IS THE WORLD SOCIAL FORUM APPROACHING A POINT OF CRISIS ?
A NOTE TOWARDS A DEBATE ON THE WSF GLOBAL DAY OF ACTION
Jai Sen on behalf of CACIM*
THE PRESENT CONTEXT : A FUNDAMENTALLY NEW EXPERIMENT
The WSF is attempting a fundamentally new experiment for the 2008 edition of its world meeting : In place of what has happened every year since it was founded in 2001 – a world meeting in a key location of the South -, and for which it is now so well known, it has this year called for a Global Day of Action on or around January 26 2008. On this day, or during the week around it, it has called on all those who are associated with it to act in favour of global social justice – and thereby, by everyone acting simultaneously, to make manifest a new kind of world meeting : Not a ‘real’ world meeting, as the WSF has traditionally been and been conceived as, but as a worldwide, so-called ‘virtual’ meeting of energies and ideas that will be generated and radiated by this simultaneous celebration and efflorescence all across the world.
It is not as if the form of an action like this is totally new; there have been some somewhat similar actions in history, such as the worldwide anti-war demonstrations on February 15 2003 involving an estimated 15 million people, or the call for Earth Day in 1971 and since then, as one manifestation among others, the dimming and shutting off of lights across several countries in the world on certain days in the year as statements of ecological concern for the planet. Similarly, Amnesty International has been a pioneer since the 1960s in initiating ‘global actions’ on a range of human rights issues, which in turn have often been taken up by others; and more recently, awaaz.org has become very successful in mobilising millions of signatures in support of certain issues.
But this is, perhaps, the first time even that such a complex, open-ended experiment is being tried : Where people and organisations in many parts of the world – since the WSF has attracted people from perhaps most parts of the world, now – and working in all kinds of fields, with all their diverse perceptions, are being asked to simultaneously manifest their concerns – their protests, their hopes, their alternatives. In a way, as opposed to the somewhat mechanical, clock-like action of people converging in one place for the different editions of the World Social Forum that have taken place so far, this time the organisers of the WSF have called on what can be conceived of as the cloud, or swarm, of social movement and concern across the world – what some call ‘the movement of movements’ – to, just for a day, simultaneously show itself – and thereby fleetingly make the cloud manifest.
The call for this action is an extraordinary statement of organic hope and optimism in open-ended and emergent action. It is not a directive to action – which traditional movements issue to their constituents; the WSF has no power to do this (and thankfully, has not gone in that direction in taking this decision, even when under pressure to do so). It is something quite different. One could even say that nothing like this has ever been tried before; and that what the WSF is attempting is a fundamental challenge, in the most positive sense, to all existing notions of how (social and political) ‘movement’ takes place and should take place, which is – or has mostly been, so far – linear, directed, clock-like, and therefore (in theory, at least) relatively predictable and controllable.
Over the life of the Forum since 2001, there have been several proposals that that Forum needs to be – if it is to be ‘truly effective’ in its aim of building another world – far more directed, far more ‘clear’, and far more committed to particular actions and programmes. In this year itself (2007), there have been several strong articles published that all, interestingly, conceive and portray the WSF to be at a ‘crossroad’, and urge all of us to be far ‘clearer’ in the direction we take and in what we do – and to change the Forum so that it becomes ‘clearer’ in its actions. One of these articles, authored by a very influential and persuasive scholar-activist, Walden Bello, also specifically proposes that it is perhaps time for the Forum to pack up its tent and move on, and make way for other things to happen.
But note two things here : First, that each of these prescriptions follows the classical Descartian and Newtonian logic of ‘movement’ – that the entity (here, the WSF) is moving in a specific direction, has reached a certain stage or point, and now must make a choice among classically defined directions and options (“left or right ?”).
But – and second – what has ‘the Forum’ (here, in the shape of its organisers, the WSF International Council) done, in the face of this challenge ? It has decided, amazingly (but I believe also, based on its history, characteristically), to take the boldest gamble of all : To reject linear, clocklike dynamics entirely – and the choice of this way or that -, and to instead attempt to manifest itself as a cloud that it in many ways already is – with its constituents going in all directions, in apparently random ways ! But where there is, in fact profound order that makes up the apparent chaos that clouds seem to be – but ‘order’ of a different kind.
In many ways, this is a brilliant conception. On the one hand, it directly addresses the longstanding demand of those who have been proposing and demanding the space for more direct action (such as those who take part in the Assembly of Social Movements at each Forum), and not only allows but urges all those want more ‘clear’ actions to go ahead and do this. (Since there no one ‘meeting’ to be attended, with its specific and somewhat particular format of workshops, etc, you can do what you like and whatever you think is politically and strategically most meaningful.) And on the other hand, it equally validates and invites quiet reflection in small circles – and everything in between.
In such a call, all such actions are understood to be equally valid, and to, in their own ways, generate and/or harness and radiate energy and movement that will light up the planet on that one, single, fateful, day, as an expression of shared concern, determination, and hope.
But this, in a sense, is what the Forum has always done : Breaking new ground, constantly putting forward new ideas, new ways of doing things – and in the course of all this, itself organically learning and emerging – and, as I have argued elsewhere, emerging more as a cloud than as a clock.
It is not entirely clear (from the statements they have issued, and from articles that some of them have subsequently written) whether those who have conceived of this formulation are necessarily aware of this meaning of their call. But this does not matter; and at one level, this is precisely the nature of emergent action and of organic emergence – that those who act are not necessarily individually aware of the nature of their actions or of the larger pattern that all the various actions add up to make. Like bees and ants; and like human beings, in all cultures.
But the big question is : Will this gamble work ? And what, even if it does – in part or in whole -, is the social, political, and strategic significance and meaning of this action ? How will – how should – we assess it as well as its possible outcomes, in terms not merely of numbers or the range and diversity and actions but also of addressing the profound social, economic, political, and ecological injustice that rides so rampantly across the world ? For this is what the Forum is all about, and why it was conceived; and if it does not do this, then…
In other words, is this just one more effete action by elite thinkers who only talk – or is this real political action ?
THE FUTURE OF THE FORUM
In many senses, all these questions are intimately related to the future of the Forum. Even as the organisers of the Forum have gone out on such a limb – for it is a huge gamble – there are deep stirrings within its body and all around it, about its future; and about, literally, whether it should even exist.
There is, as already mentioned, the proposal before us all that it is perhaps time for the Forum to pack up and move on. (Though the essay in question, by Walden Bello, was perhaps meant not as a final statement but as a challenge to thought.)
There are also legion thinkers, writers, strategists, and policy makers who have, all along, questioned the value of this experiment that is called the World Social Forum. They may be mostly from outside the Forum but they do have influence.
There are also several today who argue the global social justice movement, of which the Forum is just one part (even if a very important part), has now had its day, and is now on a steep decline, imploding as it goes down. They in turn influence others, as such opinions tend to; a negative view of things, especially if well-argued, is often very contagious, sometimes at a subconscious level. But is this so ? Do you agree – is this your experience, and your understanding ?
There are also many who have taken part in the Forum and who are profoundly disillusioned by it – by the apparent disorganisation of it all; by the power struggles that are always taking place; by the traumatic effects of these power struggles and how all this seems to so completely contradict the very soul of the Forum; by the exclusions that are so rampant; by the commercialisation and the conceptual and material corruption that seems so widely to be there; and by the possibility that it does not seem to be going anywhere. No one has perhaps yet done a count of how many people (and maybe also organisations) have dropped out of the Forum process over these years, but this accounting should also be done, sometime…
But this dropout is real; and the issue is – what needs to be done, to address this ? What changes need to be brought about in the body and spirit of the Forum, in order to reverse this tendency ? And how can we bring about such changes ?
And then there are the funders who are always, necessarily, waiting in the wings, trying to sense whether this is where they should be placing their bets – but where there are now signs that they are dropping out, one by one. But where – to be blunt – the Forum has been, after all is said and done, conceived on an assumption of the generosity on the part of funders to fund not only the ‘central’ Forum (the secretariat, the committees, etc) but also all the hundreds and thousands of people who attend Fora across the world – many (though not all) of whom depend on grants of one kind or another. And if the funders back out, either or both from backing the central WSF and the participants, then the experiment that is the WSF as a whole is likely to implode. Unless we can start thinking of alternatives… But – are there alternatives to the approach that has been taken to the Forum so far ?
So this action, this call for a Global Day of Action (GDA), is a huge gamble. Because if it works, then everyone will be back in; but if doesn’t, or works only in a very limited way, then… the ship is likely to develop massive leaks.
* Jai Sen is the co-director of CACIM, the India Institute for Critical Action : Centre In Movement. He has written extensively on the WSF. To respond go to this discussion, go to http://openspaceforum.net/twiki/tiki-index.php?page=Explorations+In+Open+Spaces