Another Forum is Possible

Whose Bridges are We Building? Do We Need a New International?

by Ezequiel Adamovsky, February 2003

It was the first World Social Forum, 2001. The teleconference between representatives of the WSF and the World Economic Forum in Davos was already tense, when Hebe de Bonafini --the spokesperson of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo-- told George Soros "I actually have nothing to talk with someone like you". She meant, of course, that Soros and the like were the enemy, and that the WSF was there, well, to oppose them. Wasn't it?

Two years later, newly elected president Lula announced his intention to visit both Forums. For some of us, this sounded a bit weird, to say it softly. But despite complaints from a few personalities, most progressive people in Porto Alegre decided to give him a chance in Davos, after he swore that he would be "the same Lula" in both places. I even heard people recalling the example of Che Guevara's disrupting speeches at the UN, back in the 1960s.

Lula finally delivered his speech in front of the rich and powerful in Davos. But he found no anxiety-ridden faces in the audience, and certainly no disruption occurred. On the contrary, Davos was delighted by him. After all, Lula's only criticism, voiced politely, was that rich nations should stop protecting their agriculture with high tariffs. In other words, Lula advised them to stick to their own neo-liberal dogmas and embrace real free trade, all the way. And it shouldn't be forgotten that he also proposed the creation of an international fund to help undeveloped countries --a commonplace that makes people smile in Davos, IMF, World Bank, and G7 meetings. Meanwhile, our people demonstrating outside were facing severe repression. Well done, Mr Lula!

I don't know if Lula's misleading performance means, as Argentinean sociologist Pablo Bergel put it, "the end of the WSF". But it was irritating indeed to see how, right after Lula's appearance in Davos, Brazilian newspapers started to celebrate the "bridge" that Lula had built between the two Forums, "a space for dialogue". Thousands of copies of TerraViva, the self-proclaimed "independent daily of the WSF III", were distributed for free, featuring well-intentioned articles by members of the World Economic Forum! You can read there how Bernard Cassen --head of ATTAC France-- George Soros, and Michael Orizek --WEF's Communications Director-- are in perfect agreement with applying the Tobin Tax. Or take the contribution by Klaus Schwab, founder and president of WEF, in which he celebrates the emergence of a new type of "leaders for the 21st Century". Strangely enough, he does not refer to businessmen or neo-liberal gurus, but to the "social entrepreneurs" of the like that meet in Porto Alegre every year. In his piece, Schwab explains how his own foundation is offering funding for such "social entrepreneurs" to attend to Davos. But, hey! Excuse me, Weren't we activists committed to changing the world, rather than "entrepreneurs" willing to become "the new leaders"? You can also read in the same newspaper the proposal to institutionalize the WSF by transforming it in "UN's second Chamber". That would surely contribute to re-legitimate an institution that, like WEF, represents everything but the people. Wouldn't it be perfect for the constitution of the Empire --to put it in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's terms-- to make a little room for the world's "civil society" (that is, some NGOs and representatives of Unions and some well-mannered social movements)?

In view of this obvious move to co-opt the WSF and destroy its radical potential, Lula's "bridge" to the WEF seems to me not only misleading, but also a major threat to the global movement (specially if one takes into account the fact that the PT is one of the few organizations that control the Organizing Committee of the WSF).

And this takes us to my second question. It is well known (and has been repeatedly pointed out lately) that the way the WSF functions is far from transparent, not to mention open and horizontal. The decision-making body of the WSF --the Organizing Committee (OC)-- is controlled by a bunch of people no one really knows --not even the members of the International Council of the WSF, so far a rubberstamp appointed by the OC itself.

It is about time the OC adopts more transparent procedures and transfers the decision-making process to social movements. But far from that, some of the same organizations that control the WSF to a great extent --ATTAC France, CUT and MST (Brazil), Focus on the Global South (Thailand) and the World March of Women (Quebec)-- have engaged in the creation of a Social Movement's World Network (SMWN).

The idea to coordinate social movements "on a more permanent basis" is undoubtedly important. Too important to be left in the hands of such few organizations, if it is to represent nothing less than the social movements of the whole world. But who wrote the statements of the SMWN? Who decided how it is going to organize? And more important, who elected the Secretariat, or even decided that a Secretariat was needed? Certainly not the movement I belong to, or any of the movements in Argentina, or most of the movements of other countries, as far as I know. Did the piqueteros, the Bolivian cocalero peasants, European No Border activists, South-African Anti-Eviction campaigners, etc. discuss the issue? I would be surprised if they knew what I'm talking about. Grassroots activists of real social movements were simply not there at the meetings. And no substantial effort was made to make sure the initial proposal was available in advance, so that the movements could at least discuss it at home and send their opinions.

In Porto Alegre, I had the chance to attend the meeting to organize a "Network of the Youth of the WSF", a sort of "youth chapter" of the SMWN. To my surprise, the members of hierarchical political organizations and NGOs, who had called for the meeting, tried to convince the rest of us that the network they were trying to set up was going to be horizontal and decentralized. But if they now suddenly believe in horizontal organizing, Why don't they start by reforming their own organizations?

The proposal for the SMWN is written in the same non-hierarchical language. Networks, after all, are decentralized and horizontal by definition, right? But one gets a little suspicious when new funky language seems to be there only to conceal the old political forms and practices. Networks are made of loose, informal and voluntary links between different groups. That is why no organization and institution can claim to represent a network. A certain number of groups can indeed form a coalition, but it would never encompass a whole network. And networks definitely don't have Secretariats; that's the very essence of a network.

Needless to say, this debate goes far beyond the issue of how we organize the WSF; it has to do with the future of our movement as a whole. The question at stake is, Are we really committed to the non-hierarchical bottom-up politics of the new social movements?

I personally have no objections to the creation of a new International --a project that, by the way, is being put forward by some of the same Trotskists who also proposed the SMWN. I don't think it will work this time either, but if they want to try again, well, it's their business. But, please, don't call it a "network", and don't claim it represents "the social movements of the world".

Unfortunately, this is not the only example of traditional left-wing agendas in WSF III. Shall we let political parties in, as some of the members of the Indian Organizing Committee of the next WSF are demanding? Must we all join those parties, as member of WSF International Council Roberto Savio suggested? Is getting more Lulas and Chavezes elected the way for the movement of movements to move forward, as the huge rallies organized by the WSF seemed to imply? We should all have say on these issues, if we are to have a real debate. And we need to think very carefully, as Indian activist Jai Sen said, if we shouldn't establish some rules to keep the WSF as an open space.

In conclusion, there are moves from the right wing and from the politics of the traditional left-wing to domesticate and co-opt the movement of movements. I'm afraid the lack of transparency and real participation in the WSF makes those attempts more likely to succeed.

In view of this, it is not the time to build bridges, but to strengthen the fortress.

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