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

A new initiative

In January 2001, in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, a large gathering took place voicing opposition to ‘globalisation’. It was composed of organisations and thousands of individuals from around the world. This gathering called itself the “World Social Forum”, counterposing itself to the World Economic Forum of corporate leaders and finance ministers which meets every year in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the concerns of multinational corporations and how to advance ‘globalisation’. At the World Social Forum, various organisations held discussions, cultural events, rallies, exhibitions, and other forms of self-expression, on issues ranging from the environment to women’s movement to economic policy to alternative social orders. The large participation encouraged the organisers to hold similar gatherings in January 2002 and January 2003 as well, and each such witnessed even larger mobilisations, numbering over 100,000 in the last such.

These gatherings, and the wide publicity given to them, had an impact far beyond the circle of direct participants. The Forum began to be treated by many as a political alternative to the current political trends worldwide, and as a potential source of a new politics. Movements, organisations and circles of individuals all over the world that are opposed to, or in struggle against, imperialism, had to take note of the World Social Forum.

Further, while the direct impact of the earlier gatherings was largely limited to Latin America, it is no longer so. A series of regional meetings under the aegis and on the pattern of the World Social Forum have been held over the course of the past year in Argentina, Italy, Palestine, India and Ethiopia. It has now been announced that the next World Social Forum gathering will take place in Mumbai in January 2004.

It is against this background that, in order to understand the real objects and character of the World Social Forum (WSF), we must look into its emergence and development. This is being attempted here so all those struggling against imperialism can take an informed stand on their future course of action.

A brief summary of what follows

In the following we see how, in the US and Europe, a militant protest movement against the depredations of international capital came to the fore at the December 1999 Seattle conference of the World Trade Organisation, and raged for one and a half years thereafter. Attempts by the ruling circles of those countries to suppress this movement met with no success; indeed, the movement grew. It was in this context that the WSF was initiated by ATTAC, a French NGO (non-governmental organisation) platform devoted to lobbying international financial institutions to reform and humanise themselves, and by the Brazilian Workers’ Party, whose leftist image and ‘participatory’ techniques of government have not prevented it from scrupulously implementing the stipulations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The WSF meets in Brazil for the past three years have attracted not only mammoth crowds but a wide range of participants, including many distinguished forces and individuals who are opponents of imperialism. The WSF slogan, “Another world is possible”, while vague, taps the widespread, inarticulate yearning for another social system. However, the very principles and structure of the WSF ensure that it will not evolve into a platform of people’s action and power against imperialism. Its claims to being a ‘horizontal’ (not a hierarchical) ‘process’ (not a body) are belied by the fact that decisions are controlled by a handful of organisations, many of them with considerable financial resources and ties to the very countries which control the existing world order. As the WSF disavows arriving at any decisions as a body, it is incapable of collective expression of will and action. Its gatherings are structured to give prominence to celebrities of the NGO world, who propagate the NGO worldview. Thus, in all the talk on ‘alternatives’, the spotlight remains on alternative policies within the existing system, rather than a change of the very system itself.

Indeed the ties of the WSF to the existing system are evidenced in a number of ways. While several political forces fighting for a change of the system been excluded from the WSF meets, droves of political leaders of the imperialist countries have been attending. Not only does the WSF as a body receive funds from agencies which are tied to imperialist interests and operations, but innumerable bodies participating in the WSF too are dependent on such agencies. The implications of this can be seen from the history of one such agency, Ford Foundation, which has closely collaborated with the US Central Intelligence Agency internationally, and in India has helped to shape the government’s policies in favour of American interests.

In recent years such funding has grown rapidly in India, leading to a vast proliferation of NGOs. While NGOs earlier restricted themselves to ‘developmental’ activities, they have expanded since the 1980s to ‘activism’ or ‘advocacy’, that is, funded political activity. This phenomenon serves to further bureaucratise social movements and remove them from popular control. A critique of the role of such funding agencies in Indian political life was produced in the late 1980s by the Communist Party of India (Marxist); however, its leading cadre are among the chief organisers of the WSF in India.

‘Globalisation’, a misleading word for the current onslaught by imperialism, can be resisted, and even defeated, by a combination of struggles at various levels, in various countries, in various forms; and forces fighting ‘globalisation’ will need to join hands in struggle against it. However, a careful analysis reveals that the World Social Forum is not an instrument of such struggle. It is a diversion from it.

Notes: – note1#note11. John Bellamy Foster, “Rediscovery of Imperialism”, Monthly Review, November 2002, citing World Bank economist Branko Milanovic’s calculations based on Bank data on poverty and income distribution. (back)

2. See “The New Face of Capitalism: Slow Growth, Excess Capital, and a Mountain of Debt”, the Editors, Monthly Review, April 2002; the article cites studies based on World Bank data. (back)

3. J.E. Stiglitz, Globalisation and its Discontents, 2002, p. 99. (back)

4. Crisis as Conquest: Learning from East Asia, Jayati Ghosh and C.P. Chandrashekhar, 2001, p. 104. (back)

5. See “Boom for whom?”, Doug Henwood, Left Business Observer, February 2000. (back)


The World Social Forum and the Struggle against ‘Globalisation’

I. How and Why the World Social Forum Emerged

The fourth gathering of the World Social Forum (WSF) is to take place in Mumbai in January 2004. This would be an event of unprecedented international visibility for India, and is already a subject of great curiosity, discussion and debate among circles opposed to what is termed ‘globalisation’. A number of insightful analytical articles have already been written on the WSF, both in India and abroad.1 Our purpose here is to gather some of these perceptions, substantiate certain points, and add a few further points.

The Seattle demonstrations and thereafter

The emergence of the WSF can be traced (in a contrary way) to the remarkable international upsurge of protest and confrontation that took place in the wake of the November 1999 conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at Seattle in the US. That WTO conference, wracked by disputes among the world’s richest economies, was disrupted further, and crucially, by a great storm of protest in the streets. The over 50,000 marchers were a very diverse mass, including anti-capitalist propagandists, anarchists, campaigners for the abolition of third world debt, environmentalists and even, remarkably, sections of U.S. organised labour. The conference ended in a fiasco without completing its agenda. For those fighting against globalisation, Seattle was a signal victory, evidence that such a fight was possible and worthwhile.

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