Conversation and Change #4 by Kraig Scwartz History of World Social Forum
After the Cold War ended neoliberal capitalism , no longer fettered by the Soviet Union, expanded to all parts of the world. Whether it be farmland in Ethiopia, or the fisheries of our great ocenas, the world increasingly came under the control of unbridled “free market” capitalism and the corporations that serve and benefit from those markets. Under the sway of neoliberalism, governments deregulated their economies, cut back or eliminated social spending, pushed aside labor unions and promoted “free trade.”
Perhaps the major economic hallmark
of this post Cold War era was the expansion of world trade through the WTO,
NAFTA and other regional trade organizations.
The yearly World Economic Forum held at Davos, Switzerland embraced the world-wide neoliberal capitalist order. Yet, strong resistance to this push for the
commodification of the world emerged in various parts of the world, most
notably by the indigenous Zapatistas in
Mexico. NAFTA was about to go into effect on January 1st
of 1994. When that debut day arrived the neoliberals were beaten
to press deadlines by the Zapatistas, who from the jungles of southern Mexico
denounced NAFTA, neoliberalism, and declared war on Mexico. The
newspaper headlines that day reflected this development. The Zapatista had the
lead story that day. They rejected
neoliberalism and demanded a better world.
They gained much sympathy from all over the world.
One year later, the WTO was launched
and the neoliberal agenda advanced with all due speed. In 2001 China joined the WTO, an event which fully integrated China into
the world economy. Taking the lead from
the Zapatistas, many people and civil society organizations from all over the
world began to resist the neoliberal juggernaought. The resistance included
workers, peasants, students, labor unions, churches, NGOs and other parts of
civil society. Opposition to “free
trade” and globalization emerged very broadly
over much of the world. In Seattle in
1999, 30,000 people took to the streets
and effectively shut down the WTO ministerial meeting; it was a major victory
for the emerging anti-globalization forces.
Many of the most
active anti-globalization forces in the late 90s were located in Brazil where
friendly local governments, friendly social and political movements,
particualry the Brazilian Workers Party, took up the challenge of
globalization. Meetings were held, the
call went out all over the world. A
forum was being organized, a forum where people from all over the world could
meet, share their ideas and proposals about how to make a better world. The1st meeting of the WSF was held in January of 2001 in Porto Alegre. 12,000 people attended that first meeting. Hundreds of movements, organizations, labor
unions, NGOs and individuals from all
over the world participated. It was and
is an open meeting that encourages democratic participation. It is
a non-hierarchal horizontal movement.
It has no leaders, nor does it make pronouncements; it is a leaderless movement.
Although, its politics are mostly from from the left, not all
individuals or organizations are of the left. It is a gathering to discuss and
demonstrate the ways a better world can be constructed, a world based on social
justice, environmental sustainability, racial equality and world peace.
An International Committee (IC) was
established that organizes the annual meetings, invites guest speakers or
participants, and along with a Local Organizing Committee seeks funds and
logistical help. Many annual meetings have been
held in Brazil, but in other countries as well, particularly in the
Third World. Some local or regional
forums have been held as well, such as
Detroit. Some years more than 150,000
people have attended, including well-known activists, academics, union
leaders and political leaders.
It is difficult to assess the
contributions that the WSF has made to world-wide political and social
change. This is a difficult task because
of the organizational character of the WSF.
With no leaders, pronouncements, or policy proposal it is difficult to
assess the influence of the WSF. However
with some speculation, it seems that its influence has been enormous. Attendees and presenters from all over have brought concrete proposals to
work shops and plenary sessions, including models for social and raciall justice, sustainable agriculture, human
rights, climate change, and much more.
These proposal has been brought back to the country of the attendees,
which in turn enhances the ideas, proposals, etc. “for making a better
world. Moreover, the language used at
the forum has altered the thought and vocabulary of people all over the world. It
most certainly had an impact on Occupy Wall Street, both in terms of
substance and procedure.
Twilight of the forum?
In recent years the WSF has been deeply scrutinized by many
of its participants. The last forum was
attended by only 10,00 people, half of whom were Brazilian, A call
has gone out to alter the WSF. Roberto
Savio, whose linked article is included here, and many other founders, have formed
the International Renew Group (IRG), calling for numerous reforms to save the
WSF. Savio and the IRG believe that a
small group that he calls “an intransigent power group needs” to accept reform
and recognize that the Charter of Principles adopted 22 years ago are no longer
adequate, and that the WSF is in danger of folding. The IRG suggestions are offered here.
for a new communications policy, as the internet was in its early days of
development and not utilized the way it is today. Using just email or relying
on the Web pages as communication sources are limited. In 2000 few people had
cell phones, nor was there Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Web sites and email cannot fulfill the
functions of the communication needed today.
2 . The IRG asks for a major
restructuring of the WSF, specifically it calls for the creation of a general assembly, which in turn will
elect an executive committee. And,
this new executive committee will interact with the world political
system. It will make proposas, evaluate
proposal,l and take part in international debates within civil society, and be
proactive within that process. The view
is that, if reforms are put in place the WSM will again become an important
voice in world politics, particularly at a time when it seems the world is
greatly a skewed
consensus as decision-making tool. It is
now a major block to change, as it call for unanimity.
policies and finances that will allow people without means to attend the forum,
but also participate in the life of the forum.
Over the years this problem has intensified.
For further Reading;
2. World Social Forum Under Criicism….history of the WSF and current situation: https://www.divaportal.org/smash/get/diva2:1441768/FULLTEXT01.pdf
3. https://vimeo.com/80210085 trailer of film “another world is possible” by Melissa Young Mark Dworkin.