Absence and dissent

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

THE World Social Forum is a body spawned in a transnational context, with solid roots in Brazil. This is in part because of its active sponsorship bythe Brazilian Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or P.T.). The P.T. was then the governing party, in both the southern Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul and its capital city of Porto Alegre.

The hosting of a European Social Forum in Florence in 2002 and Paris in 2003 and the Asian Social Forum that India staged in January 2003 meant that the concept and practice began to spread far beyond their initial confines. The fourth WSF in Mumbai has now energised a potentially fruitful linkage between the apex forum and the multitude of mass movements that constitute it.

It is part of the design of the forum that it provides a platform for many of the social groups in its host country. But there is nonetheless the possibility of exclusion inherent in the conduct of the WSF. There are the exclusions of distance to begin with, those occasioned by the sheer logistical difficulty of reaching the venue. Then there are possible exclusions because of communication gaps, though with the mobilisation that went into the Mumbai event and the possibilities opened up by the spread of Information Technology, this could be minimised if not eliminated.

The most serious variety of exclusion though is that of politics and ideology. A conspicuous recent instance was the self-exclusion chosen by Mumbai Resistance 2004 on the grounds that the WSF had become captive to powerful endowments and donor agencies from the very countries that were driving the globalisation process. But there are possibly many hundreds of other exclusions that go unsung and unreported, founded on anything from political principle to prickly personality clashes.

WSF organisers claim that they went the extra distance to mend the rift with the Mumbai Resistance. But their final decision to stage a rival event in close proximity to the WSF venue was finally a visible testament to the WSF's growing global profile. Where the WSF organisation is concerned, the doors still remain open for a rapprochement, since inclusion is the foundational philosophy of the body.

For Francisco "Chico" Whitaker of the Brazilian Committee of Justice and Peace, one of the architects of the WSF "open space" philosophy, the need for a political outcome from each meeting of the forum is secondary to the need to make it as inclusive as possible. There is no need for a single agreed political line to emerge, he argues, since the WSF is a celebration of hundreds of diverse struggles in every part of the world, an occasion for bonding, mutual reinforcement and renewal. Identities of interest between its diverse participants need not be total. Even partial identities can provide powerful bases for concerted action. For the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, the WSF affirms a "critical utopia" as possibility, though without defining it. Even utopias, he says, have their timetable. The key challenge before the WSF today is to consolidate a "counter-hegemonic globalisation". But once this task is accomplished and the "idea that another world is possible made credible", will it be possible, he asks, "to fulfil this idea with the same level of radical democracy that helped formulate it?"

One of the WSF's original champions, Boaventura has placed on the table a simple proposal to decide on forms and objectives of collective action from the next session on. Each participant's badge constitutes his franchise and with the electronic techniques available today, the WSF should be able to conduct referenda on "proposals for collective action".

Each session of the forum has involved very different kinds of participation. The session in Porto Alegre next year will be markedly different from Mumbai, as also from earlier gatherings in the same city. Priorities are likely to be different from one gathering to another. The Mumbai meeting, for instance, witnessed a forceful assertion of the rights of the Palestinian people to live in freedom and dignity, partly as a consequence of the large delegation that came from the occupied country, as also of geographical proximity. The 2006 session proposed for the African continent could, similarly, displace the terrain of engagement towards the specific interests of its people. But a coherent set of objectives is quite likely to emerge through successive efforts and iterations. There was prior to and during the Mumbai gathering considerable criticism of the opaque forms of governance followed by the WSF. But given a degree of sensitivity and openness, the WSF could well transform itself the next three years into a genuine worldwide movement of the people.

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