First Reflections on The 3rd World Social Forum

Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 23-8, 2003:

From "Comrades' Agreements" to the Reinvention of Social Emancipation on a World Scale

Peter Waterman
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'If we agree that the most important characteristic of the Forum is the 'open space' it offers for free exchange, then especially at the present juncture in history, the World Social Forum needs to make it its task to promote the idea of open space as a general political culture in civil and political work. Building open space - building an open political culture, and defending open space - needs to be seen as a project in itself, and those who believe in this idea need to come and work together on this.Given that the World Social Forum is meant to be an open plural process, embracing people of many different persuasions, we need to work to build an organisational process that is based on norms and principles that are openly and commonly defined, and not on gentlemanly or comradely behaviour between a few and that cannot be questioned by others'. (Jai Sen 2003)

'What we want is the full development of cyberspatial practices.We want social movements and social actors to build on this logic in order to create unheard of forms of collective intelligence - subaltern "intelligent communities" capable of re-imagining the world and inventing alternative process of world-making.The result could be a type of world-scale networking based on internationalist principles (a Fifth International? The Cyberspatial International)[.] What we want is the world's Left to take this model seriously in their organising, resistance and creative practices. The lessons for the Left are clear! In the long run, this amounts to reinventing the nature and dynamics of social emancipation.' (Arturo Escobar 2003)

Introduction: Dis/Orientations

In my tiny corner of the Third World Social Forum (WSF3, Porto Alegre, Brazil, late-January, 2003) the expressed experiences were those of euphoria and disorientation, of simultaneous stimulation and frustration, of being both in a unique international meeting-place and in a commercial market-place (dual meanings of 'agora' in Greek), of an increasing scepticism of the intellect not necessarily accompanied by a similar optimism of the will (I borrow from Gramsci).

This area might be small, my angle of vision narrow, but they are also, I would like to think, significant. It is as difficult to place and name this space/approach as is the WSF itself. Both are novel and in process of rapid growth, spread and evolution: people are talking of the globalisation of the Forum. I think my space is somewhere between the Centre of the event/process and one of its several peripheries. I have been playing with such names for this area/orientation as 'libertarian', 'emancipatory', 'post-capitalist' (to be distinguished from the negative 'anti-capitalist'). It is significant because it is on a critical but committed edge of the Forum. It is significant, also, because it overlaps with the decision-making Centre and various other peripheries: po-faced Leninists; pie-throwing, self-marginalizing anarchists; and intellectuals such as myself who prefer the incalculable freedom of cyberspace to the measurable power (lessness?) of the political institution that the Forum has been increasingly becoming.

The original title of this piece was 'Out of Control'. This seemed to me a nice one precisely because of its simultaneous negative and positive connotations. The ambiguity appealed to my more dialectical moments (as contrasted with those in which I slip back into Left- Manicheanism: Left/Right, Revolutionary/Reformist, Socialist/Capitalist; Utopian/Dystopian, Hetero/Homo, Wo/Man, Future/Past, Virtuous/Vicious). It seems to me that the Forum is out of control in various negative ways: too big; lacking in openness, transparency and accountability; reproductive of traditional Party and BINGO (big international non-governmental organisation) politics. But it is also out of control in various positive ways: the Centre (its initiators) can no longer control the process they themselves invented and developed; the idea of social forums is now out of the bottle and subject to numerous and varied local or specific (feminist, indigenous, intellectual-elitist, libertarian, social-democratic, nationalist, Leninist) claims, forms and inflections. This 'positive' is not, however, identical with 'virtuous'. It is itself riven with contradictions, some suggested by the just-identified claims/forms. Perhaps one should rather use the word 'new', in so far as this is not necessarily associated with virtue. Consider 'new' world order.

Speaking at WSF2 with younger activists from Barcelona and Belgrade, I argued that what was about to call itself the 'global justice and solidarity movement' (GJ&SM) had at last discovered the secret of fire. This secret, I suggested is 'keep moving'. In other words, any movement peak or plateau, any institutionalisation of the movement (both so far inevitable), will be, or should be, or could be, immediately challenged. This is a necessity because of the 'iron law of oligarchy' that for a century or more has afflicted social movement institutions. The Keep Moving Emancipation Show is now made a possibility because of the internet, and because of the increasing shift of the site of power contestation, particularly at global level, from the political sphere to the cultural/communicational one, from the institutional to the cyberspatial. The GJ&SM is also the first such movement to immediately produce its own internal critics, and the first one in which such criticism can be immediately circulated to the interested public and beyond. This is now a matter of Round the World in 80 Seconds. In a movement that prides itself on opening the route from 'protest to proposition' (originally, I think, a Latin American feminist concept), the message goes out simultaneously from the movement and to the movement.

In the following, I will briefly comment on the following issues: 1) The danger of going forward to the past of social movements and internationalism; 2) The problematic relationship with the trade unions; 3) The uneven composition of the Forum; 4) The uncertain future of the social movement network; 5) The necessity of a communications/media/cultural internationalism.

1. The Future of the Movements and Internationalism: Forward to the Past?

At the Centre of initiative and decision-making within the Forum has been the Brazilian Organising Committee (OC) and the International Council it created (IC). These have been themselves out of control since neither of them is subject to the principles of participatory or even representative democracy. The NC members may or may not be accountable to their respective communities (mass organisations, NGOs, funding agencies) and the same is true of the IC, the role of which seems to have been to give international legitimacy to the OC, whilst having a quite ambiguous relationship to it. The justification for the existence of both has been the innovative ship they have launched - an international and internationalist encounter, within the civil-social sphere, targeted against neo-liberalism and capitalist globalisation, increasingly concerned with proposing radical-democratic alternatives to such. And this all on the understanding that the place, space and form is the guarantee for the necessary democratic dialogue of countries and cultures, of ideologies, of political levels, collective subjects and movements/organisations.

This space has never been a neutral or innocent one. (Like death and taxes, money and power are always with us and it is best to face up openly to this). Nor has it been as far beyond the old politics and parties as it might have liked to suggest.

The NC consists of a number of representatives of social-movement and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the latter of which might address themselves to social movements and civil society but be answerable only to themselves. (Two movements, six NGOs, seven men, one woman). These bodies have been oriented toward the Partido de los Trabalhadores (PT, Workers' Party), and/or to its recently successful presidential candidate, Lula da Silva. Just as the Porto Alegre Forums have been places where this (and other Brazilian parties) could publicise themselves, so was the European Social Forum, Florence, November 2002, one in which the Rifondazione Communista (and other Italian political parties) did. Such parties, and far-less-sophisticated and interesting others, have often hidden their political lights behind NGO bushels. The WSF has been a site to which various inter-state agencies, such as the United Nations organisations for women (Unifem) and for labour (ILO) have likewise been given free access. State-dependent funding agencies, national and international, and the massive private-capitalist US foundations, have supported the Forum itself, or various, selected, inter/national NGOs.

The IC was created top-down by invitation from the OC (of 90-100 members, mostly NGOs and inter/national unions, about 8-10 are women's networks). This gargantuan assembly has no clear mandate or power, therefore acting for the OC largely as a sounding board and international legitimator. The nature and representativity of the members, and the extent to which they are answerable to any but themselves, has not been considered. Many of them do no other work in the IC than turning up and then fighting for their corner - such as the maximum number of representatives within the Central part of Forum programmes in the hands of the OC. The IC does not operate behind closed doors, but its proceedings are barely reported by its members, to even the interested public (isn't this what elite-formation looks like?). There has, recently, been discussion about the role and rules of the IC, as decision-making shifts from the Brazilian national to the international level. But whilst part of this discussion (actually more like an interesting consultation, see is posted on a publicly-accessible website, the existence of this is known to few.

The Forum itself is an agora in which there are a few large, well-publicised and well-placed circus tents, surrounded by a myriad of tiny others (now over 1,000, i.e. 200 per day), proposed by social movements, political organisations, academic institutions and even individuals. The Marginal events compete for visibility, for sites, for translators/equipment, often overlap with or even reproduce the topics of others, and - whilst certainly adding to the pluralism of the Forum - have inevitably less impact. Whilst, again, the decision that the Forum is not a policy-forming body allows for pluralism and creativity, the result is, inevitably, domination by the official programme - one which has been conceived without notable public discussion. The concentration of power at the Centre is reinforced by the presence of our own celebs (celebrities) - who themselves may have to choose between appearance in a hall seating thousands, or in a classroom seating 25 (I am aware of people taking the second option, but the compass clearly swings here to the North Pole).

This formula is out of control in different ways.

FSM3, 2003, with maybe 100,000 Brazilian and foreign participants, was too big for the hosts to handle: a number of experienced organisers had apparently been lured away to Brasilia by the new government, and the original PT sponsors had lost control of both the city and the state. Unlike last year, the programme was never published completely in either English or Portuguese. (A well-organised North American left, internationalist, pro-feminist group, invited to run a five-day programme on 'Life after Capitalism', found itself without publicity, and then geographically marginalized in a club unmarked on the maps, unknown to the information booths, and a taxi-ride away from the main site. (See

The Forum is also out of control in the sense that it is beyond the reach of the Centre, with regional, national, local and problem-specific forums mushrooming worldwide. The Forum is slipping out of the hands of the original NGO elite (I use this term loosely) as it is challenged by those who are demanding that its decision-making bodies consist of regional/national representatives. The Forum is in danger of losing its 'social' profile, as major politicians and governments recognise the importance of the agora, and turn up invited (President Lula da Silva) or uninvited (President Hugo Chavez). And, whilst there was no way that the Forum could fail to invite Lula, no one gave him the right, in the words of a sympathetic regional newspaper, to 'Start the Dialogue between Porto Alegre and Davos'. The Forum's place as a focus for what I would call the 'new global solidarity' is being put in question by those who seek to not only give it national but nationalist character. This is evidenced in the Indian case (Sen 2003), where an Asian Social Forum, dominated by certain traditional Indian communist parties, attacked imperialist wars in Asia but had no word for the Indo-Pakistani conflict - in which nuclear threats are issued by both chauvinist regimes (both national states enjoying US imperialist military cooperation)!

Given all these problems, there is a danger that the Forum will be overwhelmed by the past of social movements and internationalism. This was one in which these movements were dominated by the institutions they spawned, by political parties that instrumentalized them, in which the movements were state-oriented and/or state-identified, and in which internationalism was literally that - a relationship between nations, nationals, nationalisms, nationalists.

2. The Union-Forum Relationship: Movable Objects and Resistible Forces

WSF3 saw a growth and deepening of the relationship between the Traditional International Union Institutions (TIUIs) and the Forum. The increasing interest of this major traditional movement in the Forum was demonstrated by the presence, for the first time of the General Secretary of the the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). But top officers of Global Union Federations (GUFs, formerly International Trade Secretariats) were also present, either prominently on platforms or quietly testing the water. Also present were inter/national union organisations/networks from beyond the ICFTU family (now Global Unions). This year there were, in addition to the radical union networks from France or Italy, an independent left union confederation from the Philippines, a Maoist union leader from Southern India, and, no doubt, hundreds of movement-oriented unionists from other countries. I noted also an increasing openness amongst even the most traditional of TIUIs. Whilst the first big union event was a formal panel with only gestures in the direction of discussion (here, admittedly, reproducing a problematic Forum formula), another major panel saw the platform shared between the Global Unions, independent left unions and articulate leaders of social movements or NGOs identified with the Forum process. The unions, moreover, seem increasingly prepared to recognise that they are institutions and that it is they that need to come to terms with a place and process that, whilst lacking in formal representativity and often inchoate, nevertheless has the appeal, dynamism and public spread or reach that they themselves lack and need.

The question, however, remains of what kind of relationship is developing here. From the first big union event, patronised by the charismatic Director of the International Labour Organisation, veteran Chilean socialist, Juan Somavia, I got the strong impression that what was shaping up was some kind of understanding or alliance between the Unions, the Social Forum and Progressive States/men, as here evidently represented by the repeatedly-praised PT Government and President Lula. Juan, who had just met Lula in Brasilia (in inter/state capacities), made explicit comparison between the ILO's new programme/slogan of 'Decent Work' and Lula's election slogan 'For a Decent Brazil'. In so far as the TIUIs appear to have adopted 'Decent Work' - hook, line and two smoking barrels - what is here implied is a global neo-keynesianism, in which the unions and their ILO/WSF friends would recreate the post-1945 Social Partnership model, but now on a global scale! This model seems to me problematic in numerous ways. The main one, surely, is whether the role of the WSF, or the more general Global Justice and Solidarity Movement is going to be limited to supporting a project aimed at making capitalist globalisation 'decent', or whether this movement should not have a project for labour that might be more utopian (post-capitalist) and, simultaneously, more realistic (morally challenging work-for-capital, appealing to 'non-workers', addressing related social and ethical issues). When an old institution meets a new movement, something's gotta give. Bearing in mind that decision-makers of both the TIUIs and the WSF could have quite instrumental reasons for relating to each other, one cannot be certain that the openness within the Forums will guarantee that the principles at stake here will be continually and publicly raised. (There are about a dozen inter/national union organisations on the IC, most or all of which are likely to favour 'decent work' rather than questioning work-for-capital).

3. Combined and Uneven Development: Gender, Ethnicity, Class and Age

I was somewhat alarmed, at the elite hotel I eventually found myself in at Porto Alegre, by the number of people who looked like me: White, Male, Middle-Aged (hey, I am not yet 70!) and, evidently, Middle-Class. I do not know to what extent this bias applies to the decision-making committees, but it existed visibly on the various platforms and other public events. This does not, of course, mean that women, Africans, Indians, Indigenous Peoples, or the Under-30s are excluded from the Forum, or from that hotel. But the youth were under canvas in the Youth Camp, the Argentinean piqueteros were in the streets, and, it seemed to me, the women were less visible than they had been at WSF2.

Amilcar Cabral, assassinated leader of anti-Portuguese struggle in colonial Africa, suggested that after independence there would occur the 'suicide of the petty-bourgeoisie'. Nice idea, but no cigar! As the more-sceptical Frantz Fanon argued at the same time, the post-colonial elites were going to do everything they could to retain and increase their privileges. There are striking power/wealth differences between Forum participants, particularly visible in the case of the South. In two or three Latin American cases known to me, the poorer participants travelled by bus - this sometimes meaning a 4-5 day journey, with entry obstacles at various border-crossings. There is no reason to assume that any elite is suicidal (nor that I was going to abandon a hotel with hot and cold running internet) without irresistible pressure from outside or below. In so far, on the other hand, as the WSF elite has declared certain principles relating to liberty, equality, solidarity, pluralism, the respect of difference and the pursuit of happiness, then it might be possible to confront them (us) with the necessity of re-balancing the power equation. The elites could then put their efforts, in their home states/constituencies into facilitating rather than dominating or controlling the Forum process.

The experience of women within the Forum might point here in different directions. I have no figures for this year, but at both previous events, women were almost 50 percent of the participants. There are powerful feminists on the panels and in at least the IC, quite capable here of making the Forum a Feminist Issue. There are numerous panels on gender and sexuality in both the Central and Marginal programmes. Whilst the recent Latin American/Caribbean Feminist Encounter considered alternatives to the old pattern, and addressed itself centrally to globalisation, it seems to have not identified itself as such with the Forum process. Despite a discernible shift in the international women's/feminist networks, over recent years, away from the inter/state bodies and toward the public arena, I am wondering whether the lobby has not been shifted from that old site to this new one.

It occurs to me that the power/presence balance within the Forum might be corrected by two measures. One would be quotas for under-represented categories. The other would be an official programme structured according to collective subjects rather than, or as well as, major problems. Thus one could have major panels/programmes on Labour, Women, Youth, Indigenous Peoples - even the Old (I hope to become such myself one day).

4. A Social Movement Network: De/Centralised?

At two previous Forums there has been issued a 'Call of Social Movements'. The initiative for such has come from members of the OC and IC, some being recognisable social movements, others being recognisable NGOs. Both Calls have been publicly presented and then signed by 50-100 other organisations and networks. This year, the notion of a 'Social Movements World Network' (SMWN) was widely circulated on the web and subject to a two-session public discussion within the Forum. This eventually produced a much shorter, one-page, declaration, proposing a continuation of discussion about the nature of such a network, with further meetings to take place during major movement events this year and next. It may be that what I received was an interim document and that there either is or will be a longer one. But, following the two dramatic previous Calls, and the larger, better-publicised, two-stage, discussion this year, one is struck by the modesty and caution of this proposal.

There are good reasons for such caution. The Call - like other Forum bodies and initiatives - is surrounded by a certain amount of mystery. Given overlapping memberships, are we to understand the Call as a device for going beyond the Forum's self-limitation on making political declarations? How come the Secretariat of the Call, in Sao Paulo, only came to this interested observer's attention one year after it came into existence? Why did it take seven or eight months for the signators of Call 2 to be publicly identified (at least on a website), when those of Call1 were published instantaneously? What, for the purposes of this new initiative, is a social movement?

I am actually favourable to, even enthusiastic about, the creation of such a network. In part this is because there exists no such internationally. In part because it is going to provide information and ideas on a continuing basis - and to those people/places otherwise excluded from the periodic Forums. In so far as this will have an existence in 'real virtuality' (Manuel Castells), it may go beyond a WSF that remains largely earth-bound and institutional. Apart from the questions above, certain crucial others remain (about which I may only have yet other questions).

Is the network going to be primarily political/institutional or primarily communicational? In the first case, communication is likely to be made functional to the political/institutional. In the second case, we may be into a different ballgame or ballpark. In the first case, there is likely to operate a 'banking' model of information, in which maximum information is collected, to be then dealt out to customers in terms of power and profit. In the second case, there can operate the principle of the potlatch, or gift economy, in which individual generosity is understood to benefit the community. The understanding here is a common African saying: I am who I am because of other people.

Even in the best of all possible cyberworlds, however, there remain questions of appropriate modes (information, ideas, dialogue), of form (printed word at one end, multimedia at the other) and control (handling cybernuts and our own homegrown fundamentalists). There do exist various relevant, if partial, models of international social-movement, civil society, anti-globalisation networks - earth-bound or cyberspatial. Indy Media Centre (IMC) has got to be the most important here, and needs to be reflected upon both for what it can do and what it doesn't. Finally, any SMWN is going to have to go beyond network babble and recognise that networks do not exist on one, emancipatory, model. In discussing networks, Arturo Escobar (2003) has said that

It is possible to distinguish between two general types: more or less rigid hierarchies, and flexible, non-hierarchical, decentralised and self-organising meshworks. Hierarchies entail a degree of centralised control, ranks, overt planning, homogenisation, and particular goals and rules of behaviour conducive to these goals. Meshworks.are based on decentralised decision making.self-organisation, and heterogeneity and diversity. Since they are non-hierarchical, they have no overt goals. It can be said they follow the dynamics of life, developing through their encounter with their environments.

In the end, however, it does not too much matter in which place/space, on which model the SMWN takes shape. The existence of the web, combining low cost of entry, wide reach and great speed, provides the assurance that such a network will be supplemented or challenged by others.

5. From Organisation to Communication in the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement

I am here moving from cyberspace to communication, and from the FSM to the GJ&SM. Whereas the movement-in-general has shown, at its best, an almost instinctive feel for the logic of the computer, and has expressed itself in the most creative and provocative ways (in Quebec a man was arrested for threatening to catapult a possibly largish teddy bear over the globalised razor wire), this is not the case for the FSM in particular. The FSM uses the media, culture and cyberspace but it does not think of itself in primarily cultural/communicational terms, nor does it live fully within this increasingly central and infinitely expanding universe.

The FSM website remains a disgrace - promoting year-old ideas (chosen by whom?) in its meagre library. Trying to reach a human being on this site, to whom one could pose a question, reminds one strongly of Gertrude Stein (or whoever) on Oakland, California: 'There is no there there'. The only FSM daily is Terra Viva, an admirable effort by the customarily unaccountable NGO, but which this year seemed to me to add to its space-limitations, delays and superficialities a heavier bias toward the Forum establishment. The more-professional, substantial and independent regional paper, Zero Hora, gave wide coverage but only in Portuguese. For background information and orientation one was this year dependent on free handouts of La Vie/Le Monde (marked by a certain social Catholicism?), and Ode, a glossy, multi-lingual, New Age, magazine from Rotterdam, with impressively relevant coverage (which I have used in this paper).

The FSM seems to me something of a shrine to the written and spoken word. (In so far as I worship both deities, I am throwing this stone from my own glasshouse). At its core is The Panel, in which 5-10 selected Panellists do their thing in front of an audience of anything from five to 5,000, the latter being thrown the bone of three to fine minutes at a microphone. And these were the lucky ones! At the other end of the Forum's narrow spectrum of modes there is The Demonstration. Here euphoria is order of the day: how can it not be when surrounded by so many beautiful people, of all ages, genders and sexual options, of nationality and ethnicity, convinced that Another World is Possible? But here we must note the distinction made 30 years ago, between mobilisation and mobility, as related to the old organisation and the new media:

The open secret of the electronic media, the decisive political factor, which has been waiting, suppressed or crippled, for its moment to come, is their mobilising power. When I say mobilize I mean mobilize.namely to make [people] more mobile than they are. As free as dancers, as aware as football players, as surprising as guerillas. Anyone who thinks of the masses only as the object of politics, cannot mobilize them. He wants to push them around. A parcel is not mobile; it can only be pushed to and fro. Marches, columns, parades, immobilize people [.] The new media are egalitarian in structure. Anyone can take part in them by a simple switching process [.] The new media are orientated towards action, not contemplation; towards the present, not tradition [.] It is wrong to regard media equipment as mere means of consumption. It is always, in principle, also means of production [.] In the socialist movements the dialectic of discipline and spontaneity, centralism and decentralization, authoritarian leadership and anti-authoritarian disintegration has long ago reached deadlock. Networklike communication models built on the principle of reversibility of circuits might give indications of how to overcome this situation. (Hans Magnus Enzensberger 1976:21-53)

There is, of course, also The Rally - a panel writ very large indeed.

The paucity of cultural expression at WSF3 is the most surprising thing, bearing in mind we are in Brazil. The WSF3 song, which has an attractive lilt but is sung only in Portuguese, and which did not seem to be available in written or CD form even in this language, was the same as in 2002. The tee-shirts are still not going to win any design prizes. And the most popular icon - no fault of the organisers - remains Che. (I suspect there might be a market for Subcomandante Marcos, for Rigoberta Menchú, for Chico Mendes, for La Naomi, for El Noam, for Arundhati and even for Frida and Diego, and for Beatle or two, but I may be wrong here).

Something of an exception to the general Forum rule was, in 2002, the campaign against fundamentalisms of the Articulación Feminista Marcosur. I had and have doubts about both the subject of and the interpretation offered by this campaign, but it was one which intimately combined the customary Forum modes with dramatic cultural expression of undeniable originality and impact: last year there were masks, an enormous hot-air balloon, hoarding-sized posters and more. This year activity was concentrated in a big and packed-out book launch, at which was also projected a 10-minute CD production of considerable originality and power (Lucy Garrido, the Uruguayan designer, opted for visuals, music and minimal words, in successive English and Spanish). We could have had, we should have had, a discussion around this. Even a panel.

Conclusion: the Secret of Fire

I am concerned about the future of the Forum process but not worried. Pandora has opened her box, the genie has is out of the lamp, the secret of fire is now an open one. Already in Florence, young libertarians were mumbling, 'Another Forum is Possible'. This possibility is not only a matter of information and communication technology (which has yet to produce an English/Spanish translation programme with an appropriate vocabulary). It may be the combination, precisely, of this with youth, given that urban kids have grown up with cellular phones, playing arcade computer games, and therefore with an affinity for any computer technology, and a healthy disregard for attempts to coral such. (I was moved to produce my first-ever Power Point production, on WSF2, by my 12-year-old granddaughter, Joelle, who is also puzzled about my resistance to the cell phone, text-messaging and computer chat).

For the rest, I am inspired by: energetic and innovative social protest, and original analyses of the local-national-global dialectic in Argentina; by the belated appearance in Peru of a network, Raiz/Root, which clearly has some feeling that the WSF is more than an NGO jamboree; by the Kidz in the Kamp who were discussing under a tree, and with informal translation, how to ensure that the emancipatory and critical forces had more impact on the Forum process; by the struggle, against all odds, of the US Znet people to mount 'Life after Capitalism', an event of post-capitalist propuesta within the Forum; by the increasing number of compañer@s, of various ages, identities, movements and sexual orientations, who believe that, in the construction of a meaningfully civil global society, transparency is not only the best policy but the right one.

Buenos Aires-Lima
February 2-4, 2003


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