Participating in a World Social Forum, the gathering of alter-globalist social movements, is always an experience with very mixed results. Usually, the opening march is enthusiastic and energizing. It gives you all the motivation you need to continue with your work, whatever it is. This was also the case with the Mexico Forum, where we shared the March with the trade unions, on the 1st of May, after two silent years of Covid-19 crisis.
The days of the many different seminars are necessarily frustrating; you have your own activities, you can attend two or three other meetings, but the bulk of all initiatives are out of reach. No one is ubiquitous.
Then come the ‘conclusions’, different thematic assemblies and an assembly of assemblies. Very frustrating. If these are organised simultaneously, once again, you do not know what the others have been doing, and the last meeting necessarily is a boring presentation of different texts no one is really interested in.
It could be different of course. If only the ‘leaders’ – in the shadow – wanted it to be different. But twenty-one years after the first and very successful World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, the founders still cling to their brilliant but badly aging ideas of ‘civil society’, ‘horizontalism’, ‘new political culture’, and so on.
Several languages have nice expressions to say that sometimes corpses are still living. I am afraid this is the case of the World Social Forum. In fact, the Forum, with its greatly eroded international council, is as dead as a doornail. Yet, there we were, for a whole week, in Mexico City, running from one meeting to another… We had two full days of International Council meetings, where no one listened to what was being said, where no single attempt of reaching agreements was made, where people just talked about their own concerns, where no one cared about the Forum itself. Most of the twenty-five plus people (we were still around one hundred and fifty ten years ago) only said they had a wonderful forum, they made huge progress (in what?) and this is the way to go.
All in all, this small group is neatly divided in two separate groups: one which clings desperately to the old ideas, another one trying to renew the Forum, since never before has there been such a need for a coherent and strong voice against the current political and social state of global affairs.
A look at the programme tells you what is happening. There were interesting discussions on war and peace, on climate change, on feminism, on labour relations, on housing, on transformative economies, on health and social protection, on debt… and there were many more discussions on menstruation (for fathers), on essential oils for health, on the sense of life, on spiritualities in resistance and on ‘socialization with the use of sea water’.
If you take the Forum seriously, you necessarily have to ask: what about inequalities, hunger and the threat of famines? What about multilateralism? What about capitalism? What about neoliberalism? What about energy, resources and extractivism? Yes, what about ‘another world’? What about the future of humankind?
What has been disappearing in the World Social Forum, every time some intellectuals abandon the club, is a sense of politics. The founders of the Forum think this is very positive. They do not want politics, they just want an ‘open space’ with some powerless shouting of an isolated ‘civil society’ that has no links to politics, against the powers that be. Their ‘new political culture’ is a culture of despair, of doing as if, but in fact not doing anything at all.
Their idea of ‘civil society’ died as soon as it was created. It has failed in the United Nations, where States do not want to share power with NGOs. It has failed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where NGOs have been co-opted. This is the civil society that always is in fact on the side of power, just creating the illusion of a critical approach.
A similar way of thinking is needed for their ‘horizontalism’, which has nothing to do with democracy but is nothing more than a way to hide the really existing power relations. There is no horizontalism in the Forum or the International Council; there is just a small group of people that does not even know how to efficiently and effectively organize a meeting. This is inevitable if you are convinced that ‘representation’ and ‘elections’ are necessarily vertical and hence a ‘Stalinist’ way of working.
You may think I am exaggerating, but no, I have all these experiences in writing.
From 2012 to 2015 we have been organizing meetings and working groups with surveys and interviews to try and see how we could make progress and get out of the impasse. Since 2015 we just let the divisions drag on and sadly for some, happily for others, see how people are leaving. The World Social Forum is indeed a living corpse. Is it possible to re-activate? Can we have a real impact on the enormous and complex topics of today’s world?
Can the Forum resurrect? Yes! There is a wonderful offer from our Tunisian friends to have an international seminar to discuss the future. The future! What could it mean?
Politics and society have changed enormously since 2001, the year of the first Porto Alegre. Can we discuss what this new world means precisely? What does it mean in terms of globalisation, of world trade, of nationalism and identity, of multilateralism, of climate change and biodiversity, of civil society, of democracy or of human rights? From where? Do we not have to first re-define our concept of ‘civil society’, as an anti-hegemonic force or as allies of power? We have to criticize power, obviously, but we also have to build jointly what we want to be public or common. This should be our central issue: what we want to be public is not only an exclusive task for the State, we all have a responsibility in it. That is why civil society should never be totally separated from the political world.
‘Civil society’ itself has changed dramatically. Many movements have turned back to their national environment. Who really wants a global movement? Who wants a world social forum? Who is still capable of thinking the world as it is? Who wants to change it? How?
Can we have a meeting with some major academics, close to social movements, with some political men and women who are searching in the same way as we are, or, as was being said in Mexico, can we only talk with social movements – but if so, with which ones?
Can we have a meeting to reflect on what kind of Forum we need in today’s world – if we need one? With what kind of International Council? Is there anyone who really believes the formula of twenty years ago is still valid?
Can we have a meeting in which we can take decisions, without the risk that after three days of work our Brazilian ‘leaders’ just say, well, that was nice, now we go on as before? Can we please have an open meeting, without dogmas and taboos and without the paralyzing limits of a charter of principles from another age?
The meeting in Tunisia should not be about the future of the Forum, but about the future of our planet and of humankind. We should re-define the goals of our Forum.
Sometimes, corpses do come back to life. For all those who believe we indeed need a strong movement of movements, with all the diversity that exists in our world but also with a common understanding of what this world is and what it needs, this Tunisia meeting is crucial. However, it will not only need a major portion of willingness, but also some clear rules on how to organize meetings that need common understandings and compromises for pragmatic solutions.