Another forum is possible?

By Sundaram

A version of this article originally appeared in the March issue of Liberation, the central organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). The author is an independent journalist and film-maker.

After they popularised the slogan "Another world is possible", it was inevitable that one day some wit would taunt the organisers of the World Social Forum with a parody of the original: "Another forum is possible?"

But mid-way, as we are, between the third WSF (concluded earlier this year in Porto Alegre, Brazil) and the fourth WSF (scheduled for January 2004 in Mumbai, India) this half-mocking, half-humorous quip is taking on more serious tones. Is indeed another WSF possible?

But before we get into that, first the good news. The massive turnouts at the historic anti-war rallies against the US/UK/Australian Attack on Iraq was certainly a major victory for organisations involved in the WSF process. Ever since the Seattle protests against the WTO and the three WSF events in Brazil, there has been a worldwide momentum building up for joint action on an important international issue.

Though the anti-war actions were also joined by numerous groups not part of the WSF, there is no doubt that the internationalist consciousness revived by the Forum has paid off spectacularly. It is precisely this sort of potential for mass movement that makes the WSF event so attractive and relevant to activist groups all around the world.

Now for the bad news. There are ample signs that the organisational, ideological tensions building up within the WSF constituents for some time now are reaching boiling point. Unless they are dealt with in a transparent and practical manner, the WSF may be headed for a period of prolonged turmoil, if not actual splintering of some sort.

If that sounds too dire, consider the following trends emerging within the WSF. Broadly there are two distinct conflicts within the Forum:

Logistical/financial: The first WSF event in 2001 was attended by 15,000 delegates, the second one by nearly 50,000 and the most recent one in January by a massive 100,000. All three years the bulk, almost ninety per cent of the delegates in Porto Alegre, were from within Brazil and other Latin American countries. The size of the gathering, once seen as its strength, is now getting to be an obstacle and making it impossible to make proper logistical arrangements. The chaos at the Forum site, due to the large number of workshops, seminars and performances, is preventing meaningful participation or interaction and runs the risk of alienating many of those attending.

The irony of all this is of course that, despite the quasi-anarchist rhetoric of the WSF organisers ("The WSF is not an organisation, it is a process"), the real, practical problems of hosting such a mega-event are frustrating even for those who champion chaos in theory. After the WSF 2003 event, two of the loudest voices complaining about the way it was held were Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, and Michael Albert, editor of the US-based ZNet, influential among WSF participants.

Klein, in a recent article, said that the WSF had been "hijacked" by everything "big". "Big attendance", "big speeches" and most of all "big men" like Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, the newly elected president of Brazil, who came to the forum and addressed 75,000 adoring fans, she complained (despite herself being one of the "big" names at the WSF 2002!). Albert, on the other hand, railed against the WSF's lack of organisation after a series of lectures on "Life after capitalism" (basically Albert's pet theme of creating a blueprint for an ideal socialist society) flopped due to poor attendance amidst the logistical confusion of the event.

On the financial front, there are even greater tensions, with a lot of heartburn among many participants about what they see as the emergence of a "privileged" layer of activists who always seem to get their tickets to Porto Alegre and hotels paid for. In a recent debate with Susan George of ATTAC, France, an organisation that was among the originators of the WSF idea, the Argentine "neighbourhood assemblies" activist Ezequiel Adamovsky accused the Forum of "becoming unduly focused around big names or intellectuals who get most of the funding, whilst many grassroots activists cannot afford to attend and don't get the space they deserve".

The fact that this kind of purely pecuniary issue can even arise in a process that is trying to make "another world possible" shows two things: 1) given the number of NGOs attending the WSF, fighting over funding is but natural. In a world of limited (and shrinking!) donor organisations, there is bound to be a "class struggle" within the NGO world between the haves and the have-nots. 2) On a more serious note, this debate is also an indication of the way money and funding are becoming bigger and bigger factors in the organisation and control of the WSF. For all the rhetoric about the "non-hierarchical, participatory and transparent" nature of the WSF process, the truth remains that—not unlike the real, capitalist world—it is mostly those with access to deep pockets who get to attend, have their opinions heard and make a difference to the shape and direction of the WSF.

Another finance-related issue vis-a-vis the WSF is the phenomenal cost of hosting the event. According to one estimate, WSF 2002 cost about $5 million to organise while WSF 2004 is estimated to cost $3.8 million (a lot of money in India). Although the Indian WSF committee is planning to be as "self-reliant" as possible, a very large chunk of this money will come from US and European donors and the registration fees of participants. The week-long event in Porto Alegre earlier this year was said to have pumped $50 million into the local economy. It might be an unkind thing to say about the event, but surely the dividing line between activism and tourism is fading fast!

Political/ideological: The original idea of the WSF was mooted sometime in the year 2000 by the French anti-globalisation group ATTAC, which then joined hands with the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) and a few other groups to host the first Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2001. At that time, the idea was to have a permanent counter by anti-globalisation groups to the annual meeting of multinational bankers, CEOs and heads of government called the World Economic Forum (WEF), held every year in Davos, Switzerland.

The WSF was never meant to be an organisation, according to its originators, but only a "space" for debate, discussion and sharing experiences between activist groups from around the world. The definition of "activist groups" deliberately excluded both political parties of any kind (the PT was mysteriously made an exception) and groups that used violence as part of their struggles. So, for example, at the WSF 2002, the Colombian guerilla group FARC was denied space to hold a press conference on the grounds that it was an "armed group".

However, the composition of groups attending the WSF itself has been quite diverse, pulling and pushing in a variety of political directions. These can be categorised as follows:

The `radical' reformists

ATTAC, one of the key founders of the WSF, the Third World Network and Walden Bello's Focus on the Global South would fit into this category with their demands for implementation of measures such as the Tobin tax, lifting protectionist trade policies in the West, setting up an Asian Bank to counter the weight of the imf and World Bank etc. Although the Brazilian PT has several political trends running through it, the dominant wing led by Lula would fall into this category of reformers too.

It must be pointed out that this reformist position is not the same (at least for the time being) as the usual garden-variety social democrats of Europe and elsewhere. These groups seem to have set a limited agenda right now to fight for changes in global resource flows, curbs on multinationals, countering the influence of multilateral financial institutions and even against imperialist war. Whether they will be satisfied with just these demands or go beyond that at an appropriate time is open to question.

Broadly, these groups are influenced heavily by the ideas of the New Left of the 1960s, which rejected the Soviet Union and the traditional Communist parties, accusing them of being too "Stalinist", centralised and authoritarian. This group is broadly in command of the WSF process and, despite some minor differences within its fold, is likely to persevere with the idea of holding more events and expanding it through regional and local forums all over the globe.

The anarchists

There are dozens of these small groups of self-styled anarchists within the WSF who hold intellectuals like Noam Chomsky as their guru and want to bring down capitalism and replace it with a decentralised, participatory, socialist democracy. They claim they don't like setting up institutions, they don't like leaders of any kind and the revolution will be magically carried out by "the people". The problem with this approach is that, obviously, when you get more than one anarchist in the same room, they already become an organisation, whether they want to recognise it or not. And that is what is happening with the WSF also: there are so many anarchists with similar demands and attitudes that they have de facto become a big organisation of their own in practice while denying this reality in speech.

In the field of practical, day-to-day politics, they are clever enough to recognise that you need tangible institutions to take on the might of imperialism, but when someone attempts to create such structures they immediately denounce it as "Stalinist". A good example of this approach is Ezequiel Adamovsky, the Argentine activist mentioned earlier who has strongly objected to groups like Focus trying to create a "network of networks and movements" to coordinate global action on various issues. According to him, "to set up a secretariat of a network means actually the opposite of a network". Meanwhile, at another place in the same interview, he says, "We need to link our struggles with the struggles of others all over the worldnot only to learn and exchange experiences at a theoretical level but also to try to organise a common strategy to change the world"! What is the difference between this ambition and that of those trying to network with other networks?

A popular jargon word with the anarchists is the term "horizontal", implying a non-hierarchical process, as opposed to "vertical", which is considered "top-down and authoritarian". It needs to be pointed out that "horizontal" can also mean dead and flat on your face. Anyway, what we see the anarchists do in practice is a constant flip-flop between horizontal and vertical postures, depending on which way the bullets are flying! Sections of this group are most likely to denounce the WSF as having been "taken over" by Stalinists or this or that lobby and try to form parallel forums on their own.

The NGOs

For the NGO movement that started out in the 1960s as an "alternative" to the organised Communist parties, the WSF has become a sort of Mecca. They are the real "tourist" component of the WSF—the big money spenders—who can bask in the glory of the radical rhetoric for a few days every year and go back home to work out how to get funding to attend next year's WSF. This is not to say that the many micro-level issues that NGOs normally take up are not important; on the contrary, they are extremely important. The problem is only with the way these organisations approach the problem.

If you analyse the average NGO anywhere, they are usually dominated by one influential personality, highly dependent on centralised funding sources far from the area of activity, lack accountability to the people they are supposed to be working for and so on. All this makes them nice little "Stalinist" organisations, with the key difference that while Stalin presided over a functioning socialist state (whatever its other problems) and resoundingly defeated German fascism, the average NGO is yet to transform the harsh realities of a single cluster of villages in the developing world.

In terms of political vision, this group sees the WSF emerging as some kind of "second chamber" of the United Nations, and proposals to this effect are already being circulated! This section will play along with the WSF process as long as the annual event is held in places which have good hotels, infrastructure and places to visit after the meeting. Just to give an example: Kerala, with its long history of people's movements, was one of the hottest choices for the WSF 2004 venue, and yet Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, won in the end because "it is easier for people to fly into the city and also find decent accommodation". Some revolution the WSF is going to bring about!

The Communists

The WSF event has attracted a number of Communist and Marxist groups (basically their front organisations) also to its fold for a variety of reasons. Some of them are here both to learn from the experiences of others and to influence them in turn towards a more radical path of movement, demanding revolutionary changes to the world order. This is the minority. There are also Communist parties involved in the WSF who are in complete agreement with the idea of reforming capitalismmost preferably through electoral, parliamentary means—and for whom Brazil's Lula is a shining example of such an approach. Apart from these there are also small Trotskyist groups in the WSF who want to "hijack" the event through "entryist" politics(the process of "smuggling" your way to the top of a system) and proclaim it as the new International. All these groups will have to be alert to the direction the WSF is being pulled so that they are not taken unawares by sudden developments.

A fundamental question

A very fundamental question that really needs to be asked is why the WSF is being held every year at all—like an activist trade fair of sorts. Is there not some bureaucratic mechanism in place that is calling for turning the WSF into an annual event regardless of its continued relevance to what else is happening around the globe ?

For example, instead of holding another WSF in India next year, why not hold one in Baghdad or Kabul or even Tehran—where the gathering of 100,000 people from around the globe would have a greater relevance to global politics, particularly in terms of challenging the US imperialist war machine? The "space" offered for discussion and debate by the WSF in the past three years has been great, but it is time to move on and try more creative ways of changing the world we live in. Otherwise the WSF runs the real risk of becoming an event with hundreds of physically and vocally active but politically stagnant participants. Of course, "another world" will be possible even then, but certainly not on the Paris to Porto Alegre to Mumbai route.

One interesting proposal that has come from some of the WSF constituents is for concentrating organisational efforts on holding local, provincial and national level forums, which can then send delegates to a global forum to be held once every few years. Regional forums like the recently held Asian Social Forum can be organised more frequently—depending on the need felt for such a gathering by participating organisations. This makes sense because then the entire process of building a truly representative World Social Forum can start from below instead of the top, as is the case right now. And if the process of bringing together different political streams for the cause of anti-globalisation, anti-imperialism is to become a serious affair the work will have to start at the grassroots and not the treetops.