Reflections on the World Social Forum 2005
A key debate in this year's forum: Is another world possible without taking power?

By Paul Cooney

PORTO ALEGRE/RIO DE JANIERO, February 2005—The fifth World Social Forum [WSF] registered a shift in the political mood of the international Left, from optimism and high expectations about Brazil’s political future to a more somber—and for some—depressed realization that the administration of President Lula Ignácio da Silva has not broken from the neoliberal policies it criticized just 2 years ago.

At the same time, the gathering continues to be a political Woodstock with a huge range of political, social, economic and cultural groups discussing, engaging, performing, and networking. One sign of the continuing strength of the WSF was its 155,000 registered participants (the highest so far, see sidebar "History of WSF Attendance") from over 135 countries and the opening march where 200,000 people participated followed by the 2,500 activities that took place during the 6 days of the Forum. It was also encouraging to see a greater number of people from Asia, reflecting the fact that the WSF of 2004 was in Mumbai, India.

Lula spoke at the smaller Gigantinho Stadium at 9:40AM during the first morning of the Forum, instead of speaking in the large open Amphitheatre Pôr-do-Sol in the afternoon as during the WSF 2003. Because it was held in a smaller space, even many of Lula’s supporters were prevented from entering. Half the crowd booed him while the other half applauded and continue to have faith in either Lula himself or in the Worker’s Party (PT).

The PT spins itself as still being on the right side—that is, the Left—because of its strong connections to social movements. In this vein, the PT's public relations arm produced thousands of t-shirts espousing "100% Lula!" I have to report, however, that during the whole Forum, I didn’t see a single person wearing one! Lastly, Lula wore a bullet-proof vest—evident from a video of the event—but which the government denied. It is not surprising that this year's "star" speaker was not Lula but rather Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Thanks to the Bush Administration-sponsored coup in 2002, Chavez has no problem criticizing Washington and its imperial plans.

On the last evening of the Forum, Chavez spoke to a packed Gigantinho stadium with thousands of other supporters outside. It is encouraging and rare to hear the leader of a government criticizing the US administration and taking them to task, praising socialism and trashing imperialism.

However, Chavez is a consummate politician, and as such, he wrapped his rousing, end-of-speech call for a United Latin America in praise of Lula. This disappointed many in the audience (myself included), even though we knew to expect it. Prior to his talk, there were roughly 2 hours of introduction, including some PT and Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) higher-ups, who received a solid booing, though there was some competition from supporters.

Organizers must have anticipated that the Chavez event would be the largest turnout at this year's Forum. Scheduling it for the Gigantinho Stadium did not make sense. The Stadium holds only 15-20,000 people. If only 40% of the 155,000 WSF participants attended (~62,000) then at least 40,000 would be left out. Was this by design? If the Chavez event were held at the larger Por-do-Sol Amphitheatre (where Lula spoke 2 years ago), it could easily have upstaged Lula. Nevertheless, many camped out around the Gigantinho Stadium and watched Chavez on a large screen once it was dark enough. For me, this was a clear example of poor planning—or bad politics. And unfortunately other events also ended up scheduled for smaller venues than they should have been.

The choice of smaller-scale venues seems to reflect a desire on the part of the organizers for a more decentralized Forum, but decentralized here simply meant fewer high-profile—and generally high quality—sessions that we can all remember and refer to. During the Third WSF in Porto Alegre [2003], talks by Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky and Lula were many of the most memorable. And for those critical of celebrities getting a large share of attention (at times I belong to this camp) the previous forum had plenty of decentralized activities, and opportunities for all to participate. Many participants expressed the opinion that the shift to remove the bigger events MADE NO SENSE. I hope the organizers realize this before the next Forum.

According to a decision by the International Council, the next World Social Forum will not be until 2007 in Africa. They decided to postpone the world forum for a year in order to put greater emphasis on the regional social forums in the coming year. The 2006 WSF will therefore be decentralized, occurring in a number of locations around the world, to be decided upon by the International Council in April. Chavez announced that the next Latin American Forum will be held in Venezuela in August 2006. This is a positive development, especially given Venezuela’s leftward shift in economic policies and priorities.

Another positive development was direct democracy in action at the WSF. One small, but instructive, example concerned another event that should have been scheduled in the Gigantinho Stadium or a much larger venue. It was a panel entitled "Another World Is Possible Without Taking Power: from the antiglobalization to the alterglobalization." The panel's original slate included Moacir Gadotti, Boaventura de Souza Santos, Emir Sader, Antonio Negri, John Holloway and Michael Hardt. Unfortunately, Sader and Negri were not able to attend. Even with the absence of these dynamic personalities, the panel was one of the best I attended. It was just before the start of this panel the eruption of "people power" occurred.

All the side entrances and front door were teeming with people, though it seemed more like squirming sardines. After trying to enter from all angles, I returned to the front door. We had all been squeezed, barely able to breathe, when the crowd began to chant, "Tira Cadeiras" ["get rid of the chairs"] to urge everyone to make more room for more people. The panel chairperson urged people to calmly move to another room where the event was being shown on a screen. At this point the direct action deepened, the chant grew louder, and everyone began lifting chairs and passing them from one set of outstretched arms to another, over all our heads. Ultimately many more of us were able to sit down and enjoy the event. Despite the difficult conditions—packed humanity in 95 degree heat, the crunch, the craziness—it was one of the WSF's exhilarating events. Unfortunately, without a bigger space, a number of people gave up and did not attend.

The panel was basically a debate between those that feel taking power is required to change the world and eliminate the state and those that argue against taking state power but transforming the struggle for power in particular through changes in daily life.

John Holloway spoke about the question of Revolution and the impulse for self-determination, using several examples of experiences in southern Mexico with the Zapatistas. He laid out several challenges for the Left. One is recognizing that the common person has the potential for rebellion, but how does such potential become articulated. He pointed to the problem of representation and how this—by necessity—involves a certain exclusion from power, referring to examples of the Left taking state power during the 20th century and then betraying emancipatory ideals once in power. In conclusion, Holloway argued that ending capitalism without democracy makes no sense, but only if communism were a society based on self-determination, would it make sense to abolish capitalism.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos from Portugal first made reference to past leaders, such as Che Guevara, Salavador Allende, Zapata, and liberation theologists and posed the question: what is the responsibility of left theoreticians today and how can they contribute effectively to social movements? He also questioned how could a panel of white men (as was the case for this panel) address the problems of social liberation. He argued for the need of power in order to eliminate state power and thus argued for the need to think creatively about how to transform power. He closed with a call to listen to silence and to those that have no voice!

Pedro Tivo started out by saying he had bad news- “It is not possible to change the world without taking power.” But he pointed out that taking power need not be taking state power. Holloway and de Sousa Santos argued more for transformations at the local level or in one’s daily life and not for the taking of state power. I recall Hardt being somewhat inbetween but closer to the latter perspective though valuing the contributions of both Marx and Lenin in addressing the issues around power and the State.

I give Hardt credit for speaking in Spanish, which was difficult for him at times, but appreciated, in contrast to many "progressive celebrities" who just assume the audience can deal with English. One speaker argued that the taking of power had the risk of de-politicizing movements and struggles, and this seemed quite relevant after the PT’s victory here 2 years ago. The debate at this panel is quite relevant for the future of the WSF and forces us to address both the ubiquitous power of states across the globe but also the contradictions of taking state power.

Part of the discussion in the panel just described above addressed the relationship between the WSF and power. As we evaluate the effectiveness of the World Social Forums, the issue of power is key and should not be limited to demonstrating our power in attendance every year at the WSF, but asserting it in a way that produces concrete changes (see Gloves Off interview with Emir Sader, 2004). For example, I attended a panel entitled "Assembly of Creditors of the Social, Ecological and Historical Debt." The panel presented the case that the First World was indebted to the rest of the world for previous crimes or current pollution and this was impressive and inspiring but seems a bit "light" if it is only for our consumption and not to be fought for in a way that has a chance of being achieved. I tried to avoid it, but I kept having images of Wall streeters laughing at the claims made and what would it take for them to really be concerned or worried?

In this light and maybe because I am a political economist, I kept feeling the need for the Forum as a whole to demand the elimination or significant reduction of the Third World Debt. So many possibilities, be it basic economic survival, the environment, culture and so on are put in check if not threatened because of this huge ball and chain around the Third World. So, upon hearing about the Porto Alegre Manifesto [see sidebar, "A New Mission"], a 12-point document that highlights the main themes discussed, the debt included, I was quite pleased, despite the criticisms of it being generated by a group of nineteen—overwhelmingly male—Forum intellectuals or "celebrities" [see sidebar]. Although there is justifiable criticism of the Manifesto not being an outcome of the Forum’s usual horizontal as opposed to hierarchical decision-making, and only one woman out of 19 authors, I think a huge majority of the Forum participants will be in favor of the contents of this manifesto.

The World Social Forum is intended to challenge the World Economic Forum in Davos but a key difference is the real power that the latter wields. A large part has to do with resources, but there is also the issue of class consciousness and unity that the WEF has. The WSF needs to find a way to translate the power we have (people power) into a concrete manifestation. In my view, the WSF needs to move from being only a political Woodstock with exciting events of all varieties into a social power that can really force the WEF or G7 to make changes, not just in PR rhetoric, but such that Another World is (Really) Possible.

Paul Cooney is a co-editor in the Gloves Off collective. At the 2005 World Social Forum he spoke on "The Decline of Neoliberalism and the Role of Social Movements In Latin America," (based on a paper he co-authored with Gloves Off co-editor Joe Smith). This talk was part of the "Globalization, Social Movements and Alternatives" panel.

Subscribe to Gloves Off for occasional updates.

Related Articles:

From 2004 Gloves Off interview with Emir Sader, a signer of the "12-Point Manifesto:"
Lula's government is conservative in its very essence, which is the economic and financial policy. It kept the same policies as the former government and increased the fiscal surplus target, as requested by the IMF. In this sense, it complements —in a drastic way— the adjustments initiated during the 1999 crisis in Brazil. It is a socially cruel government. It has not fulfilled —not even close— the priorities of social policy that it had promised. It has contradictions, and therefore is a government in dispute."
March 16, 2004


WSF Attendance At A Glance:

2001: 10,000
2002: 40,000
2003: 70-80,000
2004: 100,000+
2005: 155,000

A Changing Role for the WSF?:

The World Social Forum is not an organisation, not a united front platform, but "…an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and inter-linking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo- liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a society centred on the human person". (From the WSF Charter of Principles, March 2002).

[click here for WSF page on the composition of the International Council and a list of the International Council Delegates]

A New Mission?
The "Group of 19" 12-Point Manifesto

1. Cancel external debt of Global South.

2. Tobin Tax

3. Dismantle offshore banking sites.

4. Extend Human Rights to include employment, retirement/pension protection.

5. Reject all free trade agreements negotiated by the WTO. Promote equitable trade.

6. Promote national food sovereignty by protecting peasant and rural livelihoods.

7. Forbid patenting of all life forms and privitization of common goods, especially water.

8. Promote public polices opposing discrimination in all its forms.

9. Take urgent steps address environmental crisis and climate change.

10. Dismantle ALL foreign military bases except when operating under the mandate of the UN.

11. Guarantee the right to access information and the right to inform.

12. Democratize international institutions such that human, economic, social and cultural rights prevail. Bring the IMF, the World Bank and WTO into the decision making mechanism of the UN.

<back to article>