The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The author is a political scientist and has recently published the book, Communalism Contested: Religion, Modernity and Secularization

The World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, from January 23-28 was a truly extraordinary affair, one that I was fortunate enough to have attended as an invited speaker. On the day preceding the formal opening ceremony there was a huge rally of anything between 70,000 to 100,000 people full of energy and youthful enthusiasm. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of this WSF was that a very large number of young people participated. The old established left organizations worldwide may have difficulties attracting the young to their meetings, not the WSF. In fact, one of the strengths of the forum is that it has become a place where older traditions of progressive thinking do get a hearing (and enjoy some influence) among the young, who are not as familiar as previous generations were with the discourse of Marxism, anarchism and socialism in their various forms.

Politically and organizationally, the outcome of the forum was both positive and negative. For a long time, the two movements against globalization and the imperialism were going their separate ways. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, many were writing off the possibility of convergence between these two streams in view of the subdued response of so many of the anti-globalization activists and groups.

However, the vigorous American push for war against Iraq has fostered a growing discontent and anger with a power that seems neither to know nor want any restraints, and is unwilling to abide by international norms and willing to pursue double standards in the most defiantly blatant ways. As a result, what has distinguished this WSF from the previous ones is precisely this coming together of the movements of anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberal globalization with the United States of America increasingly being seen as the unifying principal enemy in both respects. Both the huge opening and closing marches (which had the most incredible array of banners and participants reflecting the remarkable diversity of concerns, movements, groups and issues). The biggest of the collective gatherings held in the closed Gigantinho stadium (capacity 20,000 plus) expressed this growing political unity.

If this was the single most important political gain of this WSF, there is also a real danger that the event can become more important than the process that such worldwide gatherings were meant to initiate and promote. That is to say, there is a real danger that these annual meetings become more and more like political jamborees where different groups sell their respective political wares, where the very fact of having such a meeting becomes an end in itself, a kind of routine symbolic politics of “global unity” whose unsettling impact on the highly coordinated guardians of international capitalism progressively declines.

This can only be changed if the arena provided by such WSFs is used to generate growing understanding and analysis, and out of this, a stronger programme of coordinated action, such as the incredibly successful February 15 action when over 11 million people demonstrated in over 340 cities and towns worldwide to protest the imminent US war on Iraq. Of course, such coordination is not meant to encompass or apply to all or even most participating groups or movements. But it is meant to take place among wider subsets of participants who should come not just to preach or listen, but to begin working with each other more.

Thus, organizationally, even as the WSF continues to see itself as primarily an arena and not as an actor in its own right, its organizers have to think of how the current structure of conferences, seminars and workshops can be modified to promote efforts at synthesis of thought and action.

Size is a possible problem. The bigger the WSF gets every year, the more it will become like a global pep rally, which is fine in itself — in these reactionary times progressives certainly need to feel less isolated and to have powerful morale boosters — but hardly enough. The next WSF, which is to be held in India in 2004, affords an important geographical shift to another part of the South with its own catalyzing impact on expanding the anti-globalization/anti-imperialist movement. But it should give priority to how it can strengthen the process of alliance-building based on a more non-sectarian and inclusivist politics than much of the radical and progressive traditions have known so far.

The WSF dynamic was itself made possible because of the distinctive character of Brazilian politics, the way in which the Workers’ Party has itself grown out of a broad coalition of progressive movements. The party still retains a broad non-sectarian character quite unlike the way parties, movements and forces have emerged elsewhere in the world. This is the challenge — not to try and replicate the Workers’ Party or the Brazilian experience of social movements but to institutionalize the lessons of political inclusivism that this experience and so many others over the last two decades have thrown up.

On a more personal note, there were two things that impressed me most. First, the overall coordinators, whether located in the Brazilian-dominated organizing committee or in the much broader international council, encouraged the formation of an important symposium called “Life After Capitalism”, which should have been much better publicized and attended than it was. Here were some of the most interesting attempts to build a vision of what an alternative economic system to the current neoliberal globalization could be like, based on actual experiments in, for example, “solidarity economics” such as the participatory budget planning of Porto Alegre itself. The possibilities discussed ranged from a more ameliorative capitalism to centralized planning to market socialism to green bio-regionalism to participatory economics of a dramatically new kind. The main thing was that assessments of new practice and bold new and exploratory thinking were taking place here, however tentatively they might be.

Second, it was wonderful for an ageing member of the Sixties radical generation to see Che Guevara T-shirts outnumbering all other political T-shirts. True, the overwhelming majority of participants were from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and a few other countries in Latin America. And true, Latin America being the continent closest to the US, Latin Americans (even the more politically apathetic among them) have a cynicism about the US that is not as widespread or as deep in other continents.

But there were many others from Africa and Asia who were wearing, buying and selling such Che T-shirts. The reason was obvious. No other figure in contemporary history stands for committed, unselfish and heroic internationalism as much as Che does. Who else can better symbolize the collective global struggle of our times' This is the struggle to prove, as the principal WSF slogan puts it, that “Another World is Possible”.

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