Criticism invites a new content
After five days, the rickshaw driver still has no idea why so many people have gathered at Goregaon on the northern outskirts of Mumbai, as Bombay is now known. From the busy Western Highway Express he can clearly hear the sounds of drums, street theater and protest marches. But he has no notion of what is actually taking place behind the closed gates of the abandoned metalworks. He is just glad of all the extra trade.
Even for someone who regularly attends the annual antiglobalist meetings, it would not be easy to explain what the World Social Forum (WSF) is about. But the simplest way to explain why 80,000 activists from at least 100 different countries and ranging from landless farmers, Nobel Prize winners to anarchists and environmentalists have come together is that they subscribe to the WSF motto, “Another world is possible.”
But however enriching the meetings may be for those attending them, there was strong criticism of this year’s WSF. Unlike the three previous gatherings, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, many at the 2004 WSF found far too much focus on the role of America in world politics. As a result, the war in Iraq, for which there was very little support, received far more attention than less “catchy” themes, such as the right to water, food sovereignty, emancipation and democratization. Many also complained that the large number of analyses of world problems left too little room for discussion of constructive solutions.
But all this criticism begs the question of what comes next. Hardly surprising, opinions differ. According to the Indian scientist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva, the WSF should be held less often, perhaps every ten years. “The WSF is an occasion for strategizing,” she told The Times of India (January 22, 2004). “But NGOs do that anyway, whether there is a WSF or not. It’s being held every year will only damage the antiglobalization agenda.”
Bernard Cassen, director of Le Monde diplomatique and a founder of the WSF, has advocated reforming the present set-up because all the years of discussion have had little effect. During the European Social Forum in Paris in November 2003, Cassen called for concrete political alternatives, such as having one or more political parties to introduce ideas from within the antiglobalization movement into the political arena.
Many of those attending the meeting in Mumbai disagreed, contending that fixating on political decision-making would mean narrowing down possibilities for change. Moreover, notions of content within this “movement of movements,” as the journalist and activist Naomi Klein described it, are highly divergent. After all, wasn’t the whole idea of the WSF to stimulate the emergence of a global civil society as a third power – that is, as a civilian pressure on people and institutions with influence in the world?
What changes are possible within the WSF? In the opinion of many, there should be less talk about what is wrong in the world and more focus on solutions. This seemed to be what the majority of those attending the meeting in Mumbai wanted. In the gigantic halls in which the general meetings had been planned, attendance was sometimes no more than a few dozen people. Instead of listening to intellectual competitors rejecting neoliberal policies, most meeting-goers opted for small-scale workshops where there was far more opportunity for the exchange of ideas. The common question appeared to be about the effectiveness of constant criticism, and the common response seemed to be that although being against something could be an important strategy, it is more constructive to formulate alternatives.
In Znet (February 9, 2004), Michael Albert, editor-in-chief of the leftwing American publication Z Magazine, offers the following suggestion regarding the future role of the WSF: “If the purpose of the WSF is to debate and help people utilize information, why can’t the forum try to facilitate worthy and inspiring information flow all the time instead of only during meetings?”
What everyone does agree on is the need to have the voice of antiglobalists included in the processes that shape the world, which makes cooperation with representatives of trade and industry and with established politicians inevitable. One notable example: John Elkington, veteran green activist, has publicly favored cooperation between what he calls “pro- and antiglobalists.” A prominent British writer on sustainable development, he attended the last two sessions of the World Economic Forum, the annual venue of world leaders in politics and business, and has written in support of “some form of convergence” in the online publication openDemocracy (February 5, 2004). Such engagement would be a real breakthrough for the future of the WSF, which was originally founded to counter the ritual convergence of the world’s power elite at Davos, a Swiss luxury ski resort.
The growing desire for more inspiration and a constructive dialogue at the WSF seems to fit in with an age in which it is no longer possible or desirable to isolate oneself. Ultimately, the world benefits more from focusing on solutions than on problems.
Also see: www.forumsocialmundial.org.br.