The Praise and the Pie

Two things come to mind from my recent experience at the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. On the one hand, we hear many activists singing the praises of the WSF, and pinning incredible hopes on the rise and example of both the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), and its president-elect “Lula” da Silva. Judy Rebick, for example, has been one of the Canadian champions of Lula (who she calls a “democratic socialist”), the PT, as well as the entire WSF experience. At the time of Lula’s electoral victory in October 2002, she wrote that “there is no question that Brazil will not only oppose, but organize opposition to a free trade deal in the Americas.” She went on to say that the PT “has pioneered a new form of people’s democracy that provides a model for left-wing governments around the world.” In the same article, she referred to the WSF as “a centre for social justice movements around the world.” And finally, Rebick suggested that “Lula’s election gives tremendous power to the poor, landless and marginalized people of Brazil.”

On the other hand, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that the president of the Workers’ Party got a pie thrown in his face when he spoke in Porto Alegre, the former bedrock of PT support in Brazil. It seems to me that this was no mere anomaly or prank. Lula had campaigned on a platform that included opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), expanding democratic participation, reducing unemployment and poverty, and addressing Brazil’s crushing $260 billion debt. But no sooner was he elected president of Brazil, than Lula was transforming himself into a “realist,” criticizing wealthy nation protectionism and advocating free markets. What are Brazilians who voted for Lula, and anti-capitalists worldwide, supposed to think? What are we to make of the fact that the “captains of industry” gathered for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland greeted Lula’s talk with warm applause? How should we interpret the fact that the official WEF website refers to Lula’s Davos address as a pleasant, perhaps surprising “highlight” to the corporate gathering?

It seems to me that the pie in the face is symbolic of a split within the WSF, and within the ranks of the larger world movement against corporate globalization. It’s a much bigger issue than whether the PT experience has any lessons to offer, or whether the WSF has any enduring relevance. There’s a split within the movement over what we find inspiring. There’s a split between those who want to pin their hopes on the latest volley of so-called “great men,” old-style Left parties with old-style hierarchies, and the “primacy” of electoral politics on one side. And on the other side are those who want the movement to embody the principles we profess to hold, and the values we ostensibly aim to foster “after the revolution” – namely, equality, diversity, solidarity, self-management, democratic participation, accountability, and so on. The pie in the PT president’s face may not be the only indicator that we shouldn’t hold our breath for the PT to usher in a “workers’ paradise.” It may not be the only sign that there are important divisions within the internationalist, anti-capitalist movement. But it seems like an appropriate point of departure for any discussion of Porto Alegre and the WSF.

Before going on, one needs to be aware that “Porto Alegre” refers to two distinct things. First, it refers to that city’s concrete experiment with a participatory budget process, under successive municipal governments of the PT between 1989 and 2002. Second, “Porto Alegre” has often, mistakenly, been used synonymously with the World Social Forum. The WSF is an annual international gathering that began as a counter-forum to the World Economic Forum, organized every year in Davos by the world’s state-corporate elites. Whatever its initial vision, the World Social Forum has evolved into a massive gathering of Left intellectual stars, moderate NGO’s, labour unions, revolutionary parties and movements of various stripes, as well as grassroots activists, united in their opposition to the symptoms (if not the essence) of capitalist globalization, as well as a vague belief that “another world is possible.” To date, the WSF has been held in the city of Porto Alegre, due in no small part to the role of the Workers’ Party there. As such, the two have often been conflated — a confusion that will no doubt end when the World Social Forum moves to India next year.

In my opinion, the experience and lessons of Porto Alegre’s participatory budget experiment are far more interesting and significant for anti-capitalist activists to discuss than focusing on, and romanticizing yet another international flash-in-the-pan protest or gathering — whether it be Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, or in a different sense, the World Social Forum. Of course, the participatory budget experience has its own limitations and flaws, and the PT is hardly beyond criticism. (In fact, Brazilians voted them out at the municipal level in Port Alegre in 2002, after thirteen years in office – a reflection perhaps of neo-liberal constraints and hard work by reactionary forces, but also indicative of very real internal, structural problems, and failures of vision.)

But there is nevertheless something significant and inspiring about a city of 1.3 million people implementing a participatory budget process, which attempts to prioritize investment and resource allocation on the basis of anti-market criteria — namely, popular will and actual need. There is also something hopeful about a city government – in any city, North or South – involving 50,000 ordinary citizens of diverse backgrounds, ages, genders, and classes every year to set their own budget priorities. Brazil has one of the highest income and standard of living gaps in the world. But during their tenure in power, the PT successfully expanded social programs, introduced a more progressive tax system, constructed 70 new schools, and even imposed some constraints on foreign investments and corporations. As noted by America Vera-Zavala, “the participatory budget in Porto Alegre is one of the few examples in the world of a participatory democracy where citizens are given the possibility to take economic decisions.” Regardless of one’s view of the PT in power, or one’s take on the limitations of electoral and party politics in general, these are remarkable and rare achievements in an era of unfettered capitalist globalization. The Porto Alegre experience deserves greater attention, discussion, and debate by activists and anti-capitalists than it has thus far generated.

Having said this, however, I’m going to disregard my own suggestion and talk about the WSF. In my opinion, the World Social Forum has received attention, both within the mainstream media as well as internal to the Left and anti-capitalist movement, in inverse proportion to its actual relevance. Granted, my perception of the WSF is informed solely by my experience at the third and latest WSF round in late-January. Many commentators, from Naomi Klein and Mike Albert, to America Vera-Zavala, have noted that the WSF has lost its original way, and that it used to represent something better in terms of decision-making, opposition to personalities and hierarchy, accountability, internal participation, and political and economic vision. Klein laments the disappearance of this original WSF vision, which she characterized, in part, as being “less about trusting well-meaning leaders and more about empowering people to make their own decisions.”

Others, like Brazilian activist Pablo Ortellado, argue that the World Social Forum was always, at least formally, structured on the same basis as the Davos forum which it was supposed to criticize, and that since the beginning, “this bureaucratic and elitist structure clashed with the new forms of organization brought by the new movement against capitalist globalization.” In other words, he argues that there has always been two World Social Forums: 1) an inspiring and hopeful gathering of ordinary activists and important popular and revolutionary movements from around the world, and 2) a less-than-transparent, bureaucratic, decision-making body which mimics corporate structures and processes, even while adopting a rhetoric of resistance and social justice.

How then should one assess the relevance of the World Social Forum? What should we make of the fact that some Left activists dismiss the WSF out of hand, either as simply “reformist,” or as another grassroots forum co-opted by the old authoritarian and dogmatic Left, while others paint the WSF in almost unqualified, glowing terms? Judy Rebick, for example, has described the WSF as “100,000 activists talking, chanting, clapping, dancing, discussing and listening to each other’s stories.” She has attributed to the WSF all kinds of innovative and revolutionary qualities, suggesting that it “has given us a new way of talking to each other, a new way of sharing our experiences and the impact is extraordinary.” Rebick even suggests that the World Social Forum “is realizing [Marx and Engels’] century old dream” of building a true workers’ International, and that the WSF is “a meeting of peoples of the world, inclusive, non-sectarian and open.”

In one sense, the World Social Forum has become nothing more than a moveable super-conference, blended with elements of Carnival. It’s great fun for those who participate, and it certainly has educational and networking possibilities for those who make the effort. But it’s a long way from the rosy pinnacle of activism and resistance that some suggest, and it’s far from what’s needed to actually challenge global capitalism, confront U.S. imperialism and war, let alone usher in a new world of solidarity, participatory democracy, libertarian socialism or anarchism, and social justice. As always, the important organizing work begins and ends in one’s own community, and is far less glamorous (but infinitely more important) than jet-setting around the globe, and rubbing shoulders with the “big names” of the Left, or worse, treating them like rock stars.

However, Ortellado suggests that we need to think of the WSF not as a single entity, dominated by bureaucratic and elitist structures and mentalities, but rather as a contested space in its own right. In his view, there are significant “parallel activities” taking place, where “the practices and the spirit of the new movement” can be seen. He argues that the WSF has always had a “dual and conflictive structure.” In essence, there are counter-forums within the counter-forum.

It’s not enough to describe, and dismiss, the one (Old Left) aspect of the WSF, and the top-down decision-making of its central organizers. It’s not enough to express disappointment at the spectacle of people fawning over Left intellectual stars (like Noam Chomsky or Arundhati Roy). It’s not enough to be dismayed that a near-riot erupted when the 30,000 seat Gigantinho (stadium) was filled and people could no longer see Eduardo Galeano, while most people simultaneously ignored the presence, and opportunity to learn from some of the world’s most courageous and important social movements – not the least of which is the Brazilian Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST), which has seen over 1,100 rural activists murdered since 1985, as a direct consequence of its land reform actions, occupations, and successful cooperative and literacy programs. As Mike Albert notes, this disappointing disparity of attention afforded to some names and organizations over others (not just within the mainstream media, but within our own movement), seems “[to rise] in nearly inverse proportion to the activism people do, to the extent they are anti-hierarchical in their own lives, and to the lessons and insights they have to offer.”

Nevertheless, we still need to acknowledge the existence and potential of the other, parallel, World Social Forum. We need to struggle to widen its scope, extend its participatory elements, hold the WSF decision-makers accountable — and maybe even toss them out on their asses — in order to make the internal structure more transparent and less hierarchical. Vera-Zavala describes the relationship between these two forums as a “war,” in which the real victims are the important political issues and movements of the day, which have been overshadowed by leaders and personalities. She says that it is a war “between a dogmatic old left that thinks that social movements cannot transform society [only parties can…],” and a non-dogmatic, participatory democratic Left, which wants “to deepen and broaden” the movement. Vera-Zavala views the move away from the original WSF vision as a “coup d’état,” but insists that “I’m not giving up without fighting.” She writes: “I’m not going to accept that dinosaurs that I thought were crushed under the falling stone of the Berlin Wall are having a revival, and that they make the WSF their playground.” It is our “duty,” she suggests, to reclaim the WSF, “to push the dogmatists out from our space.”

Another world is indeed possible. But it’s questionable whether the World Social Forum is articulating one – and if so, whether the vision of “another world” being presented is in fact attractive. Lula, for example, is advocating “free markets” and a kinder, gentler capitalism in the name of the WSF, and many of those attending the WSF either have faith in “the working class hero,” or believe in some kind of “market socialism.” The World Social Forum can be a place to articulate alternative anti-capitalist visions. It can be a place to learn from some of the most courageous and inspiring people and movements from around the world. It can be a place to build trust, establish links, and foster solidarity between diverse people and movements — all of which will be critical if we are serious about confronting, or putting an end to global capitalism. But we need to struggle to make it that way. We need to be open about the fact that different visions exist, not only about the strategies we should employ in our movements today, but also about where we want to go. We need to be open about the fact that there are class differences, and structural problems, and failures of vision not only within the WSF, but within our various larger movements themselves. And most of all, we need to keep the World Social Forum, as wonderful as it can be — and as it could be — in perspective. Regardless of what happens at an annual international gathering of activists and movements, regardless of how much one can learn and be inspired as an individual participant, the truly important work begins at home.

Paul Burrows was a co-founder of Mondragón Bookstore & Coffee House in Winnipeg (www.a-zone.org/mondragon), currently lives in Montreal, and is an activist and writer involved in Palestine and First Nations solidarity work.

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