people (…) not to go back to sustainable development but to move onto sustainable societies. In the WSF meet people who question development and the same basis of the industrial society/civilisation. This is much more strategic in this moment of crisis”. But sustainable development is not an uncontentious issue in the IC, as a member reminds: “even in the left we still have to deal with what model of development we have that was also based on growth where we should learn from the indigenous movements on issues of lifestyle”.

As stated at several stages of this debate, the way in which the crisis will be overcome will determine the fate of the global social in the years to come. The extent of the crisis will generate the extent of the ideological solution that capitalism will try to shape. If neoliberalism is a product of the crisis of the 70s it is possible that such a crisis like the current may indeed determine a further radicalisation of the liberal doctrine towards extreme inequality and injustice. The social movements need to imagine other ways out of the present crisis. This indeed was the focus of the world thematic forum that took place in Mexico city in May 2010: “Other ways out of the crisis are possible”. But his was not the only attempt to create global and regional fora for progressive movements to meet and imagine alternative ways out of the crisis. In Belem an important initiative was promoted by some Latin American organisations supported by international partners like Cacim, Attac, Friends of the Earth, Arci, Ibase and A Sud.

At the heart of the vision of this initiative is the principle of “buen vivir” (goof living), developed in the Amazonian indigenous environment, which was presented, at the IC meeting in Rabat, as “an entirely different paradigm vis a vis growth and de-growth” and most radically challenges “the crisis of civilisation of the capitalist modernity”. This initiative, while gathering the contribution of several indigenous organisations, presents itself outside of the sectoral framework and invites contribution from all activists of the world to promote a new global existential model. The initiative gathered momentum during 2009 and beginning of 2010, it intertwined with some of the debates and strategic alliances negotiated within the space of the WSF and developed during the IC meetings and converged with the Bolivian initiative of the “World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” that took place in Cochabamba in April 2010. The keywords of the agenda of discussion and action included the following: “civilisational crisis”, “new paradigms”, “de-colonialisation of power”, “collective rights”, “plurinational states”, “communitary self-government”, “common goods”, “de-commodified existence”, “good living”, “peace”, “equilibrium”, “harmony” and “environmental justice” among others. In other words “This forum proposes to make a kind of cultural revolution”.

Conclusion: Dakar, Towards a “New Universality”

The development of ambitious alternatives to capitalist hegemony in the global economy and culture were not limited to the Cochabamba initiative (or, as in Mexico City, to the process towards Cancun). The World Social Forum 2011 to take place in Dakar, Senegal, has become a crucial date in the altermondialist agenda. Its organising themes were presented at the IC meeting in Mexico City, May 2010, and built on the previous conversations on the crises and the movements’ struggles out of them. The overall theme that the organisers submitted to the IC was “A New Universality”, a vision opposed to Western modernism and its current dominant expression, neoliberalism.

In the constant research by the WSF activists of new forms and languages of emancipation, a new sophisticated vision was suggested built on cosmopolitan values and on emancipatory struggles to liberate the poor, the dominated, the exploited, the wretched of the earth from centuries of oppression. If Western modernity was built on colonialism, slavery, capitalism, imperialism and the hopeful but potentially enslaving thoughts of enlightened philosophers and positivist social scientists, social movements and civil society actors convening in the WSF are appropriating a cosmopolitan outlook on life on the planet and are turning it into a new emancipatory universality. The new universality discussed by the Senegalese facilitators of the next WSF, at the latest meeting of its International Council which gathered in Mexico City on the 5-7 May, will contribute to redefine the foundations of a new culture of politics and a new activist mentality centred on the political recognition of difference and privileging the values of hospitality, conviviality and solidarity against the uncompromising individualism and the dynamics of competition and utility maximisation at the heart of capitalism. The new universality won’t be centred on the integration of the “South” into the “North” but in the radical reformulation of the values that organise society and people’s relationships and lives. The cultural inspirations of such vision are gathered from all regions of the world and value diasporic experiences across them. Migrants and women are crucial in contributing to shape the new universality as they are among those most affected by the alienating and atomising practices of capitalism.

The 2011 edition of the WSF will be focused on the symbolic image of the South. A South intended not merely as geographical description but as position in a dominant relation in which one term is made lower through material exploitation, is oppressed politically, marginalised culturally and victimized psychologically. Among the questions that will cut across themes and axis there will be the current rush to African resources, the role in the fierce competition over those resources by new players like China, the geopolitical reconfiguration of the world order, the role of African countries vis-à-vis the American war on terror, the wars affecting the people of some African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, possible ways to build and consolidate a solidarity between peoples in the spirit of Bandung, just to mention a few. There will be also an important stress on African culture, not understood as entertainment but in its most genuine political aspects. The Senegalese facilitators stressed the importance to extol the uniqueness and specificity of their process, informed by a unique political and cultural context, but they were also adamant against attempting to assume a hegemonic role within the WSF process. The new culture of politics of the WSF is acutely aware and beware of the negative implications in the long run of processes lead by any (even profoundly trusted, loyal and freely chosen) world leadership.

The process towards a new world, a new global culture, a new activist paradigm, has received a new impetus from a continent subject to horrendous exploitation and oppression that is prepared now to show that those who have been losers for five centuries can show the true meaning of hospitality, rally confidence, inspire dignity, ignite transformation. This seems to be at the heart of the vision, centred on an acute sensibility to oppression and assertion that the members of the Senegalese delegation communicated to their colleagues of the IC. The stress of the African and Senegalese members of the Dakar organising committee on the powerful and emancipatory message communicated by the WSF in its current process, sounds convincing, inspiring and, indeed, exciting. The activists gathering in the university campus in Dakar will share their acute awareness of injustice, oppression and exploitation and express their creative energy to confront them. Such a peaceful force could indeed achieve a lot. It could reinforce the dialogic process of awareness formation among its members and can further reinforce the virtuous cycle of exodus from the shackles of domination towards another, transformed world. Such powerful message is in the vision of the WSF Charter as an aspiration. The Senegalese chapter of the WSF is making that aspiration forcefully present and real in their vision for the next WSF event. The organisers will have to face several challenges ahead related to the broader WSF project and to the specific regional and national dynamics. Observing those as they unfold in the following months will provide further insights on the ability of the WSF to rethink itself in light of the changing conjuncture and as a proactive facilitator of the imagination of possible alternative futures developed on the shared values of justice, equality, democracy and difference.


[1] All quotes are extracts of conversations that took place in the WSF IC meetings in Rabat, Montreal and Mexico City. They are excerpts from my notes and although faithful to the statements of the IC members can only be considered quasi-verbatim.

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