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After Tunis. What next for the World Social Forum?

One of the arguments is that as the crisis has hit the North, it is time for South-based activists to travel to teach their northern comrades how to deal with debt crisis and precarity.

Teivo Teivainen
24 April 2015
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World Social Forum 2015. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.

World Social Forum 2015. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.The World Social Forum 2015 was held in Tunis during the last week of March. An atmosphere of heightened political violence both in Tunisia and in nearby regions contributed to this Forum being less festive than the previous one organized two years ago also in Tunis. WSF 2013 benefited from the optimistic spirits of the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, as a space for transnational learning and planning of campaigns, WSF 2015 was well worth the effort.

Unlike many other global meetings, the WSF does not produce any general conclusions that would aim at representing the variety of themes or movements. The lack of a final document has been a core element of the WSF open-space method since its first forum in 2001. Initial excitement with the idea that nobody can speak in the name of the WSF has gradually engendered increasing frustration among those who feel that the WSF cannot thus speak at all.

WSF may not have a united voice, but the visions of alternative futures, furious expressions of concern and calls for various kinds of action express the multitude of voices of the Forum. In Tunis, the climate justice campaigns were particularly dynamic and present in many spaces. Demands for the cancellation of illegitimate and odious debt got a new boost from the Greek situation. Even if any general expression of solidarity with the Greek government would go against the traditional WSF method, much learning and some campaign building around the Greek struggles took place.

Classic complaints about lack of convergence between different themes were often justified. Yet, the chants of “system change, not climate change” heard in the WSF venue expressed that at least in some parts of the climate campaigns, connections with capitalism, patriarchy and other seemingly separate topics were present.

According to the first estimates of the local organizing committee, there were 45,000 – 50, 000 participants, 5000 organizations and 1200 activities. The participants came from 121 countries, and as always the local and regional participation was the strongest.

Of the neighboring countries, the presence of Algerians was the most notable one. To counter the opposition-minded human rights activists, the government of Algeria had according to many sources provided financial support for over a thousand more loyal participants, often recognizable for the pro-governmental symbols of their hats and shirts. The idea was also to promote the government’s position on the Algerian shale gas reserves as well as on Western Sahara. While this was widely considered a dubious example of how governments intervene in “civil society”, at the same time it could also be seen as a sign of the regional political relevance of the WSF.

From across the Atlantic, Brazilians continued to have a relatively strong presence in the forum. Apart from many of the original initiators of the WSF process in Brazil, there were also various Afro-Brazilian activists. One of the new elements in the Brazilian context was the corruption scandal around the oil giant Petrobras. Over many years, the state controlled company has been one channel through which the Brazilian government has provided support for the WSF process. The paraphernalia of Petrobras in this forum was understandably less visible than before.

Unlike in some earlier forums, the draft program of sessions was available on the website already weeks before the event. Despite this sign of organizational efficiency, legitimate complaints and frustrations were also heard. Some had to do with the difficulties of practical organization such as lack of maps and insufficient interpretation facilities. Bad weather also played a role. Local volunteers, who did a great job in providing assistance for participants searching for events, organized a protest about not getting the food and shelter they had been promised. When it comes to various kinds of labor relations, the WSF has had continuous ongoing  problems in practicing what it preaches.

The massacre at the Bardo Museum, allegedly by Islamist gunmen, less than a week before the WSF 2015 led to a tense debate about the opening march. Local WSF organizers announced that the march would be held under the slogan “Peoples of the World United Against Terrorism”. Various foreign participants soon voiced their concern about the terminology. For many, that formulation smacked too much of the US-led “war against terror”.

Finally, the local organizers sent a message to the WSF International Council that they had devised a reformulated and much longer slogan Peoples of the World United for Freedom, Equality, Social Justice and Peace. In Solidarity with Tunisian People and all Victims of Terrorism against all Forms of Oppression. The Tunisian media, however, mostly reported on the march as if no change on the slogan had been made. The focus on the antiterrorist message was useful for the aim of making the WSF more compelling for Tunisians who fear the rise of violent forces in their country.                     

World Social Forum goes north

The International Council of the WSF met for two days in Tunis immediately after the mostly positive WSF. Where next? - was the key item of the agenda.

The most concrete proposal came from Montreal. One of the issues at stake is the identity of the WSF as a South-based initiative. All main events of the WSF have been organized in the South: Brazil, India and different parts of Africa (the polycentric format of 2006 divided the main WSF between Karachi, Caracas and Mali). Apart from the more general identity question, a key problem in organizing the WSF in Europe or North America derives from the visa difficulties many Southern activists would face.

In overall ideological terms, there has been increasing willingness among the WSF decision-makers to organize the main event in the North. One of the arguments is that as the crisis has hit the North, it is time for the South-based activists to travel to teach their Northern comrades how to deal with debt crisis, precarious labor and other issues that have traditionally been associated mostly with the South.

The decision of the International Council, sealed with a generalized applause amounting to some kind of consensus, was that the next World Social Forum would indeed be organized in Montreal, most likely in August 2016. The same decision emphasized the importance of the Thematic WSF in Porto Alegre in January 2016, as well as the seminar on social movement strategies to be organized in Greece at some point within the coming year.

It seems likely that WSF 2016 in Montreal will face problems in securing massive participation especially from the Global South. This is clearly a problem, but perhaps it will also create new incentives for finding creative solutions that might be helpful for the future of the WSF. For many years there has been talk about making more effective and politically meaningful use of the Internet in the WSF process. Apart from minor experiments of sessions with distance participation through the Internet, the WSF has not been able to dedicate sufficient energy to cyberspace. One window of opportunity the process now faces is that Montreal might provide an important step in this direction.

Is the WSF still relevant?

The idea of an open space where movements and groups identifying with an emerging global civil society could learn about globalization and each other won more interest than many expected. Much has been learned. Many have, however, become impatient and frustrated with the incapacity of the WSF to provide more effective mechanisms for changing the world.         

The emergence of left-leaning governments in Latin America and now also in Europe has made the strategy of changing the world through political parties that conquer the state more attractive to some sectors of global activism. It has also created more pressures to include parties as legitimate participants of the WSF. This could give a politicizing boost that might help the forum process become a more effective instrument of change. Then again, as many fear, it might result in corrosive fights for hegemony within the WSF. In any case, at least some of the depoliticizing pretensions of the original WSF open-space formula need to be rethought, even if the global political should not be reduced to fighting for state power.            

Apart from state-centric strategies, other forms of politicization have also been strengthened since the birth of the WSF. These include anarchist-inspired movements and other expressions of what Breno Bringel in his typology of global cycles of mobilization calls “geopolitics of global outrage”. Since the occupations of various kinds of plazas in Cairo, New York, Madrid and elsewhere in 2011, it might have seemed that the social forums have become a thing of the past. The subsequent WSF events in Tunis, attended by various occupy and Arab Spring activists, were useful in showing the compatibility between the WSF and newer expressions of activism. As many expressions of the latter have tended to be more specifically localized, the WSF has provided a transnational meeting place for at least some of them.

Conditions for communication between movements have also changed since 2001. Face-to-face meetings are still important, but especially large-scale processes such as the WSF or anything that might replace it need to find more effective ways to use communication technology to facilitate future meetings and decision-making. In this, the WSF has much to learn from the newer cycle of mobilizations.

It has become a commonplace to state that we live in a different world from the one inhabited by the Brazilians (and some others) who started organizing the first WSF fifteen years ago. Some things, such as the ones described above, have clearly changed. Yet, in terms of creating a new kind of democratic world that the WSF Charter of Principles vaguely outlines, the period has been brief and without major global transformations.

There are good reasons to believe that the social and physical limits to the expansion of capitalism, including the ecological crisis, imply that we will in this century face much greater global turbulence than the one the WSF has lived with thus far. Whatever the future of the WSF itself, we can learn from its achievements and contradictions to prepare for the tasks ahead. 

How to cite:
Teivainen T. (2015) «After Tunis. What next for the World Social Forum?», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 24 April. https://opendemocracy.net/teivo-teivainen/after-tunis-what-next-for-world-social-forum

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