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World Social Forum

A new common ?

Among the many assessments of the WSF 2009, which now are flooding into our computers, many return to issues that I considered relatively overcome, given the obvious expansion of the process : those which question if its configuration can really contribute to the fight against neoliberalism. I would like to consider this issue proposing a new approach that might be useful for this discussion.

Almost all agree tacitly that the Forum is a space with an undeniable power to call. But many still insist that, rather than remaining as an instrument, it have to take positions, that is to say, be a political actor, which makes statements or give directives as Forum. In other words, assume the commandment of global strategic actions that will lead to the effective overcoming of capitalism, sought by all participants of the Forums.

In one of these evaluations, its author , which I respect very much, says for instance that « the events that mark the beginning of 2009 (...) are so important that if the world can not know the position of the WSF (underlined by me) on them it is possible that the WSF could face the risk of becoming irrelevant. » This statement gave continuity to another one : « It should be possible to identify in each historical moment, a small number of subjects on which it would be possible to identify or generate a broad consensus. On them, the WSF, as such, (underlined by me) should take a position that could be assumed by all the movements and organizations that participate in the FSM, thereby giving rise to partial but consistent national-global political agendas. » Closing his argument, he says, after referring to two decisions (courageous, he considers) of Obama and of the Brazilian government : « The world has a right to know which measures the WSF will take (underlined by me) to support these decisions, which, as expected, will have their detractors. »

This same concern had already led a group of intellectuals to propose in 2005 a « Consensus of Porto Alegre », with 12 points that could unite in a program of struggles the 150,000 participants of the Forum this year.

I understand that there are those who may consider that this is a necessary « upgrade » to our Forums. Even more in this moment of the history when Davos was held in a funeral climate, after the noisy collapse of the belief in the market as the only alternative for organizing human activities.

But I keep insisting that those who have to make statements, proposals and mobilisations and must act are the organizations that participate in the Forums, and never the Forums themselves. Not only because they are not entities or organizations as such, but because this would have a series of disastrous consequences for the process supported by them.

They would need to have leaders, democratically chosen, (it would be expected), who would speak on behalf of the Forum. Moreover, such statements or directives given by these leaders (still more on “a small number of subjects”) would have to be defined in a democratic process of consultation of all the « militants » or « affiliated » - otherwise they would have usurped the power of expression of those whom they were representing. All that would be feasible, considering the size and duration of the Forums ? Would we not fall in the traditional old way of doing politics : a group of enlightened people says what is the truth and their followers acclaim them – or abandon them ?

There are those who believe that the WSF International Council should fulfil this role. But even if we accept this usurpation, we would have to see how this Council is composed, who it represents today. All types of social organizations and struggles are represented as well as all areas of the world ? He was not created to be a committee of management or coordination, but only to provide the service of consolidating experiences and the memory of the process, of defining methodological guidelines to assist the organizers of the Forums (which are different every time), of getting resources, disseminating and expanding the process. The only effective political decision it takes is about where each Forum should be held or what format it should have. That is to say, the International Council is not the direction of the process, but actually a helping body.

If not the Council, would we need to create in the Forum one level of direction or coordination ? Undoubtedly this would quickly transform the process in an arena of fierce struggle for power, as happens with all pyramidal political organization.

By its Charter of Principles, the Forum was created as an open space to allow mutual recognition, mutual learning, identification of convergences and building alliances to launch new initiatives in the struggle to change the world. It should incorporate all the innovations required by the changes in the world conjuncture, but continuing to be the space it is. If it begins (« finally », as some would say), to take positions or « measures », it would no more be that space and the process it generated, in continuous self-assessment to improve itself as a tool at the service of social struggles. For me, it is very clear that it would be precisely this change that would make the Forum in fact « irrelevant » : corroded by its internal struggles, it would loose the power to call it has - and would disappear.

Moreover, many people are convinced, like me, that the changing of the world will be not the result of « measures » taken from the top down by a very powerful entity. We now know that social change happens when the whole society assume that it must happen and make it happen, organizing itself to do so. Already we know that it is a great illusion to think that we simply need to take the political power to achieve it. We have already many examples of frustrations experienced by those who bet only on it. If the aim is to overcome the domination of the logic of capitalism - that is deeply inlaid in the minds of people in all the world - we must multiply to infinity the types and levels of action looking for this type of liberation, from individual behaviour to the large national and global structural changes.

It is precisely for this reason that the Forums exists and it would be a pity the disappearing of these open spaces, which seek to facilitate convergences and alliances around these different types and levels of action and to stimulate the proliferation of ways and means to act, awakening the political potentialities of civil society, far beyond what the parties are able to do. To make the diversity of types of action that emerge in all directions in the Forums converge to « a small number of subjects » would kill the inventiveness, the creativity and even the enthusiasm of the society. It would prevent the spreading, in all corners of the world, of the critical awareness that the world needs change and that it is possible to do it - if we can count on the enormous strength that can be accumulated if we do not try to direct, guide, discipline the desires of those who begin to stand up as individuals and as organized groups. Moreover, the fight around any specific issues (or even a « large consensus », for example against the war) will only have concrete effects if inserted in a long walk in which much more questions must be faced.

The effectiveness of such initiatives depends on those who propose them and not on a supreme authority - « the Forum ». As well as the concrete action for change will be not the Forum’s action but that of the social organizations engaged in it, and nothing will happen if those that are organized for new actions and initiatives do not act in fact. No call coming down from the top will change things, but only the concrete action of those who wish these changes. The Forum will become irrelevant if all plans, projects, struggles proposed in it fall in the emptiness after it ends. It will only have transforming efficiency, as a tool to make possible the formulation of these proposals, if their authors are effectively involved in its implementation. No top-level entity can replace them, still less force them to act if they are not convinced. The hope of the world will not be nourished by « measures » of the Forum, but by the concrete action of the society.

* * *

After the period of enchantment that always follows the Forums, the paths indicated by such assessments distressed me. I felt the fatigue of continuing a debate that has become repetitive. That was when came to my mind the possibility a new approach to analyze the process of the World Social Forum : connecting it with the concept considered in the Manifesto, launched in Belem, « Reclaim the commons. »

Initially proposed in the Science and Democracy Forum in the days preceding the World Social Forum, this Manifesto was discussed at the Forum, to reach the conclusive Assemblies of the morning of the last day and be read at the Assembly of Assemblies. Now the adhesions are being collected, and its subscribers are looking for how to turn it into a banner of struggle widely adopted and translated into concrete actions, so many and various are the types of commons that must be de-privatizated de-merchantilised

Looking at what are the “commons” – concept coming from the English language and tradition - I thought it would not be an exaggeration to say that the process of the World Social Forum is a new common. A common created as others were created (the virtual space of electronic links, the growing patrimony of knowledge of mankind, etc.). It is a process that now exists, available to all who fight for another world possible. It is almost palpable in its meetings with the presence of its participants, from the local to the global level, and is virtual through the multiplication of connections it is encouraging across the globe between civil society organizations.

It is an open space, as were the English « commons » that the fences began to privatize in the fifteenth century, under the pretext of ensuring the proper and efficient use of land but in fact seeking to raise the profit of those who appropriated it. A common should not be privatized. We do not want the Forum has an « owner » - or even a group of owners. It must be a place where could come to feed themselves, to connect with others and to mutually reinforce themselves all kinds of activists of all kinds of causes building a just and egalitarian world, respectful of nature (as the Andean indigenous people who raised in Belem the issue of « Living Well » for all, as an answer to the crisis of civilization that is destroying the world). We fight to impede the “privatization" of that space for limited objectives and strategies, or its undermining by struggles for power.

There would then be possible to see the process of the World Social Forum as a common, to be protected to ensure its continuity, as we are now discovering and deepening the political potential of this concept ? This could not help us to overcome misunderstandings as those considered in the first part of this text ?

One of the problems of the commons is what people call their « governance », to avoid its exhaustion. Myself I have some allergy to the word « governance » for its proximity to the idea of government, high authority and bureaucracy. I would prefer to use the word « management », more naturally enriched by the idea of « self management » linked with the concept of co-responsibility, as it is required to care a common which exhaustion we want to avoid.

This “management” problem appears often in relation with the Forum, about its International Council and how it takes many decisions about the continuity of the process. And in these discussions some misconceptions appear, as many minds are habituated with Central Committees, General Secretaries, Presidents, Directors or other forms of concentrated power, or even with only representative democracies. If we deal with the WSF process as a Common, under a management in co-responsibility, perhaps this problem could be resolved more easily.

We could thus find ever better ways for that process to continue encouraging the society to change the world.

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Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.