A Tale of Two Social Forums

Against the Current, No. 149, November/December 2010

Marc Becker

FROM JUNE 22-26, 2010, fifteen thousand social movement activists gathered in Detroit, Michigan for the second United States Social Forum (USSF). Less than two months later, about half that number met at the other end of the continent in Asunción, Paraguay for the 4th Americas Social Forum (ASF).

The contrasts between the two were more dramatic than the similarities. While the social forum process appears to have run its course in South America, it still continues to pick up steam in North America. Although politically the United States lags behind South America, lessons from the north can help rejuvenate the process in the south.

Only a handful of people attended both forums. In the case of the USSF, the paucity of participation from the rest of the Americas was perhaps to be expected because, after all, it was a national forum. Barriers of access to time, resources, and, more than anything, visas, further hindered those from outside the country who might want to participate.

More surprising and disappointing, however, was the lack of northern participation in the ASF. Rather than a hemispheric forum, it became a de facto South American forum.

A common theme and slogan in Asunción was the unification of Latin American struggles. While a struggle for the realization of Simón Bolívar’s dream for a unified Latin America is a commendable goal, an equally valuable achievement would be the reintegration of the United States into a global system on the basis of respect and reciprocity rather than domination.

Social Forums provide an excellent opportunity for common people from the north to interact with their counterparts in a horizontal and participatory fashion that would help build a better, more unified and more egalitarian world.

A lack of participation from the United States in the ASF is understandable because it came so quickly on the heels of the very successful Detroit forum that occupied the resources of many of the social movements in that country. Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), for example, one of the key players from the United States in the social forum process that typically facilitates the participation of dozens of people in forums, only sent a small delegation with four people.

For many individuals, attending the World Social Forum (WSF) to be held in Dakar, Senegal in Africa in February 2011 seemingly was a more appealing alternative than traveling to the largely unknown South American country of Paraguay.

Organizers had initially projected ten to fifteen thousand participants at the ASF, which would have made it the same size as the USSF. Instead about half that number attended. Whereas the Detroit forum was larger than the first USSF in Atlanta in 2007, the ASF meeting in Paraguay was smaller than previous gatherings in Quito, Ecuador (2004); Caracas, Venezuela (2006); and Guatemala City, Guatemala (2008).

The ASF featured 350 sessions, about a third of the size of the USSF that had 1000 workshops. Larger is not necessarily better, and with so many sessions participation tends to become very dispersed. For those who have grown accustomed to oversized and unwieldy WSFs, the Paraguay meeting was small, the grounds compact, and the program easily manageable. At the same time, the ASF still covered the same range of issues such as neoliberalism, militarism, Indigenous peoples, environmental concerns and gender justice that have come to be expected at a forum.

Building Diversity from Below

The USSF had a more diverse face than the ASF. Following the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the site of a strong German migration, the WSF always has had a more European look; and even though the WSF was theoretically an initiative that emerged out of social movements, NGOs have always had a strong presence.

The USSF, in contrast, was deliberately organized as an initiative of grassroots communities of color. Building from the bottom-up, African-descendants, Latinos, Indigenous peoples, and poor people were at the heart of the forum. Ironically, this gave the USSF more of a “third world” face than those organized in Latin America. Even though Vía Campesina engaged in a significant effort to mobilize rural groups in Paraguay, many of the local participants still came from a more urban, westernized world.

More significantly, the USSF has moved much farther toward a horizontal process than any other social forum. Heavily influenced by critical pedagogy, the USSF discarded a standard conference model with panels of “experts” up on the stage presenting their knowledge to a passive audience. Instead, organizers urged a more participatory model of collaborative workshops to bring people together to solve common problems. The result was a breath of fresh air, with the organization of the panels mirroring the spirit of the social forum process.

Unfortunately, many of the ASF panels still retained the standard conference model of long monologues from featured speakers with little time or focus on discussion and exchanges. Also notable was the integration of governmental officials into the program.

To a degree not previously seen in social forums that originally emerged as a civil society response to neoliberalism, presidents and other elected officials were given a formal and central platform in Asunción to present their ideas.

Each day’s discussions ended with plenaries that included these officials. Presidents José Mujica from Uruguay and Evo Morales from Bolivia joined Fernando Lugo from Paraguay on the stage to close the forum. Their comments received more public attention than did those of social movement leaders or grassroots activists.

The governmental participation at the ASF, however, also points to the dramatic political shifts that have taken place in Latin America over the past 10 years. Many of these government officials emerged out of social movements. More broadly, the politicization and sophistication of political analysis of Latin America social movements is much more advanced than it is with their counterparts in the United States.

For example, the USSF featured a well-attended session on Haiti with powerful speakers. The ASF also had a panel on Haiti, but much smaller, and the presenter Camille Chalmers was one of the few African-descendant participants at the forum. Nevertheless, Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano left the session at the ASF impressed with its political depth and analytical sophistication, particularly compared the reports he had received from its counterpart in Detroit.

Although the social forum process came slow and late to the United States, it continues to gain force as a mechanism to struggle for social justice, pumping life back into transformative endeavors. Although the United States lacks the political advances and sophistication found in other parts of the Americas, the USSF plays a valuable role in contributing ideas and suggestions to the broader social forum process.

ATC 149, November-December 2010