The End of The Beginning?
The World Social Forum is one of the most important
events of our age
OpenDemocracy, February 2002
In January last year, ten thousand dissidents against
the system we have been conditioned to call 'globalisation'
gathered in the Gaucho capital of southern Brazil, the
city of Porto Alegre. They came for the first ever World
Social Forum (WSF). Timed to coincide with the World
Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the WSF was billed
as the first truly global meeting in which alternatives
to global capitalism would be on show.
Two weeks ago, the second World Social Forum, again
in Porto Alegre, began: picking up where 2001 had left
off, but in a very different world. After 11 September,
Enron and Argentina, things were never going to be the
The same applied to the World Economic Forum, which
moved from Davos to New York. The move was reported
as a symbol of solidarity with Manhattan, but rumours
abounded that corporate leaders were afraid to fly and
that the Swiss government was no longer prepared to
tolerate mass protests against the summit.
For the 'anti-globalisation' movement, the second WSF
could become a moment of crystallisation. The movement
was dismissed after 11 September as dead in the water.
Supposedly born with the protests at Seattle, it had
apparently been brought down with the Twin Towers of
the World Trade Centre.
Instead, this year at Porto Alegre the 'movement of
movements' showed that, far from dying off, it had emerged
stronger: it had even, in a way, grown up. The number
of attendees increased six-fold. The gathering of 60,000
caused real problems for the organisers. It was impossible
to move fifty yards through the main conference venue
in anything less than an hour. What could easily have
been a talking shop, or a gathering of cautious reformists,
turned out, for the most part, to be a powerful collection
of people, movements and ideas - an event which Noam
Chomsky, one of the Forum's biggest draws, called "the
first real promise of a genuine International".
In over a thousand conferences, workshops and seminars,
some of the smartest thinkers in the movement - economists,
trade lawyers, educationalists, philosophers, writers
- laid out their stalls, laden with sometimes new, often
exciting, occasionally unconvincing but almost always
Representatives of grassroots movements and NGOs with
support bases numbering millions talked about their
work, made links, found common ground, discussed strategies
for the future. Altogether, despite its limitations
and problems, the second World Social Forum was a significant
success. A success which shattered two of the most widespread
myths about the anti-globalisation movement.
Myth One: we, the anti-globalisers
One of these myths is that this is an 'anti-globalisation'
movement at all. Chomsky, in his forensic way, said
what many others repeated over the six days of the Forum:
"Every progressive popular movement's goal, throughout
history, has been to create a movement of solidarity
which is global, in the interests of the people of the
world. In my view, Porto Alegre is the only globalisation
forum. There's an anti-globalisation forum taking place
in New York, which is trying to prevent this development."
This theme was touched on time and time again, as delegates
tried to dismantle the myth, powerfully played upon
by proponents of corporate libertarianism, that this
movement is a collection of 'antis' opposed to an inevitable
Lori Wallach, the American trade lawyer who almost
single-handedly launched the global campaign which wrecked
the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment four
years ago, took it up when she said, "the enemy
labels us 'anti'. They are the antis - they are holding
on to a failed status quo. We're the pros - we're pro-democracy,
diversity, equity, environmental health. We must go
forward as a movement for global justice."
Myth two: we, the anti-poor
The second myth, shattered at Porto Alegre by sheer
numbers, is the idea put about by people and institutions
as varied (and as similar) as the World Bank, the WTO,
Clare Short, George Bush, Vicente Fox and Tony Blair.
It is the accusation that this movement is 'anti-poor'
- a collection of ill-informed young rabble-rousers,
neo-Luddites and protectionists from the developed world,
driven by ideology, ignorance or self-interest to oppose
a system which, through the spread of trade and industrialisation,
lifts the world's poor out of poverty.
"Opposition to globalisation comes mainly from
the rich world" wrote former IMF executive Stanley
Fischer in The Economist recently, in a recent example
of this spin. Fischer didn't come to Porto Alegre, where
he would have witnessed tens of thousands of poor farmers,
fisherfolk, industrial workers, landless peasants, indigenous
people and slum dwellers who had come in far greater
numbers than the representatives of western NGOs.
Via Campesina, the global peasant farmers union, was
here in its thousands, camped in a local park. Members
of Brazil's landless workers movement (MST), one of
the organisations responsible for the birth of the WSF
in the first place, slept in a local gym with other
farmers and landless people from across Latin America.
Township dwellers from South Africa mingled with Thai
rice farmers, Indian women about to be made homeless
by the Narmada dam, Bangladeshi fishermen, Afghani women
fighting fundamentalism, Palestinian torture victims,
Quilombos from the free slave colonies of Colombia and
Amazon Indians in t-shirts and feather head-dresses.
All were united in their opposition to an economic system
which, in different yet strikingly similar ways, is
making their lives not better, but considerably worse.
Either the poor themselves are anti the interests of
the poor, or Stanley Fischer and his kind are telling
us fibs. The evidence in Porto Alegre was not on his
Ways and means
So what, apart from rhetoric and sheer numbers, was
on display at Porto Alegre? With the huge diversity
of the participants - from Oxfam to a ragbag of communist
parties, from local anarchists to global market reformers
- there was never going to be any one line, manifesto,
or agreed statement on a way forward.
This diversity is a strength which should ensure that
what emerges will not be yet another, homogenising top-down
blueprint for a new utopia - market- or state-based,
old left or new right - but a collection of realities
and systems operating within a single world.
But the diversity is also what has made it so difficult
until now for the movement to focus on coming together
around an agreed programme for the necessary steps to
tackle the global institutional framework, regulate
global trade and corporate power and take the democratic
project to its next stage.
Nevertheless, common themes began to emerge at Porto
Alegre, and it is this which suggests that the movement
is maturing. One area of broad agreement was the concept
of the 'global commons' - certain areas of life which
are, or should be, public - common - property, protected
in perpetuity from privatisation and commodification.
Such areas include the world's genetic and biological
heritage, basic needs like water, the atmosphere (which
cuts out the use of 'carbon trading' to tackle climate
change), public services (particularly health and education),
the airwaves, and the land.
From such general agreement came the launch of the
Porto Alegre Treaty on the Genetic Commons, put together
by a coalition of scientists and advocacy groups, which
will be taken to the Johannesburg (Rio+10) Earth Summit
in September. It calls for the recognition that "the
Earth's gene pool
exists in nature and therefore
must not be claimed as intellectual property even if
purified and synthesised in a laboratory."
Reining in the corporations
Another common theme emerged around the issue of global
economics. Attendees foresee the abolition of the Bretton
Woods institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and the
WTO, and a new charter for the radical reining-in of
Some of the most interesting proposals came from the
San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalisation
(IFG), which proposed unifying global governance under
a restructured, genuinely democratic UN. Its agenda
includes creating an International Insolvency Court,
an International Finance Organisation and an Organisation
for Corporate Accountability (which would impose tight
rules on business lobbying, and oversee the banning
of corporate donations to political parties). Corporate
subsidies must be eliminated, business costs must be
internalised, and directors and shareholders must take
liability for corporate wrongdoing.
Some might observe that, far from being radically new,
such proposals represent simply a neo-Keynesian solution
to current problems. They would have a point. That such
ideas are considered radical at all is perhaps an indication
of how advanced the cult of corporate libertarianism
IFG founder and author of When Corporations Rule the
World, David Korten, carried such ideas further when
he argued for the abolition of capitalism. It should
be replaced with a "true market economy",
in which companies would be rooted in local and national
economies. Multinationals and financial speculation
would be banned, and the right restored to governments
and communities to take whatever economic measures they
deem in their interests.
"Capitalism", he said, "is a word which
originated in the eighteenth century to describe a system
in which the few control production to the exclusion
of the many. This is not the same as a true market economy,
in which many small firms, rooted in local communities,
compete with each other. Let's be clear here - the idea
is precisely to eliminate capitalism, and with it the
institutional form of the limited liability corporation."
Korten skilfully criticised corporate libertarians
like WTO founder Peter Sutherland (recently interviewed
by OpenDemocracy) for presenting a false contrast between
the benefits of a 'free' market and the corrupt hand
of 'inefficient' government. He explained that today's
markets, far from being 'free', are skewed by and in
favour of the largest corporations, with a mixture of
hidden subsidies, tax breaks, opaque lobbying, political
donations, externalised costs and no meaningful corporate
accountability for wrongdoing.
He noted that the extension of the current global economic
system, far from lifting the poor out of poverty, is
concentrating power at the top of the economic pile.
With the support of the IMF, World Bank and WTO triumvirate,
it is consolidating the privatisation of precisely those
common resources - land, food crops, genetic inheritance,
water and more - which the poor need to survive. It
would be interesting to see Korten respond to Sutherland's
challenge to "name me a country that hasn't benefited
from greater access to free (sic) trade." There
is little doubt he could do so without blinking.
The ideas keep coming
The now familiar idea of a 'Tobin tax' on international
financial speculation was promoted heavily at Porto
Alegre. But newer ideas, which have already been shown
to work, were on show too.
In Porto Alegre itself, the city government has been
running a successful model of participatory budgeting
for ten years. Its citizens are given genuine control
over how their resources are spent. Such models are
beginning to link political liberty with economic liberty
- genuine control of resources and spending by the people
affected - which is becoming a key theme of the movement.
Economic liberty can be seen again in the concept of
"food sovereignty". This is explained by Paul
Nicholson of Via Campesina as "the right of citizens
to define the food they eat". It includes removing
agriculture from free trade agreements, banning GMOs
and instituting radical land reform for the benefit
of the poor. Democracy, too, is in for a revamp, with
ideas about community resource control, participatory
democracy and the radical localisation of power doing
the rounds on a daily basis.
Worth mentioning, too, are now familiar proposals often
defined as 'anti-', but which, if carried out, would
create a more positive world order. The unconditional
abolition of Third World Debt, the abolition of the
WTO Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)
agreement, the end of the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) - such measures, though specific and
reactive, would turn current realities on their head,
which is probably why we should not hold our breath
Porto Alegre 2002 was not without its drawbacks. The
fact that the local governing Workers Party (PT) was
co-organiser of the Forum led to disturbing displays
of propaganda from the party, which faces a presidential
election in September. The top-down nature of some of
the conferences, with long lectures and little participation
from the audience, went against the grain of the movement's
lust for genuine democracy at every level.
This led to the organisation of counter-summits to
this counter-summit by some more radical activists.
A coalition of Brazilian unions issued a statement condemning
the WSF as too reformist, and the lack of any final
statement or agreed programme, understandable though
it may be, left a sense of an unfinished project.
This, combined with the bad organisation of some aspects
of the conference (the programme was notoriously hard
to decipher, venues changed at the last minute, the
building was too small and there was simply too much
going on for anyone to take in) meant that unresolved
stresses remained. Many will resurface next year.
Ultimately, though, the achievement of bringing so
many people and ideas together cannot be understated.
They made the official, almost unbearably overused slogan
of the event - "Another world is possible"
- begin to transcend its own cliché and move
into the realm of truth.
Hunger and anger
There were other reasons to be at Porto Alegre, and
one of them - perhaps even the most valuable - was to
catch a glimpse of realities rarely covered responsibly
in the media. In my last article for openDemocracy I
reported on how across a number of very different 'developing'
countries I have just visited, there is anger and resentment
boiling up against the Western economic and social model.
I tried to explain how the unlistened-to were channeling
their rage, not through murder, terrorism and anomie,
as Bin Laden and his twisted followers do, but through
peaceful civil disobedience and attempts to build radically
different systems of economics and democracy with the
basic values which the WSF exemplifies.
Perhaps I didn't explain myself properly, or perhaps
he wasn't concentrating, for Paul Hirst, in the recent
openDemocracy debate with David Held on globalisation,
declared that my article was "flirting" with
violence. He then went on to say, in a dispiriting display
of defeatism, that "the wealthy countries, corporations,
and bodies like the WTO must all be persuaded to help
construct a more egalitarian world - which they alone
have the power to do. We must work on the minds and
consciences of the rich."
It's a shame Paul Hirst wasn't at Porto Alegre. I hope
he will be next year, for it may help to change his
mind and conscience. For a start he would hear people
like the Kenyan delegate from a mass-based fisherfolk's
union confirm that "hunger equals anger",
and that that anger, across the world, is often aimed
at those who promote the current model of development.
He might also have bumped into Susan George, the French-American
economist, who wrote recently of the shattering of her
hope that the US and its allies would respond to 11
September by following Hirst's prescription of becoming
nicer people. "Those who hold our futures in their
hands", she wrote just before the Forum, "are
not serious. They see no further than the noses of their
bombers. Frightening though the prospect may seem, citizens
must accept the risk of being serious in their place."
Who knows, if Paul Hirst does attend next year, he
might even start to believe that swift and radical change,
initiated from the bottom up, rather than the top down,
is a genuine possibility. That, in a nutshell, is certainly
the hope, and the intention, of this movement.
Inevitability and change
For nothing is inevitable in history. Time and time
again, paradigm-shifts happen. Systems can be, and regularly
have been, swept away by their own, often shockingly
sudden, perception of illegitimacy in the eyes of their
people. Radical change, as in nature itself, is the
rule rather than the exception.
I'm not old enough to remember when Marxists trumpeted
the "inevitable" triumph of labour over capital.
But now I hear the same logic being used for precisely
the opposite system. The claim is equally false. What
happened at Porto Alegre opened up a space in which
orthodox fatalism can be challenged and people can begin
to see the possibility of testing alternatives, on a
grand scale even, against the roughness and complexity
Nothing, similarly, is inevitable about the collapse
of the current system, or the triumph of the movement
against it. But now, more than ever, it seems a real
possibility. In just a few years, this movement has
instituted a real debate about values, economics and
power. Through our numbers on the streets, through the
work of key dissident thinkers and through the actions
of vast grassroots movements in the Global South we
have gone from being ignored, or sneered at, to being
Already, less than three years after the "Battle
of Seattle", we are at the stage where the president
of the World Bank can be turned away from our Social
Forum (oh, the joy!); at the point where the French
government sends twice as many ministers to Porto Alegre
(six) as to New York (three). Something, it seems, is
shifting our way. The Gap sells 'anti-capitalist' fashions;
The Economist devotes a front cover and editorial to
(badly) attacking No Logo; the WTO desperately, and
unconvincingly, names its latest trade stitch-up a "development
Certainly the depression felt by many in this movement
after 11 September has already almost fully lifted,
and the collapse just before Porto Alegre of two of
global capitalism's favourite poster boys - Argentina
and the Enron corporation - lent a grim new confidence
to those who have been pointing out the structural weaknesses
of the system for decades.
It's not clear exactly what it is, but at Porto Alegre,
everyone could feel it: something is in the air. A tide
turning, a paradigm slowly shifting. Whatever it is,
suddenly and inexplicably it seems that the future really
could lie in the hands of the people gathered in Brazil,
and not in the creaky, unstable, divisive cult of global
corporatism championed by the delegates in New York.
For some years now, the rhetoric of this movement has
insisted that things are shifting in our direction.
I wasn't sure. But for the first time, at Porto Alegre,
I felt that, somehow, it was beginning to be true.