The long march to another world - I

THE FORMATION of the World Social Forum (WSF), globally and then in India, has been an extremely significant social and political intervention in world affairs. There have also been some very important developments during the last one year that have a direct relevance to the Forum's future. Internationally, even as the Forum has grown and global civil action has continued to mature, the U.S. — after devastating Afghanistan in its so-called `war against terrorism' — is now relentlessly building up plans to devastate and thereby `liberate' Iraq.

Across the globe, capitalist globalisation is still riding triumphant even as the economy unravels within the U.S., and `security' and surveillance measures are equally being relentlessly tightened by nation-states, supposedly in defence against those labelled terrorists, but also against protestors. The self-styled leaders of the so-called `free world' are increasingly meeting in increasingly remote parts of the world, walling themselves off from ordinary people, and defending themselves with their militia. Accompanying this, Europe seems to be moving steadily to the Right, and Hindu, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish fundamentalisms are rampant in different parts of the world. The shadows of imperialism and authoritarianism are very evident.

Against this, the news from Brazil has been encouraging. The presidential elections have finally brought Lula (Luis In�cio Lula da Silva), the leader of the Workers' Party to the Presidency after a long campaign and several attempts. This development would seem to potentially change the political landscape in significant ways in this major country, and therefore in the western hemisphere and in the world.

The news from India, however, has been less encouraging. Earlier this year, we experienced a brutal and chilling anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. More recently, while the elections in Kashmir yielded a fresh Government, those in Gujarat have returned to power with a landslide the BJP. With the party and its allied organisations saying that Gujarat is a model for what should happen in the rest of the country, the shadows of fascism seem to threaten India.

It is crucially important for all of us involved with or participating in the Forum to take stock of the WSF process within particular countries and to the extent we can, also globally, to see how — if at all — we are relating to these larger events, and how we could and should strategically relate to them.

Perhaps the most important characteristic and contribution of the Forum is the `open space' it offers for free exchange — an undirected space where a wide range of streams of thought and action can intermingle without feeling that any of them has to follow another. But this is a complex and new idea in politics, as is the idea that it is not merely an annual event, but is — or needs to be — more a process. In something as complex and important as the WSF, it is extremely important to constantly critically reflect on it as we go along, and that reflection can only strengthen the organising work that is the real work.

Since 2001, the WSF has moved from being a major annual event each January in Porto Alegre (the third meet has just ended), timed to polemically challenge the annual World Economic Forum held at Davos, Switzerland, to being an efflorescence and celebration across the world.

Perhaps most importantly, the WSF has struck at the level of meaning. It has resonantly made clear that there are alternatives to economic, capitalist globalisation. And that people all over the world are now mobilising to live those alternatives. In this way, the WSF — along with all the other forms of global civil action that are also taking place — is playing a profound role in freeing peoples all over the world of the shackles of the colonisation of the mind by the idea that there is no alternative to neo-liberal globalisation, and by replacing this with the idea there are indeed alternatives — and importantly, that this is as global a project as neo-liberalism. The implicit sense of not being alone is very important at this juncture. The question for the WSF now is how to translate this into real social and political alternatives.

One of the many reasons that the consultation in Delhi in January 2002 decided to take up the task of building a WSF process in India was that the Forum could potentially provide a context where a broad secular, democratic, anti-fundamentalist, and internationalist platform could take shape where, most significantly, civil and political streams could come together. Crucially, it was seen to be a space where old movements and politics could meet and talk with new movements and politics. The last year has seen a fairly active and broad-based WSF process under way in the country. Following the two national consultations (in January and in April, 2000) that involved a fairly wide range of organisations and groups, a broad programme of action was agreed upon.

In January 2002, WSF India had offered to organise a regional (South Asian) Social Forum. But conscious of the limitations that single big meetings have in terms of `reaching out' and being accessible to the huge numbers of people, in its early meetings WSF India placed great stress on seeing the World Social Forum not only as a major event but also as a mass process of open exchange of information and experience. And thereby as a political culture of openness which millions of people can gain access to and take part in.

In this context, the most visible — and in many ways most significant — development has been the successful organisation of the Asian Social Forum in early January 2003, in Hyderabad in central India. In format similar to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, some 14-15,000 people attended and took part in six major conferences, dozens of seminars, and hundreds of workshops on a wide range of social, economic, and political themes.

The Forum was however also criticised and even opposed and boycotted by some movements, for diverting attention from the real tasks of opposing capitalist globalisation — by being something of a self-indulgent carnival — and also for being organised in such a way that it has tended to exclude some popular grassroots movements.

In reality, the WSF India process during this past year was also much less extensive than planned. While several State meetings were held, to present and discuss the idea of the World Social Forum; to exchange experiences, and to develop a general plan of action for activities at more local/State levels and how participants from the States would take part in the Asian Social Forum in January 2003, the broader mass process that was aimed for is still to develop. Some State meetings were also more successful than others; perhaps the most successful was the Kerala Forum, held during December 26-29, 2002.

(This article is based on the summary of a paper of this title published as a booklet for the World Social Forum held in Brazil.)

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