Questions of strategy

Print edition : January 16, 2004

The World Social Forum to be held in Mumbai could pose key challenges of strategy and tactics before the movement since the globalisation project in its economic, political and military dimensions is plunging rapidly towards a point of inflection.

OPEN platforms can on occasion be invaded by unwanted guests. During the 2002 session of the World Social Forum (WSF) at Porto Alegre in Brazil, a group of senior World Bank officials arrived at the main venue "demanding" the right to address the diverse gatherings present. They were told that the forum, though open, did not see any utility from their particular brand of policy advocacy. Leaving in high dudgeon, the officials of the World Bank pronounced their "banning" a denial of free speech. The Economist of London, a consistent media voice arguing the case for globalisation, took up the theme, commenting that the WSF, though growing in size, was certainly not gaining in influence.

Between January 16 and 21, Mumbai will host the 2004 edition of the WSF, the fourth in an unbroken sequence since 2001 and the first outside the city of its origin. Preparations for the event are already enveloped in a vigorous debate over the role and relevance of the forum. There are dismissive suggestions that the WSF is a mere "talking shop" that produces a great deal of rhetoric but no substantive plans of action. Undiscriminating in its choice of participants and overly accommodative in its methods, the WSF has become a platform for a wild congeries of political tendencies. No concrete or useful political strategy is likely to emerge from its deliberations, since it chooses not to distil out a central message from all the views articulated.

Among the organisations that have sought a place under the MR 2004 banner are significant farm unions such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union and the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha. The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha and other movements, propelled in the main by an assertion of tribal rights, have also signed up, as have unions from certain of India's free trade zones. The international participation includes a clutch of organisations from the Philippines. A number of the participants though have little by way of known public credentials and chose only to establish their identity through the well-trodden themes of "resistance", "revolution" and "anti-imperialism".

The principal vice of the WSF in the perception of the MR 2004 is its alleged captivity to the NGO bureaucracies. "NGOisation" as a pejorative has been tossed about a great deal in recent debates on the relevance of the WSF. In grappling with the phenomenon, many participants in the WSF choose to take a robustly pragmatic approach. Walden Bello, founder and director of Focus on the Global South, admits to receiving organisational funding from at least 20 donors, including Oxfam and the Ford Foundation. But he sees no conflict between the character of the donors and the mission of his organisation, which was one of the recipients of the alternate Nobel Prize in 2003. He enforces institutional autonomy through a number of principles - limiting every funding agency to less than 20 per cent of the total budget, ensuring that there are no strings attached, declining all contributions from the U.S. government or its agencies and considering every offer on its inherent merits.

The programme schedule for WSF 2004 includes conferences and panel discussions that are directly funded by the WSF secretariat and a number of other events financed by participant organisations. Between them, these cover a vast range of issues, including militarism, war and peace, the media, the control of natural resources, women's oppression, social exclusion based on race, ethnicity and class, finance and development and the environment. MR 2004 offers the same menu, though on a less elaborate scale and it seeks to emphasise its essential difference by appending the term "imperialism" to each of these themes.

This difference for MR 2004 is more than terminological. The WSF is, in the perception of the anti-imperialist campaign, a "safety valve" for globalisation and its discontents, not a real challenge to the system. The WSF charter includes an explicit disavowal of violence, which in the perception of more militant outfits, hobbles it in a confrontation with the violence - both implicit and explicit - of imperialism. More damaging still, in this reading, is the openness of the WSF to dialogue with the missionaries of globalisation in an effort to reform the system from within. Indeed, MR 2004, in explaining its mission, quotes extensively from a World Bank document which regrets that "many of the organisations involved in WSF are still opposed to any constructive dialogue with the IFIs (international financial institutions) or economic policy makers". Although there has been a minor shift in attitudes over the years, the World Bank is unsure whether WSF 2004 "will break with that pattern". Without betting anything on that happening, the World Bank nevertheless is hopeful that the WSF "will mature enough to become a movement that influences the scope and pace of economic globalisation", by engaging with "decision-makers in government and in multilateral institutions" and proposing "more concrete, and rigorous, alternative policies and approaches".

Although the World Bank has never been a donor to the WSF, other major non-governmental funders such as the Ford Foundation, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Oxfam and ActionAid have. This has posed a thorny issue before the forum. If it were a purely NGO-driven affair, the WSF would undoubtedly have devised one variety of answer. But from its inception, the body has shown fairly sharply-honed political reflexes. The potential for schisms has been inherent in the nature of the WSF since its inception. But divisive issues and questions are, by deliberate intent, not confronted directly since the main purpose is to share experiences of struggles against globalisation. As the WSF matures though, these questions would acquire greater salience and demand specific answers both in theory and practice.

WSF 2004 has dealt with the problem, though not in its entirety. Without directly entering the fray - since that would violate the WSF proscription on explicitly political organisations - the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has through organisational affiliates and individuals sought to limit the dependence on major donors from the countries that are seen to be driving the globalisation project. This has meant that the Ford Foundation and other institutions with similar ideological predilections cannot hope to influence the deliberations at Mumbai, except through subtle proxy action. This strategy was articulated by CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechuri in a recent intervention in the debate. The party, Yechuri asserted, has nonetheless chosen to be part of the WSF process since it has an interest in influencing the ideological debate and resisting the tendency to mystify the quest for alternatives and undermine the viability of the socialist programme.

THE WSF has its origins in an alliance between French and Brazilian opponents of globalisation, who brought different concerns into their mutual engagement. Provoked by the mid-1990s crisis of the French public sector and the Asian financial meltdown of 1997 - both of which were in some manner connected to the shrinking of sovereign national policy space and the growing influence of international financial institutions - the French monthly journal Le Monde diplomatique in December 1997 ran an editorial proposing a global movement to tame international financial flows. The device that was chosen as the centrepiece of this advocacy was the tax on speculative financial transactions proposed by the American economist and Nobel laureate James Tobin. Taking his cue from Robert Aldrich's 1956 war movie Attack, Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde diplomatique, proposed the name ATTAC for his movement. An appropriate expansion for the acronym was then crafted, which when translated from the French, would read Association for the Tobin Tax in aid of the Citizens.

ATTAC carried out its initial campaigns at the annual gathering of the World Economic forum at Davos. But the odds were heavily against it. The necessity for an alternate venue and forum was discussed between ATTAC campaigners and activists of the Brazilian Workers' Party in 2000 and settled in a matter of minutes. Their quest had been greatly galvanised by the demonstrations that carried a powerful political message through to the missionaries of globalisation at the Seattle Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organisation in 1999 (Cover Story, Frontline, December 24, 1999). The choice of Porto Alegre, capital of the Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sulas, as the venue followed soon afterwards, since the Workers' Party controlled both the municipal and the provincial administrations. In June 2000, at the conclusion of the U.N. Social Summit in Geneva, the deputy governor of the province launched an appeal for convening a social forum at Porto Alegre. Propelled by the spontaneous enthusiasm of campaign groups that were by then fatigued and disillusioned by the endless ritualism of U.N.-sponsored conclaves, the WSF came to life within a phenomenally brief time period of six months. The first gathering was funded in the main by the city and provincial governments at Porto Alegre and by a host of international donor agencies.

Successive gatherings of the WSF since have attracted ever larger participation. But by 2003, the limitations imposed by the unchanging venue and fixed norms of funding and participation were beginning to be apparent. The Asian Social Forum, held in January 2003 in Hyderabad, was in this sense, the dress rehearsal for shifting the venue of the WSF to India (Cover Story, Frontline, January 31, 2003). The final choice of Mumbai followed an intensive scrutiny of rival bids.

The Mumbai gathering will confront the WSF with new challenges. After the first WSF, Naomi Klein, author of the anti-globalisation tract No Logo, characterised its deliberative processes as "so opaque that it was nearly impossible to figure out how decisions were made". At the second session, participants were often approached by media people who were keen to find out where the "11th floor" was. This elevated venue was allegedly where all the key deliberations were being conducted and the final documents being prepared.

At the same time, the scholar Michael Hardt has characterised the WSF as "unknowable, chaotic, dispersive", embracing an "overabundance" that "created an exhilaration in everyone, at being lost in a sea of people from so many parts of the world who (were) working similarly against the present form of capitalist globalisation". These very characteristics of the forum, in particular its "overflowing quality", created the "euphoria of commonality" and meant in effect that "differences and conflicts" could not be confronted.

The debate preceding WSF 2004 clearly shows that the euphoria is now giving way to more mundane questions of strategy. How the WSF engages with this question will determine much of its future course. In its charter of principles, the WSF specifies that it "does not constitute a locus of power to be disputed by the participants". But differences in perception may not remain submerged for much longer in the euphoria of meeting and pooling experiences. Participants are now acutely aware that for all the inclusive and open character of the forum, there are smaller and more compact bodies that try to bring some coherence to the activities that encompass a breathtaking diversity of themes and involve participants in their thousands. To a great extent, the early turbulence over WSF 2004 could be ascribed to dissonances over the manner in which these smaller bodies are constituted and conduct their deliberations. Even if the funding agencies do not show their hand in the public events, their interests and perceptions are likely to feature strongly in the smaller caucuses where key decisions are made.

WSF 2004 could bring these issues more prominently into the foreground. It could also pose key challenges of strategy and tactics before the movement since the globalisation project in its economic, political and military dimensions is plunging rapidly towards a point of inflection. But neither the WSF nor its more "radical other" is likely to offer definitive answers in part because they are dealing with a false dichotomy. As the renowned historian and "world systems" theorist Immanuel Wallerstein has put it: "An anti-systemic movement cannot neglect short-term defensive action, including electoral action. The world's populations live in the present, and their immediate needs have to be addressed. Any movement that neglects them is bound to lose the widespread passive support that is essential for its long-term success. But the motive and justification for defensive action should not be that of remedying a failing system but rather of preventing its negative effects from getting worse in the short run. This is quite different psychologically and politically."

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