The annual gathering of the World Social Forum (WSF) — the left’s response to the elitist annual Davos World Economic Forum — runs in Montreal from August 9 to 14, with several thousand people from dozens of countries attending.
More than 1,000 self-managed sessions have activists discussing and creating progressive alternatives to traditional political, economic and social policies that they will take back to their own countries.
Over the years, more than a million activists have been educated and inspired at WSF gatherings held previously only in developing countries. Montreal was selected this year because it has been the site of outstanding social and political activism over the last decade.
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The WSF has an illustrious and radical history. Its first meetings, held in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, were inspired by socialists such Luiz Lula da Silva, the soon-to-be president of Brazil. Attended by 12,000 people, the sessions brought together anti-globalization activists from all over the world to talk and organize.
The Forum is an exciting event. “The scene bursts with energy as people who work on particular causes at home — feminism, the environment, Indigenous rights, economic justice, human rights, AIDS treatment and prevention, and many more — compare notes and strategies,” writes John L. Hammond of City University of New York.
Networking, discussing key issues and building alliances are the main activities at Forum sessions. The Forum can best be described as a “process,” an incubator facilitating new visions and ideas.
While the Forum tends to hold one huge annual meeting, more than 1,000 sessions have been held in many countries dealing with local issues.
WSF Has Had Key Victories
The activists bred by the WSF have won some important victories. They take credit for the collapse of the World Trade Organization’s Doha round in 2003, the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and exposing the harsh austerity programs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
However, now looking at the situation globally, the left has lost a tremendous amount of ground since the WSF was created 15 years ago. We now live in a world where the 1% has huge powers, corporations dominate our lives, neoliberal policies rein in the public and progressive governments have fallen in several countries.
In view of these challenges, it is time for the WSF to seriously evaluate itself and its place in the world.
While the Forum has been doing the same activities for several years, new groups such as Occupy Wall Street, Quebec’s red squares, the Indignados movement in Spain and Black Lives Matter, have moved into the spotlight.
Moreover, the WSF has lost some of its radical edge over the years. Organizers have given in to some extent to the influences of government and the corporate world — initially the group’s main enemies.
WSF Not Independent Enough
Eric Toussaint, a Belgian political scientist and one of the ideologists of the WSF, has been concerned for some time that the movement is not independent enough.
“It worries me to arrive in Porto Alegre and see that the seminar ‘Ten years later‘ is sponsored by Petrobras, Caixa, Banco do Brasil, Itaipu Binacional, with several governments in attendance,” he said on the 10th anniversary of the WSF.
“I would much rather have seen a Forum with less financial means but more militant in nature,” he said.
The sources of funding for the Montreal event may be an issue for some participants. Organizers claim the gathering will cost C $2.4-million (US $1,821,000). This includes C $710,000 (US $540,000) from various levels of government and another C $287,500 (US $218,200) from unidentified “solidarity and sponsorship supporters.”
Some participants complain about the increase in attendance by nongovernmental organizations, which tend to be more or less comfortable operating within the capitalist environment. Meanwhile, participation by Indigenous groups, which are usually more radical, has decreased.
The nature of the WFS event in developing countries over the years has been for large numbers of participants from the continent where the event is held to attend. However, with this get together in the North, Southern participation is expected to be down considerably.
Where Is the WSF Going?
Since its beginnings, the WSF has held that it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society, and therefore does not directly take part in political struggles. However, after 15 years of facilitating discussions, there are concerns that the Forum could flounder if it does not move in new directions.
Walden Bellow of the Philippines, executive director of the group Focus on the Global South and a former prominent politician, believes the Forum should be an “arena for action. It will push people into actively taking on issues and mobilizing for them.”
“Taking stands on key issues like US aggression in the Middle East, Zionist oppression of the Palestinian people, and the poverty-creating neo-liberal paradigm is vital to making the WSF vibrant and relevant,” Bellow said in a 2008 interview. “Refusing to take stands on the grounds that these will drive away some people is a sure way of ultimately making a movement irrelevant. The movements that advance and grow are those that are not afraid to take stands on the vital issues of our times.”
Pierre Beaudet, founder of Quebec NGO Alternatives, says there is “a recognized necessity for [WSF affiliated] movements to seize with both hands some major issues…. At this moment, the Forum could open up the self-organized convergences and go further than just producing a mixture of ideas which has characterized it thus far.
Adds Beaudet: “The difficulty, of course, is to identify the points of convergences, which is certainly not easy to do, considering the incredible diversity (which also comes with an incredible richness) of the participants from social movements.”
With its access to tens of thousands of activists, the Forum is the only progressive assembly in the world with the potential to facilitate action on a global scale on crucial issues.
Of course, the WSF could have taken on new directions at any time during the past few years. If the massive body is to begin changing direction in Montreal, it likely will have to overcome two obstacles.
The WSF’s complicated non-hierarchical system — perhaps reminiscent of the ungovernable mechanisms that laid low Occupy Wall Street — seems to prevent the Forum from moving forward. The other potential obstacle concerns leadership. Some of the men who have been at the forefront of the WSF movement for all of its 15 years are still there. Much has changed since then. Will new leadership emerge to work with the old guard to allow the WSF to retain the best of its past and also move in a new direction?