Beyond the square: changing dynamics at the World Social Forum

If the recent Occupy-type social explosions are to seek transformative action beyond occupied squares, they should look at the history of the World Social Forum, with its valuable paths to transnational connectivity.

Teivo Teivainen Giuseppe Caruso
7 December 2014

World Social Forum 2011, Dakar, Senegal. Demotix/El Korchi Abdellah. All rights reserved.

World Social Forum 2011, Dakar, Senegal. Demotix/El Korchi Abdellah. All rights reserved.The World Social Forum (WSF) will hold its next global gathering in March 2015 in Tunis. What has happened since it first convened in Porto Alegre in 2001? At the beginning, the forums took place annually around the same dates as the World Economic Forum in Davos. One reason for the simultaneity was that it seemed attractive for the global media. Organized every two years since 2007, and no longer necessarily during the dates of Davos, the event has now become somewhat less visible.

For many of the original participants, the novelty factor no longer holds sway and initial enthusiasm has partially faded away. But what has compensated for this is the entry of various new movements and activists into the process, recently in particular from North and West Africa. The continental dynamics have also differed: while there has been lots of energy in regional forum processes in the United States and Canada, the European Social Forum has for all practical purposes ceased to exist.

Dilemmas of representation

The latest global WSF event organized in Tunis in 2013 gave a new boost to the process, but various old issues keep on returning. Some of the reasons for the frustration with the WSF are related to dilemmas of representation. For the activists that reject representation as a political principle, the forums have been too embedded in traditional politics. For those who want to build global political parties, the WSF’s open space has lacked the capacity for action.

The WSF has never claimed to represent a global civil society, or anything else for that matter. This makes perfect sense, most obviously because there are many important organizations and movements that have never participated in the process. It is in the internal decision-making procedures where the representational ambiguity of the WSF has been more contested. 

On the one hand, the governance bodies of the WSF have mostly consisted of representatives of organizations and movements. We, for example, have participated in its International Council (IC) as representatives of the Network Institute for Global Democratization. Within the IC, this representational foundation has been combined with elements typical of contemporary non-representational activism, such as consensus-based decision making.

One of the most debated characteristics of the IC has been the avoidance of policy statements claiming to represent a common position. This avoidance has also frustrated the hopes of those who believed the WSF could develop into a global political actor. While many of the movements that may have preferred a more politically proactive forum are still part of the process, including the global peasant alliance Via Campesina, some have lost faith in the strategic importance of the WSF. An additional reason, especially for the movements in the South American continent that gave birth to the WSF, is that compared to 2001 there are today more left-leaning governments that may offer meaningful channels for transformative action.

Its ambiguities and the uncertainty about its future notwithstanding, the WSF remains a relevant space for the articulation of thousands of movements from around the world. While the global event is its most widely known aspect, the process includes local, national, regional and thematic forums in different parts of the world. Nevertheless, some of the momentum of the past decade may have been lost.

This state of affairs concerns social movements and organizations beyond the WSF. Has the global justice movement that appeared at the turn of the millennium disappeared into the darkness of defeat? Have some of its participants been co-opted by the Latin American electoral left turn? Or is this multifaceted movement only situated away from the gaze of the global public eye, and working at what it does best – long-term local struggles for justice, equality and sustainability?

After Occupy

To speak about the global justice movement in the singular was always somewhat misleading. A new sense of movement fragmentation, however, has been felt in different parts of the world. There has been plenty of protest activism in recent years, but the aims have generally been scaled down from the dreams of another world voiced in the first social forums. Especially since late 2010, the attentions of media and activists have been focused on local, national, or sometimes regional uprisings.

With increasingly efficient electronic tools for connecting movements, the more local mobilizations are not necessarily more isolated than during the earlier wave of globalization protests. There have been various kinds of linkages between the mobilizations of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the M15 movement in Spain, the anti-austerity revolts in Greece, Occupy Gezi in Istanbul, the student movement in Chile, the anti-corruption movement in India, the free transport movement in Brazil and the more recent Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong.

Whatever the differences between all these events – at some level incommensurable – they share a certain family resemblance when looked at against the mirror of globalization protest movements at the turn of the millennium. The key adversaries of yesteryear tended to be global institutions. Moreover, and to reinforce the picture of global unity, after the Battle of Seattle against the WTO in 1999, the Prague protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the Genoa demonstrations against the G8, many activists converged on the World Social Forum. They wished to move beyond street protest into imaginative and transformative global politics. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, globalization protest movements seemed to be metamorphosing into global democratization movements.

As the more localised movements that occupied squares and parks captured the attention of a global audience of activists, supporters and spectators in 2011 and 2012, the social forums seemed to fade into the background. Various kinds of influences between the social forums and the Occupy movements were pointed out, but by early 2012 the energy of the latter seemed to have replaced the disillusionment of the former. Now the enthusiasm over the initial Occupy movements has mostly calmed down, both in Cairo and New York, even if it is raging on in Hong Kong as we write.

The challenges of moving and acting ‘beyond the square’ created various dilemmas for these mobilizations. Decision-making inside the occupied squares was often based on consensus-oriented direct democracy and a declared rejection of representational mechanisms. Directly democratic decision-making practices,  as cumbersome as they are exciting in face-to-face contexts, are difficult to reproduce in transnational and global contexts.

Even in its early years, the World Social Forum faced some of the dilemmas that the Occupy movements would later confront. Despite all the ambiguities and frustrations, there has been a learning process of over a decade in the WSF about dealing pragmatically with difficult questions regarding global inter-movement articulation. If the newer Occupy-type movements want to seek transformative action beyond the occupied squares, learning from the experience of the WSF can be helpful. Obviously other large coalitions of the past, including feminist, labour and environmental movements, can also contribute valuable lessons.

But the explicitly global scale of the WSF means that it can offer the more localized movements possibilities for transnational connectivity and global articulation. We saw signs of this happening when the latest global WSF event, celebrated as a success by both local and global activists, was held in Tunis in March 2013. We heard Occupy Wall Street activists commenting that the forum was the only place where they could hook up with so many Arab Spring activists.

There were certainly many absences at the 2013 WSF. As always, it was not easy for movements from Asia to find the resources to travel to the event. In order to participate in a social forum organized in another continent, one needs money. Furthermore, regional participation was uneven. The Egyptian movements were kept busy at home, unable to travel in great numbers to Tunis. But the absences did not prevent the 2013 forum from being a mass event in the best tradition of the WSF.

New directions

The Tunisian struggles, following the Jasmine Revolution of late 2010 and 2011, inspired activists from the world over. After the silence that followed when the revolution’s photogenic newsworthiness faded, those who attended the WSF in Tunis could meet the women and men who, on a daily basis, have tried to transform revolutionary dreams into sustainable realities. Those to whom we talked back then said that this was something they would remember for a long time.

The Tunis experience in 2013 was so energizing that for the first time since the forum met in Porto Alegre, it was soon decided that WSF 2015 would return to the same place. This will happen in March 2015. The new Tunis WSF has a different task, more arduous than in 2013. Beyond linking the Tunisian and North African activists with the world, many activists and intellectuals wish to see it connect the galaxy of local and national movements into something that both brings to mind the successful season of the first WSFs and strengthens the bonds of collaboration between activists across the globe.

World Social Forum 2013, Tunis. Demotix/Hamideddine Bouali. All rights reserved.

World Social Forum 2013, Tunis. Demotix/Hamideddine Bouali. All rights reserved.As communication and organisation assume new shapes, the movements build on consolidated principles of openness, horizontality and respect for differences. With all their innovations, the newest movements are not experimenting with totally different forms of politics that require entirely alternative imaginations in order to create spaces of convergence and dialogue. Instead, they often continue a long tradition. When that is the case, forms of convergence and collaboration can be found in the same spirit that brought the WSF to life. Democratic learning between movements is key to their global futures.

What sparked the WSF was a moment of global effervescence in search of a shared space to meet and collectively build another world. Today, a similar effervescence draws people into the streets in all four corners of the world on issues of environmental sustainability, work, anti-corruption, dignity and democracy. Spaces of convergences could contribute to connect and give visibility to these values and objectives.

Most importantly, perhaps, they allow more space and time for activists to work together over a shared project to develop more thoughtful and long-term engagements. As claimed by the initiators of the WSF, this allows moving beyond reactive and defensive practices and puts the activists' creativity and agenda at the centre of their work. How does the WSF process intersect (or miss) the current instances of activism across the planet? Is the WSF form failing to attract global activists' interest, or is it rather the global scale itself that is not considered useful in the current political conjuncture? What is the relationship between more traditional organisation-building and internet-mediated activities, so central to the activist debates over the last decades? How are decision-making practices developing at the intersection between the local, the global and the virtual?

These are some of the questions that need to be debated on the road to the next WSF in Tunis. One milestone took place between 30 October and 2 November 2014, when the WSF International Council met in Hammamet, Tunisia. On its agenda were methodological and practical issues related to the organisation of WSF 2015, strategic issues regarding the place of the WSF in the map of world movements, and the move of its International Secretariat from São Paulo to Tunis. One of the most difficult debates concerned the location of the global WSF event that will follow WSF 2015. 

For the first time since the founding of the International Council in 2001, the entire meeting was effectively streamed online and allowed interactive participation from a distance. Members participated from locations in India, Uruguay, Canada, Finland, Italy and South Africa. This is a remarkable feat, considering the difficulties the WSF has had with realising the potential of information and communication technologies. The virtual expansion of the WSF process is not a recent dynamic, but a leap has been made and it is legitimate to expect that the learning curve will remain steep and allow increased networking and participation in the process.

During the Hammamet IC meeting, a major seminar on movement strategy vis-à-vis global alternatives to capitalism was proposed and warmly supported. It was generally felt that to better understand the present and the future of the WSF, it is necessary to understand the current struggles of movements around the world. The structure and future development of the WSF will depend on a thorough understanding of the challenges to global justice and change.

This seminar will take place immediately after WSF 2015 in Tunis. Its objective will be both analytical, to map the opportunities and challenges to global progressive change, and pragmatic, to act upon the findings of the seminar work. There exists a preliminary plan, in this sense, for a World Thematic Forum on global movements' strategies in 2016.

Finally, the candidature of Montreal as the site of the following global WSF event was discussed. The social forum process in Canada has large support and those signing the application to the IC have described the outreach process and some of the practical arrangements. Further work will be conducted over the next few months to bring large sections of Canadian civil society into the process. This process will lead to a final decision to be taken by the IC at its next meeting, held during the WSF 2015 in Tunis.

One of the characteristics of the WSF from the beginning has been its rootedness in the global south. All the main WSF events have taken place either in Latin America, Asia or Africa. Organizing the following WSF in Montreal, possibly already in 2016, would be a novelty in this sense. While there are thorny questions to be figured out, including the difficulty many activists may have to obtain a Canadian visa, the time might be ripe for such a move.

There are inspiring reasons to experiment in this direction. The global financial crisis has made issues like labour precarity and debt-related conditionalities increasingly evident in countries of the north. For many in the north, extreme poverty and double-digit unemployment rates used to be symptoms of a malaise that could only afflict the global south. No such certainties can be flaunted any more as precarity and inequality have become more common in the north. This is the background against which some of the most iconic movements since 2011 have developed, including the recent 7 November anti-austerity protests in Brussels. For many forum activists, this constitutes a crucial moment for the movements to consolidate global solidarities while recounting a different story about world development, from an unexpected angle. 

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