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

2. In the course of recruiting their manpower, the NGOs give employment and a small share of the cream to certain local persons. These persons might be locally influential persons, whose influence and operations then benefit the NGO. Or they might be vocal and restive persons, potential opponents of the authorities, who are in effect bought over. In either case, NGO employment, although tiny in comparison with the levels of unemployment in third world countries, serves as a network of local political influence, stabilising the existing order.

3. In the field of people’s movements, ‘activist’ or ‘advocacy’ NGOs help to redirect struggles of the people for basic change from the path of confrontation to that of negotiation, preserving the existing political frame. The World Bank explains in its “Report on Development” (cited above) its political reasons for promoting NGOs. It says: “Social tensions and divisions can be eased by bringing political opponents together within the framework of formal and informal forums and by channeling their energies through political processes, rather than leaving confrontation as the only form of release.”7 Thus ever since the early seventies Andhra Pradesh, a state with a strong tradition of revolutionary movements, has witnessed a massive proliferation of NGOs, and is indeed among the states receiving the maximum foreign NGO funds today.

NGOs bureaucratise people’s movements. Traditionally, people’s movements are self-reliant: they have to raise their own resources, and are led by representatives from among the people. These representatives, to one extent or another, thus have to be accountable to the people. By contrast, NGO-led movements, while claiming to represent the people, are led by officers of the NGOs, who are paid by funding agencies to carry on activity. Naturally, they are not accountable to the people, nor can they be removed by them; so they are also free to act without regard for people’s opinions. On the other hand, NGOs are accountable to their funders, and cannot afford to stray beyond certain bounds. Minus foreign and government funding, the entire NGO sector in India would collapse in a day.

Indeed, as NGOs proliferate and spread their wings, setting up funded adivasi organisations, dalit organisations, women’s organisations, ‘human rights’ organisations, cultural organisations, and organisations of unorganised labour, it is often NGOs that are the first to respond to any political or social issue — including ‘globalisation’ and its harmful effects. Political life itself is increasingly NGOised, that is, bureaucratised and alienated from popular presence and representation.

Ideological underpinnings

The foreign-funded NGO sector has, with remarkable uniformity, propagated certain political concepts. The first such, as we have mentioned in the case of Ford Foundation’s projects (see Appendix I), is the primacy of ‘identity’ — gender, ethnicity, caste, nationality — over class.

The ideological underpinnings, such as they are, of this trend are provided by what has come to be known as ‘post-modernism.’ This is an international intellectual current — now powerful, if not dominant, in social science academic institutions worldwide. Not its own strength as a school of thought, but the rich stream of funds and academic positions flowing to it, has ensured post-modernists institutional dominance — an echo of what Ford Foundation did in the 1950s.

Although ‘post-modernism’ is not really systematic thought, and so is difficult to pin down and refute, the following is an important strand of it, and the one that is relevant for the topic we are discussing here. This strand argues against any worldview which attempts (however approximately or tentatively) to comprehend all of reality in an integrated fashion. The post-modernists argue that such a worldview imposes its project on other realities. Instead, this strand posits that there are any number of realities, equally valid, and that the very tools of analysis for these realities differ.

Class analysis and post-modernism produce sharply contrasting analyses of social phenomena, which have sharply differing implications for the practice of social movements. Class analysis argues that, for example, the vast majority of women have an objective, material basis to join their movement with those of other sections (including dalits, adivasis, workers, and so on) in a struggle against the existing social order; that women’s liberation is tied up with (though a distinct sphere of) such a broader struggle; that male chauvinist attitudes of, say, male workers are against all workers’ own long-term interest; and that such attitudes have to be fought by making ruling class influences the target, not ordinary workers as such.

Post-modernism, however, considers such a view “reductionist” (the term used in the World Social Forum Charter). Rather, post-modernism places all struggles on par, with class as just another social category jostling with gender, ethnicity, nationality, and so on for attention. Post-modernism thus rules out the possibility of united action by various social sections on the basis of common objective interests; rather, it talks of varying coalitions/alliances of forces, joining hands to one extent or another for specific aims.

The post-modernist approach implies that members of the same coalition might be pitted against each other in some other respect — for example, male workers and women might join hands in a particular cause, but remain antagonists on gender issues. This in turn implies that no clear line can be drawn between the “camp of the people” and the camp of those who are responsible for exploitation and oppression of people. Both camps are open to all.

When male workers, who (in post-modernist eyes) are the target of struggle by women, can be part of the World Social Forum in which women’s organisations too participate, nothing need prevent industrialists from joining the Forum along with workers. Nothing, for that matter, prevents a UN delegation attending the Forum, or a prominent member of the Forum dashing off to attend the World Economic Forum as well. All of them — the workers and the capitalists, the protester and the World Bank functionary — are part of what the post-modernists call ‘civil society’. (Thus the April 2002 Bhopal declaration of WSF India clarifies that the WSF “must make space” not only “for workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, dalits, women, hawkers, minorities, immigrants, students, academicians, artisans, artists and other members of the creative world, professionals”, but also for “the media, and for local businessmen and industrialists, as well as for parliamentarians, sympathetic bureaucrats and other concerned sections from within and outside the state”. — emphasis added. The word “state” is used here in the sense of the organ of established political authority.)

The aim of class analysis is to strive for a social system worldwide which eliminates all exploitation and oppression. Whatever the specific and tortuous path the different contingents of humanity may have to traverse in different countries to get there, it is a common project of the people of the world.

Post-modernism rejects such an approach. Edward Herrman describes it succinctly as follows:

“An important element of the intellectual trend called ‘postmodernism’ is the repudiation of global models of social analysis and global solutions, and their replacement with a focus on local and group differences and the ways in which ordinary individuals adapt to and help reshape their environments. Its proponents often present themselves as populists, hostile to the elitism of modernists, who, on the basis of ‘essentialist’ and ‘totalizing’ theories, suggest that ordinary people are being manipulated and victimized on an unlevel playing field.”8

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