A report on the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil – Editors
Porto Alegre, Brazil–There is no better measure of the accomplishments and contradictions of the movement against global capital that first appeared with the Seattle protests of 1999 than the World Social Forum (WSF), held on Jan. 26-31 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Organized into 11 “thematic spaces,” this year’s WSF was the largest since the gatherings began in 2001 as a counterpart to the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland. Some 150,000 people from 135 countries attended this year’s WSF, which included 6,800 speakers and over 2,500 panels.
FREE FLOW OF IDEAS
The WSF has long been important because of its ability to create a forum at which grassroots activists and theoreticians can come together to discuss alternatives to the globalization of capital without being hemmed in by any single line of authority.
Thousands of Dalits and lower-caste Indians turned out for last year’s WSF in Mumbai, India, helping to generate a level of political discussion and debate that led not long afterwards to the eviction of the ruling Hindu fundamentalist BJP from power.
This year’s WSF was no less successful in maintaining an open, liberatory space, outside the control of traditional parties or political tendencies.
One reflection of this was that the organizers decided not to pay the travel and accommodation expenses of celebrity speakers, choosing instead to create a “solidarity fund” to finance the transportation costs of representatives from poor communities. As a result, there was a visible presence of grassroots activists from a large number of countries who rarely get the chance to meet together, ranging from India to Cambodia, and from Bolivia to Haiti.
Also instead of having plenaries where internationally recognized speakers address tens of thousands at a time, all events at this year’s WSF were self-organized workshops, involving at the most 2,000 at a time. This allowed for more face-to-face dialogue and less demagogic speech-making by self-appointed left-wing “spokespersons.”
The one exception was the speech given by Luiz Ignacio da Silva (Lula), leader of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) and president since 2003. His speech capped a rally of 200,000 that opened the event. The PT had long been a moving force behind the WSF, but after two years in power–in which Lula’s PT has adopted much of the neo-liberal economic policies that the WSF was created to oppose–there is growing disillusionment in Brazil over his rule. This was reflected in the boos he received from parts of the crowd, though many also cheered Lula–especially when he attacked Bush.
WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
The fact that dissatisfaction with the PT’s policies did not dampen the turnout–85% of those present were from Brazil–indicates that the movement against global capital has not yet run its course. If anything, the criticism of Lula’s policies helped raise the level of discussion. Many said recent events in Brazil and elsewhere make it more important than ever not just to critique globalized capitalism but to determine what kind of new society we are for.
One reflection of this is the widespread view among many that the notion of seizing power and then only afterwards figuring out how to reorganize society is no longer valid. This perspective was especially predominant in sessions sponsored by indigenous rights groups and at the international youth encampment, where 35,000 camped out (at least 80% of the crowd at the WSF was under 30 years of age).
As the Movimiento Raiz, based in the Andean region, put it: “We refuse to be articulated around the paradoxical and frustrating strategy of ‘resisting power by becoming power yourself’ and ‘to take power with the goal of afterwards changing society’ which ended in the massive retreat of the extinct ‘socialist’ camp facing capitalism, which facilitated the counter-revolution of global capitalism, euphemistically named ‘globalization.’ Our democracy should be a total, social, direct, alternative and planetary democracy. A new network of new theories is needed with new movements which reinvents and redefines socialism and democracy.”
This perspective also characterized the many sessions devoted to feminism, some of which had as many as 1,500 women from 30 different countries in them at a time. Some were devoted to the upcoming Women’s Global March for Humanity, which will begin on March 8 in Sao Paulo and end in Burkino Faso in October. The march plans to visit 50 countries, visiting rural areas as well as cities. The diverse group of women who spoke, ranging from Canada to South Africa to Dalits from India, made it clear that they wanted the discussions at the WSF to lead to greater coordinated action by women around the world instead of relying on state powers.
The hunger for new ideas to address alternatives was palpable throughout the WSF, though few sessions addressed specific theories that can help illuminate the content of a non-capitalist society. The difference between Marx’s concepts and those of many post-Marx Marxists was raised only rarely.
One exception was a panel on “Rosa Luxemburg in the 21st Century.” It included a vibrant discussion on what the founder of Marxist-Humanism, Raya Dunayevskaya, called “THE problematic of our day–the question of socialist democracy AFTER the revolutionary conquest of power.”
A question posed by a 19-year-old woman–which followed a discussion in which Brazilian youth asked questions about Marx’s Humanism, its difference from Marxist-Leninism, and the relation between social revolution and Marx’s critique of alienation–summed up the challenge being posed by many young activists today: “I don’t know much about Luxemburg. I haven’t read much theory. But I have many questions. Two years ago we were all so excited about Lula’s election. We thought things would change. But now we see he won’t fight for the workers. Everyone now feels so alienated. How do we know this won’t happen again and again? I want to keep fighting but I’m not sure what’s the point if we’re going to keep going through this. How can these ideas you are discussing help us stay in the fight for a different society?”
The strength of the WSF also reflects weaknesses, both politically and philosophically. The desire to have open dialog and to avoid the factionalism of the old vanguardist Left sometimes led to a reluctance to raise contentious issues. One expression of this is the tendency to focus on “neo-liberalism” and criticism of the U.S. while saying little or nothing about Islamic fundamentalism and other tendencies that adopt a narrow anti-imperialist position.
Many speakers virtually equated “neo-liberalism” and even capitalist globalization with the U.S.–as if the world isn’t full of oppressive regimes and sub-imperialisms outside of direct U.S. control. Likewise, in several panels the “Iraqi resistance” was uncritically heralded–even though much of this “resistance” has been busy murdering Iraqi trade unionists and feminists who don’t accept a fundamentalist or neo-Ba’athist agenda. Many seemed reluctant to criticize such regressive tendencies on the grounds that opposing the U.S. as THE enemy of humanity trumps all other concerns.
The failure to recognize that we face not one but two enemies–established society AND tendencies that oppose it in the name of anti-human agendas–can hardly enable the movement against global capital to overcome the lack of clarity it exhibited in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Another problem was the lack of concrete, rigorous discussion about the content of a new society. It is one thing to say “another world is possible”; it is quite another to engage in the theoretical work of addressing how to create a new society freed from the dominance of capital.
Some at the WSF went no further than calling for a redistribution of global resources while refraining from any socialist or revolutionary perspective. Others who consider themselves revolutionary and who realize the futility of reducing everything to seizing power concluded that what is needed is to carve out autonomous zones freed from the impact of capital wherein we can “try to live differently.”
However such a notion cannot long hold the attention of humanity so long as global capitalism is bent on destroying any haven that tries to remain freed from the capital-relation.
Much of the movement has absorbed a key lesson of the aborted revolutions of our time–namely, that having a centralized leadership or a vanguard party is the road to disaster. This creates an openness to decentralized forms of organization and calls for genuine democracy, but it does not by itself lead to filling the philosophic void in articulating an alternative to capitalism. And when there is a void the old can rush back in to supply easy answers.
A RETURN TO STATISM?
One expression of the tendency to hem in a new reality into an old duality was the “blueprint document” signed by 19 intellectuals as the WSF was ending that outlined specific “programmatic goals” that the movement should focus on. This 12-point document, hammered out in the privacy of a hotel room, called for debt cancellation, a Tobin tax on international financial transactions, “equitable terms of trade,” and moving the UN from New York to a “southern” location. The signers of this rather unradical document included Candido Grybiwski, Jose Saramago, Tariq Ali, and Immanuel Wallerstein. It is doubtful that this document will have much impact, since it was viewed by many as contradicting the horizontal, democratic character of the WSF.
More serious is the attraction of Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela. Chavez spoke as the WSF was ending in Gigantinho Stadium in Porto Alegre. Tens of thousands at the WSF turned out for his speech, hoping that he would present himself as a radical alternative to Lula. Chavez chose not to criticize Lula in his speech, though he did energize the crowd by proclaiming for the first time that he is in favor of “socialism.”
Chavez declared: “We must transcend capitalism. But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the USSR. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project, and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything. That’s the debate we must promote around the world. The WSF is a good place to do it.”
The question is what Chavez really means by such lofty words, since much of the movement against global capital had been wary of his populism out of fear that he favors a top-down “revolution” that acts “in the interests” of the masses instead of allowing them to transform society on their own.
Yet such criticisms of Chavez are increasingly taking the back seat–partly out of a sense of desperation over other alternatives and partly because many harbor illusions that “nationalized industry” is an alternative to “neo-liberalism.”
Chavez is surely playing the nationalization card. In January he nationalized Venepol, Venezuela’s largest paper products plant. It was closed by its private owners several years ago as part of an effort to unseat Chavez; in response, workers occupied the plant and ran it on their own through workers’ self-management until last September, when it again closed. Chavez now plans for the state to run the plant, with a promise that it can be “converted” into a co-management structure between the state and workers at some unspecified future date.
Many leftists are hailing this as a “revolutionary” act–even though it was announced that the plant will be organized by the Labor Ministry. Chavez also plans to create several state-run food-processing plants to “break the monopoly” of the private sector and to nationalize plants in the key industrial region of Guayana. It should be noted that several plants in the region that are already state-run, like Alcar, an aluminum processing plant, have experienced conflicts between workers and management.
Given Chavez’s increasing penchant for nationalized property, it is no wonder that he recently warmly praised Russia’s President Putin, who has sought to move Russia away from the wholesale privatization of the 1990s.
While the ultimate trajectory of Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” is far from clear, the fact that many in the movement against global capital are jumping to embrace him is a disturbing sign. In the absence of a comprehensive concept of a new society that transcends both free market privatization and statist nationalization, many are reverting to the old notion that the nationalization of property represents the negation of capitalism–despite almost 100 years of evidence to the contrary.
The promise of the WSF, and of the movement against global capital as a whole, will be thwarted by accepting half-way houses or shortcuts to liberation. The fact that the WSF continues to grow, as seen in plans to hold several regional forums around the world in 2006 and a unified WSF in Africa in 2007, is a welcome sign. For the movement not to become compromised by existing society, however, the development of a comprehensive concept of a GENUINE alternative is imperative. That is not just for “others” to engage in. It is THE task facing us all.
Originally appeared in News & Letters, May-June 2005