achievements of the US Social Forum experience contribute a great
deal to debates concerning the future of the overall World Social
Forum (WSF) process. In a recent set of interventions Walden Bello
and Chico Whitaker, both representatives on the International Council
of the WSF, disagreed on the future of the Forum. Bello, the
Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, argued that the
Forum was now at a crossroads. While acknowledging that the WSF had
given a great deal to the struggle for global justice, Bello
suggested that the Forum's "open space" methodology, which on
principle, refuses to take a collective stand on issues such as the
war on Iraq and the WTO, was now inhibiting substantial political
agency. He argued that there was merit to the charge that the Forum
was becoming "an institution unanchored in actual global political
struggles, and this is turning it into an annual festival with
limited social impact". The article concluded with the query: "is
it time for the WSF to fold up its tent and give way to new modes of
global organization of resistance and transformation?"

Whitaker, one of the founders of the WSF, and also a member of the
International Council of the World Social Forum, replied to Bello
[see below], arguing that crossroads do not have to close roads.
Whitaker noted that while the Forum's Charter of Principles precluded
the International Council from making statements representing the
overall World Social Forum, the open space methodology left possible
the opportunity for movements to independently build global
coalitions that articulated common manifestos. Therefore, for
Whitaker, the WSF's crossroads were in fact two paths that could
co-exist, not as impediments to each other, but as mutual sources of
inspiration. The open space could continue to allow movements to
articulate themselves and to propose new political projects without
needing to speak on behalf of all participants at the World Social


order to thoughtfully assess the two different positions mentioned,
we need to reflect on what are the Social Forum process' actual
achievements. No Forum in recent memory has better expressed the
potential of the process than the recent US Social Forum (USSF). The
USSF demonstrated the accuracy of both Bello and Whitaker's
arguments, affirming the importance of continuing the social forum
process but on much more innovative, decisive, political ground.


US forum, held from June 27 to July 2, in Atlanta, Georgia, the
birthplace of Martin Luther King Jnr. attracted over 10 000
participants, in over 900 workshops. The slogan of the Forum was
"Another World is Possible. Another US is Necessary."
Mirroring yet amplifying the global process, this national forum made
three great contributions to the US struggle.



US Social Forum created an open space that allowed different people's
movements to come together from around the United States. For the
first time diverse activists from around the country were able to
collectively interact in a non-hierachical, horizontal manner that
emphasized mutual understanding. The open space infrastructure
facilitated the possibility for a variety of movements to meet. If
the space had been dominated by one ideology, for example socialism,
or if it had been dominated by one strategy, for example, statism,
then it would not have attracted so many movements. The open space,
as Whitaker has always contended, allowed for a multitude of
ideologies and strategies to be represented at the Social Forum. This
space not only facilitated dissimilar groups from across the US to
connect but it also enabled movements in Atlanta to connect on novel
new terms.


open space permitted activists to move away from focusing on the
differences between social movements and instead focusing on
commonalities. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there were numerous
divisions between different sides of the North American Left: such as
socialists, anarchists, ecologists, feminists, anti-racists, queer
activists, and indigenous activists to name a few. Movements did not
want to work with each other or were endlessly frustrated with each
other. The Social Forum created an arena where all of these
organizations felt that they could express their agenda without
having it drowned out by someone else's program. Speakers at
plenaries came from communities that were directly affected by the
problem at hand. Grassroots movements spoke for themselves. Thus the
Forum was a common, self-representative public venue thereby allowing
for trust to be built between movements.


expression of difference was so pronounced that the USSF appeared to
be more diverse than any of the World Social Forums held in the last
three years. Not since the 2004 World Social Forum in India has a
Forum embodied so much diversity, not only as members of the
audience, but importantly as speakers and facilitators on panels,
seminars and workshops. One could argue that the Forums in India and
the United States simply reflected the demographic heterogeneity of
two of the most multicultural societies on the planet. Few nations in
the Global South have as many religions, cultures, and languages as
India. Similarly no country in the Global North has, in numerical
terms, has the cultural diversity of the United States However this
interpretation of the US Social Forum and the WSF in India is
partial. What was remarkable about both events was not simply that
they embodied their countries' cultural range but that they also
demonstrated their economic diversity. Both Forums were genuinely
grassroots events with participants from every economic class –
especially the poor. While other editions of the World Social Forum
have been moving, inspirational events, they have not substantially
represented the impoverished, marginalized, and exploited members of
their countries. The first great contribution of the US Social Forum
process, then, was its capacity to enable the social, cultural and
economic variety of US movements to come together.


second contribution of the USSF dealt with identity. Following the
open space concept, the US Social Forum has helped articulate common
self-identifications among progressives. What began in Seattle in
1999 as the US wing of the anti-globalization movement has now become
a set of alternative national globalization movements. North American
activists who took part in the USSF process, were able to even more
clearly recognize that diverse forms of dissent such as rallies
against racism, demonstrations against debt, and protests against
privatization, are not separate events but instances of one
overarching dynamic: the demand for global justice. The Social Forum
process consolidated numerous common identities of difference:
black/brown, student/labor, and environmental/social justice
alliances. These coalitions are being built on the desire for another
world that is free of the discrimination evidenced by Hurricane
Katrina, of the militarism exhibited by perpetual war, of the
neoliberalism that prevents health care access to over forty million
US citizens, and of the bio-devastation embodied by global warming.
In sum, the Forum facilitated the creation of common, unified
identities that encompass the plethora of movements that aspire to a
world where all life is respected.


the World Social Forum, and now the US Social Forum, has promoted a
revolution in how progressives imagine their opponent and thus
themselves. From its inception the organizers of the World Social
Forum dynamic and thus the USSF process understood that people's
movements have needed a space of articulation that was autonomous of
corporations and political parties. This has been a significant
departure from the past.


most progressives have imagined their primary adversary to be the
market. The left has always understood the danger that free markets,
corporations, and capitalism, posed to society. Progressives have
always known that commodification inevitably led to alienation. The
market, in Marcuse's memorable phrase, makes the human
one-dimensional. To restrain commodification, past leftwing movements
have called for the state to regulate the economy. In the first
world, social democrats, such as the New Deal politicians in the
United States in the 1930s, tried to regulate the industry for the
benefit of the public. In the second world, Soviet Communism tried to
regulate production, and in the third world, the national liberation
state, for example Cuba, tried to regulate its economic activity. So
the dominant strand of the left has always thought that the state
could regulate the market and thus liberate the population from


faith in leftist statism was tested numerous times throughout the
twentieth century. It finally broke in the early 1990s with the
rollback of the welfare state in the first world, the dissolution of
the Soviet state in the second world, and the loss of legitimacy of
the national liberation state in the third world. Progressives ever
since have been contending with the loss of belief in the state as
the primary instrument of social liberation.


from history, the proponents of the Social Forum process have
understood that whether the state increased its power over the market
or whether the market increases its power over the state, in both
cases disaffection has inevitably deepened. Both the modes of
production and administration, both capital and the contemporary
state, have become proponents of heteronomy, of estrangement, of
immiseration, rather than public self-governance.


this two-headed adversary, the peoples' movements at the USSF
demonstrated the power of self-organized human solidarity. These
movements over and over throughout the Forum called for a
participatory society to develop independently of the market and the
state. At this Forum, US social movements increased their capacity
for sovereign, collective self-reflection. The activists at the USSF
collectively liberated themselves from the mental hegemony of the
state and market by proposing a new imagination: liberation can only
be discovered, explored and expressed by grounding social change in
radical new forms of democracy. Movements can pressure states,
sometimes even work with states, yet retain autonomous from the
state. The collective consolidation of the importance of autonomy was
the third great achievement of the US Social Forum.



achievements of the USSF lend credence to Chico Whitaker's consistent
principled defense of the Forum. The challenge that remains, and that
Walden Bello has recognized clearly, is that while the Forum process
at the global and local level is facilitating collective
self-reflection – it has not yet produced effective, collective
self-organization. There have been numerous discussions of global
social movement projects, such as the Bamako Appeal and proposals for
global political parties, but there has been no actual
implementation. The war on Iraq continues, climate change has not
been halted, worldwide inequality persists and corporations continue
to rule the world. While the open space of the Forum has allowed for
the creation of new networks it has not yet facilitated visionary
projects. There have been great reactive events, such as
demonstrations against the WTO negotiations- but there have been
few alternatives that have actually been implemented by the global
justice movements. That is the great overarching trial that the Forum
faces. While the Forum has facilitated the capacity for local,
national and global social movement reflection, it has not yet given
birth to comparable forms of achievement. The essence of Walden
Bello's argument is correct: the facilitators of the World Social
Forum process must devise more innovative processes that will
actually enable decisive political change.


Ponniah is a member of the Network Institute for Global
Democratization – one of the founding organizations of the
International Council of the World Social Forum; a member of
Sociologists Without Borders, and of the WSF Boston Organizing
Committee. He is also the co-editor of the book Another World is
Possible: popular alternatives to globalization at the World Social
Forum, and the author of a forthcoming book on global justice.
Contact: [email protected]