‘There Are Many Alternatives!’ versus ‘There is No Alternative!’ A World Social Forum Book and the WSF Process

By Massimo De Angelis



World Social Forum: challenging empires - Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar and Peter Waterman (eds.) 2004. New Delhi: The Viveka Foundation. 402 pp. London distribution: Global Book Marketing, info@globalbookmarketing.co.uk. (Most of this book is online at www.choike.org/nuevo_eng/informes/1557.html)

Introduction: Information and Critical Reflection

This big orange book (about 400 pages overall) is an excellent effort at combining both information and critical reflection on the World Social Forum (WSF) phenomenon:

Information, because many of its contributors summarise and describe, from their own perspective, the phenomenon itself. Repetition runs the risk of tedium, but this is inevitable here, since the majority of the contributions have been written in different contexts and have been already in the public domain for some (generally short) time.

Critical reflection, because this is not a simple celebration of the Forum, but an attempt to air the political and strategic debates central to the enterprise. We have to also acknowledge the attempt of the editors to be inclusive of a wide spectrum of views, especially some of the views at the margin of the forum and even some of those ideologically opposed to it (like the Indian Maoists). In this last case, the contextualisation of these contributions, within a wealth of other critical but constructive engagements, does more than words to illustrate the methodological and political gulf between these critical outsiders and the critical participants.

Strengths and weaknesses

The book is divided into five sections.

The first is on "antecendents", that is the "conceptual, ideological and historical landscapes within which the Forum has taken shape and within which it continue to unfold" (xxv). This is, in my opinion, the weakest of all sections. Not only for the metaphor used to introduce the forum -- a comparison with the Post-WW2 Non-Aligned Movement, which we must remember, was an alliance of nationalist and socialist governments. That was a quite different species than the space of cross-contamination amongst the grassroots which the Forum process is supposed to be about. The weakness of this section has to do with the laudable attempt to include every "antecedent", from the socialist (Samir Amin, Michael Löwy), to the anarchist (Andrej Grubacic), from the feminist (Johanna Brenner) to the literary (Arundhati Roy), yet without a sense of dialogue and cross fertilisation among these perspectives.

Also, I cannot fail to notice the absence of a crucial and necessary reflection on the "historical landscape" within which the Forum process has emerged. This means a reflection on the emergence and consolidation of neoliberalism on the ruins of Keynesianism -- that is of a set of capitalist strategies that had "socialism" and "nationalism" (there you are, ingredients of the non-aligned movement!) as an integral part of its modus operandi. This means, further, a reflection on the modes of articulation and feedback between capitalist strategies (such as the neoliberal) and struggles (such as the ones of the social movements within the WSF), reproducing the vicious cycle of capitalist homeostasis. This means, finally, the absence of an attempt to frame the discussion around the WSF in strategic terms vis-à-vis capital, to problematise what we (the movement of the WSF) are up against in the construction of a new world, and what the needs and challenges of political recomposition are across the globe.

Compared with this section, I think all the others do a better job. In Section Two we have "diaries" - personal accounts of meetings for the benefit of those who have not attended one yet. In the third and fourth section, the heart of the book, we find critical engagements with the Forum and the ideas at its basis, as well as those that emerge from it. Section Four in particular focuses on issues emerging from the process of organising the WSF in India (for which this book was a timely preparation). The range of views, ideas and approaches here is truly diverse, ranging from "structural" to "poststructural" analysis, from highly abstract pieces to concrete reflections on local social fora. Finally, section five, looks beyond and collects some strategic visions on the role of the forum, again in the spirit of collecting a range of contributions from a variety of approaches.

It would be impossible here to do justice to all 50-plus contributions in the collection -- not to mention the collection of documents from within the WSF that provide a useful "all in one" resource for the interested reader.

Reflections in a London eye

Instead of looking at this or that contribution, I want here to provide some reflections on a recurrent theme that seems to emerge from several of these contributions. This is the problem of the World Social Forum as process versus event, as horizontal versus vertical form of organising, with communicational versus political-institutional goals (see for example Peter Waterman’s essay, The Secret of Fire, pp. 148-160) This is an issue emerging from several other contributions).

For example, in reading some of the contributions on the organising of the WSF in Mumbai (WSF4, January 2004), I am struck by the familiarity of the controversy. Jai Sen, one of the editors of the volume and a member of the WSF India Committee in 2002, writing on the first year of the WSF4 process, writes, for example, that

[W]hen looking back over the first year, it is clear that the idea of building a broad `process’ within the country was undermined at an early stage, by virtue of WSF India focussing all its attention on the event. This has only been all the more the case in the second year, leading up to the world meeting in Mumbai. (296)

Given my experience in the process of the European Social Forum (ESF) in the UK, planned for late-2004 [1], I cannot avoid connecting this managerial focus on the event to the type of "political entities" that "clearly dominated the Forum and its organisational structures" (298). These are, namely, political parties of the orthodox Left, whose political discourse is inadequate to conceiving -- not to mention discussing -- the strategic complexities of the political process of building a new world here and now, rather than "after the revolution".

Indeed, Sen points his finger at the key issue, a sectarianism that does not reveal itself in traditional ways (by actively excluding people) -- although at earlier moments this is precisely what the "horizontals" had to organise against. There is another type of sectarianism, that we might call discoursive sectarianism, namely

the insistence on the superiority of a particular discourse -- more commonly, the use of language, the choice of terms, the approach to analysis -- which also plays its role in alienating others. This sense of alienation applies even to those who may feel sympathetic to Left opinion and positions but do not feel themselves as being of the Left and do not want to have to fit within orthodox Left discourse (299).

It is not just a question of alienating others, but also of framing others within categories that already allocate organisational work to them: the orthodox Left, in dominating an "Organisation Committee" are inclusive, but only inclusive of representation of given identities. They are not inclusive in ways of doing, hence of modes of producing identities, because this would threaten the premise of their own discourse, namely that another world is possible only after the revolution, namely after they or some organisations like theirs have seized power.

The old within the new in the WSF process

And it is not only a question of superiority of a discourse. The question is also whether these discourses (which, let us not forget, echo ways of seeing, hence of acting upon the world, hence of ways of making another world) are porous or not, whether they are permeable to other discourses or not, whether they are programmed to constructively engage with other discourses, or even to the remote possibility that such an engagement would threaten the identity of the "Party" and its democratic centralism, and of the discourse itself. These are discourses that run contrary to what Boaventura de Sousa Santos hopes the WSF would create:

[T]he point is to create, in every movement or NGO, in every practice or strategy, in every discourse or knowledge, a contact zone that may render it porous and hence permeable to other NGOs, practices, strategies, discourses, and knowledges. . . . Cancelling out what separates is out of the question. The goal is to have host-difference replace fortress-difference. Through translation work, diversity is celebrated not as a factor of fragmentation and isolationism but rather as a factor of sharing and solidarity. (342)

By their lack of permeability, these discourses seem instead to reproduce, within the Forum, the same social subjects that "hegemonic epistemology and rationality" produces in the world at large. This is by making the subjects and their different needs, desires and modes of doing invisible. These subjects are "the ignorant, the residual, the inferior, the local and the non-productive". (239)

The WSF is therefore confronted by a fundamental paradox. On the one hand, its Charter of Principles proclaims it to be a space, a process and a framework, within which not only is resistance to neoliberalism strengthened and struggles circulated, but a space in which alternatives are actively promoted. On the other hand, there is a deep-rooted political culture that -- despite the formal exclusion of parties from the WSF -- reproduces traditional party discourses everywhere. In the middle, of course, there is an ongoing struggle even within the WSF, a struggle fundamentally between two cultures. Interestingly, this struggle is a struggle between TINA (There is No Alternative) and TAMA (There Are Many Alternatives). Indeed, this matter is transversal to both the problem of the movement’s relation to capital and the problem of the relations between events/process within the movement: in other words, both in the relation between the movement and capital and within the Social Forum movement itself.

The different reference points of TINA and TAMA

The first thing to notice is that TINA and TAMA refer to two different things.

The missing alternative referred to by the neoliberal TINA, is an alternative to a mode of articulation among social practices/subjects, in other words the alternative to capitalist markets as a mode of articulation of difference (different products, mode of producing, locality, etc). In other words, TINA represents the neoliberal project of disciplinary integration across the global social body, TINA says that there is no alternative to the centre of gravity of capitalist markets: all human action must be coordinated by this.

Orthodox Left sectarian discourse is a TINA discourse in this sense of there being no alternative to a mode of articulation. The orthodox Left celebrates the diversity of the participants, but only to the extent they are brought together through a process that is vertically defined, that is ordered by a certain discourse, that is closed to other ways of articulating, of producing. The organisational effort in other words is managerial, event-focussed, and never bottom-up. Control-freakery, as in the case of the current London ESF process, as documented by the horizontals, is in this sense unavoidable. It is a methodology that has failed to learn from the African saying, "I am who I am because of other people" (quoted Waterman,154).

Unlike TINA, TAMA voices the diversity of yeses, of needs and aspirations that the market possibly leaves behind, or satisfies only to the extent that others’ livelihoods are threatened. Thus the TAMA problematic is different from that of TINA. Within TINA discourse everything is possible to the extent that it is presented to us by a given mode of doing (disciplinary markets for capital or vertical "representative" decision-making for the orthodox Left). For TAMA there are many alternative modes of doing, alternative to both disciplinary markets that pit each against others or to a representative democracy that is open to power politics. Note that what is left open for TAMA is left closed for TINA -- namely the way of articulating many needs and desires across subjects, hence the many modes of doing.

The mode of articulation of the many yeses in TAMA is open. This presupposes the fact that the emergence of these mode(s) of articulation can only be a product of continuous interactions and relations among those who practice these alternatives. This means basing oneself on the continuous need to exchange, learn and teach, create "affects", effects and translocal communities, and so on. This is, namely, the broad field of democratic horizontal processes. But here comes the threat of the sectarian discourse of the orthodox Left, which is directly proportional to the ability of its proponents to organise around it. As we have seen, this discourse is one that is closed to the matter of process, focussing instead on the event. This discourse tends to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy, namely, that within it there is no space to believe in the creation of alternatives in the here and now.

The conclusion I draw from this book is: Horizontals of the World, Organise!, because the practices of the orthodox Left are, to use their own vocabulary, reactionary.

[1] The London ESF process has been a complex and painful one. It has also, however, been a uniquely public one within the WSF process internationally. It has required the horizontals to not so much denounce the verticals as to discover themselves and develop a manner of operating that was more in accord with the principles of the WSF. This has been an important learning experience for the horizontals. (Possibly also for the verticals? One lives in hope!). For those interested in learning from this experience, see the following: The ESF 2004 Process So Far. This long document written by the horizontals (see the Horizontals Background Document) reports a practice that includes 1) the non-transparent way of proposing London as the site of the next ESF, 2) the abolition of working groups that were emerging spontaneously, 3) blackmail - "either like this or the trade unions will walk out", 4) the opportunistic management of assembly decisions. All of this is in contradiction with the democratic principles of inclusion and participation on which the WSF is based. This last document became the basis for launching, in February 2004, A Call for Democracy in the ESF Process. For the support this gained here, signed by more than a hundred people from a variety of networks and groups. Later, during the European Assembly for the preparation of the ESF, London, March 6-7, the conflict between the two ways of conceiving the ESF were exposed in front of the European delegates. These, somewhat surprised to see a vertical chairperson pushing an agenda to favour their own plans, listened rather to the horizontals. This obliged the less-than-eager verticals into an open negotiation process within the assembly itself (see the events and the outcome in From the Other Side of the Channel. 18 March 2004. Since then the horizontals have been continuing their struggle for democratic spaces within the ESF, often taking the initiative and producing bulletins, information, web and other resources to promote a mode of production of the ESF that is both transparent and inclusive. [back]