Crossroads do not always close roads (Reflection in continuity to Walden Bello)

by Chico Whitaker (external link)

May 23, 2007

(Translation of "Las encrucijadas no siempre cierran caminos (Reflexión en continuidad a la de Walden Bello) (external link)")

@ (external link)

"Is it time for the WSF to fold up its tent and give way to new modes of global organization of resistance and transformation?" The minimum that one can say to Walden Bello's question at the end of his essay "The Forum at the Crossroads" is that it is daring... It has, however, the merit of saying directly and clearly what a certain number of members of the WSF International Council thinks, but do not say.

But we cannot stop reflecting on its instigating reasoning, especially when it affirms that the WSF has already "fulfilled its historic function of aggregating and linking the diverse counter-movements spawned by global capitalism." Or in quoting Hugo Chávez, when, at the 2006 Forum in Caracas, "he warned delegates ... about the danger of the WSF becoming simply a forum of ideas with no agenda for action," and said that now it is necessary to "have a strategy of 'counter-power,’" and "to move into spaces of power at the local, national, and regional level."

To begin it would be necessary to see what crossroads and therefore of what roads we are speaking. The WSF continues on a path that did not exist before, and one that is parallel to concrete resistance to neoliberalism and to the struggle to change the world. He has been open not to replace the other but rather to give it support, creating conditions so that those who resist and fight can be articulated and reinforced more and more.

These two paths do not have to cross. Being different they can continue on parallel paths. And if they are both necessary - and this would be the question to discuss - they should not consume each another, as Walden proposes. What they should do is to be related intensely and permanently, to become closer and closer, to mutually nourish each other, so that more and more people are at the same time on both, networking themselves on one and acting via the other one. That is to say, be fighting at the same time that they are expanding their alliances and gathering more and more forces to go further and further in their struggles. If the path to change the world effectively and deeply is still very long, the support that can be given by the WSF to this struggle also has to continue for the long term. Truly, we do not arrive at any crossroads, but rather we have to face the necessity to clarify the horizons better, so that the two paths can continue forward.

The initial options in the WSF

It would be usefull to remember that from the creation of the WSF there is a discussion that accompanies us, in all levels of reflection and decision over social forums, on the character of the WSF: is it a space or a movement? What Walden Bello, who seems to be among those who only see the WSF as a movement, proposes does not have therefore, in itself, anything new. The new thing - maybe the surprising thing - is the radicalness of his proposal. It does not imply that the WSF approaches the other path, remaining as a space, but rather simply that it disappears, when crossing the other one. As if the two paths could not coexist, as has happened during these past seven years, and now we should only continue on the road of action.

Before the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001, its organizers were already in front of that disjunctive space-movement. To create a place of encounter or to propose, to all those who came to the Forum, concrete actions of resistance and transformation? That is to say, they had at their head a bifurcation that would define the character of the process that they began at that moment.

When organizing that first edition and when proposing its Charter of Principles - written starting from the lessons and discoveries of that edition - they have opted for the path that would give the WSF the character of a space. But they saw it as an instrument in the service of those who were in the action, that is to say, the existent movements. In other words, they have considered that the vocation of the WSF was to begin something that did not exist before, that would not be to change the world directly but rather to help those who fight to change the world. An initiative with this objective was, for them, more necessary than the creation of a new movement, with its own political program and its immediate objectives and more long term, its militants and its specific actions defined by its directing instances. Such a movement could not even be considered "a movement of movements," because it would be always in competition with other movements looking to carry out the same objectives.

So they have organized the Forum primarily as an open encounter of the different types and levels of civil society organization - social movements, NGOs, unions. They wanted to put all of their actions in relationship. And not only among more directly political movements, in the struggle for power, but rather among all the types of action that we need to change the world effective and deeply, even at the level of personal behaviors. It was necessary to reinforce and to multiply them, until the planetary level, to face a globalized capitalism, inside this general mobilization of citizens usually called "alterglobalisation.”

The organizers of the first Forum saw it therefore as a global space - that could expand horizontally to all the horizons and all the levels of reality - where the different proposals and actions under way could be known, discussed, deepened, evaluated, questioned, articulated, with freedom and the widest possible participation, incubating new initiatives and movements. Without this whole exchange resulting in a "unique final document" of the Forum that sought to unify all its participants in light of options or specific objectives of resistance or transformation.

They established that an important step to be given to help the fight for another world was that the discussions in the "WSF space" were propositional, this is, they looked for alternatives for the real construction of "another world." And that the initiative to propose, in that space, debates - as in a forum of ideas - or articulations - heading for new actions - should be reserved specifically for civil society, a new political actor that was emerging in the world. This new actor had not until then an instrument of such a dimension and of this type so that their components, in their extreme diversity, were given to know some to the other"ones and to define common objectives of struggle.

But the organizers of the first Forum had also considered an even more important question: we are many who fight to change the world but we are not able to build the union that could give us a great deal more force. That is to say that it was necessary to tempt to understand each other and to reinforce each other, instead dividing us recurrently, destroying us mutually.

They considered then that to build the union it was not enough to meet and to get to know each other. It was also necessary to experience new practices of political action, based on horizontal relationships, in which all respect each other in their diversity of methods and objectives, in that nobody was considered more important than anyone else, in a space without hierarchies nor main leaders, , in which all could be heard instead of competing among themselves according to the capitalist logic. This would allow the discovery of convergences and the possibility of new alliances, inside the logic of networks that were already signed in the world as a more democratic way to organize ourselves. Little by little, in the Forums that have been organized after the first one, the construction of that union has become, in fact, the fundamental result to wait for them, or its role in the fight for the "other possible world," as a time of practical exercise of new types of relationships.

In this way the Forum, as an "open space," would serve precisely to build "new modes of global organization of resistance and transformation," as Walden Bello desires, that should become concrete not in the path of the Forum but rather in the path of action. Since - only limitation - they did not seek to impose their decisions on the other participants of the Forum, neither to speak in the name of all of them, and less still to lead the Forum to take positions in the name of the Forum, linking them to all participants.

The organizers - or facilitators of the creation of the "WSF spaces," as they have called themselves, from the local level to the International Council, so that they were not considered "leaders" of a new "movement" - have continually discussed these options from 2001, during all of the encounters. And today we discuss in these same Forums "the future of the WSF" and its "open space" character. Many proposals that arose in the Forums and in the International Council are framed in fact in this discussion, which exists from the beginning of that process.

What happens with Walden Bello's proposal is that, in light of the fact that he seems to have opted for a Forum-movement, he could but question the possibility of a "space" to be "the most appropriate vehicle for the new stage in the struggle of the global justice and peace movement." In fact, leaving aside the parallel road that was begun in 2001 and considering only one, or a mixture of both, what he proposes is that we stop the limitations that walking inside the WSF, as a space, imposes on us, so that we can continue ahead with more force - "to occupy spaces of power" - only on the path to action.

Current perspectives and necessities

Walden indicates however in his essay some of the positive effects of the WSF that in fact could not exist if it was not a space. So, he says "the WSF became a magnet for global networks focused on different issues, from war to globalization to communalism to racism to gender oppression to alternatives" permitting that civil society, in its diversity, "to meet, network, and, quite simply, to feel and affirm itself," as "a retreat during which the movement gathers its energies." He considers that "the WSF provides a site and space for the movement to elaborate, discuss, and debate the vision, values, and institutions of an alternative world order built on a real community of interests." And considering that perhaps a compelling reason for the modus vivendi of the old and new movements was the realization that they needed one another in the struggle against global capitalism," says "that the direct democratic experiences of Seattle, Prague, Genoa, and the other big mobilizations of the decade were institutionalized in the WSF or Porto Alegre process," providing "an opportunity to recreate and reaffirm solidarity against injustice, against war, and for a world that was not subjected to the rule of empire and capital." Also considering that "developing a strategy of counter-power or counter-hegemony need not mean lapsing back into the old hierarchical and centralized modes of organizing characteristic of the old left.”

But when saying all this, his proposal to take up camp sounds as if he is saying that the WSF has been in fact a nice experience, but it is necessary to accept that it is over. We know that all organizations - including the WSF - have to disappear one day, when their role was fulfilled. But have we already arrived at this moment? Are we at a point on the road at which it should stop? Maybe Walden, in this aspect, is being too optimistic, since I do not believe that he wants to delude himself.

Have all of the positive effects of the WSF to which Walden refers been brought to all the corners of the planet? In Asia, in the old socialist countries, in the Arab world, in China, in all of America, in all of Africa? Have all civil society organizations in all the countries of the world - or at least a significant number of them - had the opportunity to carry out the interconnections provided by the Forums? Have there been local forums in all the cities or regions of the world - or in a large number of them - so that this experience can be lived by those who cannot travel to world or continental encounters, or even national ones? Have they been created in all spaces so that civil society be reinforced and articulated to take its place as a new political actor? Does the experimentation of new political practices that overcome "the old hierarchical and centralized modes of organizing characteristic of the old left" has been made by all the organizations that fight against globalized capitalism? Have these new political practices effectively penetrated the organizations that come to participate in the Forums, changing them internally? Are all the movements already fully convinced that "that they needed one another in the struggle against global capitalism," and are able to build their union, instead of continuing to be divided and facing each other?

It is not the case to give examples - more so sad examples, in organizations that have participated in the creation of the WSF - showing that all this is still far from happening. In what concerns cultural changes, in the behaviors and in the practices of political action, there is no doubt that, under the ideological dominance of capitalism, we need maybe generations to see this happening. Why then to interrupt that process, or to finish that parallel road to action? That is in fact the question to put to Walden Bello, in response to the question at the end of his essay.

The Forum's communication with the world

But I worry that Walden Bello's proposal helps us less than our opponents. Even more so because it comes from within the WSF.

In fact, to say that the WSF is finished is exactly the same thing that the large international media says that attempts to decree the death of the WSF, so that the owners of the world do not have to worry any more. The members of the Communication Commission of the WSF International Council cites for us, as an example, what the Spanish newspaper El País said in January of this year: "the WSF has disappeared from the radar screen."

That Commission points to what, in my opinion, is currently the biggest challenge of the WSF: communicating with the world. We can clamor with loud and multiple voices that "another world is possible," but there are still a very large number of those who do not believe it. Without any doubt, they are the largest majorities. And we have still not been able to do so that all that is proposed, discussed, intended, articulated, and done, starting or not in the Forums, arrives to the eyes and ears of those large majorities, as messages of hope.

In a recent meeting of the Communication Commission in Italy, I have been able to see more clearly the difference of evolution - one positive and one negative - of the two dynamics lived by the process of the WSF, toward inside and outside.

The dynamics toward the inside corresponds to its first challenge, to organize Forums that were indeed spaces of encounter, recognition and mutual learning, identification of convergences, launching new initiatives of resistance and transformation, feeding properly stated actions and building the union.

This dynamic has always been upward. Each Forum has taken advantage of the experiences of the previous one, looking to improve its methodology for a more complete realization of their objectives. From the first Forum that combined activities proposed from above, by their organizers, with self-organized activities from below, by their own participants, we arrived in 2005 at a completely self-organized Forum. On the other hand the Letter of Principles has been signed more and more. And many new articulations and actions, even on a planetary level, arose in the Forums and were consolidated, including the biggest for Peace in February 2003 that surprised everyone. In the last Forum, in Nairobi - with fewer people for reasons that have already been well identified - the methodology gave important qualitative leaps, as with basing the inscription of activities not in theoretical topics but rather in transformative objectives, or when reserving the fourth working day to program concrete actions. Diverse organizational inadequacies, however, have not allowed the full use of these advances.

The little outward communication on the other hand made the inadequacies more visible than the advances in Nairobi, such as the new networks that have arisen in it, and this Forum has deserved very controversial evaluations - some frankly negative ones, as if there was not the obligation to defend the son of the attacks that he has suffered since he was born. Walden Bello has said in his essay that that Forum had been very "disappointing." Onyango Oloo, one of its organizers, ended up writing 24 pages of hard criticisms, beginning by saying that the Forum had been a "disaster." At the same time, among other positive analysis, Gustave Massiah, from France, without ignoring what was insufficient, titles his evaluation: "Nairobi 2007, an excellent World Social Forum."

The literature on this Forum is therefore varied. And as its International Council has not presented better information, after the Forum, on the character of the 2008 Forum and perspectives for 2009, many journalists have been able to say that the WSF process has lost much of its force. But it is certain that the WSF is not so dead. I recently listened to Oloo's words, the one who wrote the 24-page criticism, in a round-table in Italy, relating the extremely positive outcomes of the Nairobi Forum that today appears in Kenya's society, in spite of all its inadequacies.

The best demonstration that the process is alive is, however, the multiplication of Regional and Local Forums. It is expanding more and more, as with the first United States Social Forum in June, and at the same time others in Quebec, in Germany, in the countries of Maghreb in Mauritania, in Denmark, in Guatemala, in Brazil, in South America's Triple Border, among many others.Therefore it can be said that the dynamics of the Forum toward the inside, that is to say, toward those who are fighting for another world, continues ascending nowadays. And the 2008 Forum, with its format of multiple simultaneous activities throughout the entire planet, in its diversity of types and topics, with one day of common visibility in the symbolic date of Davos, it can carry us to a very significant World Social Forum in January of 2009.

But the same thing has not passed with the outward dynamics, that rather has descended. It is interesting to note that the two dynamics (toward inside and toward outside) they were both in ascendance until the 2005 Forum: more and more people came to participate in the World Forums, as well as multiplying on the regional, national and local levels. And was in 2005, in which 150,000 people came to participate in the largest until then that the dynamic toward the outside began to lose force.

It is not for another reason that the Communication Commission of the International Council will present, in the next meeting of the CI, in Berlin, a plan of work towards the outside.

Communication with the world is not, however, a task of a Commission. It has to be assumed by all of the participants of the process. It is not only an issue of communication with journalists, essential channels to broadcast the information, but rather of multiple communication systems that could make possible that all people arrive at the certainty that "another world is possible." Even more, as many things are already being made - of resistance and effective transformation - that "other world" is already in construction. With those who act to change the reality having a powerful instrument to articulate and to unite more and more: the process of the World Social Forum.

In fact, in the face of this new challenge that the WSF faces, it would be good if we could say that now we will concentrate our efforts in the communication of the WSF process outside of it. But Walden Bello's essay awakens us to the fact that this is still not possible. At the same time that we will have to work so that the WSF communicates better with the world, it will be necessary to continue fighting so that its path does not get lost in unexpected crossroads.