That Other World

"So where is the Left?" asked José Saramago as the crisis was reaching its peak. Wall Street was becoming socialist and its very foundations were collapsing. The response was muted, representative of a moment of withdrawal and general uncertainty.

Belém, Brazil: Site of the ninth World Social Forum.

It was in this context that, between January 27 and February 1, the ninth World Social Forum (WSF) took place in Belém do Pará, Brazil. The northeastern port city, which sits on the banks of the Amazon, hosted 133,000 representatives of various organizations, social movements, left-wing parties, nongovernmental organizations, as well as other alterglobalists from 142 countries for a debate that had become an inevitability. For some, the WSF had to carry on being a "non decision-making" space for "civil society" which should limit itself to a space for meeting and exchanging experiences. But the issues raised by many others veered in the opposite direction. By understanding the Forum not as a solution in itself, but rather as a tool to build an "other world" that so many years ago was said to be possible, the crux of this new debate had to center on providing a moderately-structured response to the current financial collapse and the various wars taking place.

The WSF began in 2001, in the Brazilian city of Porta Alegre, the birthplace of "participatory budgeting" and the notable stomping ground of the Unique Workers’ Center (Central Única dos Trabalhadores, CUT) and the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST). Those were tough times, with constant steps taken backward in the face of the galloping advance of the neoliberal model. The situation was urgent and there was not enough room for sophisticated theories and political definitions that would have ended up excluding those who were already marginalized by organizations that violently opposed resistance.

This is why the WSF was conceived with a wide, inclusive slogan: "Another world is possible." After the slogan was devised, every possible form of alter-globalization was incorporated. Within this, there were no political platforms nor were there concrete action programs, to such an extent that in its founding letter the WSF defines itself as a "non-deliberative and non-decision-making" space. The symbolic enemy was always the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF), which year after year took place in a sophisticated Swiss ski resort and which, this time around, although fearful of a social backlash, once again supported the free market and openly demonstrated its opposition to a return to the "excessive regulation" of the 70s.

Eight years on from the events of 2001 (and after eight World Social Forums across the globe1), the world has changed. Capitalism has again shot itself in the foot, devouring itself, demonstrating, this time around, a lack of capacity for reinvention. As such, Davos lives on but this time it is without the significance traditionally attached to the event. Only desperate proclamations and nervous faces emerged from the Forum.

The neoliberal crisis, the silence of the Left, and the ascent of progressive governments in the region demanded another type of debate. Raised fists and eloquent slogans didn’t go far enough when faced with this battle.

This is why, for the first time, five current Latin American presidents were present in Belém, while only two showed up to Davos.2 The debate was gathering pace, just as it had at the III Continental Summit of Indigenous Pueblos and Nations of Abya Yala which took place in 2007 in Guatemala. It went from a debate on "resistance" to one on "taking power." Of course, not everyone agreed with this move. In fact, the disagreements on this matter were what universally divided the Forum.


In previous meetings, the MST had played a key role in the organization of the WSF, providing resources and participants. This time around that was not the case. It limited itself to participating in and organizing only one type of event: the presidential leaders’ attendance.

The signs were there for all to see. By not inviting its one-time ally, Inácio Lula da Silva, to Universidad Estadual on January 29 for the debate involving social organizations and the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, MST was delivering a clear indication of a crack in a relationship which has yet to reach a breaking point.

João Pedro Stedile, leader of the MST and Vía Campesina, did not mince words. Behind closed doors, in front of little more than 1,000 audience members, he showed austerity. "We want to exchange opinions, because the fight against neoliberalism brings us to where we are today. But now we must take steps toward structural change," he said.

Directing his comments to the four presidents, he told them, "You haven’t moved fast enough. You have your meetings, you tell us your opinions on current events, but we want more. We want structural changes, not medicine for capitalism. I hope that the social movements will be invited to your next government summit."

In turn, he called for unity and action. "It is time for us all to unite. We cannot waste any time on our differences. We have to unite popular struggles to fight the crisis of capitalism. The search for 21st century socialism could last a century, but we need it tomorrow. We spoke here of recovering our sovereignty and breaking with dependence. What we need to do is talk about the nationalization of banks, because with the financial grip they have, the people’s moment will never come."

Yet even more compelling was the real debate, which surrounded the chosen speaker. By withdrawing from the general organization, he isolated many NGOs which, by definition, spurn governments regardless of the politics they stand for. The MST opted—and this is not a minor point—to discuss ideas and projects with governments.

The intellectual camp was not oblivious to the sidelining.

"What attitude is being taken toward those governments, who are the representatives of the continued confrontation of neoliberalism that are struggling for the construction of alternatives to the model? They [the forum organizers] were not prepared, because they organized for the resistance phase, limiting their action to a supposed ‘civil society,’ excluding the political sphere and, therefore, political parties, the state, the governments, and the strategy," summarized Emir Sader, the executive secretary of the Latin American Social Sciences Council (Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, CLACSO), present at the forum in Belém.

"In this context, the forums were going in the wrong direction, and stopped being the focal point of anti-neoliberal opposition, thus handing over their power to governments who put into practice measures of varying scope and success to break the model."

The Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos3 wrote that, "The largest media outlets broadcast over and over again the diagnosis of the global situation outlined by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its meeting this year. It is a somber diagnosis which correlates many points made in the diagnosis outlined by the World Social Forum in successive meetings since 2001. It is not important to know if the WSF was right, but ahead of time, or if the WEF is right, but too late. On the contrary, it is important to reflect on the fact that the WSF has not had the influence or been able to apply the pressure it had hoped to on political decision-makers."

He continued, "This is due, in part, to a choice made by the WSF: to be an open space for every movement and organization that fights peacefully for the possibility of another world, without realizing that such openness could be compromised by political decisions and the complete inability to obtain a consensus."

The Egyptian economist and historian, Samir Amin, confronted the issue head-on. "We have stumbled because of objectives that are short on morals, too general, and merely say, ‘we are for a better and more just world.’ You have to define what a better and more just world is and the political strategies needed for its implementation!"

"I believe that now we have to raise the question of political strategies. We don’t necessarily have to unite as one organization, but rather we must find a meeting point within our diversity. Various fronts, diverse cultural references, diverse transformation goals, different types of struggles … But the political question is central to all of this and we must dare to say so," Amin said defiantly.4

"The Devil"

It was a warm night on January 29, inside the hangar of Universidad Estadual. The Forum’s location was packed by the presence of hundreds of students, natives, trade union members, and activists from around the world. A globe was spinning in the center of the building, but behind the main stage a banner contained the outline of the South American continent. The roundtable discussion was on "Latin America and the challenges of the international crisis." The speakers: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Fernando Lugo, Evo Morales, and Inacio Lula da Silva.

The Bolivian leader was the first to take the floor. Like many of his colleagues, Morales recounted the obstacles he faced in order to get to previous Forums, when he was a simple cocalero. He assured the audience that his government is like a child of the WSF, and that the "other world" is not only possible but rather it has already begun, and he later proposed three campaigns to embark on.

One—against the invasions of Gaza, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and he called for an end to the right of veto at the UN Security Council. "We have to end the monarchy at the UN. It is not possible to have one country with more power than 190. The anarchy at the UN has to end if democracy is to be achieved," he argued.

The second initiative broached the idea of a "new international economic order based on solidarity, justice, and mutual respect among nations," which reforms the financial and commercial institutions set up at Bretton Woods. "The World Bank, the IMF (International Monetary Fund), and the World Trade Organization have to be fundamentally transformed if they want to be financial institutions at the service of the people. We cannot allow them to be given a make-over so that they can continue as they are."

The goal of the third campaign is to save the planet. To do this, according to Morales, it is necessary to "change consumer habits, since Mother Earth is our home and our life source."

The subject of the environment was another issue at the Forum. It was the idea of the organizers who, not coincidentally, chose a location for the meeting which was as remote as it was symbolic: the heart of the Amazon. In turn, the climate change issue played the role of a rallying call which the banner of "another world is possible" could no longer satisfy. In Belém, no one denied the serious impact that the capitalist crisis was having on various areas, one of which was food. Facts are facts: according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the number of people in the world suffering from hunger rose from 832 million in 2007 to 963 million in 2008.

Next up in the hangar was Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. As a self-defined "economist with a lot of common sense," his speech oscillated from the technical to the charismatic. He stated that today, South America is not experiencing "an era of change, but rather a change of era" and he assured the audience that the current crisis is "inherent to the capitalist model" and therefore "it is time to change the dominant paradigm."

Correa began the debate on controversial "21st century socialism" defining it as a "collective action to solve problems as one entity." He called for economic planning, highlighting the role of the state and its involvement in public matters. Coming from a dollar-dominated country, he asked for regional unity to accelerate a single currency, and he proposed promotion of an Organization of American States (OAS) which includes Cuba and excludes the United States. At the same time he distanced himself from real socialism because its "competitive manner was jeopardizing labor and social conditions." The new project, he assured, "does not have set recipes, because self-criticism is necessary. Socialism is neither unique nor static, and we do not believe in manuals or dogmas."

Later, the forum saw the introduction of Fernando Lugo (president of Paraguay) to the public. With a poetic tone, the bishop asked, "What are we waiting for in order to declare the construction of another world at the permanent assembly?" And he surprised everyone when he looked directly at Lula and raised the issue of the disagreements between both countries on the subject of the Itaipu hydroelectric dam.

Hugo Chávez said little, just what was necessary. "Previously, Fidel Castro and I were the demons." Now, there is only "one devil." His role was to rally the social organizations, asking them to "redouble their support and become more of an ‘offensive’ force."

Lula took to the stage, grabbed the microphone from its place, and rolled up his sleeves. Part evangelical pastor, part trade unionist-turned-president, he charismatically strolled across the stage, sweating while firing off sarcastic remarks, campaign slogans, and memorable sound bites.

"The developed world told us what we had to do in Latin America. They seemed infallible and we seemed incompetent. They sold us the idea that the state couldn’t do anything and the market would develop our countries. That market has failed due to lack of responsibility and control. Today we must say, ‘another world is possible’ and even more than that, it is necessary and essential for us to look for a new order," he quipped. "This crisis is not our crisis," he added, and the hangar, full of Petistas (members of Lula’s PT Workers Party), agreed wholeheartedly.

He could have let the disagreements raised by Lugo pass. But this was not the case. He confronted them with a conciliatory tone. He charmed both the Paraguayan and Morales, with whom he has had friction over the nationalization of oil in Bolivia. "I will never allow a steel worker from Sao Paulo to fight with an indigenous Bolivian," he promised.

In Belém, the World Social Forum experienced a seismic internal shift. There was a clear and categorical debate on organizational methodology and strategic objectives. The debate was healthy, and shows that the Forum is dynamic and understands when it needs to reconsider its opinions. The locations being put forward for the next meeting in 2011 are the United States, Senegal, and South Africa. Two years will have passed and no doubt the meeting will require other debates. But in Brazil, a positive precedent has been set, which is even more significant if we recall that at the same time, on the other side of the world, the former superpowers have been rendered impotent and nervous as they become entangled in a crisis of their own making.

End Notes

  1. Porto Alegre (2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005), one in India, the complex forum of 2006 that took place in Mali, Pakistan, and Venezuela, the controversial forum of 2007 in Kenya, and the decentralized post of 2008.
  2. Álvaro Uribe of Colombia and Felipe Calderón of México were present at the WEF in Switzerland.
  3. Articles from Boaventura de Sousa Santos (in Portugese),
  4. Taken from Rebelión (Spanish),"luchas-muy-importantes-no-están-presentes-en-el-foro-social-mundial"-.




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