Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

With its uncompromising message of opposition to globalisation, the World Social Forum in Mumbai unites diverse concerns into a singularly forceful assertion of the need for alternatives to today's dominant political and economic paradigms.

in Mumbai

ENTERING the site of the World Social Forum in Mumbai was to be part of a teeming mass of humanity, herded through the rituals of admission by attentive and enthusiastic volunteers. It was to confront banners that struck the eye and challenged the mind with messages of seeming effrontery.

"The North owes the South a Historical, Social and Ecological Debt", read one sign strung a little way from the entry. "Don't owe, won't pay", said another not far away. Graffiti blazoned on the walls approaching the venue proclaimed the forum's fundamental message, that "Another World is Possible". And the industrial grounds in Mumbai's Goregaon suburb - long fallen into obsolescence and decrepitude - resonated with the celebration of a world of differences and diversity. Vast and capacious halls that had once throbbed with the sound of industrial machinery now vibrated with a new rhetoric of resistance, of organising to combat the onward march of globalisation.

In the four years since it came into existence, the World Social Forum (WSF) has developed a large and growing family of converts. Characterised variously as a platform, a movement and a space - the precise choice would involve a quite needless diversion into terminology - the WSF has played the role of uniting diverse concerns into a singularly forceful assertion of the need for alternatives to today's dominant political and economic paradigms.

With its uncompromising message of opposition to globalisation, the WSF has polarised opinion strongly. The morning of January 16, when the fourth session of the forum was scheduled to open in Mumbai, the city's main English daily newspaper carried an article by a leading Dalit public figure, arguing the case for globalisation. The opening of borders, according to the writer, had exposed traditional societies to global scrutiny. And practices tolerated by civil society despite their official proscription had begun to yield under the pressure of world opinion. Given a few more years, this inexorable process would break down all barriers, and bring the global community closer to the new reality of radical social equality.

The WSF was challenged from another direction by a mobilisation just across the road from its main venue. Styled Mumbai Resistance 2004, this more radical grouping chided the WSF for its naivete. The imperialist system that was driving the process of globalisation could not be fought with weapons financed by imperialist aid-givers, said the Mumbai Resistance. With its budgetary extravagance, the WSF had become a "supermarket for non-governmental organisations" and a "safety valve" for the discontents of globalisation. Its dependence on the powerful non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that channelled aid from advanced capitalist countries, was evident in the ambivalence of its attitude towards the key question of the time, which in the estimation of the Mumbai Resistance was nothing less than the climactic struggle against imperialism. In this respect, the WSF's a priori renunciation of violence as a strategic and tactical tool, meant that it was accepting a potentially fatal handicap even before the struggle was joined.

BEGUN in Porto Alegre in Brazil in January 2001, the move to truly broaden participation in the WSF by staging it in Mumbai also subtly transformed the message of the gathering. Once focussed on the inequities of the global economic and trade regimes, the WSF today has taken up a much broader canvas of issues. This has been partly an outcome of the realisation that the battle against globalisation cannot be waged without energising social forces across a broad range. This involves the bonding of the campaign against globalisation with myriad others. Women's struggle against patriarchy and the unending battle against forms of social exclusion based on descent, ethnicity and race were specifically brought on the WSF agenda in Mumbai. More than the right to equality, the WSF enshrines the right to differences. And it commits itself to redressing any situation in which difference is a basis for social inequality.

Though these issues had been stirring within the WSF in its earlier sessions, it took the specific concerns of India as the host to bring them to the foreground. Several of the Brazilian delegates welcomed the participation of the vast numbers of Dalit and Adivasi groups from India as a long-overdue process of broadening the constituencies and the issues that the WSF addresses. At the same time, there was the acknowledgment that this meant facing more serious challenges in future in a potentially less friendly environment.

Mumbai represented the severing of some of the WSF's older ties of dependence on the large endowments and funding agencies in the advanced capitalist world. This was partly on account of the energetic presence of the Indian Left in the organising committee. The Ford Foundation, which has supported the WSF since its inception with generous grants, did not extend its patronage to the Mumbai gathering. Also out of the picture were the Department for International Development of the British Government, the European Union and the MacArthur Foundation.

With its rather loose and uncoordinated structure, the WSF asks participant organisations no questions about funding sources. The agencies that were kept out at the apex could well have been present through any number of participant organisations. Though most of these organisations work on the principle that funding does not confer any moral entitlements to influence the nature of activities and the course of deliberations, this issue is likely to confront future WSF events in a fairly significant manner.

The funding question is also deeply connected with the format of the WSF. Many of the centrally organised conferences and panel discussions in Mumbai - the so-called "big tent" events in the large meeting halls - were rather sparsely attended. The featured speakers had been heard at earlier gatherings and the themes addressed seemed to offer little by way of novelty. The little tents, where more focussed issues were discussed and debated, often involving a relatively fresh cast of characters, drew more enthusiastic participation, which more accurately mirrored the tumult on the streets outside.

When it returns to Porto Alegre next year, the WSF would have to devote considerable attention to revamping its format. The move to India was part of an effort to break a mould that was getting too constricting in relation to the ambitions of the WSF and too comfortable for its participants. The lessons would have to be internalised at Porto Alegre in 2005, since the planned move to the African continent in 2006 could bring an entirely new set of challenges.

With all its polarities, the WSF has also engendered a middle ground. For those who inhabit this terrain and concede that the forum may have a point, the greatest hazard of the Mumbai gathering was the possibility that it may sink into a slough of diversionary anti-American polemic.

The middle ground was not disappointed. Addressing the opening plenary session, the writer Arundhati Roy declared that the global imperium had crossed a crucial threshold in 2003. The hidden coercion of the market had given way to the overt use of force for conquest in Iraq. The agenda was the same, but the means had changed, posing new challenges before the global resistance.

It was a compelling argument. The neoliberal doctrine that had dominated the world over two decades had essentially reached its apotheosis in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And this was not an inference that was in any manner contested by the fact that the war lobby in the U.S. is frequently referred to as the "neoconservatives". If there was one consistent refrain in the diversity of discussions all through the WSF in Mumbai, it was on the need to raise the tempo of anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide. Though not a decision-making body which adopts a declaration or a plan of action, the WSF seemed, virtually by unanimous acclaim, to have decided to observe March 20 this year - the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq - as a worldwide day of protest. A concurrent theme to be taken up by the demonstrations would be the Israeli occupation of Palestine, now if rather belatedly, seen as part of the same agenda of conquest and subjugation that the U.S. is executing.

The WSF was fairly successful in articulating the links between the crisis of the neo-liberal economic project and the new resort to military conquest. In part, the growth in comprehension came from the respect that the forum accorded to more moderate voices. The Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, for instance, addressed a "big tent" on aid, trade and debt and held out a real possibility of salvaging a new deal for the poor from the prevalent global regime. Institutional reform at the global level could engender a new policy environment, he argued, in which multilateral agencies would not intrude into the sovereign space of a nation to decide on the social security system best equipped to address its needs. To enable poorer countries to break out of the low-level equilibrium in which they had been trapped, the world community could consider a fresh issue of "special drawing rights" (SDRs) that would augment their purchasing power.

The U.S. has since the mid-1980s steadfastly opposed developing countries' demands for a fresh issue of SDRs to improve global liquidity. Its argument has been that injecting that much additional purchasing power into the world economy would only feed inflation. Implicitly, the currency hegemony of the U.S. dollar has meant that the principal source of liquidity in the world economy has been the U.S. external debt, which has in turn been fuelled by its federal budget deficit and household savings deficit.

The Egyptian economist Samir Amin succeeded in focussing minds on this issue. The U.S.' ravenous appetite for the world's limited pool of savings had brought the global economy to a crucial crossroads. The continuing escalation of borrowing by the world's biggest economy had reached the limits of its feasibility. Something had to give. Financial bridgeheads into the U.S. were about to buckle and the costs would be borne by the average American households, with deeply unsettling political consequences. To fight off the inevitable, the dominant classes in the U.S. had to execute a strategic switch, from importing capital through the working of the global financial market to extracting tribute through conquest.

THE WSF in Mumbai focussed on the means of addressing this new offensive through a variety of mobilisational techniques. An oblique approach was suggested by some of the speakers, which would direct popular energies towards immediate needs: decent work and livelihood, for instance. At the end of the causal chain was the demon of imperialism, which had to be slain. But the campaign had to begin on issues that were most palpable to the disaffected masses.

The terrain for mobilisation today is especially fertile. Juan Somavia, the Director-General of the International Labour Organisation, drew attention to some of its features. Since the early-1980s, he pointed out, unemployment in Latin America had increased 50 per cent and the informal economy had grown by a like magnitude. Most tellingly, the purchasing power of the minimum wage had fallen by 20 per cent.

Of the many dimensions of globalisation, the WSF was choosing those that lent themselves to easy mobilisational symbols and techniques. But the inter-linkages are very much a part of its agenda. Thus, the campaign for decent work and livelihoods would transit quite seamlessly through all its linkages with global economic and political realities, into an agitation against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The Mumbai gathering was called upon to address several correlated issues. Where for instance, does the nation-state stand in the process of mobilisation? The erosion of the autonomy of the nation-state has been a fundamental feature of the globalisation process. The WSF heard one school of campaign advocacy that insisted on restoring this autonomy through the reassertion of an old-style nationalism. But an alternative paradigm too was articulated, which spoke of the nation-state as an instrumentality of the erosion of the autonomy of several communities. Reconstituting the centralised power of the nation-state was not the main priority. Rather, the marginalised communities needed to be empowered and to consider through a free exercise of their will, how much of their authority they would cede - and under what conditions - to the centralised state.

A written charter is never a prerequisite to propel an upward spiral of mobilisation around certain universal aspirations. In the four years of its existence, the WSF has served as a platform for the articulation of a breathtaking range of views. But in hosting these discourses of global dissent, the WSF has not generated a literature of its own. The WSF remains in this sense an oral tradition yet to be codified in written texts. It is an annual festival of togetherness. But increasingly now, the intervals between successive gatherings are spent in exchanges in small communities and groups, spreading outwards in concentric circles.

The variety of themes that were articulated at Mumbai matched the diversity of the participation. A number of threads were laid out - suggesting theoretical approaches and practical solutions to concrete problems - but not tied together into a coherent, all-embracing strategy. This is part of the design of the WSF, which is not meant to set unalterable courses of action for the many social movements that participate, but to engender and energise movements in their hundreds. There are of course efforts to structure the forum into a more coherent political actor on the world stage. But there is little doubt that the "open spaces" philosophy that the WSF was founded on - the methodology of inclusion and tolerance for internal dissent - is by far its most valuable feature. Though emerging as a significant player on the world stage, the WSF is clearly not about suppressing the initiative or the energy of local movements.

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