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Under a tree in Porto Alegre: democracy in its most radical sense

About the authors
Thomas Ponniah is co-editor of the book Another World Is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books, 2003). He is a PhD student in the Graduate Program of Geography at Clark University, Massachusetts and holds an MA in cultural studies from Birmingham University in England. In 2002 he interned with the World Social Forum Secretariat for five months.
William Fisher is Associate Professor of International Development at Clark University, Massachusetts. He is co-editor of the book Another World Is Possible: Citizen Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (2003). His previous publications include:Toward Sustainable Development: Struggling over India's Narmada River (1995) and Fluid Boundaries (2001).

openDemocracy: What were your reasons for editing a book (Another World Is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum published by Zed Books in March 2003) about the World Social Forum (WSF)?

Thomas Ponniah: I talked with the anti-Apartheid activist and poet Dennis Brutus in the autumn of 2000. Dennis explained that the WSF was an attempt to bring together progressives from all over the world to renew the process of envisioning a new world. It seemed obvious to me that there was a need to document the process. This was the impetus; it is only through documentation that activists and intellectuals can continue to build on the knowledge produced at each forum. I put the idea to Bill [William Fisher] and he agreed to co-edit a book on the alternatives presented at the forum.

William Fisher: We’re particularly curious about what the world might look like if the slogan for the forum, ‘another world is possible’, proves true. It is important to move beyond critiquing the world you’re opposed to, and to begin articulating the characteristics of the world you’re imagining as the future. It isn’t that we thought that after just two WSFs there would be a coherent vision of what this other world is. Rather, we wanted to identify and analyse where there were clear divergences or convergences, and that’s what became the organising theme for the book.

TP: We see six key divergences.

First, revolution versus reform. For example, there are those who think that we should reform the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank opposed by others who believe they are unreformable and should be replaced by decentralized pluralist global governance.

Secondly, environment versus economy. Some ecologists call for a reduction of economic growth to preserve environmental sustainability while others call for sustainable economic growth as the best form of guaranteeing resource distribution.

Thirdly, human rights versus protectionism. Northern labour calls for human rights legislation as part of trade agreements, while southern labour interprets this as selective use of ‘human rights’ as a disguised form of protectionism.

Fourthly, the question of whether universal values are western values. Michel L and Frei Betto argue that we should return to the values of the French revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity – but broaden them out so they include women, marginalised groups, people of colour and so forth. The response by Celia Amoros and others is that these values have been laden with patriarchal and colonial assumptions, so why should they be the beacons for building another world?

The fifth divergence: we identified deals with the different scales of the proposed alternatives. Some call for a return to the local, some call for a return to the state as the mechanism for social redistribution, and others call for a new system of global governance. Inevitably, these different visions of where decision-making power should be located create a tension.

There is a sixth conflict which is not fully articulated in the book, although it is present in the foreword by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (authors of Empire). It is the conflict between political parties and social movements. Parties tend to appropriate the aspiration of social movements. But at the same time they have been crucial for implementing many of the best ideas that political activists have brought forward.

WF: We saw many more divergences. But these were the ones that echoed most widely and seemed most significant to us. Convergences are harder to identify but are just as important. The one we focused on – it leapt out at us – was a commitment to a participatory democratic process.

What is the WSF all about? It’s not a social movement in and of itself. It’s an open forum, and in that there’s a commitment to its openness, to the participatory nature of it, to open democracy. That’s the key convergence.

There’s also a convergence about the nature or identity of the adversary – neo-liberal globalisation. Admittedly, after 9/11, war and militarisation became very important themes of the WSF of 2002 and remain important in the forum of 2003 because of the pending war on Iraq.

TP: I think the call for a democratic revolution or reinvention of democracy – not only in terms of democratising representative democracy – but reflecting on how to democratise economic production, how to democratise culture, and how to democratise our relationship to nature, are key areas of convergence.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the themes of class and anti-colonialism were important to social movements. In the 1980s and 1990s, the focus shifted to the theme of identity. Now I think that the [key issue] for movements is the question of democracy, but democracy in its most radical sense, not just political, but economic, ecological and cultural democracy.

oD: Is the WSF rethinking democracy?

WF: It’s a place where that can happen. It’s a place where people are encouraging others to make that happen – where people are pressing each other about what the answers might be if you’re rethinking democracy on different kinds of levels. It’s not a place yet where you’d expect all the answers to come out and be somehow ratified by a forum. But it may come out in small ways through networks that use the forum in order to interact.

TP: Porto Alegre is an amazing city. It is in a country that has one of the highest differentials between rich and poor, yet Porto Alegre exhibits a high level of social redistribution. The core of this egalitarianism lies in its participatory budget, which allows every citizen to collaborate in allocating the city’s resources. It seems logical that a movement seeking democratic alternatives would find Porto Alegre as its initial meeting place.

oD: So does that mean the WSF is in trouble, now that the next one is planned to be held in Hyderabad, India?

WF: No, it’s not. But I think that Thomas is right that for the first three years it was really significant that it was held here. There was a connection between Porto Alegre as a model for an alternative way of doing things that provided an inspiration for the whole forum. It doesn’t mean that the forum can only be held in a place like this, but it will be very different somewhere else. I can’t think of a single place where you’re likely to find a better match between the city and the spirit of the WSF at the moment. So I don’t expect it will relocate for good, but there’s no reason it can’t move about. In the current plans it is expected that the WSF would return periodically, perhaps every other year to Porto Alegre.

TP: The choice of making India the base of the 2004 WSF was pretty much a consensual process. At the last forum, it was proposed that India host the WSF in 2003. The Indian members of the International Council said no, and that they needed more time to consult Indian civil society. One of the representatives told me at the time that only 200 or so activists in India even knew about the forum. At the International Council meetings in Barcelona in spring 2002, it was agreed that India should first host an Asian Social Forum and, based on the success of that event, the International Council and the India Working Committee should decide whether India could host the WSF in 2004. The Asian Social Forum was held in January in Hyderabad and was a great event that has filled many people with optimism about the WSF being held in India.

Also, the process of the forum moving around different parts of the Global South is actually playing out the democratic ideal, in the sense that movements are very wary of becoming bureaucratised, centralised, sedimented. So we have to have a forum that is structured in a more fluid manner. It cannot be permanently located in one place or it would just become a new IMF or a Soviet Union. Movements have learned from their history and from their adversary. The forum has to move. Porto Alegre is a great alternative, but so is Kerala in India, or Chiapas in Mexico where movements and governments are also experimenting with new forms of democracy. Porto Alegre was not known four years ago on the global left, and now, hopefully, parts of India will also become known for their alternative forms of governance. So I think it is a good thing. I hope that the forum also moves to Africa sometime in the near future so that we can learn from the innovations of African movements as well.

WF: You could expect that, once it moves, some of the social forums of the future might not be as successful as this one is – because of their setting and possible lack of institutional support. But I think Thomas is right that if it stayed here, it would become too institutionalised and would die.

oD: So how do you determine the success of a summit like this?

WF: Diversity of views, diversity of participation – those are the key things. That it’s not the same people coming every time, or the same leaders, and that it’s not the same ideas being recycled. I would think that success means that you have an increasing number of people who feel that they can participate, and that they participate to their benefit in the sense that they learn things or build new networks. So I don’t know how you would measure it, because no one has actually counted if there have been more networks created. But that’s what I would see as success.

TP: The fact that we now have regional and thematic forums, and soon perhaps national and local forums, is an extension of the process. What this means is that if the global WSF ever collapsed, or fragmented, the process would continue, because there are now regional forums that are independent of the initial event. In this sense the WSF is already a great success because it has produced forums that go beyond itself – that will outlive it.

WF: It’s important to think of all these various forums as the WSF. They are the process that is the WSF. It is not just about this annual meeting.

oD: But aren’t there disagreements about what the WSF should be for?

WF: There is definitely a divergence. I wouldn’t just limit it to the organisers. There are so many different participants who have visions of what they would like to see the forum become – and maybe criticisms of what it is now and its limitations.

The heart of the difference lies in this: is the WSF a process, an open social movement, or a powerful institution? Clearly, if it were the latter then it would be able to do things and achieve things. Some people would like to see it become the institution that would then be able to make another world emerge.

We don’t think that there is a single consensus that could come out of the forum. Nor would we want to see it powerful enough to institute one idea, as the consensus idea of the forum. So we are among those people who see the WSF as an absolutely new but significant process.

oD: Who would like to see it become a body that could make change?

TP: This has come out in the International Council. There is a debate on whether the International Council should make a statement about the war on Iraq. One group argues that the forum should be a political agent, while another says no, the forum should be a pedagogical space. These are two different visions. It is a good debate to have.

Personally, I would hope that it remains a pedagogical space out of which new politics can emerge. That is to say, the WSF provides a space in which movements from all over the world can network together and make statements about the war, but not in the name of the forum.

oD: So, is another world possible?

TP: I think it is clear that another world is possible – a world of many worlds. The question is, what are the strategies for moving towards a different future? That is the discussion that I think has been initiated at this forum. The 2001 WSF was about defining ourselves and understanding the global situation. The 2002 WSF was about alternatives. The question for this forum and future events should be strategies.

oD: Has the election of Lula in Brazil intensified the feeling of alternatives being possible?

WF: I think it obvious when you’re here that people connect to Lula and that his election is something they see as being very positive. But I would be very cautious about reading too much into that. We can see the election of a president from one party at one specific time and then the election of one from an opposing party the next time. Lula’s election should give some inspiration, but the movement at the heart of the WSF should be seen as a long, ongoing, never-ending struggle. It is not as if somehow the election of Lula has made another world possible and changed things. I don’t think we would agree with that view. But clearly, it has fuelled the spirit of this particular WSF.


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