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

Workers’ Party: instrument of IMF rule

The other important force initiating the WSF, the PT of Brazil, can hardly be termed an opponent of globalisation. When the first three WSF meets took place, the PT was in power only in one province of Brazil, Rio Grande de Sul, whose capital is Porto Alegre. At the time it was celebrated for its “Participatory Budget” process. In this, an assembly would be held of associations representing various sections of society — including trade unions, NGOs, and employers’ associations. First, from the funds available, the amount required for the province’s contribution towards servicing the foreign debt would be subtracted. Then discussion would begin on how to spend the remainder, with each association allowed time to speak to ask for funds for its concern, and a vote at the end on all the proposals. None of the priorities may be funded, if there are not sufficient funds for them.21 Clearly such a procedure has nothing to do with opposing ‘globalisation’. What it does is to set various exploited social sections against one another and dissipate resentment for Bank-Fund austerity measures. Indeed the IMF publication Finance and Development, edited by the World Bank’s Chief Economist, praises the PT’s “participatory budget” as helping to “reduce the administrative and social constraints on economic activity and social mobility”.22

Now that the PT has been elected to power at the national level, its anti-‘globalisation’ pretensions have been dropped. In order to “confront the fear that had taken hold of investors, both foreign and Brazilian” before his election, “Lula [Luis Ignacio Silva, the head of the PT and now the president of Brazil], in a ‘letter to the Brazilian people,’ had committed himself during the campaign to maintaining the budget surpluses required by the IMF. When he took office, he not only did this, but he went further and surprised Wall Street by increasing the budget surplus from 3.5 percent of GDP to 4.6 percent” — a remarkable extraction from a poverty-ridden economy in recession. Unsurprisingly, “Officials at the IMF and World Bank in Washington have praised the stringent fiscal orthodoxy imposed by the new government.” For the critical position of president of the Central Bank, Lula appointed Henrique Meirelles, the former president of global banking at FleetBoston Financial, and “well known in US financial circles.” International investors are reassured: Since Lula took office on January 1, 2003, Brazil has received some $5.6 billion in foreign investment.23 Lula has also kept a distance from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, one Latin American leader who is disliked by international capital.

As Brazil continues to service its debt and attract foreign capital, its basic interest rate, at 26.5 per cent, strangles domestic investment: interest now accounts on average for 14 per cent of the cost of production in Brazil and as much as 25 per cent in the steel and auto-parts industry. More than a third of the population is officially considered poor, and 15 per cent destitute. “Unemployment in the greater São Paulo region, Brazil’s industrial and financial heartland, has risen to over 20 percent. Brazil’s economic policy makers remain under IMF surveillance, obliged to make payments on the $30 billion of IMF loans that the previous government negotiated, which gives very little space for the economy to grow.” Brazil’s policymakers now talk the language of the IMF: “If budget surpluses can be sustained, once growth picks up next year, as they anticipate it will, they believe that they will at last be able to shift surpluses from paying debt and toward social development, education, health, and improving roads and other infrastructure.”24 It is elementary that a policy of extracting budget surpluses can only contract economic activity, making the possibility of social development even more remote.

Little wonder that “Some of the left-wing members of the PT were openly criticizing [Lula], and the party leaders were threatening the most acerbic critics with expulsion if they voted against the government’s reform measures.” The left-wing members would have contrasted Lula’s present positions with his words to the Havana Debt Conference in 1985:

“Without being radical or overly bold, I will tell you that the Third World War has already started — a silent war, not for that reason any the less sinister. This war is tearing down Brazil, Latin America and practically all the Third World. Instead of soldiers dying there are children, instead of millions of wounded there are millions of unemployed; instead of destruction of bridges there is the tearing down of factories, schools, hospitals, and entire economies…. It is a war by the United States against the Latin American continent and the Third World. It is a war over the foreign debt, one which has as its main weapon interest, a weapon more deadly than the atom bomb, more shattering than a laser beam….”25

The context of class struggle in Latin America

Indeed the emergence of the WSF needs to be seen against the background of not only the upsurge of militant protests against the world’s leading financial institutions and bodies. It must also be seen against the great wave of struggles of workers and peasants sweeping Latin America since the Mexican Zapatista uprising of 1994, and more particularly in the last few years: a flowering of other movements on the land question in Mexico inspired by the Zapatista uprising, many of them armed; an extended and political Mexican student movement; the continuing guerrilla war led by FARC and ELN in Colombia; the continuing guerrilla war in Peru; a near-insurrection in Ecuador against IMF-imposed policies, resulting in the fall of a government; mass mobilisations in support of the Chavez government in Venezuela, in defiance of the Venezuelan elite and US imperialism; the militant direct occupation of land by the Movement of the Landless (MST) in Brazil; the remarkable Argentinian popular uprising and occupation of factories and sites of political power in 2001-02 in defiance of international investors, forcing repeated defaults of payments on the foreign debt; the Bolivian anti-privatisation struggles, including the successful struggle of Cochabamba against the privatisation of water; and others. Thus Latin America has become in recent years a particularly important zone of class struggle in the world, in confrontation with international capital. Many of these struggles have been spontaneous or led by amorphous forces, in search of political moorings and a vision of the future. Hence the importance for international capital of channeling them, too, along the `constructive’ paths charted by organisations like ATTAC.

So it was that, in 2002, the Porto Alegre municipality provided approximately $300,000 and the Rio Grande do Sul state government (under which the municipality falls) another $ one million for the WSF, despite their austerity regime. In 2003, there was some increase in the money provided by the municipal government and a substantial cut in the money given by the state government (as a result of PT losing the state elections). However, the new PT federal government, headed by Lula, decided to compensate for the cut by the state government.26 ATTAC channeled European Union funds for the setting up of the WSF, and it is itself a recipient of European Union and French government funding (see Appendix II for details). Apart from this, other WSF funders (or ‘partners’, as they are referred to in WSF terminology) included Ford Foundation, which we will discuss later in this article — suffice it to say here that it has always operated in the closest collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency and US overall strategic interests; Heinrich Boll Foundation, which is controlled by the German Greens party, a partner in the present German government and a supporter of the wars on Yugoslavia and Afghanistan (its leader Joschka Fischer is the German foreign minister); and major funding agencies such as Oxfam (UK), Novib (Netherlands), ActionAid (UK), and so on.

Remarkably, an International Council member of the WSF reports that the “considerable funds” received from these agencies have “not hitherto awakened any significant debates [in the WSF bodies] on the possible relations of dependence it could generate.” Yet he admits that “in order to get funding from the Ford Foundation, the organisers had to convince the foundation that the Workers Party was not involved in the process.”27 Two points are worth noting here. First, this establishes that the funders were able to twist arms and determine the role of different forces in the WSF — they needed to be ‘convinced’ of the credentials of those who would be involved. Secondly, if the funders objected to the participation of the thoroughly domesticated Workers Party, they would all the more strenuously object to prominence being given to genuinely anti-imperialist forces. That they did so object will be become clear as we describe who was included and who excluded from the second and third meets of the WSF.

The WSF Charter

The charter of the WSF 28 describes the Forum opaquely as “a permanent process of seeking and building alternatives”, “an open meeting place for… groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism”, a “plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context”, and so on. However, the charter bars the WSF from any meaningful action. “The meetings of the WSF do not deliberate on behalf of the WSF as a body…. The participants in the Forum shall not be called on to take decisions as a body, whether by vote or acclamatiion, on declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority, of them…. It thus does not constitute a locus of power…” Thus the WSF organisers have strenuously and successfully resisted taking a stand on even such a glaring issue as the US invasion of Iraq.

The WSF’s diversity has its limits. Some groups of “civil society”— or of the people, to use a clearer term — are to be excluded: “Neither party representations nor military organizations shall participate in the Forum.” (The April 2002 Bhopal declaration of Indian organisations constituting WSF-India says that “The meetings of the World Social Forum are always open to all those who wish to take part in them, except organisations that seek to take people’s lives as a method of political action”.29) Thus any struggle which defends or advances its cause by use of arms would be barred: for example, had the Vietnamese liberation struggle existed today it would not be able to attend the WSF, even were it to wish it; nor would today’s Palestinian or Iraqi resistance fighters. Examples can easily be multiplied.

Yet the same charter states that “Government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this Charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity.” (The Bhopal declaration of WSF India emphasises that the WSF does not intend “to exclude from the debates it promotes those in positions of political responsibility, mandated by their peoples, who decide to enter into the commitments resulting from those debates.” In other words, they are not participating in their “personal capacity”, but in their official capacity.30) Given that these persons are leaders of political parties, and given that as heads of state they lead military organisations, this would seem to negate the earlier clause banning party representations or military organisations.

Clearly the objects of the two clauses are different. The first is intended to block certain ‘undesirable’ radical parties and their fighting forces. The second is to ensure the presence of representations from the very governments carrying out globalisation.

While barring the participation of armed organisations, the WSF Charter mentions that it will “increase the capacity for non-violent social resistance to the process of dehumanization the world is undergoing and to the violence used by the State.” (emphasis added) So the world is being dehumanized as a result of the intensification of exploitation; states are employing violence to accomplish this; yet resistance must be non-violent; failure to maintain non-violence will bar one from attending WSF gatherings.

On the other hand, the question of funding does not even figure in the charter of principles of the WSF, adopted in June 2001. Marxists, being materialists, would point out that one should look at the material base of the forum to grasp its nature. (One indeed does not have to be a Marxist to understand that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”.) But the WSF does not agree. It can draw funds from imperialist institutions like Ford Foundation while fighting “domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism”. Indeed, the WSF Charter makes clear that it is opposed to all “reductionist views of economy, development and history”, meaning, presumably, Marxist analysis.

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