Articulating a New Universality, Reimagining the World Social Forum.

“Towards a New Universality” as a vision for the World Social Forum to take place in Dakar in February 2011, was at the centre of the cultural and political negotiation that unfolded in the five days of work convened by the Senegalese organising committee in Dakar from the 25th to the 29th of July. It was not the only topic of conversation as details of all practical and organisational tasks to be undertaken from now until the date of the event were object of careful scrutiny and deliberation. The practical issues were discussed referring regularly to the values at the heart of the organisational exercise. Such stress, such often reference to, and such acute awareness of the foundation of the Dakar WSF were vastly welcomed by the African and international guests of both the African and the International Councils and were often referred to as the WSF new recipe to catalyse progressive action beyond the current critical global conjuncture and towards another world beyond the present centred on values and practices which, on the one hand, generate the conditions for recurrent global cyclical crises like the present and, on the other and more importantly, are cause of the daily critical condition of hundreds of millions of poor, marginalised, oppressed and exploited people.

The foundations of the vision of the WSF 2011 were laid during the previous meeting of the International Council. During the latest encounter, those foundations were built upon and the articulations were spelled out of what that universality could look like and how it could be inspired and facilitated by a global event of the WSF. In what follows I summarise some of those articulations and the spatial, time, conceptual and value networks they configure and are configured by. Later I will report some of the practicalities involved in giving shape to the organisational setting that will facilitate the actual event in Dakar.

The temporality of the WSF in Dakar will stretch in many ways beyond the 6 days of the event. The process has already started (in fact it has started few years ago, when the complex negotiations started on the venue of the 2011 WSF) and it will project itself beyond the 11th of February 2011 when the participants will return to their places of residence, resistance and struggle and will continue the interactions started in the WSF or will give practical implementation to the discussions conducted in Dakar. But there is another temporal axis that the organisers of the forum wish to highlight, the time of the oppression of the African continent, the time of the dispossessions of its people of their resources, the time of their exploitation. History and memory, written and oral recounts of the past of the continent and its people will constitute a dimension of the forum that will cut across its activities and will be made evident in its programme structure. Finally, the time of existence, of daily activity and work was mentioned as one that is not linear and digital as the hegemonic perception of time seems to suggest. Reimagining time and the relationships it expresses is central in imagining alternative daily existences that help to imagine social relations beyond oppression and exploitation.

Along similar lines will develop the spatial dimension of the Dakar forum. Whereas the WSF 2011 will take place within the bounded space of the University of Dakar campus, it will extend outside its borders in multiple ways, both physical and virtual. Several activities of the forum will take place outside the university; on the Goree Island, for instance, to symbolically mark and reclaim the place from where African women and men were shipped to America to a life of slavery, and in the suburbs of Dakar to establish a potentially insurgent connection between the places of daily marginalisation and exploitation and a site of power/knowledge production nested in the centre of the city. In particular, towards this latest objective, several activities will be organised by the Right to the City movement among which a global assembly for the Right of the City. But these extensions of the WSF “open space” will go beyond the physical domain and will venture into cyberspace. Several initiatives will be facilitated to generate interactions between WSF participants in Dakar, in Senegal, Africa and around the world via interactive events, like teleconferences, that will expand the forum boundaries to include networked spaces of potentially planetary extension. These activities will have a crucial significance and transformative implications for the WSF as a whole beyond the specific Dakar event. The innovative organisational tool developed by the WSF since its inception, the “open space” is now ready for an ambitious leap beyond the physical boundaries of the event venue to generate a sphere of deliberation and action potentially global through space bound and virtual communication and the extension of the follow up to those interaction as political and transformative engagements.

The values and principles guiding the organisational effort towards a spatially and temporally extended WSF were discussed in some detail during the meeting of a methodology and strategy working group and were often referred to during the five days of African Council, Communication Commissions (Senegalese, African and of the International Council) and International Council meetings. The principles referred to are based on the WSF methodology principles first drafted in early 2005 according to which the task of the IC methodology commission (and by extension of the WSF) is to facilitate the creation of relationships, to promote the intensification of existing shared activities and the formation of new networks of activists opposing neoliberalism by applying in the organisation of the WSF events the principles of its Charter such as plurality, refusal of hierarchy, respect and valorisation of differences, self-management and self-determination. Moreover, the methodology of the events should contribute to the articulation of the myriad of experiences taking places during the days of the global event into a collective memory. These principles should take into account the specificities of the event location showing a flexible attitude towards culturally sensitive issues (issues like sexuality and religions where referred to, for instance, as deserving, among others, special sensibility in the context of the organisational process towards Dakar 2011).

This last point introduces the conceptual and thematic dimension of the WSF methodology as discussed in Dakar. This aspect was articulated in several thematic axes that articulate the wider vision of the WSF 2011: A New Universality. It was probably this dimension that generated the greatest amount of debate and engagement in the Dakar meeting, not only in the methodology and strategic working group, but in the plenary sessions as well and, more importantly, in a ten hour long double session of debate over the actual formulation of the thematic axis that will facilitate the drafting of the final programme of the event. They will do so by allowing the coordinators of self-organised events to register their activities in the thematic axis that better represent their interests and, further, the working group of the Methodology Commission to suggest possible agglutinations between potentially similar activities as practical implementation of its mandate to generate new relations and the creation of new activists’ networks. Vision and thematic axis will revolve around two further themes that will cut across the whole programme structure: Diaspora and Migration, on the one hand, and The Future of the WSF, on the other, as focal points of the development of a shared strategy toward emancipation by the activists who are convening, and have been doing so for a decade, in the WSF space.

Finally, great stress was put by the Senegalese organisers on the emotional impact of the Dakar forum. They wish to inspire the creativity of the participants, call to their sense of justice, and facilitate their convergence with the activities of the forum, in particular those related to the thematic areas around which they will facilitate a series of co-organised events during the first day of the forum and the initial march focusing on slavery, migration, diaspora and independence (many African countries are celebration or will soon celebrate half century of independence from colonial powers). This forum, it was said forcefully, is an opportunity to build a powerful emancipatory movement that extols the strength and dignity of people among the most exploited and oppressed of the planet for centuries. Moreover, it is a unique opportunity to do this with the help of activists from all over the world that wish to remember slavery and colonialism in order to denounce current economic migration and human trafficking while developing inspiring visions towards a convivial, just and equal new universality alternative to that imposed through war or market hegemony.

Such ambitious goals, for the Dakar 2011 event, for the WSF as a global project and for the social movements and civil society organisations of the planet advocating and struggling towards a world beyond capitalism, present considerable practical challenges to the Senegalese, African and international organisers. The logistic and financial implications of such goals were discussed in great details: mobilisation, outreach, communication, venue planning, accommodation, registration and programme design, and resources were on the agenda of the meeting. The members of the Dakar organising committee gave the African and international partners a detailed overview of the progresses since the IC meeting in Mexico last may. The university campus allows for a modular organisation since increasing number of facilities can be added to the territory of the forum as the registration process progresses and the general attendance of participants and the number of events organised will become clearer. The campus is able to comfortably host 60,000 participants and to contribute to the self-organised seminars up to 150 rooms (indeed it could be possible to stretch further this limit if necessary). Another aspect of the organisational process that has generated curiosity and moderate anxieties among observers and some international members of the International Council referred to the accommodation. Whereas Dakar has a developed network of hotels, great stress will be given to solidarity accommodation with local families. The university has also been approached in order to explore the possibility to use some of the accommodation facilities in the campus. As far as the food provided at the venue is concerned, the organisers will ask those who will work within the framework of the WSF, but also those who do business regularly in and around the campus, to serve only regionally sourced food. The communication of the process and of the event was deemed central for the overall success of Dakar 2011 and in the challenge to expand the WSF “open space” beyond the boundaries of the event. Specific commitments were taken by Senegalese, African and international activists to generate initiatives to ignite a virtuous cycle of interest towards the event in order to support the outreach and the mobilisation of participants from all over the world. During the event a sophisticated media centre should be able to allow both mainstream and alternative media to report regularly on the activities taking place in the university campus and in the wider Dakar region while at the same time provide support to those initiatives, like teleconferences and Skype meetings, developed within the framework of the Dakar Extended project.

It was generally felt but those who attended the Dakar meeting that the activities are in full swing towards the setting up of a virtual and physical “open space” articulated around the campus of the University of Dakar and the city as a whole. The challenges could be daunting, the risk of falling into irrelevance acutely perceived by many in the WSF due, among other things, a possible relatively limited number of participants (as opposed to the mass events in the much larger than Senegal Brazil and India). At the same time, the opportunities to rethink the WSF beyond the bounded limits of its event’s territory seem to have inspired the WSF organisers. The visionary new universality that builds on autonomous values of conviviality and justice beyond the mere resistance to capitalism and the extension of the “open space” towards a potentially global arena of debate and political mediation may as well be two of the avenues along which the WSF can imagine itself ten years after its first edition. In sum, the symbolic geography of challenges, anxieties, opportunities and vision seem to map the current territory of the WSF while spatial temporal, conceptual, value and emotional dimensions seem to map both the methodology of the Dakar forum and a possible alternative vision to the current cultural and political global hegemony.

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2 Responses to Articulating a New Universality, Reimagining the World Social Forum.

  1. Giuseppe:

    Off the top of my head (and therefore subject to revision):

    A useful and stimulating report on the preparations for Dakar 2011. It looks as if we could possibly put together an online NIGD compilation on The Future of the Forum, or some related title.

    I look forward with considerable hope toward this event. I note that the Forum seems to be here extending itself both to the local/locales in and around Dakar as well as cyberspatially – something I have been arguing for over the years.

    I am also hopeful that the high profile given to the global urban movements might imply a higher proportion than the traditional 20 percent Forum participation by the popular classes/sectors.

    I do, however, wonder what the ‘new universality’ is or is going to be and whether it is going to be spelled out in more than inspirational, ethical or cultural terms. These have certainly been lacking in traditional Left internationalisms/universalisms, concentrated as they were on the political-economic, limited as they were by modernism, and by Euro-, NATO or Northo-centrism.

    So I am hoping that the ‘new universality’ will also be spelled out in political-economic and class terms.

    I will certainly be virtually present at Dakar.



    • giuseppecaruso says:

      Dear Peter, thank you! Yes i guess there is enough material for such compilation, what is needed then is a compiler… but I feel we could trust you for the task?

      You are right, you have been advocating something that although widely agreed upon in principle had not yet found the right “formula”. It seems as though the Dakar Extended project could be one such tentative idea. Some previous experiments in this direction (conducted in San Paulo in early 2009 and later in Mexico City during the thematic forum of last May) might indeed suggest some optimism. On this

      I do, however, wonder what the ‘new universality’ is or is going to be and whether it is going to be spelled out in more than inspirational, ethical or cultural terms. These have certainly been lacking in traditional Left internationalisms/universalisms, concentrated as they were on the political-economic, limited as they were by modernism, and by Euro-, NATO or Northo-centrism. So I am hoping that the ‘new universality’ will also be spelled out in political-economic and class terms.

      I wonder if, while the organisers of the Dakar forum wish to inspire on the possibility to spell out the features of such a vision, the actual participants will respond adding their specific, contextual, meaning to it (and their daily practices as well, of course). It seems to me that the inspirational, ethical and cultural thrusts have been given to the WSF 2011 process. In fact, it would be interesting to report – and I might do it later on – on the sophisticated debates that took place in Dakar on the political dimension of culture, to be understood not as entertainment but as a political, empowering and emancipating networks of relationships and languages.

      I look forward to a tentative list of contributions to the collection you mentioned.

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