Habitat International Coalition
Global network for the right to habitat and social justice
Beyond the square: changing dynamics at the World Social Forum
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If the recent Occupy-type social explosions are to seek transformative action beyond occupied squares, they should look at the history of the World Social Forum, with its valuable paths to transnational connectivity.
Author: Giuseppe Caruso and Teivo Teivainen

World Social Forum 2011, Dakar, Senegal. Demotix/El Korchi Abdellah.

The World Social Forum (WSF) will hold its next global gathering in March 2015 in Tunis. What has happened since it first convened in Porto Alegre in 2001? At the beginning, the forums took place annually around the same dates as the World Economic Forum in Davos. One reason for the simultaneity was that it seemed attractive for the global media. Organized every two years since 2007, and no longer necessarily during the dates of Davos, the event has now become somewhat less visible.

For many of the original participants, the novelty factor no longer holds sway and initial enthusiasm has partially faded away. But what has compensated for this is the entry of various new movements and activists into the process, recently in particular from North and West Africa. The continental dynamics have also differed: while there has been lots of energy in regional forum processes in the United States and Canada, the European Social Forum has for all practical purposes ceased to exist.

Dilemmas of representation

The latest global WSF event organized in Tunis in 2013 gave a new boost to the process, but various old issues keep on returning. Some of the reasons for the frustration with the WSF are related to dilemmas of representation. For the activists that reject representation as a political principle, the forums have been too embedded in traditional politics. For those who want to build global political parties, the WSF’s open space has lacked the capacity for action.

The WSF has never claimed to represent a global civil society, or anything else for that matter. This makes perfect sense, most obviously because there are many important organizations and movements that have never participated in the process. It is in the internal decision-making procedures where the representational ambiguity of the WSF has been more contested.

On the one hand, the governance bodies of the WSF have mostly consisted of representatives of organizations and movements. We, for example, have participated in its International Council (IC) as representatives of the Network Institute for Global Democratization. Within the IC, this representational foundation has been combined with elements typical of contemporary non-representational activism, such as consensus-based decision making.

One of the most debated characteristics of the IC has been the avoidance of policy statements claiming to represent a common position. This avoidance has also frustrated the hopes of those who believed the WSF could develop into a global political actor. While many of the movements that may have preferred a more politically proactive forum are still part of the process, including the global peasant alliance Via Campesina, some have lost faith in the strategic importance of the WSF. An additional reason, especially for the movements in the South American continent that gave birth to the WSF, is that compared to 2001 there are today more left-leaning governments that may offer meaningful channels for transformative action.

Its ambiguities and the uncertainty about its future notwithstanding, the WSF remains a relevant space for the articulation of thousands of movements from around the world. While the global event is its most widely known aspect, the process includes local, national, regional and thematic forums in different parts of the world. Nevertheless, some of the momentum of the past decade may have been lost.

This state of affairs concerns social movements and organizations beyond the WSF. Has the global justice movement that appeared at the turn of the millennium disappeared into the darkness of defeat? Have some of its participants been co-opted by the Latin American electoral left turn? Or is this multifaceted movement only situated away from the gaze of the global public eye, and working at what it does best – long-term local struggles for justice, equality and sustainability?

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