WSF2002: Hopes for a True International


The World Social Forum 2002 (WSF) was by almost any measure a colossal success, cleanly overcoming a plethora of obstacles that had stood quite glaringly in the way of a unified conference with full dignity for the many diverse constituencies present. The changes this year were numerous and important even if they were also often hard to see due to the sheer numbers of people present as well as the ever-present problems of communication between diverse language groups. But for those who were willing to look closely, the fact that something new was happening was as clear as day. With an attendance of around 60,000 even the Financial Times was forced to admit, “the strong turnout showed that the movement had regained some of the momentum it had lost after the terrorist attacks in September.” In stark contrast, the article went on to describe the World Economic Forum as being “poorly organized” stating further that it “no longer provided answers” in the post-9/11 world. When the business press makes such an uncharacteristic statement as that, one knows they are doing something right: one also gets the sense that the elites must be doing something wrong for their media allies to be so uncharacteristically honest about their own faltering.

So what exactly was it that made WSF2002 such a success? To begin, where last year there was a gaping absence of delegates from the United States, this year the heart of the Empire actually contributed the fourth highest number of delegates. The value of this change is innumerable, as a movement for global change will not succeed without direct contact and solidarity between those of both North and South. Where last year there were very few youth present and the Youth Camp was treated with a rather obvious paternalism, this year it increased in population by five times (10,000 were present) gaining access to many of the facilities that had been lacking. As youth have always been at the forefront of change all throughout history, this change was vital as well if the WSF is not to fade into irrelevancy. And where last year the African Diaspora peoples and Indigenous peoples had little access to WSF infrastructure, this year entire sections of the program, as well as entire buildings on the PUC campus were dedicated to their issues. This change is vital if the WSF is to be an instrument with which groups can network to challenge the highly racialized neo-colonial legacy that carries on in the form of global corporate capitalism.

But these were just a smattering of the obstacles that became apparent due to the many critiques of WSF2001 that came out shortly after. Major events of historical proportion occurred during the year between, creating entirely new social contexts that some in the movement were beginning to write off as insurmountable. Two months after WSF2001, the mid-April Quebec City anti-FTAA protests kicked the interim year off well, topping the 50,000 who marched in Seattle with the participation of over 75,000. It was here that all tendencies within the movement, as well as all levels of militancy reached their highest level of cooperation, mutual respect and solidarity. Two months later, the non-fatal police shooting of three protestors at the June E.U. meetings at Gothenburg, Sweden set an entirely new tone for the movement. Live rounds were actually being used on protestors in the midst of a nation renowned the world over for high living standards and nearly universal tolerance of protest and dissent. This important change was followed four short weeks later by the mixed blessing of the massive Genoa anti-G8 protests of late July. Here the numbers that rallied in Quebec City almost tripled, blossoming beautifully in a robust and diverse uprising of over a quarter of a million people from all over the world. Unfortunately, the Carabinieri infiltrated the Black Block, provoking several unwanted confrontations that would eventually lead to the now infamous police shooting death of anarchist Carlo Giulani. This brutal killing amongst the many other horrific brutalities that occurred here and in Gothenburg raised fears the world over of an increasingly fascistic response to an increasingly successful movement.

And then, no more than eight weeks after the high point of Genoa, came September 11. The terrorist attacks shook the movement to the core, as already latent fears were confirmed, day by day, in the fascistic response the government, corporations and the military began to take. The simultaneous collapse of the World Trade Center, the attacks on the Pentagon, and the downing of a loaded passenger plane headed for the White House drove wounds so deep into the U.S. psyche that it would soon transform the country into a mass of people easily manipulated into feigning strength, pride, glory and patriotism, when fear, paranoia, shock and trauma were the true emotions bubbling up beneath the surface. Amidst this vastly orchestrated ocean of propaganda, flags, rhetoric and patriotic imagery, George W. Bush would round up over 1,000 men of Middle Eastern descent, expand surveillance powers massively, announce the creation of military tribunals to replace judge and jury, and plunge the world into a unilateral “anti-terrorist” war that he would proclaim to be potentially permanent. Marching in lockstep to such maneuvers, the corporate media giants would agree enthusiastically to official military censorship while nearly the entire corporate entertainment industry would move to place a self-imposed ban on hundreds of songs from their airwaves (songs such as John Lennon’s “Imagine”) which might potentially stir up “inappropriate” emotions. Amazingly, WSF2002 was able to rise above this massive attack with shining colors, putting the movement back on track and restoring hope and energy to potentially millions of people around the world. In fact, in the face of a complex, potentially catastrophic global crisis, many came to Porto Alegre specifically to spite the “fate” the elites seemed to be willfully unravelling in the worldwide theater. For them, WSF was a golden opportunity to begin to change course, to resuscitate the movement in the face of mass manipulation, control, fear and terror. While the global context presented many challenges, the 60,000 in attendance also pointed out many new issues that proved clearly that global capitalism is inherently prone to instability, crisis and corruption. For one, speaker after speaker pointed out that Argentina had been the “poster-boy” of American sponsored WB/IMF neoliberalism. The country had followed the privatization model to the letter: as a result the economy promptly collapsed and four presidents were successively overthrown by mass social upheaval. The other major example that was pointed out was the collapse of Enron, a massive (but typical) transnational corporation kept intact only by corruption, tax evasion, political connections and organized crime at the top levels. But even more importantly than overcoming these hundreds of obstacles and resuscitating what was a dying, frightened, scattering movement, WSF2002 proved that the “anti-globalization” movement would not just be a space for negative defense, but that it would also be one of positive offense; it was the form this positive offense was to take that was a matter of serious division and debate. In Noam Chomsky’s keynote address to the WSF he rightly described this positive focus of the WSF as potentially the “best hopes of the left for a true international.” But if the left is really serious about such a project, this time around, the International will have to be qualitatively different from the largely disastrous efforts at such endeavors in the past. It is well remembered that the First International split several times along ideological and “personality” lines, largely between those aligned with the anarchists Bakunin and Proudhon and those aligned with the state socialists Marx and Engels. In the long run this led only to more and more splits, rampant factionalism and an inability to work together, as each of the various factions vied for universal hegemony in the socialist movement. This fight for hegemony is at the core of the disunion experienced then, as well as the disunion cropping up in the WSF today. Clearly a new strategy is needed that will help us to navigate into new waters. A true International should reflect the deeper meaning of the term: the word “internationalism” for instance, implies not a universalistic left wing version of imperialism, but it’s opposite: a decentered amalgam of autonomous movements shaped and guided primarily by local needs and conditions. In other words, the International is the broad unity of all oppressed peoples from across the full spectrum of experience against the matrix of oppression, combined with mutual respect and support for the autonomy of each sector which comprises that spectrum.

In this endeavor of building a more viable, (albeit more complex) International based on inclusion, solidarity, mutual aid, pluralism, autonomy and democracy, the left could learn a lot by directing it’s attention to theories that have arisen amongst those who have largely been excluded by the dominant anti-pluralist, anti-democractic universalistic societies. The Zapatistas for instance, arise out of a population that is the most marginalized in all of Mexico, in a country that is itself marginalized in the context of the world-system. When asked what kind of world they see as ideal, the Zapatistas say that they are fighting for a “world in which many worlds fit,” somewhat of a contrast to the WSF slogan “another world is possible” which implies that the goal is a single “liberated” hegemonic system rather than a multiplicity of autonomous yet intertwined, interdependent systems. Recent anarchist movements in the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil (which work primarily with marginalized peoples) have devised a theory that is quite similar to that of Zapatismo, called “specifismo.” This theory rejects limiting oneself to the dualistic options of on the one hand exclusively organizing within the broader popular movements versus on the other hand exclusively organizing as anarchists per se. Rather, specifismo advocates a convergence of both into a more effective hybrid strategy that contracts and releases depending upon the situation. For radicals of all stripes this can be a more effective strategy, as it helps to build the larger popular movements at the same time it builds the more specifically anticapitalist project at well. By demanding bread in the immediate it draws in larger and larger sectors of the population, many of whom have been demoralized by the failure of both radicals and reformists to speak to their issues. And by demanding roses in the long term it goes on to then radicalize those sectors that have transformed themselves from a state of hopeless resignation to that of at least simply demanding bread. A more decentered International of this sort means of course, that social democrats will have to give in to the more radical perspectives of the growing numbers of anti-capitalist tendencies. But it also means that “purist” anti-capitalists will have to find ways to make space in their ranks for the short-term demands of those who want bread right now. Here in the North, Michael Albert, who spoke several times at WSF2002, has articulated a similar decentered, integrative worldview as an “autonomy within solidarity.” Rather than fighting for universal hegemony over the movement as in the past, each sector of the movement recognizes and reinforces the validity and importance of the other, building bit by bit the outlines of a better society. This is not to say that there will not be any competition to bring people over to one viewpoint or another, but it is to say that this project will take place in a context of fair play, mutual respect, even handedness and solidarity. Conflicts, in such an arena, would be seen not as negative signs that the WSF is destined to failure, but instead as an opportunity for mass consciousness-raising and an opportunity for meaningful transformation. This lack of conflict however, is not necessarily an indication that all is well; as Michael Hardt co-author of the popular book Empire put it, “the percieved homogeneity of this group is a limitation in some regards. Real conflicts among us tend to be deferred – in a way, Porto Alegre is too happy. We’re not the same and it’s nice to have occasion sometimes to figure out the conflicts.” This sentiment was echoed by several other speakers over the course of the week as well.

This cannot occur however, when any one group is being disrespected and excluded by a dominant force within. While all tendencies, groups and peoples were more or less equally invited to take part in the WSF from around the world, in Porto Alegre locally, the classic division between state socialists and anti-state socialists (anarchists) repeatedly devolved into an unnecessary and shameful exclusion of the anarchists and their organizations. These were embodied largely in the Porto Alegre-based organization the Federacao Anarquista do Gaucha (FAG), who organized the parallel event “Jornadas Anarquistas” (Anarchist Journeys) which drew participants from Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, Sweden, Spain, France, Italy, and the United States. In addition, thousands of unaffiliated anarchists from around the world were present and engaged largely through People’s Global Action (PGA) at the WSF as well as the Youth Camp on a daily basis. This large presence of anarchists at WSF2002 was by no means an anomaly in the recent history of social upheaval. As is well known, anarchists have played a key role in the “anti-globalization” movement the world over, from Seattle’s Direct Action Network, Independent Media Center (IMC), IWW and Black Block on to Quebec’s Le CLAC, IMC and Black Block on to Genoa’s Social Centers, IMC, and Black Block. For all of these reasons (if not the basic principles of participatory democracy) anarchists should have had, like any other group, full access to the decision-making infrastructure of the World Social Forum.

But for two years now, the ruling Workers Party (PT), against a statewide and citywide backdrop of thousands upon thousands of officially posted red flags emblazoned with yellow stars, has jealously controlled the organizing committee of the WSF. The influence wielded by NGO’s, state and local governments and private foundations on the proceedings of events such as this should not be underestimated either, as has been pointed out in the past by WSF speaker James Petras. In regards to this situation, which could perhaps be characterized as a form of “left-wing corporatism,” one anarchist leader from Porto Alegre remarked “with all of the rhetoric that has gone around, we thought the WSF was going to be an open event, but then when we attempted to get involved and take part it was made clear to us that we would be given no decision making power at all. Instead, we were given menial tasks and were excluded from the actual planning and execution of the event.” In response, at WSF2001, anarchists marched through the PUC university campus (WSF headquarters) in protest, capturing headlines throughout the global alternative media. At WSF2002 the now-familiar pattern reappeared. At the opening march of 60,000, anarchists loosely affiliated with People’s Global Action (PGA), after blocking the PT soundtruck in protest for several minutes, were approached by party members, pushed, threatened, and one woman was even punched. Shortly afterwards, 600 of these anarchists broke off from the march and occupied a three story house, building barricades in the streets, in order to emphasize that, as one IMC poster worded it, “Porto Alegre isn’t the social democratic paradise that the PT makes it out to be.” Local police, under the command of the PT, surrounded the house immediately, dressed in full riot gear, nearly running over one squatter at a particularly high point of tension.

But despite all of the conflict and exclusion, few anarchists groups have really completely condemned the WSF per se: rather, their actions of protest have arisen out of the newly popular “autonomy within solidarity” tradition of specifismo. As such, they have called for it’s transformation into something else, something more pluralistic and democratic, a space in which all groups, tendencies, and peoples can participate in equally. Pluralism is of course, what the WSF claims are at the core of its values. But in order for WSF2003 to successfully build on the achievements of WSF2002, several changes will need to be made between now and then. First in line is the need for a daily time and place in which participants can at the very least “talk back” to the forum organizers: even more preferably, internal mechanisms could be built in which participants would be able to directly take part in the purported “democratic process” of WSF. The rudiments of this actually did occur as a result of the actions of some members of the Youth Camp, when members from 20 different organizations around the world organized a general assembly for youth and grassroots groups to debate internal problems of the WSF. The assembly expressed their discontent with WSF complicity with exclusion of non-PT affiliated groups, with the overwhelmingly reformist rhetoric, and with the hegemony of social democratic ideology despite large numbers of clearly anti-capitalist participants. These important critiques that have been levied by the grassroots should now either be directly addressed in a statement by the WSF organizers, or they should simply act immediately to extend the floor to the large numbers of anarchists and other anticapitalists who are participating with the hopes that WSF would become exactly what is needed in the world right now, a “true international.” In addition to the need for more direct forms of democratic control of the WSF is the largely related need for more effective translation at every level of the event. While it can be argued that U.S. and Canadian citizens should learn Spanish or Portuguese since they live in nation-states situated within the Americas, the same couldn’t legitimately be said for those from Asian, Middle-Eastern, African and European nations. In addition, the predominance of participation from countries with a Latin-language base may have indicated in 2001 that North Americans were ignoring the globally-important event, but in 2002, those from the Northern region of the Western Hemisphere reversed this situation, comprising the fourth largest number of delegates present. Now, a significant portion of WSF financial resources should be dedicated to the translation of all speeches, workshops, and debates in 2003, as well as dozens of identifiable floating translators at event locations, the university and the youth camp. When the arena moves to India in 2004, those WSF organizers who are of Latin-based language groups will thank themselves for setting such a good precedent.

As Chomsky foreshadowed in his keynote address, the WSF offer the beginnings of a sketch of what a 21st Century International might look like. But in order to avoid the destructive fractures of previous internationals in the history of anti-capitalist movements, we now need to organize on a newly anti-hegemonic basis, one that sees diversity of ideology, origin, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, age, color and gender as a positive sign of diversity, solidarity and strength – as can be seen in the symbolism of the WSF mosaic – rather than the negative sign of factionalism, dissolution and weakness that it has been in the past. While it has been demonstrated that the PT and the inner circle of the WSF need to cede a great deal of space to the grassroots, the grassroots need also to recognize that it is largely due to the fact that the party is in power that the WSF has been able to happen at all. With all of this in mind, it should become a basic principal of the WSF that no single party or group will be allowed to exert any type of universal control over the planning and execution of the event in any way. Rather, the International, as a globally important dual power institution, should be organized on a new basis of “cosmopolitanism” for a “world in which many worlds fit.” No single ideology, party, union, organization, region, nation, gender, color, language, group of languages nor any other sector nor faction amongst the multitudes of the oppressed should be allowed to dominate the planning or execution of the WSF. A mechanism for daily self-criticism combined with open participatory democracy in the transformation of and the operation of the WSF can make this hope for a true international into a reality. Through this “gift economy” of participation on all sides, and through the transformation of the World Social Forum into a true International, we may one day be able to gain the critical mass of conscious, engaged, energized people necessary for the larger project of replacing the global capitalist cancer with a diverse, decentralized, democratic world of many worlds. Nothing more and nothing less than a high degree of creativity, energy and organization put into the project of building this International, as a self-critical and ongoing engagement from all sectors and all directions of the movement, from this point forward, will determine the outcome.

 

 

 

 

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