The Future of The World Social Forum

2006-03-27 00:00:00

[* This article is the intervention made at the panel entitled “The Polycentric World Social Forum: The Future of the World Social Forum. Development and perspectives of world resistances to Neo-liberalism”, at the VI World Social Forum and the II Americas Social Forum held in Caracas on 25th January 2006. It was first published in América Latina en Movimiento #404-405 in Spanish]

The WSF was always a proposal for the future, born looking towards the future, and took shape with the future in mind, but it’s also been built in a present framed by a critique of the neo-liberal model, from which to envision a plurality of possible, pressing alternatives. By establishing a space to express them, the Forum cleared away the screen that hid alternatives that were being conceived and forged everywhere, of which there are not just ten but thousands of ways to construe the world.

The Forum was born robust, heir of historical struggles while combing new, emerging and fertile ideas, critical thinking, proposals and actions for change. By being an original, heterogeneous world-wide open space, the Forum had the virtue of enabling a great confluence and of encouraging the re-emergence of a collective awareness that changes are possible and viable, so setting off a process of inexhaustible transforming potential. Its ebullient rhythm has been such that the abundant initiatives, ideas and proposals seen over these past five, short years have produced enough material for hundreds of debates.

The rapid emergence of regional, national and thematic Forums soon led to the emergence of a process anchored in diverse realities being built from a basis of multiple critiques, but which merge together in shared hopes of a world of peace, justice, rights, diversity, and radical changes in patriarchal, class-based, racist and exclusive relations.

The Forum also revealed that daily life is more political than ever, and that changes are forged from transformations involving people and human relations as a whole. However, for these changes to become reality it’s necessary to uproot unequal relations wherever they appear.

In its short life the Forum has quickly shifted from revealing the manifold relations of oppression which underlie all human relations to that of developing alternatives that have become forceful proposals that have in turn given rise to a process of developing strategies to achieve radical changes in human relations.

This issue is precisely one of the vital issues of debate on the Forum’s future, and is inextricably linked to its original goal of fighting neo-liberal globalisation and attempts to consolidate that struggle.

But the course to be taken entails looking at its identity, defined not only by its founding principles but also by the very process generated by the social dynamics which form it. Pluralism is a strong element of its equally complex and rebellious identity.

The Forum’s origin is undoubtedly the cause of justice, both existing and urgently pending: peoples’ struggles and those of the excluded and victims of discrimination, the defenders of integral world views, intellectuals, alternative media, and a broad combination of all those who adhere to the Forum’s principles of change. However, their potential can’t be seen solely from a mathematical viewpoint; adding is important but much more so is coming together, the convergence of proposals and actions, enriching everyday language with symbols and practices, and drawing up concrete agendas which reflect their collective hopes.

Yet, what are their ideas for change? They are many and diverse, their point of convergence is the struggle against the Neo-liberal model, to build that Other Possible World, imagined as inclusive, egalitarian and based on solidarity. For this very reason, the Forum – conceived of as an open space where social movements, initiatives, proposals, networks, organisations and individuals all come together – now sets out to face the challenge of debating the different possible ways of doing things, of conceiving actions and ensuring that changes are possible.

Among what realities does the Forum move in? It does it in hundreds of contexts, which are facing a key moment: that of challenging neo-liberal, mercantile, patriarchal, predatory, and homogenising globalisation shaped by the so-called owners of the world and led by a handful of multinational corporations, financial capital, and old and new elites, all of whom have redoubled their attacks in order to control and possess it with ever growing greed.

Thus, to speak of the Forum’s future implies the decision to think about where it wants to go. There are hundreds of possible ways of responding, each one with its corresponding political responsibilities, with actors who propose and support these possibilities from their own respective realities and viewpoints.

For some the Forum can be a permanent annual meeting point, a type of “fair of alternatives” where year after year a multiplicity of expressions, ideas and proposals are show-cased, after which everyone goes home, in some cases with a feeling that having participated in the debates and activities is per se a way of contributing towards change; others will return home dissatisfied about the gap between this reality and their expectations of moving on in the urgent task of transforming things by developing concrete proposals and actions, here and now.

For others, the Forum can be a space where - as well as allowing for meetings and confluence among the activities developed -, it enables the identification of
common struggles, of inter-related causes, which find expression in specific moments and contexts.

There are also those who see it as both a starting and an arrival point for developing a process of struggle that is clearly defined by a concrete agenda of struggle against capitalism.

The Forum can be what it already is and be much more besides, all of which is important and transcendental; but, we insist, its central challenge must be to follow through on the main purpose of its original convocation: resistance to neo-liberal globalisation. This can hardly be achieved by staging “a fair of alternatives” or an agenda of debates, nor by calling for mobilisations on unconnected issues; neither can it be achieved through methodological experiments for improving the Forum event, whose concretion is not unrelated to intra-Forum economic and power relations. While this goes on, the existing Neo-liberal model will quietly continue to consolidate.

Thinking about the Forum’s future also requires a look at its origins as a counter-proposal to the elites’ meeting at Davos and the need to subvert power relations from multiple horizons, an issue that makes even greater sense when the system’s institutions – the WTO, the international financial institutions, and those that assume a global leadership role – strengthen themselves and establish solid mechanisms to ensure the market’s control as an irreversible fact, even if this means risking the planet’s demise and all that it contains.

Can the Forum collectively define common world gatherings or rallying points in order to enable the struggles taking place everywhere to express themselves in one or more key moments, and so achieve greater impact? Can it provide a focus for a common agenda and calls that inter-relate the multiple, inter-related resistances/struggles to the different sources of oppression within the system? Can the Forum’s agenda prioritise vital issues such as dignity, sovereignty, justice and peace? Common sense says so; the political significance of the agenda of struggle against the model also says so, and in fact it is already happening, but these issues still don’t form part of its explicit aims.

Of course, the Forum can’t supplant movements or their actions or go back to a single line or a supreme command; its challenge lies in becoming a subject of change so that its accumulated wealth of proposals and ideas leads to advancements in the fight against the present model of development. This challenge to be creative implies a number of definitions and the collective acceptance that the Forum is not just an event but a process, and as such can’t limit itself to convocations.

The Forum’s periodicity

The frequency of the Forum’s meetings is also under debate; its analysis alludes to different notions of time in the world. There is no single time; different civilisations, cultures, and even our movements and processes which are part of this process, have different concepts of time. To standardise timing and periodicity under a succession of events contradicts the Forum's pluralistic principles.

In fact, within the rhythms of the Forum, there is the time-frame of the events, that of struggles, of practices and of debates, which are all inter-related. The challenge lies in how to combine the timing of the processes of struggle with that of the Forum events; in how to avoid an imbalance, where the timing of the events affects that of struggles. On the contrary, they should contribute to strengthening them, taking into account that they have their own specific terrain and agendas.

The different social movements that actively participate in the Forum have been proposing for some time the idea that its timing shouldn’t contradict that of the movements’ struggles and actions, rhythms and potential, including the economic situation of the most excluded. The situation of the Vía Campesina International Peasant Movement, one of the world’s most important movements, illustrates the point. For example, the most important events on its agenda over the past few months were marked by an important mobilisation against the WTO in Hong Kong last December, which was followed immediately by two polycentric forums held in two different continents in January. This raises a number of questions, one of which is how to ensure that these struggles become an open space within the Forum’s collective timing.

Self-management and self-convocation

The Forum has emerged as a self-managed and self-convened initiative, which is a central issue of its innovative proposal and participatory character. But what is self-convocation? What are its characteristics? What are the basis of its principles? What are the Forum’s prevailing principles of autonomy? Needless to say, by raising these questions from a pluralistic perspective we’ll get a lot of different answers. However, a number of questions inherent to the realities which influence the definitions need to be sketched out.

The first question concerns intra-Forum power relations; as a heterogeneous open space, the Forum inherits the very same gaps of inequality it intends to fight. In fact the Forum’s actors are not equal and carry the baggage of their societies’ structural gaps that consign discriminated majorities to the status of minorities, thus legitimising the voice and presence of those close to power. In this context, limiting the possibilities for building the space to self-management and self-convocation among unequals without taking concrete measures that lead to equality can only result in reproducing discriminatory dynamics and practices within this realm of the alternative.

The Policy of Equality adopted in 2005 by the Forum’s International Council is an important recognition that changes cannot be generated spontaneously. Given the expansion and interrelatedness of an exclusive, class-based, racist, sexist, homophobic, urban-centrist culture, these changes are needed more than ever. Can’t the Forum recognise that there are social groups that need reparation and to whom society has a social debt that should be indemnified, starting at home? Indigenous peoples, afro-descendants, peasants, women, people discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, and other people who are marginalised for a variety of reasons, won’t find a space as equals in the Forum, without the risk that its self-convocation might limit their participation or restrict their autonomy.

This issue, as well as that of equality in the generation of discourses, methodologies and practices, could continue to be left to the random material and symbolic circumstances that intervene in defining who edifies the Forum’s rules of play and who its decision-makers are.

The polycentric experiment

We are entering the first, novel experiment of the Polycentric Forums, which coincide with regional initiatives, and we hope that they won’t be down-graded because up to now the emergence of regional Forums has had the advantage of generating a distinct view of globalisation from specific realities and so broadening the idea of processes that are based on local realities and experiences.

However, in the Forum’s creative process there’s a striking coincidence. The three countries that have responded to the convocation – Venezuela, Mali, and Pakistan – are from the South. This opens up horizons for looking from and towards the South, developing a perspective that recognises the South as a source of alternatives, which inscribes the multiplicity of visions for the future which co-exist here. Because it is precisely here that age-old universal proposals of a different, alternative world to that of the northern-western-centric one continue to survive, though they have not as yet been fully expressed and made their presence felt in the Forum.


The Forum is undoubtedly the largest planetary initiative, bringing together citizens, in history. Its accumulated experience is benefited by the wealth of an important trajectory of struggles and resistance to old and new forms of domination; its heritage of critical thought, alternatives and visions of change are an inexhaustible source of proposals and actions; its participatory, pluralistic and diverse character is the terrain for building new democratic practices. In sum, in its short life the Forum has begun a wide-ranging process of opening up possibilities for struggle against the development model. Its growth now implies the need to invent strategies to politically organise resistance to the model and to do so, from a pluralist and diverse prospect of hope, that the Forum awakened on a planetary scale when it affirmed that “Another World is Possible”.

Up until now the Forum has managed to face up, with verve and ingenuity, to most of the challenges it has come across as part of its innovative project; and so it will undoubtedly take on the great task of assuming the role of the political actor which its own development has generated.