In February 2024, a new World Social Forum took place in Kathmandu, Nepal. All those who had said it could never be a success were proven to be wrong. It was a success! Around 30 000 participants - mainly from Asia - hundreds of workshops, a motivating opening march, this is all a Forum needs to make people happy. Even in these times of austerity, several people from Europe, Africa and Latin America made it to this exotic place that Kathmandu apparently is.

The Nepalese organisers did very good work and everything ran smoothly. After the semi-failure and the total failure of the virtual Forum and the presential one in Mexico City, in 2021 and 2022 respectively, Nepal allows for speaking of a re-birth of the Forum. Remembering the paralysing discussions that made the International Council of the Forum a place to run away from, there are reasons to be hopeful again.

Or not?

I would like to briefly refer to the past crisis and the new success to conclude on a rather sobering note. I have written about the crisis of the alter-globalist movement before (here and here). Taking different shapes throughout the years, its main topic was the politicizing of the Forum. Since at its origin in 2001, some people had decided – probably very wisely given the circumstances of that time – that no one was allowed to speak in the name of the Forum. It became impossible to defend positions that could have clearly indicated we were indeed working at ‘another world’.

The consensus rule in the International Council - though not written down in the Charter of Principles of the Forum – became an individual veto right. This led to very severe conflicts and an impossibility to speak out on important events, such as the bombing of Kurdish villages, the coup against Dilma Rousseff, the Gaza war of 2014, the assassination of Marielle Franco and more recently the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Major intellectuals who strongly supported the nascent global social movement(s) passed away or left the International Council for lack of political debate. In the end it became a meeting to discuss our divergences and organisational matters. Highly uninteresting.

The conflicts reached their peak at a meeting in Montreal in 2016 (No more harakiri - World Social Forum). Very hard words were used and it was the last meeting of our last intellectual, Boaventura de Sousa Santos. The ‘Talmudists’ – who blindly stick to every word and comma of the Charter of Principles – were winning. ‘Do you know whom you are speaking to? I am the Forum!’ one of the grandfathers of the WSF said in another meeting. A very clear message indeed!

When, after a very successful round table discussion in Mexico City, the ‘reformists’ were accused of ‘conspiracy’ and a campaign of slander and lies was launched, a new initiative was born. ‘For a new World Social Forum’ claimed to try and politicize the Forum, working on political positions, convergence discussions and organisation. When the initial support for this initiative were 400 to 500 signatures, the old generation even hardened its positions. No changes should ever be made! And all the blamings remained the same, throughout all those years: we wanted a ‘central committee’, a ‘politbureau’, a ‘global political party’, we were ‘hierarchical old-style verticalists’. For us, it was crystal clear that the ‘horizontalists’ only wanted to hide the really existing power relations...

But this initiative, with a.o. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Roberto Savio and your humble servant was rather powerless. We made a number of very pragmatic proposals, preserving the ‘open space’ of the WSF and refraining from changing the Charter of Principles. Everything was rejected. We succeeded in organising a couple of good webinars, without any hope to succeed in our project. Also, the number of people actively committed and working for the initiative was too small. It died a friendly and peaceful death, while the Forum was kept alive. Without politics.

The general belief was that some of the founders of the Forum were not so much afraid of a ‘divide’ between its participants, but of political positions in favour of Palestine. One of the other very hard discussions in the IC was precisely around this point, I think it was in Detroit in 2010.

It was clear this would have been another hot issue at a moment a genocide in Palestine is taking place. So what happened in Kathmandu?

First of all, with the end of the ‘New WSF’ initiative, a new discussion started within the IC in order to create an ‘Assembly’, permanent, autonomous and self-organised but part of the global process of the Forum. The difficult discussion was about this ‘being part of the WSF’, since the fathers and grandfathers never had problems with convergence and other assemblies at the WSF events, as long as they were seen as something ‘separate’, without the WSF as such being involved.

At a special IC meeting in Tunis in December 2022, the matter was finally solved and it was decided that: "The IC recognizes the initiative of a World Social Assembly (name to be confirmed). It recognizes that this is an autonomous process and that it can count on the support of those who make it up. A committee will be created to define its rules and to invite other movements that are not part of the IC to be part of its committee and of the assembly itself." and "The IC affirms a consensus on the general process of the WSF which includes 1) The process of the WSF centralized events, the autonomous process of the World Social Assembly (name to be confirmed), the thematic forums, the continental and local forums".

Immediately afterwards this Assembly started its work, defining a name, ‘World Social Assembly of Struggles and Resistance of the WSF’, drafting a ‘Charter of Principles’ and making a programme for its future work. Our aim was to develop the Assembly as a global political subject.

The work started indeed with an important webinar with intellectuals from Europe, Africa, Asia and America. The next promised webinar, with social movements, never came about. The Assembly got around 30 members, several of which had strongly opposed the creation of it before.

During summer, it became clear there was no real dynamic in the Assembly. Most members never attended the meetings, we were only five or six to attend and soon we entered a ‘forum logic’, that is monthly meetings without any subject.

We started preparing Kathmandu/Nepal. We planned to have a political meeting with several speakers, intellectuals as well as social movements, under the heading of ‘Peace and Justice’. A concrete proposal was made for this, a text, a proposal for speakers. There clearly was no enthusiasm in the small group. Hardly anyone reacted.

Someone proposed to have a convergence assembly, as existed before in the Forum. No reactions. For this, we clearly did not need the long and hard discussions with the IC as condition for our Assembly as an autonomous body of the WSF. This is the moment I decided to leave the process.

But this is what happened in Nepal, no political meeting, no political declaration, no speakers. It was a very good forum, in the old style, that is a festival of movements, many thematic groups but no intersectional discussions.

The Assembly meeting was very poorly attended, and a totally irrelevant and apolitical declaration was adopted. It could have been written in 2001, 2010 or 2024. No mention of the ongoing genocide, no mention of the different ongoing wars. A separate text on Palestine was published, as ‘WSF’, obviously against the rules and totally apart from the Assembly. Several members of the IC once again questioned the existence of the Assembly.

I now read that most people who attended the assembly are ‘very happy’ with its result, again the old forum logic of complacency and lack of self-reflection. They want to go on with the Assembly, though it is not very clear what exactly they want to do after this very clear failure. We, the ‘reformists’ of the IC/WSF, clearly lost this battle.

As for the reasons of the failure, it is clear they cannot be attributed exclusively to the actions of our opponents in the IC and possible opponents within the Assembly itself. There was, inside the Assembly, a clear lack of commitment to make the Assembly function as we conceived it. There were far too few people. If the Assembly wants to go on, more committed people are necessary, as well as a confirmation of its objectives. As I can see, a new battle for ‘protagonism’ has already started.

Allow me to draw two conclusions from this very sad history on how to make ‘another world’.

Several webinars on Palestine were organised during the Forum. Is it too far-fetched to assume that this was made possible and formally allowed by the grandfathers on the condition that the Assembly was not going to play the role it was created for? That a kind of compromise was silently made about this? Hence, also the good declaration under the ‘WSF’ heading? Killing an initiative by surpassing it?

Secondly, as for the Forum itself, even if some very important topics were discussed such as peace and war, climate change, debt, feminism, social and solidarity economy, etc., as long as these topics have no more political weight than a webinar on the decolonisation of menstruation, there remains a serious problem. No discussions were organised between the main participants of the Forum, at the end there was some kind of market place where groups could present their conclusions and sell them to others. There is no convergence and, once again, there is no process. No conclusions are drawn from what has been discussed and the next Forum will have to start all over again. Another festival. Even if this can be motivating, it has no political meaning and impact at all. The World Social Forum is a non identified apolitical subject, whereas it should be a global political subject. In its current form, it has no political future.

In these very dangerous times of threatening wars and climate crises, this lack of awareness of what the Forum could be and does not want to be, is a real shame.

The WSF was born as part of the alter-globalist movement. Without politics, its refusal to take positions, as a pure festival, it can be complicit of the worst things to come.