In a world plunged ever deeper into an uncivilised global capitalist condition, the World Social Forum (WSF) is a crucial beacon of hope. At its recent gathering in Senegal the news of the unfolding democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt electrified the spirit of optimism pervading the multiple axes of deliberation.
The geometry of left politics was redrawn from Latin America to north Africa and the Arab world. The expressions of people’s power in these revolutions defied inherited formulaic understandings of 20th century revolutions. Instead of vanguards and armed uprisings, these revolutions organised without organisation through social media and the unstoppable mass surge of discontent. Egypt and Tunisia also fired an imagination for more: could people’s power be harnessed to end the tenuous grip of neoliberal ideology on a world scale? Could the struggles in Latin America, the Magreb, the Arab world, global climate change negotiations and beyond be connected to frame a new horizon for global transformation?
However while this renewed confidence in popular resistance struck a militant chord, the sharp edge of debates on climate change revealed serious limits to World Social Forum politics and the difficulties ahead for a genuine climate change solution at COP17 in Durban. This came through as hard lessons were drawn from the recent Copenhagen and Cancun climate negotiations. Progressive civil society was divided at Cancun. NGO technocrats, donor driven agendas, big egos, celebrity intellectuals and hard lined social movement agendas prevented a common voice and united agenda to prevail outside the negotiations in the streets.
Such a ‘rainbow like plurality’ prevailed in the deliberations at the WSF and was consistent with its long established ethos. However, as the week unfolded it was the Climate Justice current that took the initiative to be self critical and address the weaknesses of progressive civil society. This was laudable and the ‘Basis of Unity’ document it tried to shape in the closing hours of the WSF is a step in the right direction, but is extremely constrained by crucial weakness of the WSF. First, the national and regional forums of the WSF are uneven but generally weak or nonexistent. The follow through required to keep focus and momentum on the ‘Basis of Unity’ document is going to be difficult to sustain. Second, the WSF has not evolved to a point where it can coordinate in a democratic manner a platform of actions at transnational and national levels. It is a great space to philosophise about actions to change the world, globalise critique, share experiences and form links but it lacks a strategic edge.
This does not mean the WSF has to become a new ‘program centred 5th international’. But given the systemic and conjunctural crisis of capitalism, it needs to find its place also at key battlefronts so that progressive humanity speaks with one voice about alternatives. The climate change negotiations is one such front where hope is taking a battering. Pluralism as strength can only be meaningful if the World Social Forum confronts this weakness and evolves in a direction that gives it a new strategic edge.
Moreover, for some activists operating at a transnational level the defeat at Cancun meant intensifying further transnational engagements. Strategy was suddenly reduced to a straight line: Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban (COP17), Rio (+20) and beyond. Given the institutional weaknesses of the WSF it easily lends itself to being reduced to a moment in a ongoing transnational circuit. However, this approach did not provide pause for serious reflection on the state of climate change negotiations and more importantly why Bolivia was alone in the world in its opposition to the Cancun summit outcomes. A serious and ethical conversation of honest assessment, above petty nationalisms and narrow agendas, reveals a climate change process increasingly being led by an agenda that favours utilising the ecological crisis as a new outlet and fix for capitalist accumulation. Within the Cancun framework carbon trading, geo-engineering and adaptation are just some of the elements of a new green neoliberalism. The future of the delicate ecological web will be determined by financial returns, speculation and risky technologies. For the World Bank finance and investment in climate change are the new horizon for green capitalism, a dangerous and false solution.
In this context, Bolivia’s argument around climate debt, rights of nature and opposition to grand market and techno fixes is on a terrain, inside the negotiations, in which governments , including South Africa, have surrendered to the climate agenda of transnational capital. Moreover, transnational capital has brought the ‘inside out’. In other words, it has been able to contest and exacerbate splits amongst civil society on the streets by supporting some in civil society that are propagating the green capitalist myth and who are lining up outside the negotiations to show active support. This further illustrates the inability of anti-capitalist civil society to advance an effective counter-hegemonic politics in support of Bolivia on the streets. Finally, Bolivia is alone because anti-capitalist civil society has not been able to link the transnational in a manner that strengthens a national bloc of anti-capitalist forces. The national terrain has been surrendered for the glitz and jet set lifestyle of the transnational climate change negotiating treadmill, including the occasional meeting points of the WSF.
The painstaking task of local grassroots movement and anti-capitalist bloc building is not happening in most places around the world. Without this national power to hold governments to account and to contest state power, the climate negotiations at all levels of the world will be stacked in favour of capital. Thus demonstrations outside the COP17 negotiations are not going to be sufficient in themselves to open the space for alternatives, inside the negotiations.
These are strategic weaknesses that global anti-capitalist civil society has to confront as part of the build up to COP17 in South Africa. More importantly, as articulated in the main organising assembly for COP17 at the WSF, the build up to COP17 has to harness global public opinion around the alternatives represented by Bolivia and anti-capitalist civil society. The role of global pubic opinion, of over 6 billion humans on the planet, is crucial to democratise the climate change negotiations. Currently, the United Nations has a democracy deficit. It is actually not the embodiment of global democracy and the liberal internationalism through which it claims its legitimacy is in crisis due to the weakening of national liberal democracies in the context of global capitalist restructuring. Most states sitting at the climate change negotiations table are there due to weaknesses in national democracies. In most instances, representative democracy has been hollowed out as states have been transnationalised as part of reproducing the rule of transnational capital. Moreover anti-capitalist civil society does not represent global public opinion on the streets. It needs to harness through a global internet referendum, involving national movements and activist networks, support for the Bolivian alternative to the Cancun green neoliberal consensus. The build up to COP17 and beyond has to pave the way for global public opinion to march alongside the progressive sections of humanity on the streets at the negotiations.
Moreover, for the South African anti-capitalist left COP17 represents a focal point to expose the alignments of the South African government to green neoliberal capitalism in the climate change negotiations and in its approach to national development. Its increasing spend and commitment to coal fired power stations, nuclear energy, fossil fuel based agriculture, mining, industrial and urban development have to be critiqued as part of the build up to COP17. Such a critique has to also be globalised through street politics at COP17.More importantly, the build up to COP17 provides an opportunity to present the Bolivian alternative and more specifically democratic eco-socialist alternatives to the South African public. The critical question in this regard relates to the role of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Will it be part of the inside-out strategy of the Zuma government to divide anti-capitalist civil society converging on Durban or will it align genuinely with anti-capitalist civil society?
Author: Dr. Vishwas Satgar is a member of the national convening committee and process of the Democratic Left Front in South Africa. He attended the recent World Social Forum in Senegal.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill