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Thoughts On the World Social Forum

Friday 7 April 2006, by Prishani NAIDOO

Wise eyes of little boys selling water and beer in the all-day heat; old and dirtied little feet and hands that run to collect your empty cans as you take your last sip; warn smiles of homeless women washing their babies under the taps of the youth camp; tired tans of artists hawking their works (and Che Guevara T-shirts) on the pavements of Porto Alegre...

While the World Social Forum (WSF) has grown out of an antagonism to capitalism, standing in direct opposition to the World Economic Forum (WEF) of the world’s economic superpowers; mounting certain significant global campaigns against capital e.g. the anti-war demonstrations; and facilitating the coming together of local acts of resistance against capitalism in various ways, it has been produced within this very system it opposes. But this has meant that the WSF is inevitably a product of a process of engagement and interaction with capitalism. The fifth WSF, representing a significant collective history and experience of resistance to neoliberalism, was significant in highlighting the differences and contradictions that exist within the ’movement of movements’ that is growing through spaces like the WSF as a result of our production by capitalism - differences and contradictions that are significant in speaking against the foreclosure of critique, conflict and engagement that any notion of political consensus would entail.

This year, lines of difference have also become more visible between those activists arguing for a ’seizure’ of power understood in its traditional sense, in particular state power, in order for capitalism to be ’overthrown’, and those arguing for new understandings of power and the need for ’self-government’ and ’self-emancipation’ to take priority over state-centred notions of power. Also emerging in these discussions are related concerns of notions of resistance and struggle, with differences emerging between those wanting to make the WSF a consensus-building space through which ’concrete alternatives’ to the current world political and economic system can be proposed within the existing United Nations (UN) system, and those activists seeing the WSF as a space through which the diverse and different aims and objectives of all those organisations, movements and individuals fighting capitalism are able to be met through the creation of non-hierarchical, horizontal and democratic relations amongst a community of activists that see their common mission as the collective creation of alternatives to capitalism in and through struggle and engagement.

These debates enjoyed much interest and engagement throughout the forum. Approaches to state power, was a concern of a number of seminars during the forum, with the decline of Lula’s popularity and the growth of Chavez’s determining the character of many of the discussions. While seminar sessions during the day saw people fighting for space to listen to (and, if you were lucky, question) big name activists and theorists, such as John Holloway, Michael Hardt, and Alex Callinicos, debate the questions, equally popular night sessions in the Intergalactica Caracol saw the interaction of activists from various autonomous movements around the world, including the MTDs (Argentina) - unemployed workers’ unions that have occupied and live in ’unoccupied’ factories; Collectivo Situaciones (Argentina) - activist researchers; sympathisers of the Zapatistas; members of social centres in Italy; and members of various direct action groups around the world. Unlike the largely white, male-dominated discussions that happened during the day in which there was very little space and time for discussion and debate, these night sessions saw women being actively encouraged to participate and taking a visible and meaningful role in discussions. Discussions were managed in a manner that best facilitated interaction and exchange amongst activists, producing new ways of relating as comrades in conversation and new forms of knowledge about our lives under capitalism and our struggles against it. In this production, questions of the state, power and the ways in which we choose to engage power were raised. Through conversations amongst activists within and across movements, lived experiences of experiments with demands for state grants (e.g. the social welfare grant in Argentina accepted by some MTDs and rejected by others), constitution of non-state forms of power (e.g. communes in Germany, movements that ’steal’ food to survive, collective child care approaches in Argentina and Brazil), and acts of power against the state (e.g. blocking of roads in Argentina and direct action in Italy), were engaged.

In an independent workshop facilitated by John Holloway and Dorothea Harlin, activists from movements in Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, Germany, South Africa, Italy, India, Mexico, and the USA came together in conversation about their experiences of anti-state power. Without seeking to derive any consensus out of the discussions, activists were able to share and engage in a discussion about the creation of alternatives to capitalism through new, shared understandings of power to understand ways in which capitalism controls us as individuals and ways in which we are able to live outside of it. In these discussions we came to agree that there are no easy or clear choices to be made for or against state power. Power has changed in its form and in the ways that it is exercised, even the traditional power of the state. We are all forced to engage with the power of the state, the power of capital under neoliberalism, but in different and new ways. In the words of a comrade from the MTD-Matanzas, ’Is it possible today for one person to govern on behalf of others when multinational corporations rule, not presidents? Governments today have the role of providing for the basic needs of their people while answering to the needs of multinational corporations. Before, our slogans were for freeing the prisoners, fighting neoliberalism; today, our struggle is on a different terrain - it is in our heads; in how we live; in our family structures; it is in creating new forms of family and love; it is in rethinking life.’

In these discussions, activists were able to share experiences of these new forms of power under neoliberalism and, more significantly, share experiences of reclaiming life under capitalism. In their rethinking of life, the Argentinian MTD members present spoke of a current debate in their movement about their name, which characterises them by their status of ’unemployed’. They argued that they need to start seeing themselves positively again in terms of their production, their new terms of production - the production of life itself - rather than in terms of their negative relation to the traditional site of production, the factory - instead, they want to define themselves positively in terms of the new social relations that are created through their community under capitalism. They don’t know what their new name will be. For now they know it should not be defined in negative relation to capitalism, but positively, affirming their productive (as opposed to unproductive) life as labour.

This spirit of defining ourselves positively in relation to life as we make it, rather than beginning with our negative affection by capitalism, is a significant development in the language of movements fighting capitalism that characterised most of the discussions held in autonomous spaces in the WSF. Starting with the belief that there is no predetermined model for resisting capitalism, discussions in these spaces allowed for the nature of this new production to be discussed in a manner that saw itself as a process of producing new knowledges. In these spaces, real questions about the problems encountered in trying to practice horizontalism were engaged through the experiences of the effects of the acceptance of the social welfare grants in Argentina, and the Zapatistas, for example. And, the age-old unsolved problems of gender were dealt with in conversation between women from the MTDs in Argentina and the MTD in Brazil, and between men and women feeling the effects of neoliberalism and fighting it. In these spaces, real alternatives emerged as the problems of raising children in community were dealt with and notions of ’non-nuclear’ families were shared, as well as the problems felt by men as a result of unemployment and poverty.

... and with the wise eyes, the old and dirty hands, the warn smiles, I can only make myself understood asking ’how much? Each night, as I make my way home, beyond the comfort of simultaneous translation and comradely smiles, there are the gaping silences of neoliberalism’s experiences etched in the old faces and desperate bodies of those I struggle to hear and to speak to...

In 2003, there were no more than ten or twenty of us at a time participating in such discussions as described above, on the outskirts of the youth camp, on the margins of the forum. This year, the organisation of all groups and events in one continuous space allowed such spaces more centrality in the forum, and simultaneous translation and the growth of the activist network being built through Intergalactica and other autonomous networks, saw this space hosting crowds of hundreds of activists, with active participation and discussion taking place. While this might reflect growing support for autonomous forms of engagement and thought, this has not meant any less support for state-centred approaches to activism or hierarchical forms of organisation. Neither has it addressed the relationship of those producing their lives on the edges of the WSF, to such spaces and discussions - the hawkers, street vendors, beggars... to whom the WSF means little else but opportunities for work and survival.

While Lula received criticism from within his own ranks, this criticism was directed at his person rather than at the state form as such. And Chavez certainly received as much attention this year as Lula did in 2003. A sore point for many at the WSF this year, in particular South African participants, was the participation of Civicus, in the person of Kumi Naidoo, in the WEF in Davos. Wearing a white headband, and representing the voice of the poor and marginalized as represented by NGOs internationally, Naidoo’s celebration of the UN’s Millenium Development Goals as the measure of progress in the world was a slap in the face for many participants in the WSF whose critique of the poverty entrenched by neoliberalism is a scathing attack on the UN system as protector of the interests of global capital. In 2003, Lula came under fire for participating in the WEF. This year, ’global civil society’ itself spoke at the WEF! While the WSF may be growing as a space for diverse and critical thought and production around alternatives to capitalism, growing recognition of its potentialities has resulted in growing contestation for control over its representation from within and from without. In this fight, its real potential as site of critical and autonomous production against capitalism is under threat.

As the WSF makes its way to Africa, we need to broaden the discussion and debate about its potentials for our own struggles against neoliberalism and capitalism. Until now, participation in the WSF from South Africans has largely been by those of us fortunate enough to make the criteria of donors supporting the WSF or working in NGO jobs that require us to participate. When community organisations and movements have been lucky enough to send one or two participants, this has not always allowed for the integration of WSF discussions into the life of these movements. Instead it has been largely left up to individuals to determine how they participate within the forum. At best, the WSF has been a meeting place for activists to share experiences, strategies and tactics; to build solidarity; to develop joint campaigns; and to lobby for certain issues to be taken up by others. Individual activists have chosen to participate differently in the WSF, with various organisations, movements and political tendencies in South African civil society being represented. The representation of our differences in such a forum has caused concern for many, in particular COSATU (South Africa’s largest trade union federation) which has vocally expressed their discomfort with the Anti-Privatisation Forum’s (APF’s) open critiques of the African National Congress (ANC) government in WSF space. Within and across all movements in South African civil society, there are major differences of approach to the questions of state power and resistance that have gained prominence in WSF discussions, as well as to ways of organising.

In such a context, it would be easy for us to throw ourselves into fights over representation in, through and of the WSF, as the WSF remains seen only as a means for representing the collective and unified voice of a ’global civil society’ against the effects of neoliberalism and capitalism within a unified global system of rule. In trying to gain control over the representation of this ’global civil society’ or for greater representation of our views within the WSF, we lose sight of the spaces that the WSF provides for the meeting of movements in creation with all their diversity, difference and open agendas. The WSF seen rather as a site of production recognises difference, diversity and the creation of alternatives in and through interaction, engagement and struggle with the capitalist system as it manifests in the global order, the nation state, our communities, our neighbours, our selves. In this production, there are no predetermined solutions or answers, just the collective power of people in action and interaction against the capitalist system in all its manifestations. Here, power lies in the desires and dreams of each of us as we collectively work for their realisation, and not in consensus positions or representations written or spoken on behalf of all of us. Our biggest challenge is to ensure that the largest number of people fighting capitalism, are able to be part of such an experience as they choose.

...such times could make our silences speak...

View online : Centre for Civil Society

Published Spring 2005.
Online 7 April 2006