Excitement to Depression and Up Again. The World Social Forum in (the) Crisis

The context of this reflections is the debate about reclaiming the “management” of the current global crisis from those who are seen to be the causes of the crisis itself. Claims are made about the role of “civic engagement” (Stiglitz), social and political activism (Harvey, Munck, Patnaik) and, more broadly, “the Left” (Wade, Houtart, Santos) in inspiring and implementing radical change. The questions addressed by that debate are: What are the dynamics of global economic, political and social transformation? What is in those processes the role of progressive civic and political activism? What are the alternatives offered by those actors and the visions inspiring them?

Organisers and participants of the World Social Forum have widely discussed these issues and the opportunities and challenges provided by the current conjuncture. In this paper I discuss those analyses and strategic considerations, and the radically changing mood and political postures of movements’ activists from early 2009. In this period I attended the meetings of the WSF International Council in Morocco and Canada in 2009 and Mexico in 2010 representing the Network Institute for Global Democratisation. (all the quotes are from those meetings) Shortly after the crisis erupted, the discussions were centred on ‘opportunities’. Few months later they were mostly focusing on the ‘challenges’ of facing a conjuncture that movements thought, too optimistically, could provide the opportunity to act for rapid change. The outcomes of the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh contributed to the ‘frustration’ for the fast closing window of opportunity for the WSF and its movements. In Mexico a new proactive attitude gave shape to a more optimistic approach to the crisis.

This paper addresses the following questions: What are the theories of the crisis developed by the WSF activists? How do they perceive the role of the WSF as a global space of convergence to shape common actions for change? What are the visions that could inspire radical global transformation? The first section discusses the engaged, non-speculative, theories of the crisis developed by the activists of the WSF International Council (in a sophisticated interaction with public intellectuals, academics and the media). The second section deals with the responses to the crisis by social movements and the internal dynamics of global activism. As an outcome of the perceived inability to respond timely and effectively to the crisis, the WSF and the global left have gone themselves through a period of deep crisis. The third section discusses the current elaborations of alternative routes out of both the global crisis and the crisis of the left. Radical “civilisational changes” are proposed by South American indigenous movements and by the activists organising the next WSF in Dakar. The first focusing on a new alliance between humans and nature, the second exploring an emancipatory new universality.

Their crisis”

It started as a circumscribed financial crisis but it soon developed into a real economy crisis. It started in the United States, but the consequences took global proportions. While the immediate consequence was a dramatic loss of jobs in Wall Street and the City of London, soon it affected lower middle class owners whose houses were repossessed at an unstoppable speed. Then 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 the ability of the weakest to procure the necessary food for survival was dramatically impaired. The 2008 crisis was of unprecedented scale in living memory. Comparisons were made with the 1929 crisis, and that contributed to paralyse world markets which braced themselves for the unthinkable. While the governments of the 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 a flu pandemic broke out in Mexico, it seemed that there would be no end to the dramatic change of lifestyle on the planet: airports screenings and people quarantined seemed the metaphorical images of a post-neoliberal world 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.

The analyses of the WSF IC have produced an overall picture that knitted together the financial, economic, social, cultural, and ecological aspects. Such approach revealed how “crisis is the form of regulation of the capitalist system”1 and that “the economy is controlled by few actors, big companies and some governments”. Such holistic approach to the crisis, then, exposed power dynamics and the structural nature of a crisis expression of the “fundamental limitations of the capitalist civilisation”. Through this crisis the world is witnessing the agony of a dying empire both in the geopolitical and biopolitical sense. In the former sense, the empire born after WWII is not able to regenerate itself any more. In the latter, the culture of consumption and competition that permeated human relations and enslave individuals has shown its deadly face. To counterbalance this bleak diagnosis someone noted that “this moment is an opportunity as the people will listen to us”, a moment in which the internal dynamics of the system can be exposed and radical change inspired by the dramatic realisation that “the climate crisis (…) will not rebound like the economic crisis”. A set of analytical and pragmatic questions were asked: What are the current resistances and responses to the crisis? What can be learnt from them? What could the role of the WSF be in developing alternatives? What should those alternatives be?

Social Movements’ Practices in the Crisis

Social movements have a crucial role in proposing, and struggling for, alternative solutions to “ensure that the end of the crisis is different from the latest global crisis when neoliberalism was imposed as dominant global ideology”. Movements worldwide have responded to the crisis in specific ways, but some global trends can be observed. “The first kind of response from movements linked to WSF was a kind of celebration that yes another world is possible! (…) then more nuanced and realistic considerations: perhaps capitalism is only bruised and it will rise again. (…) 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 proposed by the movements?

What distinguishes (…) the left is the advocacy of a more or less radical state which suggests (..) forms of state capitalism”. Others, felt 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”, and it was therefore necessary to design alternative exits from the crisis. Moreover, the Keynesian solution is “Eurocentric, 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. (…) 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”.

Broad institutional alternatives were proposed by movements that wish to engage in the 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.” As far as the reform of the UN system is concerned, some activists stated that “if we go to the UN then we can make a difference” as “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 inside the building”.

The wealth actions and proposals gave hope to the WSF activists who felt that the global progressive movements have a unique advantage today that they did not have, say in 1929. “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. (…) We must harmonize the rhythm of WSF to the rhythm of movements. Otherwise movements will leave us behind.”

WSF in Crisis

What can the role of the WSF be in inspiring another world beyond the current crisis? This is one way of putting it: “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 from the crisis.” However, some found that the WSF needed to radicalise its politics beyond providing social movements’ and civil society activists with a space to convene and discuss. This debate is as old as the WSF but resonated with something that extended to the global left as a whole: the recognition of the difficult moment for progressive movements the world over. At the meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh, in September 2009, a new language was spoken by world leaders, the language of confidence and self-assurance. The crisis would still have hard consequences but, it was stated, the initial state of dismay had been superseded and the world economy was bouncing back. The activists of the IC, who met in Canada few days after, felt that a window of opportunity was closing for the social movements and the WSF. The WSF and the whole altermondialist movement were “going through a deep crisis of credibility because [they were] not able to take advantage of this moment”. 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 frustration exploded: “We pretend to be an alternative pole of convergence but we really have no idea what that convergence would be” burst an IC member. “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”, added another. The crescendo went 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 crossroads 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 analysis that followed suggested that organisations and movements of the global left were going through a “major crisis of working together”. This crisis, reflected in the WSF, was partly due, someone suggested, to the present economic crisis as “our funds depend from the wealth of funders” and that “increased the competition between organisations”.

But the crisis of the global civil society was not only due to the competition over shrinking resources. It was also due to the fragmentation into thematic struggles, to the fact that “we don’t have a common vision, indeed we do not have any vision at all” and to the fact that “people do not trust anyone in the forum and that’s why others are not here any more. 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!” It was felt by many that the contrast between a symposium of ideas like the WSF 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 sense of irrelevance and disengagement.

A sobering recognition arose that some of the frustration traversing the IC could be due to some confusion and ambiguity illustrated by these words: “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.” At a more abstract level “in the difference between transactional and transformational politics the left does the first”, it focuses on getting the best possible deal given the circumstances instead of challenging the assumptions on which politics and the economy are constructed. However, “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”.

Our Solutions”

What are the practical solutions developed in the WSF and the vision sustaining them? The WSF should facilitate the articulation of ambitious and transformative visions drawing from transversal alliances on issues of climate change and civilisational crisis, alternative models of productions and consumption, and resistance to capitalist hegemony. To achieve that the WSF activists should “create fronts of NGOs, social movements and trade unions”. Crucially, “we need to invent an alternative alliance of the left without hegemony. Not like the PT in Brazil”. Moreover, “we must include the indigenous people (…) not to go back to sustainable development but to move onto sustainable societies” moving beyond the fact that “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”.

On this, an initiative was promoted at the Belem Forum by Latin American organisations (like CAOI and others) supported by international partners (like Attac, Friends of the Earth, Arci, Ibase). At the heart of the vision of this initiative is the principle of “buen vivir” (good living): “an entirely different paradigm vis a vis growth and de-growth” that radically challenges “the crisis of civilisation of the capitalist modernity”. This initiative gathered momentum during 2009 and 2010 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 included: “civilisational crisis”, “new paradigms”, “de-colonialisation of power”, “collective rights”, “plurinational states”, “communitary self-government”, “common goods”, “de-commodified existence”, “good living”, and “environmental justice” among others.

The development of ambitious alternatives to capitalist hegemony was not limited to the Cochabamba initiative (and the following activities towards Cancun and COP16). The organisers of the Dakar forum introduced in Mexico the vision of the 2011 forum, “A New Universality”, opposed to Western modernism and its current dominant expression, neoliberalism, built on cosmopolitan values and on emancipatory struggles. “The current crisis shows a total crisis of the capitalist system and of the values that made it starting from the 15th century. A new universality will allow to redefine the foundations of the relationships between people on the planet that are not centred on individualism, war, and negation of the other like (…) in capitalism.” 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 aim to appropriate a cosmopolitan outlook on life and turn it into a new emancipatory universality centred on the political recognition of difference and privileging the values of hospitality, conviviality and solidarity against the uncompromising individualism at the heart of capitalism. The inspiration for such vision is gathered from all regions of the world and values diasporic experiences across them. Moreover, 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.

Beyond utopia the themes of the Forum will be the current rush to African resources, the role in the fierce competition over those resources of 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, possible ways to build and consolidate a solidarity between peoples in the spirit of Bandung, just to mention a few. 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.

To conclude: While these visions engage the current crisis by pointing out the evident shortcomings of the current development model, they do not expect change to derive from the full development of all the productive forces of the current mode of production or by regulating its internal dynamics, rather they suggest to look at non-exploitative and post-colonial sources of social and individual development in harmony with the environment. Such visions are not (only) utopian but they are also based on current political and social practices and on past ones like, for instance, the civil rights movement (with its relations to Gandhi and the anti-colonial struggle in Asia and Africa) and the anti-slavery movements as in the context of the organisational vision of the next WSF.

1All 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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