The World Social Forum

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Michael Lowy

PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL, February 2002—The World Social Forum was established in 2001 as an opposition pole to the World Economic Forum of Davos (Switzerland), the well known yearly meeting of the “Masters of the World”—bankers, multinational executives, billionaires and politicians—all united in the Religion of the (Capitalist) Market.

The aim of the World Social Forum is not only to oppose the Economic Forum of Davos—which this year took place in New York—and the capitalist/liberal world order it symbolizes, but also, and above all, to discuss alternatives: “Another world is possible!”

The first meeting of the WSF took place last year in Porto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the southern part of Brazil.

The choice of this town is no accident: it has been administered for the last twelve years by the Brazilian PT—Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party)—and so is the state, since 1999.  The present mayor, Tarso Genro—a PT moderate—and the governor, Olivio Dutra—a radical—both support the movement against neoliberal globalisation, and wholeheartedly welcomed the World Social Forum.

Moreover, there exists in the town since 1989, and in the state since 1999, a pioneering experiment in direct democracy known as the “participatory budget.” The inhabitants of each neighborhood—or each town, in the state—are invited to take part in general assemblies to decide how the investment budget should be expended in their area.

Last but not least, the south of Brazil is the place where the radical wing of the PT is strongest, and in particular the organized current called “Socialist Democracy,” linked to the Fourth International.  Raul Pont, the former mayor of Porto Alegre, as well as Miguel Rossetto, the present vice-governor of Rio Grande do Sul, who was in charge of the logistics of the WSF, both belong to this current.

Last year’s Forum was very successful, with 15,000 participants; but this year’s was a much bigger event, beyond all expectations: 51,000 people, including 15,000 in the Youth Encampment, several thousand peasants of the international Via Campesina movement and thousands of women of the World Women March.

Most of the people were of course Brazilians, but there were also many Argentinians, French, Italian and Spaniards, several hundred Arabs, as well as delegates from 129 countries.

Strength in Diversity

The main strength of the Forum is its diversity: trade unionists and feminists, ecologists and socialists, peasant movements and human rights associations, all united in the common refusal of the corporate globalization and its evils—social inequality, foreign debt, imperialist wars, environmental destruction, financial speculation.

All came together to discuss ways and means to struggle against the system, and possible alternative solutions.  Of course, there existed a large spectrum of political options, from the moderate partisans of a “regulated market economy” to the various shades of revolutionary socialism.

The majority of the rank-and-file participants were certainly radical in their outlook, and with strong anti-capitalist leanings.

European social-democracy, which with a few exceptions had largely ignored the first WSF, decided this time to make the trip to Porto Alegre, following the old rule, “if you can’t beat them, join them!”  Its presence was mainly limited to the Forum of Local Governments, convened by Tarso Genro, the mayor of Porto Alegre, just before the beginning of the World Social Forum.

A whole array of social-democratic mayors, ministers and presidential candidates took part in this event, the worst being the former Portuguese President Mario Soares, who advocated a compromise between Davos and Porto Alegre, and the former French Minister of the Interior Jean-Pierre Chévénément—well known for his repression of undocumented workers in France—who proposed a profoundly radical measure: to curtail the power of the International Monetary Fund by submitting it to control by .  .  .  the World Bank!

Happily enough these people and their like were absent from the World Social Forum as such, which does not invite political parties or governmental figures.

Forums and Workshops

The World Social Forum proper began on January 31 with a colorful demonstration of tens of thousands in the streets of Porto Alegre, closed by a meeting and an artistic show on the shores of the lake.

The debates took place from February 1-5, with morning sessions at the Catholic University, reserved to the 15,000 delegates from the various social movements and foreign guests, while in the afternoon more than 800 workshops, open to all, took place in various sites of the town, from schools and lecture halls to theaters and sport centers, dealing with a plurality of topics from the struggle for clean water to the future of communism.

An important series of debates was organized around the proposition “A world without war is possible,” discussing issues such as Palestine, Colombia, and the U.S. war strategy.  There were plenty of “guest stars,” from Noam Chomsky, who gave a much attended talk on corporate globalization, to Rigoberta Menchu and Hugo Blanco, who told about their life experience of struggle with the Guatemalan indigenous or the Peruvian peasants.

Among the guests were also well known figures of the global justice movement such as Naomi Klein, José Bové or Walden Bello, as well as a large delegation of European Marxists, including Fausto Bertinotti, Livio Maitan, Daniel Bensaid, Alain Krivine, Roseline Vachetta, Alex Callinicos, Hillary Wainwright and Celia Amoros.

Another demonstration assembled tens of thousands on February 4.  Denouncing the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas, it mobilized mainly the Brazilian and Latin American leftist currents, joined by a substantial delegation of U.S. activists and trade-unionists.

More than a thousand journalists from all over the world covered the event, some sympathetic to the movement, others more interested in interviewing the emissary from the World Bank—who complained that he was not admitted as a speaker to the Forum—than in the real debates of the WSF.

Inevitably, in such a huge event, there was no lack of illusionists and confusionists.  Some tried to promote China or Libya as revolutionary alternatives, others insisted on national sovereignty and protectionism as the only answer to globalization, and all kinds of old or new reformist ideas were presented as panaceas.

Yet the general spirit of the event was radical, democratic and internationalist.

By common agreement of the Organizing Committee, the WSF does not adopt resolutions.  But the vast majority of the social movements present at the Forum—the Brazilian CUT and most of the unions, Via Campesina, ATTAC, Global Focus on the South and many others—issued a three-page statement which summarizes the spirit of the event:

“We are a global solidarity movement, united in our determination to fight against the concentration of wealth, the proliferation of poverty and inequalities, and the destruction of our earth.  We are living and constructing alternative systems, and using creative ways to promote them.

“We are building a large alliance from our struggles and resistance against a system based on sexism, racism and violence, which privileges the interests of capital and patriarchy over the needs and aspirations of people.”

Finding a Vision

There is a general agreement in the WSF on some concrete and immediate measures, which serve as rallying points for the movement: among others, the Tobin tax on financial speculation, cancellation of foreign debt, a moratorium on transgenics, the suppression of fiscal paradises [offshore tax shelters—ed.], democratic land reforms, equality of wages for women.

Beyond these urgent demands, however, there has been also the beginning of a broader debate.  what kind of alternative society do we want ?  What should be the values of a new civilization?

In this respect, one could see a new development this year: Unlike the first Forum, this one (2002) started to discuss the issue of socialism.  The MST—Brazilian Landless Peasant Movement—and the international network Via Campesina organized a cycle of three days of conferences on socialism, inviting people of various tendencies (including the author of this note) to speak to an audience of thousands of peasant activists.

The issue was also raised at some of the general conferences of the Forum, as well as in several workshops.

By decision of the Organizing Committee in agreement with the International Council of the WSF, the next Forum will again take place, in February 2003, in Porto Alegre.  It will be prepared by regional forums in Europe (Florence), the Americas (Quito) and elsewhere.  Hopefully, in 2004 the WSF will move to some place in India.

The limits of the World Social Forum are obvious.  It cannot change the world relationship of forces and it cannot substitute for local social movements and political organizations.  At the same time, such a vast, pluralist, radical and democratic meeting of people from all around the world, committed to the struggle against corporate globalization, is without precedent.

Through the exchange of ideas and the cross-fertilization of experiences it encourages, one may consider it as one of the strategic places where a new internationalist culture is in the making.

Michael Löwy is the author of many books and essays on socialist theory and utopia, Marxism, revolution in the Third World, Latin American politics, and liberation theology among others.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)