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The WSF and a “Movement of Movements”

by .. Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2002 at 11:28 PM


The WSF and a “Movement of Movements”

by Michael Albert; December 23, 2002

From Korea to India, from South Africa to the U.S., and from Brazil/Venezuela/Argentina/Colombia to Italy and Russia, diverse struggles with varied approaches are growing rapidly:

Incredibly vast antiwar activism exists months before war.

Anti-corporate globalization activism grows worldwide.

Racial discrimination, water rights, immigration, modified foods, starvation, dams, homelessness, pollution, land rights, low wages, third world debt, and much more is fought, worldwide.

Electoral victories small and large are being won, as well.

Reactionaries aggravate hierarchical racial, sexual, political, and class relations. Rich and powerful people lust after still more. Corporate globalization tilts international exchange so further benefit thousands of multinational profiteers at the expense of billions of people too poor to eat and too weak to dissent. And, war, of course, is just corporate globalization writ violent.

Radicals weaken and replace hierarchical racial, sexual, political, and class relations with equitable, solidaritous, diversity enhancing, and self-managing structures. Radicals want the poor to benefit until new gains reduce and finally eliminate poverty, indignity, and disempowerment. Internationalism protects the ecology, benefits the poor, empowers working people, enhances dignity and power among previously disenfranchised elements, and ultimately seeks to entirely overturn competitive and profit-oriented relations.

But how do radicals attract ever larger constituencies not only to critical views, but to sustained, aggressive activism? And then how do we gain sufficient power to begin to win serious gains improving people’s lives now and initiating a trajectory of victories leading to a better future?

First, prospective allies need compelling reasons to believe that investing their time, emotions, and energies in social struggle will be repaid in valuable gains. Nothing less will overcome cynical beliefs that struggle against injustice is a fool’s errand, morally worthy but operationally hopeless. The radical organizing task, that is, is partly to convince people that there is injustice that we would be better off without (war, poverty, etc.), but is mostly to convince that our actions can actually remove such ills and propel us into a better world.

Following that, our power would grow if we brought together a large percentage of our many efforts to mutually enhance and benefit one another, each having the power that the overall sum embodies rather than each being isolated from or even competing with the rest. We need a way, that is, for our vast range of movements to benefit from each other’s existence; a way that allows each movement to support and enhance the rest rather than having each movement operate alone unto itself, never being aided by the rest.

Interestingly, the World Social Forum and the derivative broader Social Forum movement prioritize both these tasks.

The Forum’s third international event – WSF 3 – will occur this January 23 – 28, in Porto Alegre Brazil. Initially conceived during French and Brazilian brainstorming sessions and shortly thereafter brought to fruition by the organizing muscle and commitment of various Brazilian movement groups such as the landless peasant’s movement or MST and Brazilian Workers Party or PT, the WSF has grown internationally from a five-day, thousand person event, to a forty thousand person event a year ago, to likely a hundred thousand person event this January, 2003.

Even more promising, the forum has transcended its single event persona. Instead of just a single international event, called the WSF, there are now local forums for continents (Asia, Africa, Europe), for whole countries, for states within countries, and for cities and towns worldwide. In Italy there are about a hundred local social forums – and while Italy’s accomplishment is way above average, it foreshadows general trends spreading worldwide.

The forums are gatherings of activists, organizers, writers, and others involved in social change that come together under two very broad commitments: solidarity and vision.

(1) Solidarity: Work together. Avoid sectarianism. Find ways of mutually benefiting.

(2) Vision: Emphasize that “another world is possible,” and realize that we ought to be, in part, about describing it.

Positively, the WSF extends from its not so active social democratic and more academic participants, through much more active social democratic reform movements, to still more aggressive social struggle movements, and on to militant revolutionary parties and movements. The WSF also bridges attention to race, power, gender, class, ecology, and international relations. It crosses countries, frontiers, languages, and cultures.

On the negative side, however, internationally the WSF is very far from democratic or participatory regarding its components, though it is quite loose and encompassing locally.

Thus, for this year’s gathering all the largest WSF-sponsored events and related policies have been decided close to the vest, by a small consortium composed mostly of the original French and Brazilian initiators. On the other hand, about 1,000 afternoon events of WSF 3 will span the gamut of possibilities and incorporate pretty much anything that anyone has sought to include. The international gathering is in this sense a bit like a web site that has an edited part, under the control of a small staff or board, and also a wide open part, very much under the sway of whoever invests time and energy to make things happen there. This is actually pretty good for a conference, just as for a web site. Indeed, it is hard, in some respects, to see how it could be much better, other than by the central group becoming more accountable and democratic -- trends which are being pursued.

However, for the international forum phenomenon to become an international “movement of movements” project would go well beyond it remaining a meeting venue, of course. And for that more ambitious achievement, there would certainly need to be far greater clarity about structure and participation, and far more democracy and accountability. It is one thing to get together and just talk and meet largely under the administration of a barely accountable central group. But it would be quite another thing, and totally unacceptable, to have an international “movement of movements” that was nominally representing people worldwide but that lacked effective decision making participation.

It may be that the right choice for the near term is to retain the forum project as “only” a growing international network of meeting venues and gatherings seeking to propel solidarity and vision – while slowly enlarging its base of decision-makers and democratizing their relations. It may indeed be unwise to risk the WSF’s success as an excellent venue project by trying to accomplish too much too fast under that rubric. That seems to be the dominant current view, among WSF organizers, at any rate.

But wanting to preserve and only steadily but modestly improve the WSF and associated forum project more broadly, shouldn’t preclude trying to establish another, more or less parallel undertaking to the WSF, a true international movement of movements, that doesn’t merely unite around a single shared priority but instead becomes the greatest sum of all its components, uniting around the total agenda of all its member movements’ priorities. Indeed, participants might also decide that unlike the WSF and local forums, this new structure shouldn’t extend all the way to social democratic and liberal elements, but should be confined to anti-capitalist and anti-sectarian members, becoming an anti-capitalist internationale.

This would entail radical movements from every continent with different focuses, goals, and methods coming into contact and trying to discover their commonalities and also their real and serious differences, and to debate and find ways of mutually accommodating the latter, and to then establish a world spanning structure and methodology for sharing resources, marshalling mutual energies, and coordinating agendas, even while also retaining for actors around the world self-managing control of their own efforts and appropriate proportionate say in the overarching international operations, as well.

All this is very ambitious, of course, to put it mildly. But just let yourself imagine the possible gains accruing from having simultaneous international events. Think of the constituencies of each struggle benefiting from the lessons and wisdom of others, much less from major support given by constituencies of other struggles. Think of left media all over the planet beginning to share and to propel one another’s efforts. Think about a united international antiwar agenda. Think about visionary perspectives – economic, political, social – being presented, argued, and debated within and among movements all over the planet, and eventually, in some cases, being advocated across the world.

It is a lot to imagine, of course. But it is also the direction in which things are already moving.

Is this trend, glorious as it may sound at first, actually a problem? Is coming closer together a danger rather than a real opportunity? Could attaining a higher degree of international organization set back rather than advance the cause of justice, by stifling national and local creativity and prematurely narrowing commitments, creating bureaucracy, that curtails creativity and excitement?

Many of the most dynamic, energetic, and insightful actors on the activist world stage militantly support bottom-up organizing, open and transparent methods, broad participation, anti-authoritarianism, multi-tactical approaches, and continual innovation and considerable spontaneity -- all quite rightly, in my view. And many of these same energetic and insightful actors, seeing the emergence of large-scale phenomena like the WSF, much less our hypothesized international “movement of movements,” fear that these trends will inevitably be top down, anti-democratic, and bureaucratically boring and stultifying -- and thus aggressively reject the trends. But I think they are taking a very reasonable fear too far.

It is a little like advocates of self-management thinking that institutions per se are horrible due to fearing that all institutions will inevitably be as hierarchical as those we now suffer. This throws out the baby (institutions) with the bath water (authoritarianism). What is the point of saying that we are for self management, participation, creativity, and diversity – and then saying that we don’t think these virtues can be incorporated in our institutions, beyond, say, the very smallest?

We need to take our aspirations and particularly our capacities to attain our aspirations far more seriously. The goal of anti-authoritarianism isn’t to be tiny, or small, or even just medium sized. The goal is to have vast and even world encompassing movements, which, however, are participatory, diverse, and self-managing. But creativity, diversity, and participatory self-management won’t happen if we cede the field of institution-building to people who have no interest or confidence in democracy and variety. They will happen, however, if we enter the fray, hold to our values, and work cautiously, carefully, and tirelessly to implement them at every level.

Could the WSF and the whole broad forum project become nothing but a boring, academic, bureaucratic, and top-down operation with little relevance to activist upheaval and growth? Of course it could. And indeed, there is a good chance it will if we don't take steps to broaden the decision-making process since despite the remarkable job they have done so far in many respects, to continue with a small leadership will inevitably limit the movement's potentials..

But, can the WSF and the whole international and local forum phenomenon help facilitate a parallel and more explicitly anti-capitalist organizing project which will in turn further facilitate not only horribly needed attention to vision and horribly needed prioritization of solidarity, as the forum approach is already very effectively doing, but also facilitate a unified, mutually supportive, international “movement of anti-capitalist movements”?

I don’t see why not. If we make it so, that is.

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