8 Aug 2016

Will World Social Forum
become leader the Left needs?

The annual gathering of the World Social Forum  (WSF) – the left’s response to the elitist annual Davos World Economic Forum  – is in session  in Montreal until Sunday, August 14.

More than 1,000 self-managed sessions  have activists discussing and creating progressive alternatives to traditional political, economic and social policies that they will take back to their own countries.

While as many as 100,000 people have attended sessions some years in some developing countries, perhaps 10,000 are taking part in Montreal.

Participants from the South found it too expensive to travel to Montreal. In addition, hundreds of activists from some countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Iran, Nigeria, Haiti and Nepal, were being refused visas.

WSF Meeting - Senegal
Montreal was selected this year because it has been the site of strong social and political activism over the last few years.

Meanwhile, the federal government seems to want to censor free expression at the WSF. It has distanced itself from the gathering following complaints that its programming included anti-Semitic content. According to news reports, the WSF was told last week to remove the Canadian government logo from its list of partners after two Liberal MPs expressed disgust over what they called a “blatantly anti-Semitic cartoon” on the event’s website.

The Forum is an exciting event writes John L. Hammond of City University of New York: “The scene bursts with energy as people who work on particular causes at home—feminism, the environment, indigenous rights, economic justice, human rights, AIDS treatment and prevention and many more—compare notes and strategies.

Networking, discussing key issues, and building alliances are the main activities at Forum sessions. The Forum can best be described as a “process”, an incubator facilitating new visions and ideas.
The activism bred at the WSF has supported change and revolution in several countries.

It can take credit, in part, for the collapse of the World Trade Organization’s Doha round  in 2003, the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and exposing the harsh austerity programs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Little impact in English-speaking Canada

Thousands of Canadian social activists have taken part in numerous WSF gatherings over the years. While this exposure has helped radicalized students in Quebec, it appears to have accomplished little in Eastern Canada. Even during the brutal years of the Harper administration, only a handful of unions and fringe radical groups advocated strong action.

The NDP and leading social movement groups, say the Council of Canadians, should have seen the need to explore alternatives to Canada’s corporate-dominated political system. But the NDP doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of neo-liberalism, the damaging centrepiece of right-wing politics.
While the Council of Canadians, the country’s largest social action group, has won praise for challenging voting irregularities in court, its “activism” is usually limited to holding protests and sending petitions to government.

In Canada, as in much of the rest of the world, the left has lost a tremendous amount of ground since the WSF was created 15 years ago. We now live in a world where the 1 per cent has huge powers, corporations dominate our lives, neo-liberal policies rein in the public, and where progressive governments have fallen in several countries.

In view of these challenges, it is time for the WSF to seriously evaluate itself and its place in the world.

The movement has lost some of its radical edge over the years. Organizers have given in to some extent to the influences of government and the corporate world – initially the group’s main enemies.

WSF not independent enough

Eric Toussaint, a Belgian political scientist and one of the ideologists of the WSF, has been concerned for some time that the movement is not independent enough.

“It worries me to arrive in Porto Alegre and see that the seminar “Ten years later” is sponsored by Petrobras, Caixa, Banco do Brasil, Itaipu Binacional, with several governments in attendance,” he said on the 10th anniversary of the WSF.

“I would much rather have seen a Forum with less financial means but more militant in nature”, he said.

The sources of funding for the Montreal event may be an issue for some participants. Organizers claim the gathering will cost $2.4-million. This includes $710,000 from various levels of government and another $287,500 from unidentified “solidarity and sponsorship supporters.”

Some of the more activist participants complain about the increase in attendance in recent years by Non-governmental organizations, which tend to be comfortable operating within the capitalist environment. Meanwhile, participation by indigenous groups, which are usually more radical, has decreased.

Where is the WSF going?

Perhaps discussions held in Montreal will lead to a reinvigorated and forward looking WSF.
Since its beginning, the WSF has held that it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society, and therefor does not directly take part in political struggles. 

However, after 15 years of facilitating discussions there are concerns that the Forum could flounder if it does not move in new directions.

Pierre Beaudet, founder of Quebec NGO Alternatives, says there is “a recognized necessity for [WSF affiliated] movements to seize with both hands some major issues . . . . At this moment, the Forum could open up the self-organized convergences and go further than just producing a mixture of ideas which has characterized it thus far.

Adds Beaudet: “The difficulty, of course, is to identify the points of convergences, which is certainly not easy to do, considering the incredible diversity (which also comes with an incredible richness) of the participants from social movements.”

With its access to tens-of-thousands of activists, the Forum is the only progressive assembly in the world with the potential to facilitate co-ordinated action on a global scale on crucial issues, such as global warming, neo-liberalism, and life inequalities.

If the massive body is to begin changing direction in Montreal, it likely will have to overcome two obstacles.

The WSF’s complicated non-hierarchical system – perhaps reminiscent of the ungovernable mechanisms that laid low Occupy Wall Street – seems to prevent the Forum from moving forward.

The other potential obstacle concerns leadership. Some of the men who have been at the forefront of the WSF movement for all of its 15 years are still there. Much has changed since then. Will new leadership emerge to work with the old guard to allow the WSF to retain the best of its past and also move in a new direction?

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  1. You might have bothered to find out what the Council of Canadians and its hard-working Chapter activists across the country actually DO before issuing this kind of dismissive statement, Nick—it goes way beyond protests and petitions.

    1. Hi Fiona -- Of course they do more things on all kinds of issues. But their responses are weak and always very respectful. They don't have an ounce of radicalism. They campaign on issues that are the products of corporate capitalism, and neo-liberalism. They never demonstrate any understanding of how the world really works or who are the villains.

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  2. You are making the assumption that, because we aren't radical enough for you, we don't know how the world works. Well, you're dead wrong. It's because we do know how things work IN THIS COUNTRY that we do what we do in the way we do it. Think we don't know who "the real villains" are? Really? I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and put your arrogance and presumption down to frustration. You think you're frustrated?? Well, you just try spending years working for change against the enormous apathy and ignorance and naivété in this country, only to be dumped on by a journalist like you for not doing what you think needs to be done. Maybe you need a reality check. Answer me this: why it is that Canada is not a fertile ground for radicalism. Most of the would-be revolutionaries I've worked with do not exactly inspire me with hope. Far from it. They can discuss theory and read and listen to speakers from other countries who know what radicalism really demands, but it doesn't sink in, Nick. It really doesn't.

  3. Yes, we're both frustrated. I never said I expected the Council to be revolutionary, so you made a big leap there. When I said the Council and other groups campaign to correct the "products" of capitalism, I mean they are fighting directly for water quality and the environment, instead of naming and confronting the real cause -- usually corporate control. Why doesn't the Council name and fight the real culprit? Has the word being-liberalism ever appeared in a Council document or press release. I have had the benefit of working in several southern countries, and I'm pleased for them but sad for us that they are much further ahead in understanding and writing about the evil form of capitalism we have now. Progressives in Quebec have had great success at educating students and others about the people who really control our lives. In English Canada, groups like the Council don't even try to educate people. If the Council had a program over the past 20 years to educate people politically, there would not be as much apathy. I've known Maude for many years and followed her dedicated and wonderful work, but I'm afraid she has set the non-political tone of the Council. Had The approach of Mel Hurtig emerged years ago, the Council might be a quite different animal today. Thanks for the good discussion.

    1. Just by the way Fiona, I worked in NGO strategic campaigning for 13 years, much of it with groups in Africa and Southeast Asia. I also took part in Greenpeace's campaigning skills training program. I think I have a petty good idea of what is possible, even in Canada. Nick

    2. So why didn't it happen, Nick? You can hardly blame it all on Maude. (BTW, am I right in assuming that some of this is inspired by the news of the passing of Mel Hurting?)

    3. Heavens no. I've known about what happened at the Council for years and I've written about it before.

  4. Of course Quebec is further ahead -- it has been through a quiet revolution, or had you forgotten that little fact? I lived in Montreal for twenty years, during the Quiet (not so quiet if you were there) Revolution and the October Crisis -- and I was an anglo who voted PQ in '76. The Quebecois brought about revolutionary change, politically, socially, and economically. Of course their children are politically aware and engaged. That is NOT the case in English Canada. When I moved to Ontario I thought I'd crossed an ocean. People here were -- and are -- utterly asleep. The CoC "program" has been all about educating Canadians -- but Canadians haven't been ready or willing to listen. They were and are too damned comfortable, lulled asleep by the prosperity that saw the former working class turn into the comfortable middle class. And their children may long for resolution but they haven't clue how to achieve it. Their post-secondary years haven't been spent arguing long into the night in coffee bars or joining with grassroots organizations to fight for change. Many if not most haven't had personal experience of injustice -- they've been working two jobs to pay for the education they've been told is going to keep them in that middle class their parents were so proud to become a part of. And they discover the inequities of the world all right and they get mad -- but their conditioning has left them ill-equipped to do anything but talk.

    1. Good comments. Yes, we can blame a number of things in English Canada, from the whole pathetic education system, to unresponsive parents, to consumerism, for where we have been for some time now. But I still contend that the Council and groups like it teach their members about the immediate problems but never talk about the root causes. The problem is brutal capitalism -- a word that I don't think the Council would use a phrase like this. I doubt that you believe that the way capitalism has been practised since the 1980 is brutal. If we don't change it dramatically, or pull it down, it is going to ruin our world. Council members should be taught there almost certainly be another more serious financial crash that will create havoc. The second major threat is that capitalism and society will go through a huge crisis as basic materials on earth run out. It will greatly disrupt markets and capitalism. Thirdly, it is corporations not government that are destroying the atmosphere, yet the Council and other groups focus on criticizing governments that no longer have any real power in most western countries. It is difficult to teach people about the real issues at the beginning -- because they think you're a damn communist or something, and they seldom, if ever, read in the mainstream media about the terrible things done by the wealthy -- as you know creation of the 1 per cent is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyway, enough ranting. These are the truths social groups should be gradually and carefully teaching Canadians.

    2. Why are you bothering to preach to the converted? Do you seriously imagine I don't all all this? Your notion of a Council activist is seriously off the mark. We don't get in involved with the Council to sit meekly at Maudie's feet being "taught the hard truths": we join because we already know them. We fight the way we do because it gets results -- and the fight educates us in what works and what doesn't and how to get heard by ordinary people as well as so-called decision-makers. Over time, it does get results, and it does change opinions. And it builds solidarity, which is something that is not happening elsewhere on the left, which is much too busy fighting with itself. And your notion of teaching? Just try that out where I live and see how far you get. No, people won't call you a commie. They'll just turn you right off: condescension is oddly unpersuasive. You totally underestimate the role of government -- government is very necessary to legitimate corporate greed. That's how neoliberalism works -- why do I have to tell you this? Corporations need to appear legitimate; for one thing, some of their shareholders would get squeamish if they went too far. (Canadians like to think of themselves as nice people, remember. They care -- or pretend to -- where their pensions are invested.) The Liberals know that very well -- that's what accounts for their success. They can do whatever heinous thing they want, as long as they've got the electorate to swallow the lie. You refuse to seriously entertain my point, which is a product of long and painful experience: you cannot force people to listen who are not ready to hear. I don't care how good a teacher you are. to hear it. Millions of American are ready to listen to Donald Trump. Know why that is? Because they've been hurting for a long time, far worse than most Canadians, because there's no social safety net there to catch them when carnivorous capitalism destroys their livelihoods, their families, and their health. They have nothing to lose. When Canadians get to that point, then they'll listen. But by then it'll be too late...Heck, it's too late now. Never mind the next financial collapse -- it's the runaway melting of the polar ice caps that keeps me awake nights.

  5. Fiona ..... what would you like us to do other than talk? 'seems you're not doing much other than 'just talk'either.

    1. Hahaha. Touché. I'm taking a talking break from my kind of activism, which has kept me working all summer, no weekends or evenings off. I'm a nut case.

  6. Here's a great piece by Murray Dobbin on what needs to be done to tackle the worst aspects of capitalism.


  7. Excellent article, Nick.

    I'm in Montréal this week (on vacation) to attend the WSF. I certainly share many of your concerns/critiques of the FSM/WSF.

  8. This is a great article, here in NS and wealthy men run the province. The government is there to put an official stamp of approval or create the illusion that we voted for destructivw policies. We currently have a company preparing to spray large areas with glyphosate and no one is saying much about it. There are studies being done at the request of large construction companies to pave ever mote of the province with twinned highways we don't need while the rail lines fall apart. We are all complicit in this but I don't see a way forward without radicalizing local government first.

  9. http://www.globalresearch.ca/rockefeller-ford-foundations-behind-world-social-forum-wsf-the-corporate-funding-of-social-activism/5540552