The Economics and Politics of the World Social Forum: Lessons for the Struggle against ‘Globalisation’

” Isaac: There is no doubt that there is a larger imperialist strategy to utilise the so-called voluntary sector to influence civil society in Third World countries. But you have also got to realise that there are also NGOs and a large number of similar civil society organisations and formations that are essential ingredients of any social structure. Therefore, while being vigilant about the imperialist designs, we have to distinguish between civil society organisations that are pro-imperialist and pro-globalisation and those that are not….”

Isaac went on to blur the distinction between the Seattle-stream of protests and the World Social Forum:

“And today the world reality, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the world revolutionary process is assuming new organisational forms of struggle. The best exhibition of this is the spontaneous mass protests against the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF, their conferences and also the anti-war movements that sprung up recently. Only those who are unaware of these divergent trends in the world today would claim that the World Social Forum and the anti-war movement are part of an imperialist conspiracy. They do not understand the contemporary world revolutionary process.”

In fact, quite to the contrary: the WSF is intended, among other things, precisely to co-opt the “new organisational forms of struggle” that arose around the Seattle protests. This is what we have tried to show at some length above.

CPI(M) — an opponent of globalisation?

While it is a turnaround from the stand of 1988, the new stand of CPI(M) on NGOs is not wholly surprising. Opposition to foreign-funded NGOs makes sense only as part of a broader opposition to imperialism. The CPI(M) is, no doubt, an opposition party nationwide, one which criticises the Central Government’s submission to the dictates of the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and the multinational corporations those institutions represent. But the CPI(M) is also a ruling party periodically in Kerala and continuously in West Bengal; one which actively invites foreign investment, negotiates large foreign loans with the Asian Development Bank, represses labour organisations, privatises public sector units, hikes electricity charges, and so on. In other words, it is carrying out the measures labelled ‘globalisation’.

The new chief minister of West Bengal, back from his recent trip to Italy to solicit investment from Gucci and other Italian firms, is now busy conferring with multinationals and Indian corporates to participate in his planned Kolkata global festival “to change the perception of the city in the eyes of outsiders”. Speaking to industrialists in Mumbai, he rushed to clarify, first, that the CPI(M) has not called for a boycott of American goods in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, and that his government wanted not only Indian private companies but also foreign firms to invest in his state; and secondly, that labour militancy in Bengal was no longer a problem — indeed there “strikes and labour problems are much less than Maharashtra”. The CPI(M)-affiliated trade union centre, CITU, he assured them, “is aware that there would be no jobs if there are no industries.”10 The West Bengal government has issued advertisements for the privatisation of nine state public sector units: the pompous term used is “joint venture transformation through induction of strategic partners”, involving “transfer of equity stake ranging from 51 per cent to 74 per cent with management control”; the government is “open to considering the requisite extent of manpower restructuring and waiver of outstanding financial liabilities as may be necessary for ensuring their sustainable viability”. The financial adviser to the privatisation is the multinational Pricewaterhouse Coopers.11

On the West Bengal chief minister’s table lies the report of the American consultancy firm, McKinsey (which his government commissioned in October 2001) on the prospects of agriculture-based industries and information technology-based industries in the state. McKinsey proposes that 41 per cent of the state’s arable land should be diverted from rice to vegetable and fruit cash crops; large agro-based corporations should be attracted to the state; laws should be altered to allow contract farming; and by the end of the decade the state should aim its agro-based products at the international market. “This initiative is aimed at attracting national and multinational investors to the state. McKinsey has already established contacts with several such investors. We have received a good response from them. Now our plans and efforts should be commensurate with their requirements and demands.”12

World Social Forum — instrument of struggle?

In the preceding we have into some detail regarding the funding of the WSF and the nature of its participating organisations in order to present various specific aspects of this phenomenon. However, in the final analysis, the test of the World Social Forum is not merely how it is funded or the character of some of the leading/participating organisations or individuals, nor even its exclusion of various forces. After all, many forums in the world today have various limitations, and to abandon them all for their imperfections would cripple the forces struggling for change. The real test of any such forum is its actual political role, its relation to people’s struggles against the current imperialist onslaught: has it advanced them? Or has it diverted fighting forces to a dead-end?

The advocates of the WSF say it has given an impetus to struggle. This is not so. As we have tried to show, the vibrant protest movement gave an impetus to struggle. The people’s movements and upsurges of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador gave an impetus to struggle. The World Social Forum has simply given an impetus to the next World Social Forum, and the next.

The WSF’s real relation to anti-imperialist struggle is starkly revealed by its organisers’ conduct at the Asian Social Forum meet in Hyderabad in January 2003. Hyderabad is the capital of Andhra Pradesh, which, apart from being one of the top recipients of NGO funds in India, is also marked by two other features.

First, the state government is perhaps the most active ‘globaliser’ in the country. In 1998, the state government directly negotiated a $500 million World Bank loan, which came tied with the Andhra Pradesh Economic Restructuring Programme (APERP). The APERP dictated the dismantling of the state electricity board, the inviting of private investment in power, and increasing electricity tariffs. It also dictated the hiking of water cesses for peasants; college fees; bus fares; and public hospital charges. It ordered all-round privatisation. The state government has been implementing this programme, undeterred by the massive suffering caused, the waves of starvation deaths, the thousands of suicides of peasants unable to repay their debts. When people’s organisations protested the electricity tariff hike, the Hyderabad police responded by massacring the protesters.

Indeed, the second feature, a necessary accompaniment to the first, is that state terror in Andhra Pradesh is at its zenith. The A.P. police is given fat financial rewards for routinely and cold-bloodedly murdering hundreds of the government’s political opponents in fake ‘encounters’. The targets have not been restricted to the members of revolutionary groups, but have been systematically extended to all those who do not submit to the reign of terror; a special target has been civil liberties activists.

The Asian Social Forum gathering at Hyderabad, with its myriad panel discussions, press meets, and public procession, did not speak a word about this armed ‘globalisation’ being carried out by Chandrababu Naidu. Evidently the organisers had negotiated terms with the government. In fact, at the same time as the ASF meet, Naidu and the deputy prime minister of India (the chief architect of the demolition of the Babri Masjid) L.K. Advani, were holding an investment conference in Hyderabad itself. Some dalit groups organised a protest against Naidu’s event, but the ASF, with its tens of thousands of participants at hand in the same city, maintained a studied silence.13

The contrast with the Seattle demonstrations could hardly be sharper. The real political role of the WSF could hardly be clearer.

1. Outlook 21/1/01; Hindu 24/2/02. (back)

2. Economic Times, 4/9/03. (back)

3. “The World Bank, Alternative Forums, NGOs and ‘Civil Society'”, Frederic Thuillier, (back)

4. ibid. (back)

5. Prabhat Patnaik, “Agrarian Crisis and Distress in Rural India”, People’s Democracy, 12/5/03. (back)

6. See “Raid then aid” and “The compassion con”, Nick Cater, Guardian 24/1/03 and 28/2/03. (back)

7. Thuillier, ibid. (back)

8.Edward S. Herman, “Postmodernism Triumphs,” Z Magazine, January 1996, (back)

9. 15/8/03. (back)

10. Times of India, 3/6/03 (back)

11. Economic Times, 3/9/03. (back)

12. translated from Ganashakti, 23/10/02; cited in New Democracy, November 2002. (back)

13. Liberation, February 2003. (back)

Next: Appendix I: Ford Foundation – A Case Study of the Aims of Foreign Funding


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