Photo by Amine Ghrabi/ Flickr
The greatest progressive innovation of our century — to this point — has been the World Social Forum (WSF). In the book Another World is Possible: popular alternatives to globalization at the World Social Forum,William Fisher and I first contended that the World Social Forum represented the beginning of building a new left and a new global civilization, grounded by a desire for participatory, radical democracy. There have been a number of insightful interpretations of the World Social Forum process: it embodies resistance to globalization, it represents the latest struggle against imperialism, it manifests the power of identity, it is an insurgency against patriarchy and other forms of hierarchical discrimination, and it represents the “movement of the multitude.” The interpretation that we offered did not exclude any of the others but included them all within a common framework: the “alternative globalization” and “global justice” movements at the World Social Forum share a common call for a radical, participatory, democratic process to be integrated into all major economic, environmental, cultural and political decisions. The movements have been too diverse to fully develop — yet — a common substantive notion of the good but instead affirm a shared procedural vision of emancipation.
The WSF was founded by three long-time activists: Oded Grajew, the coordinator of the Brazilian Business Association for Citizenship (CIVES), Francisco Whitaker of the Brazilian Justice and Peace Commission (CBJP), and Bernard Cassen, the director of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions (ATTAC, France). It began as an annual event where various progressive social movements, writers and individuals — but not political parties — could meet to propose, discuss and mutually construct alternatives to neoliberal globalization. The Forum was imagined as an “Open Space,” that is, it aspired to create an ideal speech situation in which participants could dialogue without being inhibited by the systemic pressures posed by political bureaucratization and economic commodification. Activists enter the space to rationally, deliberatively and empathetically discuss their diverse solutions to the challenges posed by the current neoliberal form of globalization.
The first World Social Forum took place in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil and since then the Forum process has undergone numerous innovations: expanding to include local, national and continental fora; deregionalizing the site of the WSF away from Brazil, shifting towards a self-organizing structure with a more open thematic consultation process, decentralizing the site via the polycentric Forum of 2006 (Bamako, Caracas and Karachi), bringing the event to Africa in 2007 and 2011, hosting the Forum in the Amazon in 2009, and holding the gathering in Tunisia, the heart of the Arab Spring, in 2013. World Social Forum 2015, to be held this coming March, will again be hosted by activists in Tunisia. The expansion, deregionalization and decentralization have helped address one of the key problems faced by the event’s organizers: attempting to ensure genuinely global, and low-income, participation at the Forum. Anyone who has attended the WSF is inevitably struck by the preponderance of university-educated participants and — when the Forum does not take place in an African country — the lack of African representation. While the Forum is in principle open to all, in practice those who are privileged by education, income and geography tend to be disproportionately represented at the Forum. The WSF’s innovations have helped address the problem of representation without completely solving it. The principle of creating a universally available public space in which all can voluntarily come together to discuss freedom is admirable but inevitably riven by the contradictions of the system that movements wish to transform. None of this diminishes one of the Forum’s greatest successes, however: its popularity. The attendance numbers are stunning. Many events have had over 100,000 participants, a testament to the Forum’s broad appeal, the talent of its organizers, and the significance of the public’s desire for an alternative to the current neoliberal form of globalization.
Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D. is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, and the co-editor of Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books 2003), and the co-editor of The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change Under (Harvard University Press 2011).