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.
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe