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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2016 > August 2016 > WSF in Montreal and the Relevance of the Social Forum Process

WSF in Montreal and the Relevance of the Social Forum Process

Monday 1 August 2016, by Ronald Cameron

The first World Social Forum (WSF) to take place in a Northern Country will be held in few weeks in Montreal, from August 9 to 14. Most of the programming is now set on the eve of its holding. The commitment of civil society organizations and movements, from Quebec mostly, has led to a certain point of preparation that embodies the hopes of those involved for several months in more than twenty self-organized committees.

The preparation so far, even if some problems are to be solved, make possible to envisage a successful event from a content and diversity point of view, including through the establishment of autonomous spaces and self-organized committees1. However, it now appears crucial to work toward a better convergence, wishing to go beyond the exchanges and debate. Indeed, it is this aspect that critics have been raised from years ago, but nowadays, those appear with an increased intensity. Does the WSF in Montreal will demonstrate the relevance of the Social Forum Process?

The WSF in Montreal: a turning point for the future of the WSF

The WSF celebrates 15 years old of its process. All those years, the WSF has offered, to those who believe that "another world is possible," a momentum and space for exchanges and debates. The first edition was held in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the same timetable as the global meeting of the political and economic elites in Davos, Switzerland. Since the WSF is held every two years, and the next one will be far away from the period of the Davos gathering. It stands for the first time in North America in the middle of August.

During those 15 years, the WSF process was made through a very broad approach that the Charter of Principles has fixed the day after the first WSF. The Charter suggests the principle of open space for "the democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences". Also, the WSF aims to promote the "interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society". However, its useful function stops there, according to the Charter of Principles.

The broadest unity to counter neoliberal globalization

The WSF is born in Brazil, in a context marked by the rising of social struggles and popular support for the Workers’ Party (WP). By supporting the WSF, Brazilian social movements, and the WP were designed to export the energy of the local mobilizations to the global level to better resist neoliberal globalization and avoid isolation. Meanwhile, the international context announced a weakening of national states and an increasing of the commodification of the planet, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was imperative to create the broadest possible front around the globalization of solidarity, to offer an alternative to neoliberal globalization.

Furthermore, breaking the centralist and directive practices which resulted in repulsive socialist caricatures, the WSF was the establishment of new relations of solidarity within and between social movements, independent from political parties. The experience of the Brazilian WP became the example of an approach from bottom up, while it was the political expression of movements.

The WSF as a process

Thus, the Charter of Principles defined the WSF as a process that unites all the groups and movements in opposition to neoliberal globalization, based on an open, non-partisan and non-deliberative. The WSF takes no position, to reject any approach that would force the recognition of an "only option for interrelation and action". As the WSF can not represent all of the civil society, it cannot claim to represent it or to take a position on behalf of it as such.

To ensure the broadest alliance possible, the formula, therefore, provides no conclusion under the Forum, but consensual consultations of social movements. The WSF final statements from fifteen years have almost followed this approach: it was not the statement of the forum, but a statement endorsed by the movements which have participated in it.

Profound questions about the future of the WSF

It is not from yesterday those issues are raised to challenge the impact and usefulness of the WSF. In the core of the critics, we found the opinion that the main international events such as the WSF has a little political impact and resumes the gathering to a space for debate without consequence. However, in recent weeks, a major international discussion has intensified on the future of the WSF.

Two political events have caused an increased polarizations in the International Council (IC) members: the question of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of Israel and the requirements of solidarity with the Brazilian people against the coup undergoing nowadays. These two issues collide the neutrality approach established by the WSF Charter of the Principles. These two issues raised at the WSF Montreal International Seminar in April, exert an enormous pressure on the founding principles of the social forums.

BDS Campaign

First, the Montreal BDS Coalition, with strong support from several personalities and networks within the WSF IC, seeks for recognition of the legitimacy of its struggle from the WSF 2016 Organizing Collective. The BDS Coalition faces the interpretations of the Charter which avoid any decision or position from the WSF or the IC, although it opposes "any form of imperialism" to "any totalitarian design and the use of violence as a means of social control". However, for fifteen years, various social forums have continued to echo to the Solidarity with Palestinian People, particularly in the last two WSFs, which were held in Tunis, at the heart of the democratic upheaval in the Arab world.

However, the condemnation of the BDS Campaign by the new Canadian Government complicates things for the WSF 2016 Organizing Collective. The debate continues nowadays with a petition launched by the BDS Coalition outside the WSF framework, which has received hundreds of support from all regions of the world. This petition aims to persuade the WSF IC to amend its Charter to recognize the scope of the principles of the BDS Campaign, which would commit, then, the future organizing committees to explicitly and unequivocally make the WSF as a space free from Israeli Apartheid.

The parliamentary Coup d’État in Brazil

On the other hand, it is the Parliamentary Coup d’État in Brazil that caused the most intense exchanges between some IC members on the future of the Charter and the WSF. The political blow ousted the Brazilian WP, temporarily at this point, and set up a regime that wants to dismantle the social protections granted in the last period. A coalition of social movements and Brazilian civil society personalities, associated with the WSF, successfully appealed in support to the Brazilian people by members of the IC.

The call denounces the political crisis in which Brazil and Latin America are facing and it associates pressures on Latin America left governments as an attack to thwart the development of another world based on rejection neoliberal economic growth models. The statement is published with the support of most social movements and organizations that act in the work of the WSF.

The request for support from the IC members to the Brasilian Social Movements and also for the BDS Campaign has sparked an international debate which, for sure, will be back in Montreal. We now briefly describe the different approaches within the IC members, according to the nowadays debate.

The status quo point of view

The historical point of view, one might say, is opposed to any modification of the Charter and suggests the status quo, arguing a principle’s opposition between space and movement. According to this position, any evolution of the Charter towards some mechanisms of stance or representation is rejected. The nature of the WSF as an unrepresentative process of a global civil society, which cannot be defined, make impossible such development for this point of view.

Moreover, this idea would bring a vertical methodology, similar to the one we could found in representative organizations, like political parties or trade unions, which are organizational models unlikely able to engage a genuine social change in today’s political context. For this position, only an open space could be the future of the WSF, without any deliberative mechanism.

The Montreal 2016 WSF Organizing Collective borrows the organizational model for the Montreal WSF from this point of view. It also shares a will to limit the space for the social organizations they have held in the past in organizing similar events in Quebec and Canada. For the Collective, the legitimacy of the forum is based on the gathering in a single assembly all individuals and movements involved, without any distinct status.

Little room is made to have the social organizations and movements playing their strategic function. If there is one thing could be done, from the historical point of view, is the abolition of the IC, to make sure that does not exist any supreme authority with a particular status.

In practice, for this historical standing position, the transformation of society is only possible by the multiplication of initiatives, without consideration to organizational needs and requirements to concentre the energy of the individuals mobilized through social and citizenship movements. Paradoxically, this tendency to atomize the actors in the WSF in Montreal occurs in capitalist societies whose level of organization of individuals is highest.

Moreover, in Montreal as elsewhere, the ability of spontaneous movements to last through time, often brings them to evolve towards defense organization or political party. This phenomenon is particularly remarkable in the recent history of Spanish Indignatos and Podemos.

The new international context

For others, the international environment has changed, and the polarization of conflicts is not sufficient to resume the WSF process to only spaces for exchange and debate. However, starting from the same observation, different sensitivities can be identified.

An abolitionist point of view, one might say, is based on the decline of the context and the weakening of the relevance of the WSF in the unification of resistance and social change movements. It merely proposes the abolition of the WSF. Calling a critic un-accommodating balance sheet of the WSF 15 years, this approach combines the about-face progressive governments and silence of some movements about the neoliberal policies in some countries and the setbacks in building an anti-systemic alternative.

For this point of view, as the shrinking of the Montreal WSF will be confirmed, the time of the funeral came. The 2016 event could then arrange the funeral while initiating a profound reflection. Paradoxically, this approach aims to provoke a renaissance based on a new global dynamics centered on social mobilization.

However, a more common position wishes to renovate and to upgrade the WSF to sustain it and to make it functional, not only the global gathering but also its main body, the IC, subject to all criticism. Sharing several assessments with the previous abolitionist position, it differs based on the enormous assets of the WSF from fifteen years that he wants to protect and make it alive, taking into account the requirements of the new political situation.

The broad gathering strategy is being exhausted; it is now important to restore the process to give it a second life. Thus, various proposals have been announced. The first is the creation of Parallel Proceedings Stance, a sort of court on the state of democracy in different parts of the world. The first meeting could take place in Montreal to treat the case of Brazil. The result of the work of this body would involve the WSF as an International Rally.

Other proposals were also announced in the wake of the previous, the change in the composition of the IC, from rotating elective office in limited time. Fundraising would establish a functional secretariat. Thematic commissions, including one related to the Court type, could also be implemented

A consensus is widely shared among nearly all those points of view; it is the "cleaning" of the IC to ensure real representation for individuals serving on the IC.

How to renovate the WSF?

If several calls for amending the Charter and take into account the new requirements of the political situation, the denial of self-proclaim must remain a primary foundation of any renovation process of the WSF and the IC. The independence of the organizations and movements requires that the WSF 2.0 cannot claim to represent the whole international civil society.

However, does the WSF can evolve towards a kind of international round table to allow a more sustained political action? It concerns the political action of social organizations and movements, and not from a stand of political parties. We all know that political action of social and citizenship movements is the one that initiates the real social transformation. Does the mandate of the WSF could be the one to encourage its implementation and to compromise to do so, taking into account from the context the requirement to take a political position?

How to establish a more active political unity, without forcing organizations and movements to delegate their engagement to some external mechanism? We have to remember that the literature abounds to link the establishment of a global political power to an interventionist instance, even totalitarian. So could we recognize that the WSF or a designated body could characterize some findings and let the social movements the ability to translate into an action plan for their own?

Toward a World Assembly of Social Movements

Moreover, the future of the World Social Forum is also dependent on the active participation of social movements and networks to make those gatherings something that serves the struggles and mobilizations. WSF’s transformation into a global assembly of social movements could be a move towards a kind of international roundtable on an independent political action of the movements. The primary WSF concerns could be less on singular activities from the organizations and movements, but more on their consultation.

If the WSF has a future, is to become the backbone of movements and networks that, in turn, mobilize individuals. The centrality of organizations and movements in any WSF process should be valued and entails full recognition. It is a prerequisite to avoid more fragmentation.

Finally, remember that the international level is not a political space of social conquests, as are States and some regional political spaces. It primarily provides event space and a sounding board for struggles at local and regional level. It is in taking account of this reality that the WSF evolution could find a clean common ground in the broadest consensus.

Contribute to the success of the WSF 2016

The conclusion of the event currently remains the main issue to solve. It is now accepted that we should "give more space to the conclusions of the convergence assemblies." Beyond the various action plans, the proposal to hold a convergence space remains the most likely prospect to promote joint movements and their action plan, a major challenge of this first WSF in the North in the current political and historical context.

It is in the perspective of maximizing the movements convergence that energy must be invested in the final stretch of the WSF preparations. Underlying this approach is the idea that convergence can only be achieved by the articulation of multiple challenges and not by either a single issue or a single priority or on a list of actions without a better-shared vision.

Article was written before the Babel’s decision about the translation

June 17, 2016