From Tue Nov 11 10:45:28 2003
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Another world is possible
Date: Tue, 11 Nov 2003 13:21:07 +0100 (CET)


Changed landscape of the campaign for social justice: Another world is possible

By Françoise Houtart, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2003

Social forums form a federation of resistance to neoliberal policies, and the Second European Social Forum in Paris this month may help to build a Europe not governed wholly by finance.

SMALL cotton producers in West Africa, subsistence farmers in Chiapas or Ecuador, landless peasants in Brazil, the poor in Bangkok, water users in Bolivia or Sri Lanka, women supporting families by casual labour, the long-term unemployed, modern nomads and migrants: all are subject to the same laws of value but all are now vulnerable. Some because of the relationship between income and capital, others because of financial and legal mechanisms. Economic globalisation has changed these systems because of the preponderance of financial capital and the weight of debt, because of fiscal paradises, high interest rates, structural adjustment programmes, damage to welfare states and World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. Subcontracting has increased; deregulation, and with it shrinking social protection and sometimes incomes, is the norm.

Thirty years of attacks on work and state to facilitate the accumulation of capital (following the principles of the Washington Consensus) and 10 years of triumphant neoliberalism since the fall of the Berlin Wall have changed the landscape of the campaign for social justice (1). At first such campaigns were fragmented while economic decision-making became increasingly consistent and powerful. Fragmentation was exacerbated by failures and problems that stripped the traditional opposition forces of credibility. Real socialism failed, leftwing opposition parties were weak and hampered by their vertical structures, communist parties died out and social democracy was compromised. Despite this, people from all sections of society came together enthusiastically. With the fusion of two models of resistance —old movements (mainly unions) and new players of the 21st century—the counter-globalisation movement has emerged (2).

New initiatives began during the 1990s, including People's Power 21 (an alliance of Asian movements), the anti-neoliberal summit organised by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the Other Davos (3), and Attac's international meetings in Paris in 1999. Besides the aim of opposing the policies of those in power, there gradually emerged the idea of creating a counterweight. Beside the mass assemblies of Seattle (1999), Genoa (2001) and Cancun (2003), the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre provided an alternative summit to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

It was not easy to bring together so many heterogeneous resistance movements. Though the basis of these gatherings was set out in the WSF's charter, the campaign against neoliberalism and the search for alternatives encompasses people from very different geographical, sociological and cultural backgrounds. This diversity is both a strength and a weakness. There is a worldwide tendency to reject organised resist ance in favour of spontaneous initiatives, popular with many young participants.

Since 1999 two distinct initiatives have brought tens of thousands of people together. There have been protests against major worldwide political or economic conferences - the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the WTO, the European Union. There have also been the more institutional social forums, from the WSF to continental, national or local meetings. These are now an established political fact. It makes sense for resistance to neo-liberal globalisation to continue on the usual model of demonstrations and counter-summits. But there are questions about the nature, aims, workings and future of the social forums. Debates are raging on all these issues, more precisely defined as time goes on. It would be impossible to develop an alternative political agenda without contradictions or tension.

Some call it the movement of movements. In fact the word forum is better suited to these events, where people meet, discuss and think (4). There is no majority voting at meetings, which do not produce closing statements or even instructions. These are the practical consequences of having heterogeneous participants; anything else would lead to paralysis or break-up. There are no chairmen or steering committees, just a secretariat, plus an international council for the WSF.

This catalytic role has its downside. Participants can come up with suggestions, as at Porto Alegre in 2003, when they had the idea of demonstrating against the impending war against Iraq (5). That makes it hard to define political objectives. But what effect could such objectives have? Of course, the general objectives defined in the forums' charter provide some focus for the assemblies, but there are major differences of opinion over what is wrong with the current system and what alternatives to propose. To rage against the machine is one thing; to mount a serious campaign against it another. Solutions put forward range from humanising the capitalist system to replacing it with an entirely different philosophy. Still, the fact that such an inclusive movement has managed to build up a collective social consciousness worldwide is an achievement. It has replaced Margaret Thatcher's There is no alternative with Another world is possible.

But you can't change the world with a slogan. Action remains essential and political effectiveness indispensable. This is the reason behind the constitution, within the forums, of a council incorporating unions, agricultural workers' movements, Attac and other organisations, whose representatives take up positions collect ively. For similar reasons, there has been a limited, cautious opening up to mainstream politics. Though wary of being manipulated, the movement believes that such contacts are necessary for the proper representation of its proposed alternatives. Nevertheless the question of how the forums should interact with political parties—if at all—is far from resolved, and attitudes are likely to change during the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January 2004.

The forums' structure reflects their nature and their goals. Their diversity requires them to be highly inclusive and flexible but their aim demands coherence and efficiency. The forums are a movement of mass participation, unlike the elitism of Davos. This is a great strength. The big weakness is the constant risk of a collapse into enjoyable anarchy. Until now the balance has been maintained thanks to a shared awareness of the adversary's aggressive nature, to a spirit of tolerance within the movement and, in the WSF, to the Brazilian organisers' intelligence.

At the birth of the first communist International, Marx and Engels faced a similar situation: there was a variety of organisations with different levels of social awareness, with unions, illegal in many countries, in a minority. Their goal was different: to bring the working class into the international political arena. Yet the founders insisted on avoiding authoritarianism, top-down decision-making, or adoption of positions not agreed upon across the whole movement. Later, when the International's structure became ver tical and authoritarian, it broke up.

The social forums face internal and external problems. Internally, they bring together workers' unions of different political orientations, alongside many other social movements, each with its own culture of activism. NGOs are also part of the movement, and there is a danger that they could dominate the debate through their substantial personal and financial resources. Individual and institutional agendas influence the speeches and debates. And the proliferation and size of the WSF and the continental forums (100,000 people at Porto Alegre, 40,000 at Hyderabad, 40,000 at Florence) create logistical and financial problems.

Millions of dollars are needed for the budgets for such projects, mostly coming from the partici pants' registration payments. Public authorities made a vital contribution to the infrastructure needed in Brazil, Italy and France, but this will not be the case in India. And international foundations have provided funds for the preparation and organisation of the forums (6). But it is uncertain if such financial assistance will continue at the same level, or if numbers of participants will go on growing: the forums may be much less crowded in future.

The dominance of the middle classes and the poor representation of the working classes can be seen in the movement's language and sometimes in its ideology. Some accuse the forums of articulating a reformist view, which is that of the majority of participating organisations. But more radical positions are also represented, and the wealth of knowledge, analysis and ideas expressed allows shared social consciousness to develop. The need to create a strong global pole of opposition has facilitated alliances that would previously have been unthinkable, with some radicals recognising that short-term change must be reformist (just as long as it doesn't stop there).

External problems are also important. The system has found ways of defending itself. Bureaucratic nuisances are on the increase, penal legislation is being changed and activists are grouped with terrorists. In some countries social movements are being criminalised. On a more insidious level, the system undermines the movement by co-opting its terminology, altering the meaning of concepts like civil society, partici pation and the fight against poverty, and by involving campaign groups and NGOs in develop ment programmes funded by the World Bank, or in international meetings such as Davos.

The media tends to present the events as cultural curiosities, concentrating on colourful details or, where there are demonstrations against major decision-making powers, concentrating on violence committed by a minority or, as in Genoa in 2001, the result of police provocation. Behind outbreaks of violence there lies a genuine debate between moderates, keen to ground the movement and attract many participants to reach critical mass, and others who, exasperated by the system's capacity to absorb opposition while continuing on its destructive course, favour the use of force.

But beyond these problems a great step is being taken. A project is being worked on that, while not ready yet, could be a reality in the future. What kind of society do we want? What kind of education, health, transport, media, agriculture? The all-encompassing market, with its undesirable side-effects, is no longer the only way. This conviction must be translated into alternative medium- and long-term goals, in economics, politics, society and culture.

For this to happen, symbiosis between social movements and politically engaged intellectuals is crucial. The next WSF in Mumbai will further internationalise the movement, releasing it from the Latin American and European dominance of Porto Alegre. But how to bring the movement's alternatives into the political arena at a local, continental or global level? It cannot be done through one party with a monopoly on the truth, but by a convergence of different political players, through new forms, permanent or occasional. The social forums, which are neither an activists' Woodstock nor fifth International, are now the assemblies of a changing society.


(1) Laurent Delcourt, Bernard Duterme and François Polet, Forces et faiblesses du mouvement des mouvements, Politique, no 28, Paris, February 2003.

(2) Christophe Aguiton, Le Monde nous Appartient, Paris, Plon, 2001; Thomas Ponniah and William F Fisher, Another World is Possible, Zed books, London, 2003.

(3) François Houtart and François Polet, L'Autre Davos, Paris, l'Harmattan, 1999.

(4) Chico Whitaker, notes for the debate on the World Social Forum, WSF, 2002.

(5) On 15 February 2003 these demonstrations brought together over 15 million people around the world.

(6) Details of funding at