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

Who was excluded

While NGOs and political leaders of the existing system flooded the city’s five-star hotels, there were significant absences at the WSF. Given the charter’s bar on “political parties” and “military organisations”, it was inevitable that popular insurgencies would be barred from participation by the organisers of the WSF. “During the first WSF, FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who have been carrying on a long-standing armed struggle against the Colombian government; they are the main target of the US’s massive Plan Colombia] received a lot of sympathy from some participants. In Brazil, relatively strong anti-US sentiments are often reflected in solidarity attitudes towards Colombian rebels. Unofficial moves were even afoot to recruit internationalist brigades to travel to Colombia.”39 However, for the second and third WSF meets, FARC representatives were not allowed to register as participants. The Zapatista fighters of Mexico, one of Latin America’s most prominent anti-‘globalisation’ movements, too were excluded, presumably because they, like FARC, are an armed force.

The Cuban delegation too at WSF 2002 was not given an official status, nor given a prominent role. Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, battling intense US efforts at overthrowing his elected government, was not invited to WSF 2003. When he turned up nevertheless, he was not accorded space within the official Forum, despite his evident popularity among the participants.

Equally significant is the exclusion of an unarmed organisation, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an organisation of the mothers of those ‘disappeared’ by the Argentinian military dictatorship of 1976-83. The MST (the Brazilian Movement of the Landless), although formally on the Brazilian Organising Committee of the WSF, was unable to do anything about this exclusion of the Madres — a sign of who really calls the shots. The MST could only send an invitation to the Madres to attend in their personal capacity, along with an air ticket for the head of that organisation, Hebe Bonafini. We reproduce excerpts here from her speech at a mass rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after the WSF 2002:


“We were in Porto Alegre on the occasion of the Second World Social Forum (WSF). More than 50,000 participated in this weeklong event. There were large numbers of people from all over the world, including thousands of youth.

“There were three different levels to this WSF. First, there were the small gatherings of those who were in charge, controlling things. They were led by the French, mainly from an association called ATTAC, and by others from a few other countries.

“Then there were all the commissions and seminars, where all the intellectuals, philosophers and thinkers participated.

“And then there were the rank-and-file folks. We participated at that level, and we discussed with all sorts of people. But the fact is that we were brought to the WSF so we could listen — not so the rank-and-file could participate.

“Fidel Castro was not invited to participate and nor were the FARC. That’s a shame. Nor were the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo invited.

“I went to Porto Alegre because I was invited in a personal capacity by the Landless Peasants Movement of Brazil, the MST. And it was important that I was there, because I, along with a few others, was one of the first ones to put forward our sharp criticisms of this World Social Forum.

“We said that ‘Social Democracy’ and ‘socialism’ are not the same thing. We said that the European Social Democracy had taken over and appropriated this WSF. We said that the French organizers [i.e., ATTAC] and their cohorts could, of course, participate in this process, but that they should not control it.

“We said that in our view, people had flocked to this WSF to fight and organize against globalization only to find out, when they arrived, that the organizers had staged the event so that all we were supposed to be talking about was ‘putting a human face’ on globalization.

“The people I spoke to heard a different message: I told them, in relation to Argentina, that we, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, had taken over the Plaza de Mayo — which is just in front of the President Palace in Buenos Aires — 25 years ago.

“And I said that today, taking up where we left off, hundreds of thousands of people are assembling regularly and are bringing down the new wave of country-selling presidents.“40

Democracy at the WSF

Who decides who is to be invited and who not? While the WSF makes much of its commitment to openness and democracy, in fact its structure is opaque and undemocratic. According to Teivainen, an International Council member, “Formal decision-making power has been mainly in the hands of the Organising Committee (OC), consisting of the [PT-affiliated] Central Trade Union Confederation (CUT), the MST and six smaller Brazilian civil society organisations”. Of those six smaller “civil society organisations”, five are funded NGOs (Brazilian Association of NGOs; ATTAC; Justice and Peace Brazilian Committee; Global Justice Centre; and Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE). Teivainen points out that although CUT and MST are much larger in terms of membership, “Some of the participating Brazilian NGOs have better access to financial resources: for example, IBASE, a Rio-based research institute, has been an important fund-raiser for the WSF.”41

The International Council for the WSF was founded in June 2001, and currently has 113 organisations (including the eight Brazilian OC members), though in practice many of them do not actively participate. As yet there is no clear division of labour and authority between the BOC and the IC. At any rate, as Teivainen, himself one of the IC members, states, “the WSF does not have internal procedures for collective democratic will-formation”.

Whether democratically or not, decisions are taken. The WSF structure is, we are told, “horizontal” — a large number of groups interacting without any centralising force. In fact, however, some force decides who will be invited and who not; who will be given prominence at the plenary sessions and press meets, and who will be consigned to the oblivion of a workshop. A “vertical” structure has scope for communication and representation from below to the top, whereas a pseudo-horizontal structure has scope for only top-down decisions by an inaccessible body — there is no scope for representation of the mass. Naomi Klein, a writer sympathetic to the mission of the WSF, writes: “The organizational structure of the forum was so opaque that it was nearly impossible to figure out how decisions were made or to find ways to question those decisions. There were no open plenaries and no chance to vote on the structure of future events. In the absence of a transparent process, fierce NGO brand wars were waged behind the scenes — about whose stars would get the most airtime, who would get access to the press and who would be seen as the true leaders of this movement.”

Hardly surprising, then, that the WSF sessions (as well as the Asian Social Forum held in January 2003 in Hyderabad) are being confronted by demonstrations outside their sessions. Twenty office-bearers of Brazilian unions (including of CUT) distributed an “Open Letter” to the WSF 2002, questioning the WSF, exposing the role of NGOs, and asking, “Is it possible to put a human face on globalisation and war?”42 Klein mentions how “the PSTU, a breakaway faction of the Workers Party, began interrupting speeches about the possibility of another world with loud chants of `Another world is not possible, unless you smash capitalism and bring in socialism!”

No less than three World Social Forums have taken place; they are only the beginning. The World Social Forum is a “permanent process”, one that is to spread to new parts of the world — the next “open meeting place” is to be held in India, and thereafter, presumably, in other uncharted lands. If one could quantify discussion, unprecedented quantities have been generated by the first three meets. Yet, in stark contrast to the movement to which it traces its birth, the WSF has not yielded a single action against imperialism. As its charter states, it is not a locus of power. However, in entangling many genuine forces fighting imperialism in its collective inaction, the WSF serves the purpose of imperialism.

Notes: – note1#note11. Thanks are due to Jacob Levich, who helped with the research. (back)

2.Their exaggerated concern about the destruction of a few shop fronts and automobiles is matched by their silence on the devastation of the living standards of Russia, much of eastern Europe and the Balkans, southeast Asia, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and other countries during the last decade caused by the international financial institutions. (back)

3. 23/9/2000. (back)

4. FAIR — Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting — “Media Advisory: Media Missing New Evidence about Genoa Violence”, 10/1/03. (back)

5. FAIR, ibid. (back)

6. “USA: Seattle WTO Protests Mark New Activist Age”, AP, 25/11/2000. (back)

7. 23/9/2000. (back)

8. “How Not to Fight Globalization?”, Alan Benjamin, The Organizer, / (back)

9. Benjamin, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

10. Teivo Teivainen, “World Social Forum: What should it be when it grows up?”, (back)

11. Benjamin, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

12. All quotations from Benjamin, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

13. “Second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre: Is another world possible?”, translated from the Austrian Marxist magazine Der Funke. (back)

14. A Fate Worse Than Debt, 1988, p. 226; emphasis added. (back)

15. quoted in La Verite, no. 32, Spring 2003, theoretical magazine of the Fourth International. (back)

16. Naomi Klein, “A Fete for the End of History”, The Nation, 19/3/01; emphasis added. (back)

17. La Verite, ibid. (back)

18. “Parliament of the People”, Alex Callinicos, February 2002. (back)

19. “European social forum: ATTAC pulls movement to the right”, Workers Power Global, 3/11/02. (back)

20. all quotations from (back)

21. Benjamin, op cit. (back)

22. cited in La Verité, op cit. (back)

23. “Lula’s surprise”, Kenneth Maxwell, New York Review of Books 3/7/03. (back)

24. Maxwell, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

25. A Fate Worse than Debt, p. 234. (back)

26. Teivainen, op cit. (back)

27. Teivainen, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

28. “”World Social Forum Charter of Principles”, (back)

29. (back)

30. See (back)

31. “Second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre: Is another world possible?”, cited above. (back)

32. “Porto Alegre 2002: A tale of two forums”, (back)

33. Klein, op cit. (back)

34. “Second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre: Is another world possible?”, cited above; emphasis added. (back)

35. ibid. (back)

36. Teivainen, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

37. La Verité, op cit. (back)

38. cited in La Verité, op cit. (back)

39. Teivainen, op cit. (back)

40. reproduced from; emphasis added (back)

41. IBASE is, indeed, a large Brazilian NGO, with a budget of $5.6 million by 1996. Patterned by its founders explicitly along the lines of the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, over the years it has drawn large funds from foreign institutions, including NOVIB and Ford Foundation. It gathers substantial contributions from Brazilian big business; indeed it has extensive business activities of its own, including as an internet service provider — funds for which were generated largely by a Ford Foundation loan — see IBASE has also collaborated with the UN in several projects. (back)

42. (back)


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