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Peter Waterman © 2003


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First Reflections on the Third World Social Forum -- Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 23-8, 2003

‘If we agree that the most important characteristic of the Forum is the ‘open space’ it offers for free exchange, then especially at the present juncture in history, the World Social Forum needs to make it its task to promote the idea of open space as a general political culture in civil and political work. Building open space – building an open political culture, and defending open space – needs to be seen as a project in itself, and those who believe in this idea need to come and work together on this…Given that the World Social Forum is meant to be an open plural process, embracing people of many different persuasions, we need to work to build an organisational process that is based on norms and principles that are openly and commonly defined, and not on gentlemanly or comradely behaviour between a few and that cannot be questioned by others’. (Jai Sen 2003)

‘What we want is the full development of cyberspatial practices…We want social movements and social actors to build on this logic in order to create unheard of forms of collective intelligence – subaltern “intelligent communities” capable of re-imagining the world and inventing alternative process of world-making…The result could be a type of world-scale networking based on internationalist principles (a Fifth International? The Cyberspatial International)[…] What we want is the world’s Left to take this model seriously in their organising, resistance and creative practices. The lessons for the Left are clear! In the long run, this amounts to reinventing the nature and dynamics of social emancipation.’ (Arturo Escobar 2003)

Introduction: Dis/Orientations

In my tiny corner of the Third World Social Forum (WSF3, Porto Alegre, Brazil, late-January, 2003) the expressed experiences were those of euphoria and disorientation, of simultaneous stimulation and frustration, of being both in a unique international meeting-place and in a commercial market-place (dual meanings of ‘agora’ in Greek), of an increasing scepticism of the intellect not necessarily accompanied by a similar optimism of the will (I borrow from Gramsci).

This area might be small, my angle of vision narrow, but they are also, I would like to think, significant. It is as difficult to place and name this space/approach as is the WSF itself. Both are novel and in process of rapid growth, spread and evolution: people are talking of the globalisation of the Forum. I think my space is somewhere between the Centre of the event/process and one of its several peripheries. I have been playing with such names for this area/orientation as ‘libertarian’, ‘emancipatory’, ‘post-capitalist’ (to be distinguished from the negative ‘anti-capitalist’). It is significant because it is on a critical but committed edge of the Forum. It is significant, also, because it overlaps with the decision-making Centre and various other peripheries: po-faced Leninists; pie-throwing, self-marginalizing anarchists; and intellectuals such as myself who prefer the incalculable freedom of cyberspace to the measurable power (lessness?) of the political institution that the Forum has been increasingly becoming.

The original title of this piece was ‘Out of Control’. This seemed to me a nice one precisely because of its simultaneous negative and positive connotations. The ambiguity appealed to my more dialectical moments (as contrasted with those in which I slip back into Left- Manicheanism: Left/Right, Revolutionary/Reformist, Socialist/Capitalist; Utopian/Dystopian, Hetero/Homo, Wo/Man, Future/Past, Virtuous/Vicious). It seems to me that the Forum is out of control in various negative ways: too big; lacking in openness, transparency and accountability; reproductive of traditional Party and BINGO (big international non-governmental organisation) politics. But it is also out of control in various positive ways: the Centre (its initiators) can no longer control the process they themselves invented and developed; the idea of social forums is now out of the bottle and subject to numerous and varied local or specific (feminist, indigenous, intellectual-elitist, libertarian, social-democratic, nationalist, Leninist) claims, forms and inflections. This ‘positive’ is not, however, identical with ‘virtuous’. It is itself riven with contradictions, some suggested by the just-identified claims/forms. Perhaps one should rather use the word ‘new’, in so far as this is not necessarily associated with virtue. Consider ‘new’ world order…

Speaking at WSF2 with younger activists from Barcelona and Belgrade, I argued that what was about to call itself the ‘global justice and solidarity movement’ (GJ&SM) had at last discovered the secret of fire. This secret, I suggested is ‘keep moving’. In other words, any movement peak or plateau, any institutionalisation of the movement (both so far inevitable), will be, or should be, or could be, immediately challenged. This is a necessity because of the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ that for a century or more has afflicted social movement institutions. The Keep Moving Emancipation Show is now made a possibility because of the internet, and because of the increasing shift of the site of power contestation, particularly at global level, from the political sphere to the cultural/communicational one, from the institutional to the cyberspatial. The GJ&SM is also the first such movement to immediately produce its own internal critics, and the first one in which such criticism can be immediately circulated to the interested public and beyond. This is now a matter of Round the World in 80 Seconds. In a movement that prides itself on opening the route from ‘protest to proposition’ (originally, I think, a Latin American feminist concept), the message goes out simultaneously from the movement and to the movement.

In the following, I will briefly comment on the following issues: 1) The danger of going forward to the past of social movements and internationalism; 2) The problematic relationship with the trade unions; 3) The uneven composition of the Forum; 4) The uncertain future of the social movement network; 5) The necessity of a communications/media/cultural internationalism.

1. The Future of the Movements and Internationalism: Forward to the Past?

At the Centre of initiative and decision-making within the Forum has been the Brazilian Organising Committee (OC) and the International Council it created (IC). These have been themselves out of control since neither of them is subject to the principles of participatory or even representative democracy. The NC members may or may not be accountable to their respective communities (mass organisations, NGOs, funding agencies) and the same is true of the IC, the role of which seems to have been to give international legitimacy to the OC, whilst having a quite ambiguous relationship to it. The justification for the existence of both has been the innovative ship they have launched - an international and internationalist encounter, within the civil-social sphere, targeted against neo-liberalism and capitalist globalisation, increasingly concerned with proposing radical-democratic alternatives to such. And this all on the understanding that the place, space and form is the guarantee for the necessary democratic dialogue of countries and cultures, of ideologies, of political levels, collective subjects and movements/organisations.

This space has never been a neutral or innocent one. (Like death and taxes, money and power are always with us and it is best to face up openly to this). Nor has it been as far beyond the old politics and parties as it might have liked to suggest.

The NC consists of a number of representatives of social-movement and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the latter of which might address themselves to social movements and civil society but be answerable only to themselves. (Two movements, six NGOs, seven men, one woman). These bodies have been oriented toward the Partido de los Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party), and/or to its recently successful presidential candidate, Lula da Silva. Just as the Porto Alegre Forums have been places where this (and other Brazilian parties) could publicise themselves, so was the European Social Forum, Florence, November 2002, one in which the Rifondazione Communista (and other Italian political parties) did. Such parties, and far-less-sophisticated and interesting others, have often hidden their political lights behind NGO bushels. The WSF has been a site to which various inter-state agencies, such as the United Nations organisations for women (Unifem) and for labour (ILO) have likewise been given free access. State-dependent funding agencies, national and international, and the massive private-capitalist US foundations, have supported the Forum itself, or various, selected, inter/national NGOs.

The IC was created top-down by invitation from the OC (of 90-100 members, mostly NGOs and inter/national unions, about 8-10 are women’s networks). This gargantuan assembly has no clear mandate or power, therefore acting for the OC largely as a sounding board and international legitimator. The nature and representativity of the members, and the extent to which they are answerable to any but themselves, has not been considered. Many of them do no other work in the IC than turning up and then fighting for their corner – such as the maximum number of representatives within the Central part of Forum programmes in the hands of the OC. The IC does not operate behind closed doors, but its proceedings are barely reported by its members, to even the interested public (isn’t this what elite-formation looks like?). There has, recently, been discussion about the role and rules of the IC, as decision-making shifts from the Brazilian national to the international level. But whilst part of this discussion (actually more like an interesting consultation, see is posted on a publicly-accessible website, the existence of this is known to few.

The Forum itself is an agora in which there are a few large, well-publicised and well-placed circus tents, surrounded by a myriad of tiny others (now over 1,000, i.e. 200 per day), proposed by social movements, political organisations, academic institutions and even individuals. The Marginal events compete for visibility, for sites, for translators/equipment, often overlap with or even reproduce the topics of others, and – whilst certainly adding to the pluralism of the Forum – have inevitably less impact. Whilst, again, the decision that the Forum is not a policy-forming body allows for pluralism and creativity, the result is, inevitably, domination by the official programme – one which has been conceived without notable public discussion. The concentration of power at the Centre is reinforced by the presence of our own celebs (celebrities) – who themselves may have to choose between appearance in a hall seating thousands, or in a classroom seating 25 (I am aware of people taking the second option, but the compass clearly swings here to the North Pole).

This formula is out of control in different ways.

FSM3, 2003, with maybe 100,000 Brazilian and foreign participants, was too big for the hosts to handle: a number of experienced organisers had apparently been lured away to Brasilia by the new government, and the original PT sponsors had lost control of both the city and the state. Unlike last year, the programme was never published completely in either English or Portuguese. (A well-organised North American left, internationalist, pro-feminist group, invited to run a five-day programme on ‘Life after Capitalism’, found itself without publicity, and then geographically marginalized in a club unmarked on the maps, unknown to the information booths, and a taxi-ride away from the main site. (See

The Forum is also out of control in the sense that it is beyond the reach of the Centre, with regional, national, local and problem-specific forums mushrooming worldwide. The Forum is slipping out of the hands of the original NGO elite (I use this term loosely) as it is challenged by those who are demanding that its decision-making bodies consist of regional/national representatives. The Forum is in danger of losing its ‘social’ profile, as major politicians and governments recognise the importance of the agora, and turn up invited (President Lula da Silva) or uninvited (President Hugo Chavez). And, whilst there was no way that the Forum could fail to invite Lula, no one gave him the right, in the words of a sympathetic regional newspaper, to ‘Start the Dialogue between Porto Alegre and Davos’. The Forum’s place as a focus for what I would call the ‘new global solidarity’ is being put in question by those who seek to not only give it national but nationalist character. This is evidenced in the Indian case (Sen 2003), where an Asian Social Forum, dominated by certain traditional Indian communist parties, attacked imperialist wars in Asia but had no word for the Indo-Pakistani conflict - in which nuclear threats are issued by both chauvinist regimes (both national states enjoying US imperialist military cooperation)!

Given all these problems, there is a danger that the Forum will be overwhelmed by the past of social movements and internationalism. This was one in which these movements were dominated by the institutions they spawned, by political parties that instrumentalized them, in which the movements were state-oriented and/or state-identified, and in which internationalism was literally that - a relationship between nations, nationals, nationalisms, nationalists.

2. The Union-Forum Relationship: Movable Objects and Resistible Forces

WSF3 saw a growth and deepening of the relationship between the Traditional International Union Institutions (TIUIs) and the Forum. The increasing interest of this major traditional movement in the Forum was demonstrated by the presence, for the first time of the General Secretary of the the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). But top officers of Global Union Federations (GUFs, formerly International Trade Secretariats) were also present, either prominently on platforms or quietly testing the water. Also present were inter/national union organisations/networks from beyond the ICFTU family (now Global Unions). This year there were, in addition to the radical union networks from France or Italy, an independent left union confederation from the Philippines, a Maoist union leader from Southern India, and, no doubt, hundreds of movement-oriented unionists from other countries. I noted also an increasing openness amongst even the most traditional of TIUIs. Whilst the first big union event was a formal panel with only gestures in the direction of discussion (here, admittedly, reproducing a problematic Forum formula), another major panel saw the platform shared between the Global Unions, independent left unions and articulate leaders of social movements or NGOs identified with the Forum process. The unions, moreover, seem increasingly prepared to recognise that they are institutions and that it is they that need to come to terms with a place and process that, whilst lacking in formal representativity and often inchoate, nevertheless has the appeal, dynamism and public spread or reach that they themselves lack and need.

The question, however, remains of what kind of relationship is developing here. From the first big union event, patronised by the charismatic Director of the International Labour Organisation, veteran Chilean socialist, Juan Somavia, I got the strong impression that what was shaping up was some kind of understanding or alliance between the Unions, the Social Forum and Progressive States/men, as here evidently represented by the repeatedly-praised PT Government and President Lula. Juan, who had just met Lula in Brasilia (in inter/state capacities), made explicit comparison between the ILO’s new programme/slogan of ‘Decent Work’ and Lula’s election slogan ‘For a Decent Brazil’. In so far as the TIUIs appear to have adopted ‘Decent Work’ – hook, line and two smoking barrels – what is here implied is a global neo-keynesianism, in which the unions and their ILO/WSF friends would recreate the post-1945 Social Partnership model, but now on a global scale! This model seems to me problematic in numerous ways. The main one, surely, is whether the role of the WSF, or the more general Global Justice and Solidarity Movement is going to be limited to supporting a project aimed at making capitalist globalisation ‘decent’, or whether this movement should not have a project for labour that might be more utopian (post-capitalist) and, simultaneously, more realistic (morally challenging work-for-capital, appealing to ‘non-workers’, addressing related social and ethical issues). When an old institution meets a new movement, something’s gotta give. Bearing in mind that decision-makers of both the TIUIs and the WSF could have quite instrumental reasons for relating to each other, one cannot be certain that the openness within the Forums will guarantee that the principles at stake here will be continually and publicly raised. (There are about a dozen inter/national union organisations on the IC, most or all of which are likely to favour ‘decent work’ rather than questioning work-for-capital).

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