Chico Whitaker is one of the founders of the World Social Forum, and the main advocate of its original vision. There is a growing debate in the International Council on whether or not to proceed to changes or adjustments after ten years of existence. Othernews presents his latest contribution to the debate.
The "future of the WSF" – less of its events and most of the process born from it – is a recurring theme in World Social Forums. From 2004 in all its editions there are at least a workshop to debate it. It seems to become more afflicting as time passes, organizers become tired, the number of participants in world events and meetings of its International Council decreases, the interest of large organizations and movements diminishes.
But the WSF is still alive. Regional events may have been emptied, as the European and the Americas Social Forums, but elsewhere the process is strengthened, as in United States, and expands, as in Maghreb, from which the entire Arab world is being reached. We also saw, at the meeting of the International Council in Dakar, as the thematic Social Forums were multiplied. And one of the closest expressions of this vitality is the large demonstration that the Catalan Social Forum promotes in Barcelona in January this year, at the same dates of the World Economic Forum in Davos and opposing it. This event marks once again the disagreement of our process to the dictates of that Forum, and strengths the dynamics inaugurated in January 2001: the first World Social Forum emerged to show that there is an alternative to the domination of the market logic, discussed by the "owners of the world" in Davos.
It is significant in this vitality, also the dimension that won the Thematic Social Forum of Porto Alegre in January 2012 in preparation to Rio + 20. Despite being a Local Forum, of the Great Porto Alegre, it attracted more than 600 self-organized activities, with participants from all over the world. And at the moment I am writing this text it is not yet possible to know how many people will gather there, but surely will be a number around what a World Social Forum attracts.
Our events also allowed us to move very much in creating conditions to overcome many of the separations that divide and weaken us. Many prejudices in the relationship between movements and between organizations were overcome. Many new networks were created in different areas and situations. Several of these networks have a planetary dimension. The crucial but difficult union between those who are fighting for the same causes began to be built in various sectors.
Other WSF objectives are also being implemented, although still far from being fully achieved. Such is the case of the expansion of its message of hope – "another world is possible" – to all corners of the planet. The same applies to the construction of a new political culture, founded on mutual learning, in collective reflection, on respect for diversity, on the horizontality of the networks, in that it stimulates cooperation and not competition among its participants, with decisions taken by consensus and not by vote that withdraw or exclude minorities.
In fact, this ambitious purpose of reeducating ourselves is a extremely long process. It requires the abandonment of practices moulded during more than one hundred years of vertical political action, even within the left that advocates the change but accepts the authoritarianism, violence, the principle of ends justifying the means, the instrumentalization of others for the benefit of own goals. That is why there are Forums in the WSF process that still have "coordinators" – when they are not "Presidents"… – or that act as permanent entities, obviously with their "owners", rather than as an open spaces creation process, as "Commons" that could not be privatized. And we don't need to talk about the centralization of organizational power…
But the effort for such changes is being stimulated by new movements as the so-called "Arab spring", the "indignados" in Spain and the "Occupy Wall Street" in the United States, among other mobilizations that are emerging in the world. They are new types of action, but in fact very close to the intuitions of the promoters of the WSF, like openness, horizontal organization and respect for diversity, disavowal of leaderships, mutual learning. And also by the confirmation of the basic limits of parties as a unique form of political participation and of the distance that today separates the different types of leaders – in governments, trade unions and parties – of the base of society. So what began to occur in the "squares" of the world is "re-inspiring" experiences of the WSF process at the local level.
It is quite clear however that the struggle for overcoming the neoliberalism – WSF first goal – is far from being victorious, even if multiple analyses are showing the current difficulties of capitalism; although the most optimistic think that they are terminal for the system, it has a considerable staying power. Inclusively because, after having lost the brakes after the fall of the Berlin wall, it invaded all the world, and its logic, unpleasantly for all of us, captured China – this great "Socialist" fortification with more than one billion people, which today ensures, within the global "market", the continuity of the capitalist system, although the hegemonic power can change within it.
Within that framework we don't need to talk about what the humanity is increasingly risking in the ecological point of view: the dominant power of oligarchies does not want in any way to stop the powerful industrial production machine that – more than the military-industrial complex -transforms rights in affordability, exacerbates the consumerism and the accompanying waste, and tends to make life on planet Earth impossible.
It is crucial therefore to discuss and to re-discuss continuously the WSF process course and the effective realization of its various goals. It is at least good that within its International Council there are people interested in it, as we can conclude seeing the receptivity given to a proposal of an informal meeting of the members of this Council who would be in Porto Alegre, as participants of the Thematic Social Forum in January 2012. We are certainly approaching a new stage in the WSF process.
How to continue?
Certainly it is not a question of modifying the WSF Charter of Principles, that has been allowing the progress achieved in the process. Its precepts are being adopted by the new mobilizations that arise in the world, which are other types of "open space". The Charter also tunes with these new "spaces" when it says that in Social Forums there is no place for "power struggles" or for "final" statements intending to systematize, from top to bottom, positions that would be of everybody. The same occurs with other guidelines adopted in the process practice, as the opening of our spaces preferentially to self-organized activities proposed by the participants, or as when our organizers decide to call themselves "facilitators" to avoid confusion with functions of direction.
In my opinion however this new stage have to be marked by a radical change in the way of organizing our events and to communicate with the world.
A first radical change is in the goal of each meeting. We are delighted to participate of each one, as it is demonstrated by its festive character and joy, built by trust and willingness to mutual help. However, they are meetings with ourselves. We meet people who share the same desire to change the world, as a final big goal, despite the differences in our actions and even in our interpretations about what to do. The effusive greetings in the first days are typical of our world meetings, in the joy of meeting companions of struggle. We leave the meetings with our convictions reinforced – having learned many new things – and encouraged to continue – as we made new alliances and new projects. Moreover, we see we are many.
But what do think those who are outside the fences of our "open" spaces – sometimes we were forced to separate ourselves effectively of the world by "fences" watched and controlled… We are convinced of the rightness of our truths. But what do think of these truths those who are not participating of our Forums or of our struggles? One thing is certain: considering their choices, in the elections in our poor representative democracies, it seems they believe in another truths … How the majorities – manipulated, unsatisfied or revolted – see our proposals? Have they knowledge of what we had the privilege of knowing about the mechanisms that govern the world, about the means used by the powerful to exploit human beings and Mother Earth, about the causes of the wars that kill millions, upon the millionaire speculations with money and with food? Etc., etc., etc. ..
In an article I just sent to people next to the US Social Forum, about the North-American movement "Ocupy Wall Street", which created the image of "we are 99%, you are 1%", I wrote the following:
Firstly, we are not 99% against 1%. Those who have already the courage to speak up are many, but perhaps more or less 1%, against the 1% who controls and exploits the rest of the world. Let us compare figures: when 15 millions stand up all over the world in February 2003 against the war and the Iraq invasion (our biggest demonstration, "the largest in human history", according to Guinness Book of Records… which gave us the feeling of being very strong), we were 0,25 % of the world population. The biggest WSF put together 150.000 people: 0, 0025 % of the world population or 0,1 % of 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 US population? And what about the sum of people in all occupy movements in all US? It would be good if we could have better figures…
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 ourselves to the 98% (if those who control the world are really 1% and we arrive to be 1%). I say this thinking not only in our Social Forums (naturally in US and elsewhere) but also in the "occupy" and "indignados" movements.
If we do not do it, they will continue to elect not so good people and will continue to accept what this people decide about our lives. Or will continue, as sheeps supposed happy, to contribute as insatiable consumers to make turn more and more quickly the industrial production machine (built in all possible ways and places and needing all types of energy and less and less human labour…) to make money to figure in the Wall Street computers.
We know that a good portion of this 98% is only trying to survive or has not even the physical force to protest; another good portion is more and more happy with the incredibly rapid technological progress of their commodity and comfort equipments and gadgets; and one portion (how big?) is dissatisfied or preoccupied with questions like social justice or environment and with the prospects of what is happening in the world.
Our biggest challenge is how to turn ourselves to at least this last portion.
I sought then to answer the difficult question about "how":
We must continue to organize beautiful and enthusiastic meetings where, in a very democratic and self-organized way, we come to tell what we are doing, to know what others are doing, to decide about protestations, social disobedience actions, demonstrations. This is good and necessary, to build the union that will give us the force we need.
Nevertheless, what we have also to do, as urgently as possible, is to make the dissatisfied and preoccupied part of the 98% aware of the economical and political mechanisms and behaviors that explain their dissatisfaction and preoccupations. In addition, we have to make them confident in their (our) capacity to change the world.
If then we arrive to be really 1%, we would be, considering the figures today, with half of people being adults, we would have 35 millions in the streets; and if 10%, 350 millions of workers, consumers, electors, citizens… Could we then change the world?
In another article, in which I "dreamt" about what the "indignados" of Spain could do, I wrote:
I saw "indignados" of many places closing their camps. Not to give up what they were doing but to change their strategy. They considered that they were becoming isolated from the rest of society. People outside their camps had some difficulty in understanding them. The media serving the dominant power, was spreading doubts everywhere about what they were really intending to do, presenting them as unable to give answers to the problems they raised, as if they were utopian young people without engagement with reality. It was easy then to begin to accuse them of being unemployed, lazy people. And of being rioters and junkies. People outside the camps were beginning to see those in the camps as extraneous and unwanted beings in the heart of their cities. There were even people pushing other unwanted, "homeless" people into the camp. So, the society began to accept the repression trying to expel them, even with violence.(…)
Many of those who had come to the squares were beginning to get tired because new difficulties arose, like the cold and the rain. The lectures and discussions taking place could be interesting, likewise the discoveries that they were making like learning self-management, and growing solidarity, but they saw how difficult it was to keep their camps going indefinitely when the repression was not pushing them out of the squares.
From the central square to the civic guerilla.
They then decided n to begin a new stage of their struggle which they called "civic guerrilla".
They began to have general meetings every fifteen days, on weekends, in different places of the city.(…) These general meetings lasted an entire morning or a whole afternoon. They firstly were an opportunity to meet in a more festive way. The main reason however was to exchange ideas and information about which squares at the end of the following week everyone would develop, at the same time but in a decentralized manner, activities that until then had taken place in the camp.
The next weekend each indignado choose the square in which he wanted to go. Thus, they spread their presence throughout the city, in as many different squares as possible, which hindered the action of repression.
In these squares they held then something like the Local Social Forums: lectures, workshops, debates, theatrical performances, music, dances, viewing movies, each activity prepared by the "indignados" who proposed it and brought to the site the equipment needed for the performances. In many places there were those who prepared day-care centers to care for children and keep them busy with educational activities.
To prepare these activities they previously contacted intellectuals and activists who could better explain a good number of things, as well as movements, associations and NGOs to explain what they were doing and the new ideas that they were proposing and experimenting such as how to organize the economy, politics and democracy. They also invited people who could give testimonies of their lives and struggles, as well as authors of films, plays and songs to come to present them and discuss them in the square.
Many went during the week to the neighborhood where they would develop activities and visited its residents. In these visits they explained why they were coming to that square, why they called themselves "indignados", what was the usefulness for these residents of what would happen in the square. They talked with them about everything they thought it was not going well in their neighborhood, in the country, in the world.
This was the biggest difference with the WSF Local Social Forums: the activities were directed mainly to the neighborhood residents and not only to the companions in the struggle.
In my dream I saw the multiplication of these neighborhood meetings, in all the city, with a huge variety of themes and issues raised. There were lectures and workshops on the perverse functioning of a globalized economy and about using today robots to decide where to invest in the stock exchanges, destroying national economies irresponsibly. There were theater plays denouncing how real estate speculation makes it impossible to solve the housing problem of all. There were debates about how the capitalist system seeks to resolve its crises, always making the poorest pay and how, in the logic of this system, everything – even the life, the body, the diseases of people – was transformed into means of gaining money. There were debates about the need, in elections, to always choose the best candidate, and about how to get together with others to know who would be the best. And about the need, once elected the candidate, to continue monitoring its activities and even help him, rather than abandon him in the midst of wolves to be eaten by wolves or to become also a wolf. Didactic films were displayed to show how consumerism and its exacerbation make turn increasingly faster the industrial machine of production of stuff less and less durable, encouraging waste, consuming more and more natural resources, requiring increasingly more energy and polluting increasingly the planet. And how conscious and organized consumers can stop this infernal machine. There were discussions on why we must respect nature and live in harmony with Mother Earth and with the other human beings. There were explanations about the commons and why they can't be privatized. It was showed that it is possible to have alternative currencies for the exchanges, releasing us from the slavery in which the money and the pursuit of money push us. There were demonstrations of alternative means of locomotion, and the presentation of the enormous amount of public resources that are buried in great works to facilitate the transit of cars, to the detriment of collective transport, while, conversely, more and more cars are put within cities. Documentaries were showed about the struggles that had occurred against injustice and inequality, and about the living conditions in poor countries while investors speculate with food prices and in rich countries large quantities of food are thrown away, or about the reasons the poor countries are increasingly poor, about the tragedies experienced by immigrants, about the dangers they experience by seeking to reach rich countries and about the number of deaths among those who try to do so. It was explained how it was possible to react to the absurdities of the dominant economic system, challenging it by civil disobedience or other types of resistance. And why the nuclear reactors to generate energy is the most dangerous way of warming water and produce the steam to make turbines spin. Or what kind of risk we are bequeathing to future generations with the atomic waste. It was discussed why and how corruption is increasing, at the top of the structures of power and wealth, as well as the voracity and the ambition of the powerful. And it was told which struggles were underway in the city, needing solidarity, and which were the goals of social movements existing in the country and in the world. It was presented the existing alternatives so that the wealth of a country would no longer be measured by GDP, as well as the pitfalls in which countries enter when they put as national goal the pure economic growth, and what can be effectively considered as wealth. These and many other topics of local, national or world interest were brought and discussed in these meetings.
All this happened with people walking, as it occurs in Social Forums, among posters, exhibitions and projections with photos, drawings, texts and testimonies about what we need to know to be subjects of our destinies. While smaller groups gathered to combine the launching of initiatives and mobilizations in the neighborhood and in the city, and to reflect on ways of action that could quickly improve the daily problems of people.
In a short time I saw almost all of the squares of cities become, every 15 days, open universities where all who wanted could come to learn and teach, and to seek to understand what was happening in the world and in their cities, and rediscover the sense of their lives. It was like a strong wave covering every nook and cranny, in an atmosphere of great joy. And I saw the beginning of a rapprochement between "militants" and inhabitants, overcoming prejudices and undermined institutions and making disappear the separation between political activity and everyday life.
What I saw happening in these squares was evidently a dream. But the really radical change in our methods, that the continuation, expansion and the rooting of the World Social Forum process is demanding, maybe is asking us to dream.
The communication challenge
Other changes will be necessary with this new way to see our WSF meetings at all levels. For example with regard to the communication, we have to be not anguished with the difficulty in breaking the siege of the great mass media, as well as we cannot be satisfied with the mobilization of our alternative media. If we want to begin to "talk" with the rest of society, we must begin to use much more systematically the tools that exist today for the free horizontal intercommunication. We have also to start using more intensely and more widely other media like cinema, radio, theatre, music, paintings, publications.
We have to think differently even in the marches with which we traditionally start our forums. They have in general the character of a demonstration of our strength, the positions we have, the changes we want. It is almost a self-affirmation for ourselves, to take position. They push even to a small competition between us on the originality of each one and on the strength we are able to show. The majority of those who have the opportunity to see us, from the windows of their houses along our route, not always learns – much less understands – what actually we want. Or if you they know, they don't know why we want it. Many prefer to close their windows, because we get to be very noisy … And little or nothing changes in the consciousness even of those who do not close their windows…
A last provocation
If I may I would make one more provocation – since this text may be regarded as a simple provocation… In the discussion of the future of the WSF, how to ensure the continuity of the World Forums, regarding the work of their "facilitators" or at least "animators"? This role fell during a certain time to the Brazilians who started the process. Having leaved Brazil, the WSF began to be "organized" by "facilitators" of countries where it took place. But there was always a presence of "Brazilians" in some kind of support, which many understood as a desire to keep a supposed power but that resulted from requests by local "facilitators".
In its first phase the WSF resulted from a tandem Brazil-France, which begin to fade away as time ran.
On the other hand, the "Brazilians" are reaping the fruits of the joints born in the WSF process and are occupied more intensively in it, which hampers the continuity of a task of animation that must spread now on land well away from its borders and would justify that they were given a rest…
Wouldn't be the time to create a new tandem, with new energies, for example between the Maghreb and the Canada? The first is in an area of expansion of the WSF process and next to the different versions of "indignados", and the second in a country where Social Forums were successful and which is next door to the country of the "Occupy" movements and of a National Social Forum with great social base?