In February 2024 a new World Social Forum will be organised in Kathmandu, Nepal. One can only admire the organisers for their courage and decisiveness, since the objective of the event is less than clear and the results of past forums are less than overwhelming.
Every opening march and every forum brings enthusiasm and motivation to their participants. More tangible results are difficult to discover. It is very well possible that local organisations and movements find reasons to better coordinate their actions, but as a global forum and global actions and campaigns, the result is just non existing.
The members of its International Council continue to talk of a ‘process’, though there is no progression at all from one forum to another. They stubbornly reject every effort to politically articulate different topics and movements, they want an ‘open space’ that, in the best of hypotheses, can only be compared to a kind of three-day festival.
The irony of this state of affairs is that absolutely everyone is convinced that something should happen if we want indeed to build ‘another world’, away from neoliberalism, from wars, from climate change, from growing inequalities. But there is no one with any idea on how to do this, on how to bring movements together, on how to make them search for a common concern and vision, on how to make them speak with one voice.
The most recent initiative to find out comes from The Great Transition, an online forum of ideas and strategies and an international network for the exploration of concepts for a transition to a future of enriched lives, human solidarity and a resilient biosphere. Its predecessor was Global Scenario Group (GSG), an international body of scientists convened in 1995 by the Tellus Institute and Stockholm Environment Institute. GTI organizes monthly discussions on relevant topics for movements and organisations with a global interest. This month’s question concerns the difficulties and problems for achieving more ‘unity’ among movements.
The results of this exercise are not known yet, but for the sake of this article it is useful to draw some first conclusions and show how very problematic the question is and how it will be nearly impossible to achieve some kind of convergence.
Many respondents clearly never have tried to bring together global movements and think the common interest is easy to find, it can be the preservation of our planet or the respect of all human rights. But all those who have tried will know that the formulation of such a respectable aim says nothing about the way to realize it. The World Bank as well will want to preserve our planet, and even will claim to defend human rights. We know what this means in practical policy terms and we know the results obtained till now. Stating the obvious, that is, ‘define a clear and compelling common vision’, then, becomes almost impossible if it has to help to speak with one voice or organize some kind of emancipatory common campaign. All movements have their own priorities and their own ideological viewpoints. We know from experience that it is extremely difficult to make some openings in their armoured walls.
Obviously, the aim cannot be to arrive at a unified and centralized global movement. But searching for shared and common concerns will imply an open attitude and very clear rules will have to be spelled out. It also implies knowing each other, and each other’s fundamental objectives and principles. It cannot be about doing away with differences or identities, on the contrary. Nor can it be about limiting the action radius of movements. It should be about finding out which concerns a number of movements share, in spite of their diversity. It requires that movements and their leaders take off their blinders, put their egos in the fridge and look openly at the world and at other movements.
The most difficult impediment however, at this point in time, is the decline of some common basic values on which we were able to unite in the past. Many of the ‘core beliefs’ of progressive forces have disappeared. Take universalism, which is now said to be ‘abstract’ as if it were not a condition to preserve diversity; or ‘development’ as if not all people aspire to have decent and sustainable livelihoods. Or take democracy, in whatever form, as if right-wing policies or military dictatorships were able to take care of people’s needs. Other examples are the role of the State, ‘western’ human rights, the rejection of ‘modernity’, etc. Surely, in this chapter, the question of definitions is crucial, since very often one uses the same words to indicate different realities. In many cases, the distance from words to things, from discourse to practice is too large to bridge. In other cases there are real and serious differences of opinion.
In fact, it is a very hard question and unity will be very difficult to achieve. The first thing to define very carefully is the objective itself: what kind of ‘unity’ do we want? Is it real ideological unity or just variable and temporary platforms for making strong and common demands and proposals?
Today, progressive social movements are more fragmented than others. There is a huge potential for disruptive action, but movements are not connected. It makes repression all the more easy.
Now, just imagine social movements can make their point and succeed in bringing their ideas, via political parties, to government. This is what most of them strive for. Will governments then have the power to make them reality?
Recent experiences in Latin America show it is far from easy.
The first problem is that many ‘leftwing’ parties will not deviate anymore from the dominant discourses and practices. It means they can take some positive social measures, such as rising minimum wages or pensions, build some infrastructures within the pre-fixed budgetary limits but not raise more taxes, let alone change the economic and neoliberal logic.
In many cases, leftwing presidents have no parliamentary majority and this will be the most important impediment for decisive progressive action.
As Aram Aharonian, the founder of Telesur, describes in a recent compelling article, the leftwing presidents of twenty years ago, such as Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Pepe Mujica, Lula da Silva, Fernando Lugo, Nestor y Cristina Kirchner were not able to do more than offer some kind of ‘soft’ capitalism. It was not a problem of lacking political willingness, but of financial constraints, threats from the financial markets, lacking majorities, etc.
In today’s second ‘pink wave’ the situation is not better. Just think of Mexico where President Lopez Obrador does have a parliamentary majority, but not enough to make fundamental constitutional changes. Add this to a toxic opposition with a lot of media power, and it becomes crystal clear that access to government does not mean you can monopolize power. Moreover, in order to do what the President wanted to do in terms of infrastructure and fighting corruption, major concessions to the armed forces were necessary.
What we see happening today is once again the same old pattern. Pedro Castillo has been sidelined in Peru, Gabriel Boric has been defused in Chile, because his new constitution might have made structural reforms possible, Luis Arce has to fight far right-wing opposition in Bolivia plus competition from his own comrades, Lula da Silva tries to focus on foreign policies where he can indeed make a difference while his Parliament is voting laws that go against his programme, Gustavo Petro is defeated by his parliamentary opposition in Colombia and cannot even implement his most important reforms, such as a universal and public health care system. As for the Guatemala President-elect Arévalo, everything is now being done to impede his assumption of power.
It gives a grim picture and could enhance a growing pessimism. Nevertheless, it is good to also remember the experiences that were close to structural change. Hugo Chavez could have made a difference, had there not been a long strike of the petrol industry with devastating consequences, also at the level of economic governance. Venezuela had the resources plus a beautiful plan for communal development and autonomy, but its implementation was blocked.
More importantly, in the year of the 50th anniversary of Pinochet’s coup in Chile, it is important to remember that Salvador Allende did have a serious programme for structural and revolutionary changes. His programme did not ‘fail’ as is now being said, it was stopped and made impossible. In a recent interview with Jorge Arrate, his Minister for Mining and responsible for the nationalisation of the copper mines it is stressed that the coup happened just when the country lived its only moment in history of a possible political, economic and social transformation, a fundamental change of the power relations.
It is also useful to remember that Allende’s government acted in a fully democratic and legal framework, continuing the work his predecessor had started. Nevertheless, two loyal generals were killed, the Minister of Foreign Affaires was killed, several ministers disappeared the day of the coup and were never seen again. Pinochet decided to kill all known and supposed ‘communists’, in the most atrocious way.
As for civil society, it should know that all these limits are valid for them as well.
When, in the 1980s, the Colombian government found an agreement with the FARC of the armed struggle and convinced them to integrate the democratic process as ‘Union Patriótica’, thousands and thousands of their most important members were killed.
One of the most promising initiatives of the past decades, the neo-zapatistas of the EZLN in Mexico, now have their ‘autonomous’ municipalities. But they continue to live in extreme poverty with the harassment of military and paramilitary forces. Their future is bleak.
There are many lessons to be learned from all these experiences. The most important one concerns the weakness of most leftwing and progressive projects. The limits of what they are allowed to do are fixed well in advance by the dominant and hegemonic forces. Nevertheless, these are not arguments to become pessimistic. Neoliberalism and 'really existing' socialism have failed. But giving up on plans to build ‘another world’ should never be an option.
The lessons to be learned imply a very thorough analysis of the domestic and foreign situation, the economic interests to be taken into account, the economic activities to be developed, the social policies to prioritize, the foreign support to be provided, the political education of the population, communication and media policies, the potential armed response to be provided. It is difficult, it is a daunting task but it is possible. And it requires global cooperation as well as a full analysis of the power relations of the current situation and the opportunities to change them.