Since the USSF is part of a world movement to build movements resisting oppression and hierarchy in our economic and social systems, USSF News asked Chico Whitaker, Brazilian activist and organizer who helped launch the World Social Forums in 2001 and whose wisdom and leadership has helped guide the process. Whitaker attended the 2010 USSF in Detroit and sees our work here as essential to strengthening the larger World Social Forum process. The grassroots nature of the USSF and its intentionality in cultivating leadership from among those groups most affected by global capitalism can be a model for other WSF organizers around the world. Whitaker shared his thoughts with us on the significance of the OWS movement.
USSF News: What do you see as the international reaction to the rapid rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Whitaker: For me the Occupy Wall Street movement expansion is, first, a clear sign of the fact that there are many more people than we can imagine wishing to change the world; and, second, that the tools and institutions we have to make it possible for people to participate in politics are absolutely insufficient and inadequate.
Parties and our systems of representative democracy close the doors to participation as they reduce democracy to elections and to the building of hierarchical structures. Inside these structures, we are condemned to fight for power, even if only for power to be heard. They are also at the origin of the existing distance between the “leadership” and the “rank and file” in social organizations like for instance the trade unions. The Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as similar movements in other continents, created a new way of expressing our revolt and aspirations. Moreover, it showed that there are other ways of doing politics.
This movement was also possible because technological innovations opened the possibility of a free horizontal intercommunication among human beings. They facilitated the overcoming of all frontiers (not only between countries but also between social movements and inside social movements). They liberated people from the only vertical and controlled communication inside the structures of decision. In addition, even the big mass media domination, spreading information from power centers, was weakened by the multiplication of alternative means of communication.
USSF News: Do you see any connections between the WSF process and the Occupy Movement and other movements around the world?
Whitaker: For me the organizations and people proposing and promoting these movements are inspired by the same objectives and principles of action motivating those who began the World Social Forum process. The objective of the WSF process was the overcoming of neoliberalism, with its markets, financialization, and competition dynamics that have spread the logics of capitalism all over the world. The WSF announces that “another world is possible” –one based on solidarity, cooperation, and respect of nature. The Occupy movement is against Wall Street, the symbol of the world we want to change.
The principles behind the organization of the Forums are: horizontality; respect of the multiple types of diversity; no leaders and no spokespersons in pyramidal structures of direction; and only self-organized activities. All of these principles have the same importance to the goal of facilitating free interchanging and learning; no final declarations trying to “unify” the engagements of all participants; freedom to identify convergences and to organize new actions engaging those who want to participate. The Occupy and “Indignados” movements in Spain have followed very similar principles in their organization.
USSF News: What must be done to build on the power of the USSF and Occupy struggles in this historical moment?
Whitaker: Firstly, we are not 99% against 1%. Those who have already the courage to speak up are many, but perhaps we are more or less 1%, against the 1% who controls and exploits the rest of the world. Let us compare figures: when 15 million people stood up all over the world in February 2003 against the Iraq invasion (our biggest demonstration, “the largest in human history” according to Guinness Book of Records), we were just 0.25 % of the world population. The biggest WSF put together 150,000 people, or 0.0025 % of the world population or 0.1 % of the Brazilian population (and we were not only Brazilians in Porto Alegre in 2005 and in Belem in 2009). What is the proportion between the USSF participants and the U.S. population? And what about the sum of people in all occupy movements in all the United States? It would be good if we could have bigger numbers.
Secondly, and this is our problem: we are in fact, in the WSF process and in the Occupy struggles, still speaking only among ourselves. That is to say, we are speaking among us, those already convinced of our own messages. This reasoning leads us to say that we need to change our strategy. We need to turn our attention to the 98% (if those who control the world are really 1% and we comprise about 1% of all people). I say this thinking not only in our Social Forums (naturally in the U.S. and elsewhere) but also in the “Occupy” and “Indignados” movements.
If we do not reach out to this 98%, they will continue to elect not so good people and will continue to accept what these elected officials decide about our lives. They will continue, as sheep, presumably content to be insatiable consumers facilitating the industrial production machine (which are increasingly energy-intensive and relying on less and less human labor) to make money that fuels Wall Street.
We know that a good portion of this 98% is dealing with basic survival and lacks the physical force to protest; another good portion is happy with their ability to consume ever more advanced technology and gadgets that enhance their own comforts; and yet another portion of the public (we are not sure how big) is dissatisfied and worried about social or environmental justice and with the prospects of what is happening in the world. Our biggest challenge is how to turn our attention to at least this last portion.
We have to continue to organize beautiful and enthusiastic meetings where, in a very democratic and self-organized way, we invite all to come to tell each other what we are doing, to learn what others are doing, to make decisions about ways to engage in protest, social disobedience actions, and other demonstrations. This is good and necessary to build the unity that will give us the power we need.
Nevertheless, what we have also to do, as urgently as possible, is to make the dissatisfied and anxious part of the 98% aware of the economic and political mechanisms and behaviors that cause their dissatisfactions. In addition, we have to make them confident in their (our) capacity to change the world.
We cannot do it through the mass media, which is closed to us or distorts what we say. We have to meet them, to speak with them, to give them the information that convinced us already that “another world is not only possible but necessary and urgent.” By organizing gatherings or other types of actions with these objectives, we ask for creativity. However, we are now helped by the good wind coming from the Occupy movements.
If then instead of 1% we arrive to be 10% acting as workers, consumers, voters, citizens, the world could already be changed… Imagine a demonstration of 700 million people in the streets around the world…
USSF News: What lessons or resources can the Occupy movement bring to the US/World Social Forum process?
Whitaker: I would say that we need to establish a dialogue between facilitators of both processes, because both must think about the 98%, and the methodology used in each one can help the other one in their own efficacy.