The women’s assembly reflected a new impetus to organise for women’s liberation in North Africa Photo: Isabelle Merminod
The thousands of international activists, politicos and social movement organisers who descended on Tunis for the World Social Forum (WSF) at the end of March could hardly fail to notice that there had been a revolution there two years earlier. For one thing, the organisers had festooned the city centre with banners reading ‘The revolution of dignity welcomes the World Social Forum’. For another, Avenue Bourguiba in the centre of Tunis was adorned with rather less welcoming rolls of barbed wire, which shifted in their extent throughout the week.
The contrast perhaps sums up the attitude of the ruling Islamist Enhadda party to the event – keen to demonstrate its moderate credentials to the world by accommodating the forum (and the thousands of extra tourists wouldn’t hurt either), but aware that the forces of the secular left most involved in its organisation are also among the Islamists’ main opponents.
Nevertheless, the moniker ‘revolution of dignity’, widely used in the country but largely unknown outside of it, has some real resonance as to how the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is now popularly seen. Those events returned Tunisians’ dignity to them, even if the problems two years later include many of those that existed before and more besides. Unemployment stands at around 17 per cent (an economy heavily dependent on European tourism has been badly hit by the upheaval of the revolution) and in April the government agreed an IMF loan of £1.13 billion, which came with the usual rider of neoliberal policies.
These include a ‘prudent monetary policy’ to control inflation and ‘structural reforms to improve the competitiveness of the economy’, for which read spending cuts and privatisation. Indeed, as the Financial Times has reported, the government had already ‘raised fuel prices by nearly 7 per cent, increased taxes on alcohol and trimmed subsidies on state-produced milk’. Given that it was ‘structural adjustment’ programmes under IMF poster child Ben Ali that helped trigger the revolution, the new loan perhaps serves to underline the way the revolution has ended up being limited to questions of political democracy.
For the left, the recent formation of the Popular Front, a promising left electoral alliance, was followed by the assassination of its popular leader, Chokri Belaïd, just a month before the WSF took place. Though his killers are still unidentified, the murder is widely seen as further evidence of the growing power of the Salafists in the country. Like in Egypt, the backing of Saudi Arabia is a significant factor behind the rising influence of these extreme social reactionaries. Nevertheless, the fact that a million people reportedly took part in his funeral procession, in a country of only 10 million, suggests the left isn’t done for just yet.
This is the context in which the World Social Forum arrived in Tunisia. The rationale had been twofold. On the one hand the WSF would bolster the Tunisian left with a public demonstration of international support and the fostering of ongoing links, together with the opportunity to involve wider layers of Tunisians in a vibrant progressive movement. On the other hand, the WSF itself, now 12 years old and with an uncertain future, would be invigorated by the ‘Arab spring’.
On the first count, the outcome seemed fairly successful. Thousands of young Tunisians in particular took an interest, and lively debates took place on the role of Islam in public life, the Syrian civil war and the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. (Although the WSF has a strong tradition of support for the Sahrawi liberation struggle, the official Moroccan government delegation took exception to this, though the latter had little business being at the WSF anyway.) The forum made headline news across Tunisia and had a big impact on the capital.
One Tunisian student, Sossi Mohamed Sadek, told US peace activist Medea Benjamin: ‘This was like a dream come true, to see our university overflowing with over 50,000 people from Africa, Europe, Latin America, the United States, the Middle East—it was extraordinary. I came away with new ideas and new friends that will surely have a great impact on my life.’
It was particularly unfortunate, then, that many of the sessions organised by international campaign organisations were almost segregated away in one part of the university campus where the WSF was held, with the sessions organised by North Africans (and conducted largely in Arabic) in another space entirely. And without wanting to underestimate the difficulties of organising translation in such a heterodox and underfunded space as the WSF, the possibility of exchange wasn’t exactly enabled by language barriers. However, participants spoke highly of the Women’s Assembly, for instance, perhaps reflecting the growth of international feminist organising through groups such as the World March of Women and the Rural Women’s Assembly in southern Africa, as well as the new impetus towards women’s organising in Egypt and the Maghreb since the Arab spring.
So the WSF still has various kinds of utility for the global movement against neoliberalism at least. The opportunity to meet and discuss with people from around the world remains vital for global co-ordination, whether it be around climate change or tax justice. And for every session comprised of a panel overloaded with long-winded speakers leaving no room for discussion, there is another imparting valuable lessons of particular struggles or resolving to create international networks, such as the one opposing drones, which came out of a session at this year’s forum.
But there are also problems. Graffiti on some of the banners condemned the event as a ‘forum of capital’. Ultra-left perhaps, but it does point up an ongoing problem with corporate sponsorship of the WSF. Part-public part-private Brazilian oil company Petrobras has long played a role here, along with national airlines and the like in host countries. USAID, the imperialist development arm of the US government, felt happy enough to set up stall at this year’s forum, at least until a protest removed it. Fortunately, the fact that the WSF is a space, not a movement, means sponsorship has little direct impact on the politics being discussed.
Nonetheless, the Brazilian trade union centre, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), was concerned enough to put out a leaflet rejecting sponsorship and calling for a reaffirmation of anti-capitalist principles. It also declared: ‘In our vision, the WSF will be open to everyone: to networks, to spontaneous movements, to organised social movements, to the NGOs, etc.’ While formally this is already the case, taking this idea seriously means some reform of the current WSF set up.
There is a growing disjuncture between the modus operandi of the WSF and WSF-like events, and the forms of movement-based resistance to post-financial crisis capitalism. In Tunisia, the younger generation who made the revolution were alienated from the WSF organising process by the communist organising style of the traditional left.
At the event itself, activists from Occupy in the US and UK and the M15 (indignados) movement in Spain, organised under the banner of the Global Squares movement, created a horizontal, participative space inside the forum. Though the number of people sat around for workshops on their plastic chairs under a tree was initially small, they made a real effort to involve Tunisians and involvement grew over the days of the forum. On the Saturday, when the forum had finished, save for the closing demonstration, they moved their space to Avenue Bourguiba and involved many dozens more passersby in a discussion of the world they wanted to see that took place largely in Arabic.
It was one of the most interesting interventions of the forum. Of course, its overall success in no way minimises the importance of trade unions or NGOs in the wider movement. Nor would I want to gloss over its shortcomings – consensus is a difficult process when people are constantly coming and going, for instance. But it does add to the sense that the WSF must adapt or see its significance fade.
In fact, there are calls from inside the WSF ‘establishment’ to do just that. Chico Whittaker, a Brazilian activist and Catholic radical involved in setting up the WSF in 2001, has called for the dissolution of the international committee, the self-appointed and self-perpetuating governing council of the WSF. In its place he essentially proposes direct co-ordination by an organised movement.
Whittaker says: ‘I call this a new movement because it would have to be necessarily of a new type, in coherence with the new political culture built on social forums: structured as a network, horizontally, as the new movements that arise everywhere, but with a global reach; making decisions by consensus, in the organisational bodies created for specific initiatives; with militants but without the appointment of leaders or spokespersons; in dialogue with parties and governments but maintaining its autonomy in relation to them.’
In Whittaker’s proposal, the movement would have a general assembly both before and after the WSF, dealing with its own business and deciding where the next WSF would be held. The WSF itself would remain, as now, a space open to participants regardless of whether they sign up to the politics of the movement. It’s a bold idea, which attempts to resolve both the question of relating to indignado-style politics and a longer-running question of whether the WSF should try to become a movement itself, with some agreed politics and global initiatives.
The difficulties associated with organising a horizontally-based movement on a global scale are many, however, and the proposal is unlikely to be agreed even with significant modification and elaboration. Nonetheless, the fact that La Via Campesina, a global movement involving millions of people in decision-making at some level, does already exist suggests we perhaps shouldn’t write off the ambition too easily.
Arguments about the usefulness of the WSF, and how much we should expect from it, have surrounded it from the start. Nevertheless, Immanuel Wallerstein’s suggestion that the WSF is ‘alive and well’ and fulfilling its function seems unnecessarily complacent. With growing calls for the WSF to better facilitate the creation of ‘horizontal solidarity among people and organisations’, in Tomaso Ferando’s phrase, the WSF international committee has the opportunity to give a clear lead towards a more participatory politics. But that also implicates everyone who comes to the WSF in thinking about our political practice and stepping outside our comfort zone.
For more reflections on this year’s WSF, see Nick Dearden’s report
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#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
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
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
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue