The demise of the alter-globalist movement

World Social Forum Porto Alegre 2016

World Social Forum
Porto Alegre

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Why the World Social Forum and other movements are failing to shape another world

If the pandemic allows for it, there will be another World Social Forum in May of this year in Mexico City. There is a lot of enthusiasm, as always, even if several members of its International Council are sceptical.

The WSF is twenty years old. What has it achieved? Well, not much, really.

In the beginning, in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, it was a great success. In two or three years' time, the forum grew into a global event. Politicians from all over the world wanted to be seen there and the media followed. The Forum moved to India and Africa, then came back to Brazil.

After five years, however, many began to express doubts. There was no clear objective and consequently no strategy. The 'global civil society' met, but to do what? A dual current emerged, one which pushed for possible reforms and one, of a mainly Brazilian power block, which wanted to apply the rules — laid down in a 'charter of principles' — ever more strictly.

To change or not to change?

From 2012 and the meeting in Monastir, Tunisia, working groups were established without any tangible result. By then, practically all the great intellectuals had left the International Council whilst others had had to leave because of their age. It is with nostalgia that we remember Immanuel Wallerstein, François Houtart and Samir Amin. Others, such as Bernard Cassen and Ignacio Ramonet, who were among the founders of the WSF, soon gave up. Aminata Traoré, Susan George, Joao Stedile, Candido Grzybowski, Walden Bello and movements such as the MST, Via Campesina, ITUC, Focus on the Global South, Cosatu, Babels etc... simply did not feel like travelling so far to merely talk about practical or administrative issues. As for politics, everyone was limited to five minutes speaking time at which point the discussion was closed without coming to any conclusion.

The WSF quietly meandered on becoming a festival of small and some not so small social movements with no contact between each other, without decisions, without a political agenda and... without democracy or transparency. The relationship between national, Latin American and global participation deteriorated with each new edition. The Social Forum became less and less global.

No monopoly

Of course, the WSF by no means has a monopoly on the Alter Globalisation movement. This movement arose with great enthusiasm in the 1980s as a protest against the 'structural adjustments' imposed on countries in the South — later the 'Washington Consensus,' against the power of the emerging G8 and against the WTO system of so-called 'free trade'. The 'Battle of Seattle' in 1999 is a milestone for the movement. No one should forget the 2001 anti-G8 demonstration in Genoa, Italy, where young Carlo Giuliani lost his life. However, the 'social forum' formula, with its horizontalism and call for a new political culture had traction and the exercise was repeated nationally in many countries. Few, however, survived.

In France, the movement ATTAC emerged, with a limited European reach except in Germany, and an annual 'Summer University'. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the Indignados, the Nuits Debout and Gilets Jaunes, all died a quiet death. The ' Athens Spring' was crushed by the banks.

Today, there are new global initiatives that do not (yet) have a truly global reach: Global Dialogue, led by Bolivian ex-diplomat Pablo Solon, who later became president of ‘Focus on the Global South’; 'Adelante', led by academic Ashish Kothari building on the promotion of small-scale initiatives, a 'Global Tapestry', as described in the book Pluriverse, ‘Progressive International’, born out of the European movement, ‘Diem25’, of Greek ex-finance minister Varoufakis, and interestingly the 'Global U(niversity)' in Hong Kong.

However, anyone who tries to dissect these movements easily sees where the problems lie and why there can be no progressive global breakthrough. The entire left is in crisis and divided and does not know how to organise itself. A discussion about what divides them but also about what unites them is as yet impossible because it is seen as a possible cause of even more division. So the movements carry on, cherishing 'diversity' and sweeping all differences under the carpet. Add to that the tendency for self-reflection and to confirm one's own analyses, and you can see the impasse growing.

Discord and confusion

An analysis of the reasons why social progressives are left hanging in the ropes is not feasible within the scope of this article. What should be mentioned are the lack of analysis and re-sourcing of the left after the collapse of the socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe; the duality of the green movement, neglecting class conflict and welfare and focusing on cultural and identity topics; the focus on national sovereignty and anti-imperialism, denying the importance of multilateralism and global movements; an anti-modernity movement, coupled to anti-colonialism but without links to a broader progressive movement; the rise of populism and the lack of attention for what really moves people: low wages, the lack of housing, the non-existent or inadequate pensions, schools. These are material concerns that are always among the priorities of people.

How these different themes also divide and can ruin political parties can be seen in the history of the Greek Syriza, the Spanish Podemos, the French La France Insoumise and the Dutch Socialist Party. Whether social democracy can recover in a new progressive iteration is very much the question. It is inevitable that this great leftist confusion will lead to a paralysis of political initiatives and a further atomisation and polarisation of society. Many now reject 'politics' in order to avoid having an ideological position whilst working on an emancipatory project.

Today, left and right are hopelessly mixed up, and those without an ideological education no longer know what is what. One remains blind to the real threats, such as rapidly advancing nationalism and (eco)fascism. This is why many people are reverting to local and small-scale initiatives and believe that a real global resistance movement will eventually emerge from 'below'. One promotes community links and actions for those ‘left behind’ — which is what neo-liberals like to hear — instead of universalism and a movement against inequality.


Meanwhile, the right is organising itself rapidly and well. The 'alt-right' in the US is no exception: Steve Bannon's plans in Europe have failed for the time being, but thanks to government leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, fascism can also start building a warm nest in Latin America. The entire political spectrum is shifting to the right.

Add to this the current pandemic which is revealing the shortcomings of neo-liberal capitalism in all its harshness, the looming climate crisis, the impasse of a globalised economy and finance system, and the shifting geopolitical balance of power, and it becomes clear that there has never been a more urgent need for a powerful countermovement.

There is a great need for a strong, global and emancipating narrative about how to move forward, how to build a new utopia, how to dream of a better world and work for it with patience and tolerance.

Why should the WSF, with its respect for diversity and openness, its 'open space', its slogan for a new political culture, not play a central role in this? Why does the WSF give up? An awful lot of research has been done on the characteristics of the Social Forum, both with admiration and with criticism. Two points must be mentioned here: the characteristics of the individual movements today and the internal dynamics of the Forum itself.

All movements, large and small, are struggling because of the shrinking space in most countries for dissidents, the lack of resources and, more generally, the neo-liberal dominance that turns into conservatism and threatens activists with death in many countries.

The challenges are immense. Organising people to oppose a mining project or the construction of a dam, mobilising against a new free trade agreement, protesting against intensive agriculture, arguing for an ecological approach in the transport sector and of course fighting for good housing, health care, decent wages... Who can cope with linking these to a regional and global approach by seeking contacts abroad through meeting in a distant foreign city?

This problem is very real and it should come as no surprise that many people give up. That many, taking a pragmatic approach, eventually allow themselves to be co-opted by the ‘system’ should also come as no surprise. The result is a totally fragmented landscape of solidarity-based agriculture, repair shops, local energy companies, local currencies established in aid for the poor, charity for migrants and refugees... With a lot of effort, you have a few regionally organised initiatives in Europe that are only too happy to eat from the table of the European budget and lose much of their dynamism.

The second and perhaps greater problem is the internal dynamics, or lack thereof, of the World Social Forum itself. Much has to do with its origins. At the beginning of the 21st century, everything was aimed at the 'participation' of 'civil society' in 'global governance'. Reports appeared at the United Nations, the World Economic Forum in Davos opened its doors to NGOs, religious movements and even some trade unions. Who does not remember Bono coming to plead for the fight against world poverty? The new 'compassionate governance' became apolitical — inequality was obviously not on the agenda — and turned into multistakeholderism. That some around the table — transnational corporations — had more power than others was simply overlooked. It was the period in which international organisations, governments and NGOs were captured by business. From then on, ethical values would be reigning supreme, or so people were led to believe. Moreover, the Global Compact gave corporations a label of good conduct. One of the founders of the WSF, comes from precisely this world and continues to adhere to this philosophy. Any attempt to politicise the Forum is rejected in advance.

Other founders of the Forum come from a Christian, conservative background and do everything they can to accuse anyone who wants to take a step further than that which is currently in place, of conspiracies, lies and lust for power. To argue for structure is to argue for a Soviet style Central Committee, to argue for a secretariat is to argue for hierarchy and against horizontalism. A renewal group with people like Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Roberto Savio was largely silenced. All concrete proposals are simply swept off the table without any discussion. The strict application of a consensus rule makes any flexibility impossible. And if something is decided, it is simply denied some time later. Anyone who advocates renewal is vilified and humiliated.

The WSF is stuck in an imaginary world. At best it will be a festival of powerless and apolitical movements.

The hope remains that other groups can take up the torch. Resistance continues to grow all over the world but in a totally fragmented way. There is a need for a new future-oriented, emancipating and hopeful counter narrative that can break with the neo-liberal hegemony. It will have to be written by young people who recognise that the current fragmentation is a dead end street, that no country can solve its current problems without cooperating with others and that the necessary diversity does not stand in the way of a common approach.

A lot of time has already been lost. Work has to be done to create a political strategy for a global political subject that can act and speak in and to the world. This will not happen by itself, but by necessity it will be a long process. At a time when globalisation itself is crumbling, it must be reinvented and taken in hand by the people, who always have the collective power to re-create themselves in all circumstances.

The current leadership of the WSF is doing exactly what Yuval Harari describes so brilliantly in his Homo Deus: humans are superior beings because they can cooperate on a large scale. And it is precisely this that the powers that be reject with all their might. However, by cooperating and organising, it is possible. It must be done. When that awareness dawns, the ‘Grandes Alamedas’, in the words of Allende, open up again.

Francine Mestrum

Francine Mestrum has a PhD in Social Sciences from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. She worked at the European institutions and several Belgian universities.

This article was first published on Wall Street International | Also see Great Transition Initiative

Foto Eugenio Hansen - Wikipedia Commons

Meer lezen

Twintig jaar na hoogtij antiglobalisme. En nu? | Pala 15-8-2021
Met kwaadheid alleen bouw je geen andere wereld – waarin de antiglobalisten (voorlopig) tekortschieten | bewerking van de uitleiding van het boek De antwoorden van het antiglobalisme. Van Seattle tot Porto Alegre, p. 244-251, verscheen op 30 januari 2002 op Pala.be en in De Morgen.

Onder andere tientallen interviews met deelnemers aan het eerste Wereld Sociaal Forum in 2001 vormden de basis voor het boek dat in september verscheen: Barrez Dirk, De antwoorden van het antiglobalisme. Van Seattle tot Porto Alegre, 2001, p.45-51 | Zie inhoudstafel | Globalisering, wat is dat nu? Hoofdstuk uit deel I - globalisering

Waar blijft de antiglobalistische agenda? | Pala.be 3-2-2002 - Deze beschouwingen verschenen op het einde van het tweede Wereld Sociaal Forum in Porto Alegre, tegelijkertijd met de Franstalige editie van het boek De antwoorden van het antiglobalisme, met als titel  Une autre mondialisation est possible. De Seattle à Porto Alegre

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