Interview with Michael Albert about the WSF and “Reimaging Society”

prager frühling: You have participated in several World Social Forums (WSF). What hopes and expectations did you have? Have they been fulfilled?


Michael Albert: I hoped the WSF would facilitate activists from around the world making new contacts and also inspire new people to become involved, including sharing information to learn lessons from others. All that has been accomplished.


I also hoped the WSF would shift the focus of activist attention away from merely identifying what is wrong in societies toward emphasizing what we want and how we achieve it. Here, success has been limited. Despite bringing together hundreds of thousands of people and using very large investments of energy, time, finances, etc. there don¹t seem to be many new campaigns, shared projects, and internationally or even regionally shared vision and strategy, much less organization.


pf: Is the WSF just a happening where people repeat to each other that capitalism sucks?


Albert: Yes, I think it is mostly a place where people vent outrage, or display great knowledge of the intricacies of injustice, and that is a serious problem.


The WSF started with a tremendous surge ­ but has it gotten steadily more inspiring, more informative, more innovative, and larger after the first three years or so? There is a quote I like, from Bob Dylan, ³if you are not busy being born, you are busy dying.² Referring to people, it is poetic. Referring to political movements, it is fact.


After nearly a decade of WSF participation, rather than redundantly clarifying the sixth decimal point accuracy of our understanding of ³why capitalism sucks,² by now we ought to have attained considerable unity about broad vision and strategy in turn informing our activist and organizational choices.


pf: Does the WSF need stronger agreement about concrete common demands?


Albert: I don’t know that the WSF could itself become the means, any longer, for seeking to actually implement demands, but it could certainly contribute greatly to other projects emerging with that aim forefront. Thus the WSF could productively continue as a venue rather than as an entity with actual program and agenda, but a venue for what, with what features?


How about it being a venue for discussing, sharing, and recruiting for projects, movements, and agendas, particularly about vision and strategy?


Instead of sessions where people redundantly show that ³capitalism sucks,² why not have most sessions develop shared vision for culture, politics, economy, kinship, ecology, and so on – including discussing commitments that could sustain organizations and engender mass participation?


And then what features might it have? Every left effort should always grow but since there are only so many people we can involve in a single big gathering, this means having more events, more dispersed ­ and perhaps the international gathering being representative.


pf: You started a very interesting project "Re-imaging society". Could you please introduce this project to our readers? Could you give us a first impression which projects, demands and ideas are being advocated?


Albert: The project is to share ideas about vision and strategy. Roughly 300 activists/writers from around the world were invited to participate, and then they invited another 200. Altogether about 350 from 45 countries are now involved. Participants post visionary/strategic essays and use commenting facilities to discuss them, expand on them, all at: http://www.zcomm.org/zparecon/reimaginingsociety.htm. There are already 125 essays.


Soon we are going to extract from the essays concrete proposals for visionary aims or strategic methods that authors think should be part of the definition of movement groups and organization. Then we will have all participants, and also all site users, take a poll indicating their attitudes regarding these claims. The broad strands of allegiance I have seen might be summarized as Solidarity Economy folks, Peer to Peer folks, 21st Century Socialists, feminists, anti racists, some social democrats and older style socialists, and advocates of participatory economics and participatory society.


At a maximum, perhaps the project will allow hundreds of prominent movement participants from around the world to get together and pursue more lasting programmatic ties. We will see.


pf: Are you planning to integrate the results of the project into the WSF-Process?


Albert: That would be excellent, in tune with our earlier. And there is a sense in which I admit to thinking that Reimagining Society ought to be at the core of WSF. However, some years back I tried putting together a venue within the WSF venue, to address vision and strategy. It was called Life After Capitalism. After a major show of support and congeniality by WSF organizers in Brazil and from Europe convinced us to do this, at the last minute the support was withdrawn and the venue within the venue was made essentially invisible. This was a shame, I thought, and certainly not an experience I would want to repeat or ask others to endure.


But yes, we could pretty easily produce a large coherent array of sessions under the Reimagining Society rubric, so to speak, for the WSF. But it would only make sense to do that if those who allot rooms, space, visible promotion, etc. very much wanted it and were going to make it work really well.


pf: You advocate participatory economy. Could you explain this conception? Is it part of the re-imaging society process?


Albert: Participatory Economics, or parecon, is the economic model I advocate to replace not only capitalism but also what was called 20th century socialism.I believe it is an economic system that embodies the aspirations of those who seek classlessness, those who want 21st century socialism, those who want self-management, etc.


Yes, Parecon is one of the visions put forward and advocated by many people in the Reimagining Society project. Indeed, I hope it will turn out to appeal to nearly all participants, but we will see.


Parecon has just a few key institutional features including workers and consumers self managed councils, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valuable work, what we call balanced job complexes which is a way of organizing work that avoids class divisions based on position in the division of labor, and participatory planning for allocation instead of either markets or central planning.


Of course each aspect needs further explanation for the description to be compelling, but the main idea is that parecon is a minimal set of economic institutions necessary to convey to producers and consumers a setting of self management, solidarity, diversity, and equity, without class division, in which they can decide their own lives and actions.


pf: The external perception of previous WSF often was strongly concentrated on a few left Presidents or famous scientists, having achieved a proper pop star status. The new uncrowned king is Chavez. Could this be a problem for future WSF?


Albert: I think this was never and is not now a very important matter. It is what lots of people seem to focus on, but I honestly don¹t know why. If there are 100,000 people at a gathering, why does it matter that some are better known than others, that some speak more prominently, and others less so, and so on? The problem isn¹t these ³stars,² it is the decisions that cause the event to repeat basically the same substance year after year without moving forward. I was at the WSF in Caracas and at Chavez¹s only large address at it. Far from his presence being a debit, the WSF would have done very well to listen more closely to what he had to say, and to act on it.


Chavez argued, with many of the key figures of the WSF process sitting on the stage right behind him, that if the massive outlays of time and effort did not yield substantive gains in movement activity, organization, and ties, then the WSF lost its justification. I think he was right. But the only way for the WSF to spur lasting results is for the discussion to move away from enumerating problems to enunciating aims and methods.


There is another side to this, as well. Someone gives a session, even on vision or strategy, and it is very good. Now what? Sadly, these sessions tend to happen without follow up. People don¹t take one another seriously enough to engage, debate, and explore. If panels and speeches or essays are to have merit there needs to be sustained debate and discussion ­ not people talking to be seen and to show off their erudition, but people taking one another¹s words very seriously, back and forth, not for a few minutes, but over an extended period.


pf: There is of course a group of people who prepares the forum, who determines the time and the place of the different speeches and who communicates with the media. However, this preparing group (indirectly seen as representatives) never had been legitimated by a democratic process and its members are often people who can easier effort their regular participation. How do you judge the situation?


Albert: I was appointed to the WSF ³steering committee² some years ago. I went to two meetings, and then resigned from it. The reason I resigned was because I saw no justification for myself being on it and, even if I did belong, while on it, I had very little idea who was making decisions. How many people at a WSF event even know how decisions are made, much less have some degree of involvement? On the other hand, the forum is not a political party, so its lack of participatory democracy is not nearly as bad as it would be in those cases.


If it is just a place for talk overwhelmingly about what is wrong. I honestly don¹t think the structure matters much because with that agenda it has contributed what it can, I suspect. If the WSF becomes is a place for talk and sharing information overwhelmingly about vision and strategy ­ prodding activity – then I think it can contribute much more, and in that case, the mandate should become clear and be abided, and the governing body should at a minimum be representative and transparent, I would think, of sub WSFs, that is national ones, local ones, etc. But there are probably many possible approaches that would work well.


pf: What exactly do you wish and hope to be realized during the next WSF?


Albert: I would like to see the WSF become a vehicle for attaining shared vision and strategy. Maybe it would even welcome us to do a Reimagining Society component of the event ­not just another set of some panels but a component aimed to shift the balance of discussion and exchange from critique to vision and strategy. But if there is some better way to achieve that end, great, that would be fine too!




The Author


Michael Albert lebt in den USA und gehörte dem WSF-Steuerungsgremiums an. Trat jedoch später zurück. Über die Internetplattform ZNET hat er das Projekt Reimagining Society ins Leben gerufen. 2005 erschien im Trotzdem-Verlag sein Buch "Parecon: Leben nach dem Kapitalismus.

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