Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Few would question that these global gatherings are inspiring experiences for those who attend. It was the lasting value of the Forum for movements and campaigns struggling on the ground for social justice, which was in question as activists arrived in the sweltering heat and picked up their 100 page programme for the five day gathering from the vast gasometer converted into WSF HQ. For some organisations this was the fourth or fifth year that they had spent precious resources sending delegates to the Forum, funding travel and hotels and losing valuable local organising time of individual activists. ‘We are getting tired’ said Gianfranco Benzi, from the leadership of the Italian trade union CGIL. ‘It is more difficult to get people to come … it’s not clear what is coming out of it’. Or from South Africa where the pressures on local activists engaged in social movements are particularly intense, Dot Keet researcher for Alternative Information on Development Economics (AIDC) describes how she ‘had real foreboding that the Forum would lose it’s purpose if it did not manage to achieve more cross-fertilisation and joint actions among the variety of participants. Without this as a source of support, it could become a distraction for activists struggling to build movements on the ground.”
A profound political frustration underlies this self-doubt. The global social justice movement and the anti-war movement have both effectively won the moral arguments. But they have had not had a commensurate impact on the exercise of political and economic power. This was visible in the smoke signals coming from the World Economic Forum across the geographical and political divide in Davos. There, the corporate elite were morally on the defensive, desperate to prove that they too cared about poverty yet stubbornly continuing the policies which daily mean millions go to sleep hungry – including the poor of Brazil whose government, under President Lula, (who made a brief and controversial appearance at the Forum) is being forced by the IMF to pay in debt relief which would otherwise go towards the social programme for which the leader of the Brazilian Workers Party was elected was elected.
How could the strength of moral arguments and the movements behind these arguments be turned into effective sources of transformative power? And what role could and should the WSF play in achieving this?
The organisation itself of the latest Forum – the decentralised way in which the activities of the forum were decided, the thoughtful spatial and political relationship between the different activities of the Forum including the central location of the 35,000 strong Youth Camp, and the way that provision of food, treatment of waste and architectural design tried to illustrate the principles of the society we are trying to create,- all provided glimpses of an answer. The organisers of the WSF were trying to create a closer, more directly supportive and catalytic relationship with the campaigning movements and initiatives which are the source of the Forums extraordinary energy.
In the first three Forums there was a contradiction, inevitable perhaps but ultimately debilitating if it had continued. Its founders claimed that it would be a self-managed space for the plurality of activities that made up the resistance to neo-liberalism and war. But the reality was a programme dominated by plenaries organised by an increasingly unrepresentative though well-intentioned organising committee.
After a successful experience of significantly reducing the official plenaries at the fourth WSF in Mumbai in 2004, the International Committee of the WSF took the risky decision to eliminate the official programme altogether. Instead, it initiated a ‘consulta’ with the all past participants in the Forum asking them to propose the main themes of the Forum, using keywords to summaries their priority themes. The results formed the basis of 11 clusters or ‘terrains’ around particular themes: militarism, trade and debt, common goods, social movements and democracy and more. Organisations then proposed and registered their activities within these terrains which were also the physical focal points of the WSF.
The theory was that groups would put their plans on the WSF website, other groups would notice an overlap or a connection with their activities and there would be a process of merging and connecting. A team of facilitators was appointed to encourage and help this process.
It was a radical experiment. It would provide a test as to whether there really was the capacity and will to go beyond a social and political market place and make contact, common cause and shared effort to develop alternatives both in day to day practice and ways of living and policies and visions. In other words it would test whether there really existed the basis connecting the plurality of initiatives, of a self conscious, purposeful force for global transformation, a ‘new subjectivity’ – as the Italians put it; or whether the WSF is simply an event which, because of its welcoming organisation, interesting locations and charismatic platforms, attracts a variety of campaigns and initiatives which vaguely share common values but little more.
In practice, the new methodology was only half implemented – more of the self-management than the co-ordination and facilitation. The electronic tools had not been developed for people to use the website to make connections and mergers. And the facilitators were generally not very active.
As a result things often felt scattered and fragmented, but most people I talked to found the break from the centrally planned programme a real liberation. ‘ I came to one Forum under the old system and sat for three hours listening. I did n’t get to know anyone else; this time I’ve come back with a notebook full of new contacts and lines of common action’ said Camilla Lundberg, part of a 20 strong Swedish delegation of trade unionists and popular education activists. My own experience was similar in Terrain F on Social Movements and Democracy. The registration of self-managed activities produced an interesting pattern of very similar seminars around themes of ‘new politics,’ ‘participatory democracy’; ‘knowledge, democracy and power’ from different continents, proposed by groups who had not even heard of each other. The facilitator for Terrain F brought us all together and after several meetings we created a new global network of activist researchers working on the new thinking and practice around democracy, political parties and the innovative political power of social movements. Far more productive and exciting than sitting listening to worthy lectures arranged by well intentioned committee second guessing what we want.
It was clear that people had come primarily to talk to each other, across cultures, experiences and projects, to organise, to plan and collectively to find the tools to make their visions feasible.
The desire to connect was strong. People invented their own ways of building cohesion, using the bare framework provided by the organisers. For example in each terrain there was a well sign-posted tent where people wrote up the proposals coming out of their activity on a specially provided ‘wall.’ The aim was to create a living memory of the five days’ collective work. How useful it will be depends on how well the hundreds of proposals are collected and presented on the web-site.
If you wanted to be spoon fed, you could pick up a copy of the rather lifeless free sheet Terra Viva which announced on day four of the Forum that 19 people – 18 of whom were men – had drawn up a ‘consensus’ of the Forum in an effort to give coherence to the process. The names were impressive including Edward Galeano and Samir Amin. It appeared, however, ‘from on high’ and did not reflect the new ‘bottom up’ methods of consensus building being worked on in the tents alongside the river Guiaba. Nevertheless it served a purpose, provoking discussions about more rooted ways of both bringing together and giving powerful expression to the work of the Forum.
No one has the answer. Evidence that people are working for a solution, that they journeyed to Southern Brazil not just to consume but to plan and organise was the Social Movement Assembly held on the final day. Tent G 901 was overflowing. Representatives of different groups – Anti-war campaigns; groups working for democratic control against water; campaigns around debt, around the WTO and the world wide attack on public service; feminist organisations; the growing movements on climate change came to the microphone one after the other to announce agreed action plans negotiated across different seminars and campaign sessions during the Forum: March 19th global action for the withdrawal of troops in Iraq; April 17 peasants and small farmers converging to act against subsidies to agri-business, against GM food and for local control over the production of food; July 8 pressure on the G8 in Scotland to cancel the debt and for action to impose a global tax on financial transactions to finance development; October, 30th the end of global march of women from Sao Paulo to Burkino Faso; other actions included policies around the democratic ownership of water as a common good, the changes needed to avoid the mounting climate chaos.
It was only a beginning, however, involving only a fraction of the Forum’s participants. But it reflected a recognition that the WSF itself is not the embryonic framework of a new political force but rather the catalyst for the variety of assembled collectivities building the links between themselves. What this new ‘subjectivity’ will be is also an open question. Certainly, it will not be singular. The old agencies of left politics were socialist parties, providing leadership of different kinds for the broader working class movement. The development of Social Forums is leading the more innovative left political parties to rethink their role, their understandings of leadership and representation. The traditional organisations of labour are also using the Forum to create new alliances and develop new tactics in the face of capital’s global reorganisation. At its best, the new self-organised Forum provides an opportunity for developing the mutual understanding across cultures, generations and political traditions that is a precondition of sustained common action. The co-ordinated demonstrations against the Iraq war on February 15th 2003 was the first proof that the Social Forums – both the WSF and continental forums like the European Social Forum – can act as catalysts for a power greater than the sum of those who attend their meetings. Next year, the WSF will be held on three different continents, the year after in Africa. This decentralisation and new location will be a test of whether the cohesion of Feb 15th was a ‘one off’ or whether the experiments at this year’s World Forum stimulated a further maturing of an new, innovative source of political power.
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Richard Murphy says that the appropriate political will and understanding of tax can put an end to offshore avoidance and evasion
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes