A hotbed of anti-globalization angst, the World Social Forum (WSF) is convened annually as a leftist rejoinder to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, the latter of which is a yearly symposium of top business leaders, eminent political figures, journalists, and pundits whose principal concern is the generation of wealth. By contrast, the WSF’s agenda is to fulfill the failed communist hope of a socialist international, concerning itself mainly with how to best redistribute wealth.
In the estimation of its organizers, the WSF is an open meeting place “for reflective thinking [and] democratic debate of ideas.” For all of its pretensions to open-mindedness, however, the Forum welcomes only those groups that reject capitalism as an oppressive and imperialistic system, embrace radical environmental agendas, and share the WSF’s desire to inaugurate a leftist version of utopia. The WSF mission statement condemns “neo-liberalism” (i.e., capitalism) and the “domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism.”
The ideological roots of the WSF can be traced back to the 1999 street protests and riots that took place in Seattle, Washington, during a World Trade Organization meeting. The first WSF gathering was held on January 30, 2001 in Porto Allegre, Brazil’s industrial hub.
Although the WSF has no official roll of member organizations, groups that have taken part in its past forums include NGOs, trade unions, and leftwing activists and politicians from more than 120 countries, most prominently France.
The WSF was the brainchild of members of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (Association pour la Taxation des Transactions pour l’Aide aux Citoyens), a socialist-leaning group that extols protectionism and assails free trade while exalting anti-globalization extremists like Jose Bove, who attended the first Forum. Other French representatives included Danielle Mitterrand, a former First Lady of France; two ranking French politicians – Guy de Hascoet, a member of France’s economic solidarity ministry, and François Huwart, a minister of foreign trade; and a delegation from the leftwing French newspaper Le Monde, including that publication’s editor, Bernard Cassen, who served a stint on the forum’s organizing committee. According to Cassen, the chief aim of the Forum was “to prove that another world is possible” – previous socialist utopias having failed so miserably.
Exactly what kind of world Cassen envisioned was spelled out by other attendees of the first Forum. “The world must change its economic development model,” contended Oded Grajew, a leftist businessman and a coordinator of the Brazilian Association of Entrepreneurs for the Citizenry, who expressed his hope that environmentalist agendas and leftist social agendas would trump globalization. In keeping with this theme, the WSF featured numerous overtures of support for Cuba’s communist regime—this despite the fact that the WSF’s own Charter of Principles proclaimed that the forum was “opposed to all totalitarian and reductionist views of economy, development and history and to the use of violence as a means of social control by the State.”
The seething hostility toward business interests and wealth, anathematized by WSF participants as the foundations of globalization, was the distinguishing feature of the 2001 forum. Excoriating corporate executives who were attending the World Economic Forum that same week, some WSF participants expressed hope of a left-wing takeover of corporations. “If only all entrepreneurs were leftists,” Grajew mused. Meanwhile Olivio Dutra, a governor from the Brazilian city of Rio Grande do Sul, and a member of Brazil’s leading leftist party, the Party of Workers, condemned what he called the tendency of globalization “to accumulate and concentrate wealth.” A parallel argument was advanced by Cándido Grzybowski, a director-general of the Brazilian Institute of Socio-Economic Analysis (an NGO that helped organize the Forum), who called for WSF participants “to be bold enough to think, to create an affirmative wave of action and a different kind of globalization.”
Also in attendance at the January 2001 WSF were representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), a Communist guerrilla force that the U.S. State Department would classify as a terrorist organization a mere ten months later.
Following the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the WSF, wary of associating itself with terrorists, moved to distance itself from the FARC at subsequent Forums. However, this earned WSF organizers the scorn of other Forum participants. In a report filed after the 2002 WSF, a delegation from the International Action Center reproachfully registered its discontent at the WSF decision to marginalize the FARC’s role: “Last year,” said the report, “anti-imperialists sharply criticized the WSF’s social democratic organizers for refusing to invite groups waging legitimate armed struggles of national liberation, like the FARC-EP of Colombia. These groups were also not invited this year. The ideological thrust of the WSF organizers denies the pressing need for workers and oppressed peoples to struggle for power.”
The demand for “a different kind of globalization” was once again aired at the second WSF, which also took place in Porto Alegre, between late January and early February of 2002. Here, its chief exponent was Noam Chomsky. In an interview conducted prior to the Forum, Chomsky hailed the WSF as a confrontation between the righteous activists in Porto Alegre on the one hand, and corrupt government and corporate interests in Davos (at WEF) on the other. “Such confrontations are major themes of history,” Chomsky explained. “And fortunately, popular forces have won many victories over the centuries, overcoming illegitimate and unaccountable concentrations of power, such as those gathering in Davos. They of course pretend to represent democratically-elected governments, but that is such a transparent absurdity that I presume we need waste no time on it, particularly with regard to neo-liberal globalization.”
Taking a swipe at the United States, Chomsky claimed that U.S. authorities were deliberately keeping the public uninformed about the evils of globalization and free trade. “In fact, it would be a misunderstanding to say that on these issues, there even exist ‘elected governments’,” he said. “The reason is that the issues are kept from the general public even in the most free and democratic societies, the United States for example.” Conversely, Chomsky argued, the WSF represented a prime opportunity to assemble a global activist network, on the model of the Communist International, to beat back the advance of globalization. “The WSF has the promise to become the first really significant manifestation of such globalization from the bottom, a very welcome prospect, with enormous promise,” said Chomsky.
Echoing Chomsky’s enthusiasm was the columnist Naomi Klein, another presence at the conference. Recounting the Forum’s highlights in the journal Tom Paine, Klein delighted in the overt militancy of the anti-capitalist forum’s protesters. “In Porto Allegre last week,” she wrote, “much of the talk was about nearby Buenos Aires, where some say a revolt from the seams is already taking place. Street demonstrators aren’t calling for a changing of the political guard but have instead adopted the sweeping slogan ‘Get rid of them all.’ They have concluded that it’s not enough to overthrow one political party and replace it with another. They are instead attempting something infinitely more difficult: to topple an economic orthodoxy so powerful, it can withstand even its strongest advocates whipping and kicking it from the center.”
Despite the presence of such high-profile foes of globalization, the 2002 Forum, organized under the banner of “Another World Is Possible,” offered little in the way of a viable alternative to globalization. Even as the 12,000 official delegates and 51,000 attendees denounced globalization, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, they struggled to articulate an economic agenda independent of those institutions. As a result, many of the 652 workshops and the 27 featured talks concentrated on crafting new slogans to replace “anti-globalization,” which the protesters agreed reflected poorly on their movement. Activists accordingly debated “de-globalization” and “earth democracy” as more public-relations-friendly names for their anti-globalization agenda. Among the left-wing groups that took an active role in such activities was the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, which conducted three anti-globalization worskhops. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, while he did not attend the Forum, sent a letter of support to its organizers. And, despite its pledge to bar terrorist groups from participation in WSF activities, the 2002 Forum included two members of ETA, the Basque Separatist Movement terror group. At the same time, World Bank president James Wolfensohn was denied his request to speak at the forum because, organizers maintained, the “atmosphere would not be favorable.”
The 2003 World Social Forum was marked by a similar atmosphere, with its obligatory protests against capitalism and its heated indictments of globalization. Because of the looming U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, it also devolved into a massive anti-war rally and a referendum on American “imperialism.” Noam Chomsky, having once more been granted a prime speaking role, embarked on a diatribe against “U.S.-backed state terror.” Railing against the imminent war, Chomsky condemned it as a plot by the U.S. government to extend the hold of American imperialism on Iraq. “The September 11 terrorist atrocities provided an opportunity and pretext to implement longstanding plans to take control of Iraq’s immense oil wealth,” Chomsky said. Calling on WSF protesters to combat these allegedly imperialist aims, he added: “The way to ‘confront the empire’ is to create a different world, one that is not based on violence and subjugation, hate and fear. That is why we are here, and the WSF offers hope that these are not idle dreams.”
In keeping with the spirit of the WSF, Chomsky even claimed that the anti-globalization movement had already triumphed over capitalism:
“At the WSF, the range of issues and problems under intense discussion is very broad, remarkably so, but I think we can identify two main themes. One is global justice and Life after Capitalism – or to put it more simply, life, because it is not so clear that the human species can survive very long under existing state capitalist institutions. The second theme is related: war and peace, and more specifically, the war in Iraq that Washington and London are desperately seeking to carry out, virtually alone.
“Let’s start with some good news about these basic themes. As you know, there is also a conference of the World Economic Forum going on right now, in Davos. Here in Porto Alegre, the mood is hopeful, vigorous, exciting. In Davos, the New York Times tells us, ‘the mood has darkened.’ For the ‘movers and shakers,’ it is not ‘global party time’ any more. In fact, the founder of the Forum has conceded defeat: ‘The power of corporations has completely disappeared,’ he said. So we have won. There is nothing left for us to do but pick up the pieces — not only to talk about a vision of the future that is just and humane, but to move on to create it.”
Yet another radical leftist on hand was Medea Benjamin. Like Chomsky, Benjamin, a director of the group Global Exchange and a former Green Partycandidate, insisted that the Bush administration was determined to prosecute a war against Iraq and was only making a show of diplomacy. “We know Bush will say to Congress that Iraq is not cooperating, whatever the U.N. inspections reveal,” Bemjamin said. “He wants to start bombing on February 15 because of the better weather conditions in Iraq.” Moreover, Benjamin warned that “there will be more terrorism at home if the U.S. carries out this attack.”
Benjamin’s anti-war perspectives were widely shared at the Forum. One participating delegation joyously reported, “Chants against the war in Iraq in many different languages could be heard.” In addition to leftist ideologues like Chomsky and Benjamin, the 2003 Forum also included politicians, like Brazil’s socialist president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez; Nobel laureates, like Argentina’s Adolfo Perez Esquival; writers, like India’s radical leftist novelist Arundhati Roy; actors, like Danny Glover; and even Olympic athletes, like Cuba’s gold medalist boxer Teofilo Stevenson.
Typically for World Social Forums, Cuba was the object of widespread adoration, with scores of protesters chanting “Cuba yes, Yankees no.” Meanwhile, Danny Glover, an enthusiastic apologist for the Castro dictatorship, made headlines when he attempted to physically attack Juan Lopez Linares, a Brazilian citizen and Cuban refugee. Linares’ transgression, according to Glover, was that he had made an appeal on behalf of his four-year-old son, detained by the Communist government of Cuba. After being restrained by security guards, Glover lashed out at Linares, calling him a “selfish man” and chiding him for seeking “to talk about a personal case instead of highlighting the positive qualities of the [Castro] regime.”
The Forum was determined not to engage contrary ideas. As noted by The Nation magazine’s contributing editor, Marc Cooper, “Opposition to the war was beyond any debate here.” Cooper also reported that the 2003 Forum, like its predecessors, provided no novel solutions to global problems, and instead served as an opportunity for leftist activists to exercise their collective grievances against capitalism and war. “Having drawn more than 100,000 participants,” Cooper wrote, “to scores of panel discussions and more than 1,500 seminars, debates and workshops on globalization and its effects, there will be no firm conclusions, resolutions or marching orders. Merely some consensual ideas and suggestions for how what is known as the global justice movement should move forward.”
The 2004 WSF was a departure from the previous three, in that it took place in Mumbai (Bombay) India. In both form and content, however, the 2004 Forum followed the model laid out in the others. Where it broke new ground, though, was in its attending extremism. Even before its commencement, WSF organizers labored to incite a backlash against globalization throughout India; one WSF document laid bare their intention to sow the seeds of radicalism in India by staging a series of relatively small activist events across the country, just prior to the Forum, in a bid to arouse opposition to globalization. “The process,” explained the document, “should be designed to seek and draw out people’s perceptions regarding the impact of neo-liberal economic policies and imperialism on their daily lives. The language of dissent and resistance toward these will have to be informed by local idioms and forms.”
Kindling this radical atmosphere still further were left-wing Indian activists. In a militant speech that she delivered at the Forum, the novelist-activist Arundhati Roy inveighed against the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, likening it to a duel between serial killers. “To applaud the U.S. army’s capture of Saddam Hussein and therefore, in retrospect, justify its invasion and occupation of Iraq is like deifying Jack the Ripper for disemboweling the Boston Strangler,” Roy declared. Moreover, she obliquely directed WSF protesters to embrace, and perhaps even join, the terrorist insurgency in Iraq. “If all of us gathered here and at the Mumbai resistance are really against imperialism,” she said, “if we are really against neo-liberalism, then I think we should turn our gaze on Iraq, because Iraq is the culmination of both imperialism and neo-liberalism. So, I think if we are against imperialism, if we are against neo-liberalism, then we must not just support the resistance in Iraq, we must become the resistance in Iraq.”
Under the rubric of anti-globalization, some leftist Indian politicians also sought to reach out to other radical groups. Nilotpal Basu, a Communist Party member of India’s parliament who attended the WSF, argued that any group congenial to the WSF’s opposition to globalization was welcome at the Forum. “The WSF is essentially a broad-based platform for opposing globalization of economy and to that extent the party will like to join hands with other outfits who are against the expansion of the so-called globalized economy,” Basu remarked.
As a consequence of such prompting, the WSF swiftly degenerated into a virulent display of anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli sentiment. Both American and Israeli flags were set ablaze. Israel in particular was singled out for opprobrium. A delegation of 25 Palestinian activists led a rally against the Israeli security fence, proclaiming it an “Apartheid Wall,” a slogan that was embraced by WSF protesters. Additionally, some 60 WSF seminars were devoted to the subject of Israeli “crimes” against Palestinians and the Arab world. Radical leftist groups like the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peacelobbied for a halt of American aid to Israel. That message was amplified by a radical member of the Palestinian delegation, Ahmed Shawki, who called for activists to undertake a global campaign to sever support for Israel. “We need you in the belly of the beast to destroy U.S., Indian, and European support for Israel in every sector,” Shawki declared.
Despite the radicalism on parade at the Indian WSF, for some anti-globalization groups, the 2004 forum was not radical enough. Calling themselves Mumbai Resistance 2004 (MR 2004), a number of extreme-left groups demanding a “genuine socialist order” convened a parallel conference. Advocating an “organized resistance in continuation of the militant traditions of the recent anti-globalization and anti-war movements” this conference called on its participating groups, which included communist and socialist revolutionary groups from India and around the world, to support the “resistance” in Iraq, and to “smash American imperialism.” As for the World Social Forum, MR 2004 participants denounced it as mere frivolity devoid of a compelling ideological core. One MR 2004 proclamation mocked the “carnival atmosphere” of the WSF, describing it as a “reactionary” movement.
Such censure did not go unnoticed by WSF participants. One member of India’s Communist Party, Doraiswamy Raja, complained that the 2004 Forum fell well short of its declared aim to transform the world. “If this is all about networking and building solidarity, then it is okay,” said Raja. “But that is not the case, since they are trying to change the world by declaring that ‘Another World is Possible’.” However, Raja added, “There is no agenda for action to back such impressive words. This is cheating.”
Similar disappointment was expressed by other delegates to the Forum. The website Socialistworld.net, for instance, pointed out that for all its anti-capitalist pageantry, the 2004 WSF was notably short on substance. “Unfortunately,” the website lamented, “most of those searching for an answer from the organizers of the WSF and the speakers at the various meetings would not have found a program for an effective fight back against mass unemployment, poverty, and discrimination.”
These early WSF forums had many sponsors. French groups were particularly well represented, and the influence of Le Monde extended to the WSF’s organizational activities. Other sponsors included: (a) the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, an affiliate of Germany’s far-left Green Party, Die Grünen, which governed in a “red-green” coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder; (b) the Droits et Démocratie, a left-wing group under the auspices of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; (c) several leftist Brazilian groups, including the prefecture of Porto Alegre, the Prefeitura de Porto Alegre; (d) the anti-globalization outfit Oxfam, which held several workshops at the 2004 WSF; and (e) the Ford Foundation, which doled out $100,000 for the 2001 WSF and $500,000 for the 2003 Forum.
The Fifth World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil between January 26 and 31, 2005. One of its achievements was the production of a document titled “Twelve Proposals for Another Possible World.” Some noteworthy excerpts:
• “Cancel the external debt of southern countries, which has been already paid many times over, and which contitutes the priviledged means of creditor states, local and international financial institutions, to keep the largest part of humanity under their control and sustain their misery.”
• “Implement international taxes on financial transactions …, on direct foreign investments, on consolidated profit from multinationals, on weapon trade, and on activities accompanied by large greenhouse effect gas emissions. Such financial means, complemented by public development help which should imperatively be 0.7% of the GNP of rich countries, should be directed towards fighting big epidemics (like AIDS), [and] guarantee[ing] access to all humanity to clean water, housing, energy, health services and medication, education, and other social services.”
• “Progressively dismantle all forms of fiscal, juridical and banking paradises, which do nothing more than facilitate organized crime, corruption, illegal trafficking of all kinds, fraud and fiscal evasion, and large illegal operations by large corporations and even governments.”
• “All inhabitants of this planet must have the right to be employed, to social protection and retirement/pension, respecting equal rights between men and women. This should be an imperative of all public polity systems, both national and international.”
• “Promote all forms of equitable trade, reject all free-trade agreements and laws proposed by the World Trade Organization, and pu[t] in motion mechanisms allowing a progressive upward equalisation of social and environmental norms.”
• “Take urgent steps to end the destruction of the environment and the threat of severe climate changes due to the greenhouse effect, resulting from the proliferation of individual transportation and the excessive use of non-renewable energy sources.”
• “Demand the dismantling of all foreign military bases and the removal of troops on all countries, except when operating under explicit mandate of the United Nations. Specially for Iraq and Palestina.”
The Sixth World Social Forum was held in three different places and during three different time periods in early 2006: January 19-23 in Bamako, Mali; January 24-29 in Caracas, Venezuela; and March 24-29 in Karachi, Pakistan.
The Eighth World Social Forum took place in late January 2008, but it was not confined to any one particular place. Rather, it was held by thousands of autonomous local organizations in many cities all around the world.
The Ninth World Social Forum took place in Belém, Brazil, between January 27 and February 1, 2009. Among the attendees were approximately 1,900 indigenous people representing 190 different ethnic groups and aiming to draw attention to the issue of stateless peoples and the problems they faced.
The Tenth World Social Forum was held in late January 2010. Like the Sixth WSF, it was a decentralized event, with approximately 35 national, regional and local forums taking place in different venues across the globe.
The Eleventh World Social Forum was held in Dakar, Senegal, in February 2011. It drew approximately 75,000 participants from 132 countries. One of its top achievements was the production of a “World Charter of Migrants,” which began by stating: “Migrants … are targets of unjust policies. These, to the detriment of universal human rights, make humans beings oppose each other by using discriminatory strategies based on nationality, ethnicity, religion or gender. These policies are imposed by a conservative and hegemonic system that tries to maintain privileges by exploiting the work and the physical and intellectual strength of migrants. To do this they use the exorbitant powers permitted by the arbitrary power of the Nation State and a global system of domination inherited from colonisation and deportation. This system is obsolete, and generates crimes against humanity. This is why it must be abolished.”
The Twelfth World Social Forum was held in January 2012 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Some 50,000 people attended this five-day event, where, according to the University of Massachusetts’s Center for Governance and Sustainability, the emphasis was on “raising and refocusing awareness about the global social and environmental crises.”
By this time the WSF had emerged as the brain center of the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement, as evidenced by WSF co-founder Chico Whitaker‘s assertion that: “The political and economic elites are the one percent who control the world and we are the one percent seeking to change it. Where are the [other] 98 percent?”
The Thirteenth World Social Forum took place in Tunis, Tunisia, from March 26 to 30, 2013.
In 2014, no WSF was held.
The Fifteenth World Social Forum took place in Montreal from August 9 to 14, 2016, under the motto: “Another world is needed. Together, it is possible.” Some 35,000 participants representing 1,182 organizations and 125 countries were in attendance. More than 65 guest speakers gave talks at the Forum. Among these were Ali Abunimah, Naomi Klein, and BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti. Among the WSF’s major themes that year were:
• “Economic & social alternatives, & solidarity in the face of the crisis of capitalism”
• “Culture of peace and the combat for justice and demilitarization”
• “Decolonization and self-determination of peoples”
• “Defense of the rights of nature and environmental justice”
• “Global comba[t] and international solidarity”
• “Human and social rights, dignity and the combat against inequality”
• “Combating racism, xenophobia, the patriarchy, and fundamentalism”
• “Combating the dictatorship of finance, and [promoting] support for resource sharing”
• “Migration and citizenship without borders”
• “The working world faced with neoliberalism”
The 2016 WSF featured various assemblies and conferences that bore titles such as:
• “Fair trade”
• “Disarming finance: tax justice”
• “The right to education”
• “The right to housing, the city and the Earth”
• “Elimination of civilian and military nuclear [technology]”
• “Socio-economic inequalities, exclusion, and … a just ecological transition”
• “Commodification, access to public services, and fight against austerity”
• “Post-capitalist transition”
• “Militarization, peace and refugees”
• “Agro-ecology and organic food”
• “Struggles and visions of Indigenous peoples”
• “Climate justice and energy transition”
• “People and the planet before profit!”
• “Eco-citizenship and environmental education”
• “In the face of Israeli apartheid: the role and goals of BDS”
• “To do away with social inequalities”
• “Palestinians under apartheid, occupation and … siege”
• “Tax havens at the heart of the crisis of inequality”
• “Beyond the private sector: How can the plural sector organize collectively?”
• “Change the system, not the climate!”
• “The guaranteed minimum income as a major social innovation of the 21st century”
In 2017, no World Social Forum was held.