Some Hard Questions About
World Social Forum
By Jai Sen
11 January, 2006
Friends, greetings !
This note is to ask some hard questions about the World Social Forum, with the aim of raising some debate on it in the run-up to the world meetings that are coming up later this month. I ask these questions in the assumption of agreement that the World Social Forum, with all its limitations, is still a significant world institution, in terms of world politics and even more so in terms of civil politics, and that it is something that we need to understand and critically engage with as it evolves.
From this year (2006), the WSF is attempting a significant new experiment, a so-called polycentric¹ World Social Forum (in Bamako, Mali; in Caracas, Venezuela; and in Karachi, Pakistan) is about to take off, in two weeks, though with one of the three locations (the Karachi one) postponed till March. The Bamako Forum is to take place from January 19-23, and the Caracas one from January 24-29. (For Oofficial¹ details, see the official WSF
The step, of moving from single-centric Fora to polycentric ones, is as a step in the development of the World Social Forum - as important as the holding of the Forum outside Brazil and in Mumbai, India, in January 2004. But given this significance, and behind this the significance of the World Social Forum as an emerging world institution and as an institution of civil politics, it is important, and perhaps of no small interest, that there is hardly any debate about the polycentric Forum, either as individual meetings or as a collective. Even on the official WSF website, in its Library of Alternatives, there are only two articles and then too, the two are both in Spanish, despite the fact that the three Fora are being held in
English-speaking, French-speaking, and Spanish-speaking parts of the world, and where this distribution was presumably a very careful and intentional decision.
Compared with the storm of articles that the Forum generated in earlier years, this is stunning. What is happening ? Why is there no discussion ? Has the Forum run its course ?
But within this context, there is also a need to carefully look at and debate certain specific patterns and questions :
* To a degree that is decisively more so than holding the Forum in Mumbai in 2004, this year¹s Forum by the choice of locations - is evidently trying to open up social and political space : In Venezuela as an apparent ally of anti-imperialist popular forces in Latin America (and now made only the more so, with the election of Morales in Bolivia and his visit to Venezuela and Hugo Chávez in this past week); and in Pakistan, still formally a dictatorship, with the army and a general in firm control (of state power, at least). What has the leadership of the World Social Forum hoped to achieve by doing this by choosing these locations for this major
experiment ? And what might be the actual possible outcomes of these events, in their respective countries and regions ?
* Although there have been earlier years when more than one OWorld Social Forum¹ meetings have taken place within the same year (if we take into account not just the so-called Oworld¹ meetings but also the so-called Oregional¹ ones, like the European Social Forum and the Asian Social Forum, and also the Othematic¹ ones, as was held in Colombia in 2003), this is the first time when a specific and presumably strategic decision was taken to hold a polycentric world meeting ie several meetings at the same time, spread across the world. One consideration was logistical meaning that more people across the world will therefore have access to the Forum (since it will be taking place closer to everybody in the world); another, perhaps, was to have an even greater and more widespread impact, across the world. This latter dream is spoiled a little by the necessity of having to postpone the Karachi Forum (because of the outfall of the earthquake last year), but the concept remains. But for this to happen, this presumably will require some degree of coordination between the Fora that are taking place at the same time, for synergy to take place towards a more global assertion of civil (if not actually Opopular¹) power; and at the minimum, some consciousness that Othe other¹ is also taking place at the same time (almost). So we need to ask at least the following questions / assess the Fora in at least these terms : Is the Forum this year in fact going to help a much larger number of people to gain access to the World Social Forum ? What ways are there for this synergy to take shape ? And will this polycentric design in fact create a greater impact than the single world meetings ?
* More specifically, and despite the sometimes trenchant and even bitter discussion of the manner in which the Workers¹ Party in Brazil has influenced the emergence and politics of the World Social Forum as an idea, and also about the dominating influence of political parties in the
continental / regional Fora (the SWP Socialist Workers Party in the case of the London European Social Forum in November 2004, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Communist parties in the case of the WSF in Mumbai) and all this despite the fact the WSF¹s Charter specifically prohibits the participation of political parties in the Forum - there is very little discussion of the fact that the Caracas Forum seems to be virtually being sponsored by Hugo Chávez and his government and to be completely dominated by them, and where the Caracas Forum will quite obviously be used by him as a platform and as a way of promoting his understanding of the Forum. (For a glimpse, see his speech to the Forum in 2005 - Mario Dujisin, January 2005 OHugo Chávez, President of Venezuela : "The WSF Should Have A Strategy Of Power"¹, January 31 2005, on
http://www.ipsterraviva.net/TV/WSF2005/viewstory.asp?idnews=170.) And on the other hand, some reports suggest that his practice of politics is enervating independent social movement in the country and one opinion is that the WSF being held in Caracas is a shroud for such politics. (Rafael Uzcategui, January 2006 - OWSF Caracas: Shroud for Venezuela's social movements¹. On http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=2063.) To the opposite of fighting it therefore, the leaders of the WSF seem to be almost celebrating this profound contradiction to the very soul of the Forum (and in a carefully downplayed way, which makes it close to being cynical) because, one has to assume, they think that OChávez is on our side¹S But what are the Osides¹ in this game, in these politics ? And who is on which side ?
These are serious questions. It is not enough just to innocently Ogo and take part¹ in Othe World Social Forum¹ and to then think or feel that you have been sold down the river when you are there (or indeed, even if you do not go, because all this is being done in our name the name of so-called Ocivil society¹, both local and global). In short : Do you agree that the Forum should and can be organised by political parties and by governments, towards their partisan ends ? If Chávez in Venezuela, then why not Musharraf in Pakistan ?
In a way, what seems to be happening is a kind of a creeping coup within the Forum; in the broadest sense, of old politics over new politics. Even if you happen to agree with or be sympathetic to Hugo Chávez, or Lula, or the CPI(M) in India, if they can take over the Forum in their respective contexts then why should other parties and politicians not do so in other contexts ? Or is it really ultimately only a question of left and right (where left is right, and right is wrong) and that the Oalternative power¹ and influence that so many have said that civil movements can exercise is, in the final analysis, not relevant ? Or do you have another take entirely, on what is happening ? If so, let¹s talk about it.
There is not much time : Just ten days. Let¹s therefore use this time, as best and as incisively as we can, to understand what is happening, what the stakes are, and what the likely outcomes are.
Towards this, here are a few links and articles in relation to the Caracas Forum, both in favour of what is happening and critical of it. Let¹s debate these ideas in this space, and also take them up for local discussions wherever you are, taking them as far and as wide as you can in this time and also within the Forum/s, in case you are attending any of them. And please also post any material you can find on any of the three Fora and on the World Social Forum as it stands and is moving today :
Mario Dujisin, January 2005 OHugo Chávez, President of Venezuela : "The WSF Should Have A Strategy Of Power"¹, January 31 2005, on
Foro Social Alternativo - Alternative Social Forum, October 2005
OAlternative Social Forum - Caracas, January 2006¹. Tuesday, Oct 18 2005,
8:13pm, email@example.com. On
Irene León, June 2005 OHacia el II Foro Social Américas y el VI Foro
Social Mundial policéntrico¹ [OTowards the 2nd Americas Social Forum and the
polycentric 6th World Social Forum¹, in Spanish], June 20 2005, on
Carlos Torres http://alternatives-international.net/auteur20.html?lang=en
, December 2005 - OThe VI World Social Forum Caracas 2006¹. Monday 5th
December 2005, on http://alternatives-international.net/article81.html
Rafael Uzcategui, January 2006 - OWSF Caracas: Shroud for Venezuela's social
movements¹. On http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=2063.
Received on 4/1/06 9:05 pm, "firstname.lastname@example.org" <email@example.com>
wrote: Re: (en) El Libertario* - WSF Caracas: Shroud for Venezuela's social
Jai (Sen), CACIM, New Delhi
(If anyone wants downloaded and formatted soft copies of the documents
listed, let me know.)
Background note : Our objectives at CACIM are to promote a culture of critical reflexivity, especially in terms of movement, and to create spaces for this to take place. One of our concerns, as a part of a general interest in strategies and cultures of movement, is in the World Social Forum as an emerging world institution.
The first step we took in cyberspace towards specifically engaging with the WSF was the creation in September 2005 of the Chennai Open Space Action Listserve, focussing on a meeting called in Chennai, India, by WSF India. We are now broadening our focus and have created a new, more generic listserve for ongoing discussion of the WSF as a whole :
In addition to responding to the message above within this present listserve, WE INVITE YOU TO ALSO SUBSCRIBE to this new one, which we hope will over time become an open space for all those interested in this subject. The ways to subscribe are :
- Send an empty email to
and fill in the subscribe form there.
WE ALSO INVITE YOU to visit the OpenSpaceForum webspace, http://www.openspaceforum.net.
OpenSpaceForum was set up in 2004, in part in connection with the work of the EIOS (Explorations in Open Space) Collective, a new worldwide network of scholar-activists involved in or concerned with movement. The goal of this initiative is to explore and advance thinking and action involving new and more democratic ways of conducting and understanding politics and organisation within movements, institutions, and related political processes.
This webspace is currently being reorganised, with relevant content being progressively uploaded. We welcome you to contribute to this process. This is very much still an experiment-in-progress, and you can contribute in a variety of ways by uploading material, by using the chat and blog spaces provided, and by debating on this new listserve the WSF-related material that has been placed there and anything else you would like to draw attention to.
THINGS TO CHECK OUT :
Out in 2005 : 'World Social Forum : Challenging Empires' - in German,
Japanese, Spanish, and now Urdu!
NEW Open Space Webspace January 2005 : www.openspaceforum.net
January 2005 : 'Are Other Worlds Possible ? Talking NEW Politics'
Preview : http://www.choike.org/nuevo_eng/informes/2487.html
Publishers : Zubaan / firstname.lastname@example.org
K-92 Hauz Khas Enclave - First Floor, New Delhi 110 016, India
Tel: +91-11-2652 1008, 2686 4497 and 2651 4772
In late 2004 :¹Explorations in Open Space : The World Social Forum and
Cultures of Politics¹
Issue 182 of the International Social Science Journal
Editorial advisers : Chloé Keraghel & Jai Sen
2004 Book : 'World Social Forum : Challenging Empires'
Edited by Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar, and Peter Waterman
India / South Asia distribution : Viveka Foundation,
2005 : NOW OUT also in German, Japanese, Spanish, and Urdu
CACIM India Institute for Critical Action : Centre in Movement
A-3 Defence Colony, New Delhi 110 024, India
[+ while travelling, email@example.com]
M 91-98189 11325
T 91-11-5155 1521 and 2433 2451