First Published: 2013-04-01


The World Social Forum: Still Meeting Its Challenge


The WSF was founded as a space of resistance. Twelve years later, it remains the only place where all sides to these debates come together to continue the discussion. Are there people who are tired of the same continuing debates? Asks Immanuel Wallerstein.


Middle East Online

The World Social Forum (WSF) has just ended its now biennial meeting, held this time in Tunis. It was very largely ignored by the world's mainstream press. It was attended by many skeptics who pronounced its irrelevance, something that has occurred at every meeting since the second WSF in 2002. It was torn by debates about the very structure of the WSF. It was filled with debates about the correct political strategy for the world left. And despite this, it was an enormous success.

One way to measure its success is by remembering what happened on the last day of the previous WSF in Dakar in 2011. On that day, Hosni Mubarek was forced to abandon the presidency of Egypt. Everyone at the WSF applauded. But many said that this very act proves the irrelevance of the WSF. Did any of the revolutionaries in Tunisia or Egypt draw their inspiration from the WSF? Had they even heard of the WSF?

Yet two years later, the WSF met in Tunis, invited by the very groups that launched the revolution in Tunisia, and who seemed to think that holding the WSF in Tunis would be a great assistance to their internal struggle to preserve the gains of the revolution against forces that they believed were working to tame the revolution and to bring to power a new form of oppressive, antisecular, governance.

The long-time slogan of the WSF has been "another world is possible." The Tunisians insisted on adding a new one, displayed with equal prominence at the meeting. The slogan was "Dignity" -- on everyone's badge in seven languages. In many ways, this additional slogan emphasizes the essential element that brings together the organizations and individuals present at the Forum -- the search for true equality, which respects and enhances the dignity of everyone everywhere.

This doesn't mean that there was total accord at the Forum. Far from it! One way to analyze the differences is to see them as reflecting the contrast between emphases on hope and emphases on fear. As constituted, the Forum has always been a large and inclusive arena of participants ranging from the far left to the center-left. For some this has been its strength, allowing a mutual education of the various tendencies and various zones of primary concern -- a mutual education that would lead in the middle run to joint action to transform our existing capitalist system. For others this seems the path to co-option by those who wish merely to palliate existing inequalities without making any fundamental change. Hope versus fear.

Another source of constant discussion has been the role of left political parties in the process of transformation. For some, no significant changes can be made in either the short-run or the middle-run without left parties in power. And once in power, these people feel it is essential to keep them in power. Others resist this idea. They feel that, even if one helps such parties come to power, the social movements should remain outside as critical controls on these parties, whose actual practice will almost certainly fall short of their promises. Once again, hope versus fear.

The attitude to have toward the newly-emerging countries -- the so-called BRICS and others -- is another source of division. For some the BRICS represent an important counter-force to the classical North -- the United States, western Europe, and Japan. For others, they raise suspicions about a new group of imperialist powers. The role of China today in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is particularly controversial. Hope versus fear.

The actual program of the world left is another source of internal debate. For some, the WSF has been good on the negative -- opposition to imperialism and neoliberalism. But it has been sadly lacking in proposing specific alternatives. These persons call for the development of concrete programmatic objectives for the world left. But for others, the attempt to do this would serve primarily to divide and weaken the forces brought together in the WSF. Hope versus fear.

Another constant locus of debate is what has been called the "decolonization" of the WSF. For some, the WSF has been from the beginning too much in the hands of persons from the pan-European world, of men, of older persons, and others defined as coming from the privileged populations of the world. The WSF has, as an organization, sought to extend itself beyond its initial base -- extending itself geographically, seeking to make its structures reflect more and more demands from the base. This has been a continual effort, and looking at each successive Forum, the WSF has become in this sense more and more inclusive. The presence at Tunis of all sorts of "new" organizations -- Occupy, Indignados, etc. -- is proof of this. For others, this goal has been very far from achieved, to the point where some doubt there has been any real intention to realize this objective. Hope versus fear.

The WSF was founded as a space of resistance. Twelve years later, it remains the only place where all sides to these debates come together to continue the discussion. Are there people who are tired of the same continuing debates? Yes, of course. But there also seem always to be new persons and groups arriving who seek to participate and contribute to the construction of an efficacious world left. The World Social Forum is alive and well.

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).

Copyright ©2013 Immanuel Wallerstein - distributed by Agence Global


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