World Social Forum at a Crossroads:
5th International, Solidarity Economy, or Stand Pat?
by Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone
This summarizes a longer
article with footnotes downloadable at www.geo.coop and www.globaljusticecenter.org
It was written after the authors’ January 2006 tour of solidarity economy
initiatives in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. - Eds.
The main location of the sixth World Social Forum (WSF) this
last January was Caracas, Venezuela. Our first WSF, it felt like equal parts
Woodstock, hotbed of global action, workshop of the solidarity economy, and
university-for-five-days―all stirred up. The largest delegations came
from Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia, but it was exhilaratingly global.
Under the utopic slogan “another world is possible,” the
Forums were started by, and are still under the control of, not political
parties but social movements. Hundreds of them populate the meetings,
defending: women, workers, peace, the unemployed, the indigenous, rain
forests, bio-diversity, immigrants, alternative media, access to water, land
and food, and―centrally―the solidarity economy.
The “solidarity economy” is at the WSFs’ core. An early
paradigm of it was “participatory budgeting”: neighborhood participation in
allocating municipal budgets, practiced in Puerto Alegre, Brazil, and now in
hundreds of cities in and beyond Brazil. Porto Alegre was chosen for the first
Forum in 2001 because it demonstrated an alternative to capitalism. The
solidarity economy meets needs democratically, subordinating profit to human
ends, and includes: all types of coops; mutual aid and barter networks; social
currencies; credit unions; fair trade; and community gardens. Some exponents
see it as a complement to capitalism, others, like us, see it as a replacement.
The solidarity economy is central not just to the WSF’s
history but to its life today. National and local solidarity economies are
building regional, and now global networks, at global and regional social
forums. Often animated by coops of workers who occupy unused factories or land―e.g.
in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela―these networks facilitate
“inter-cooperation” or cooperation among coops. As more visible WSF sessions
debate theory, the global solidarity economy is being built in the basement. A
third of the Caracas program was devoted to this work.
Socialists and anarchists debate
within it, but the WSF is itself non-partisan and independent of all
governments, parties, and ideologies. Its charter goes so far as to limit
the WSF to this forum function: "The participants in the Forum shall not
be called on to take decisions as a body, whether by votes or by acclamation or
declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority of
them, or that propose to be taken as establishing positions of the Forum as a
body. It thus does not constitute a locus of power to be disputed by the
participants in its meetings." This principle has recently become
controversial as the Forum has been asked to “take decisions as a body”―including by us,
though we would not sacrifice its valuable independence from politics.
If in 2001 the WSF was “the birthplace of global civil
society"―namely all social groupings between the public realm of the
state and the private realm of the family―what should it be when that
society grows up a bit? Many feel that a change is needed. Explaining her
absence from the 2006 WSF, Arundhati Roy said “[it] has now become very
NGO-ized [non-governmental organizations]…it's just become too comfortable a
stage. I think it has played a very important role up to now, but now…I think
we have to come up with new strategies.”
Two strategies were debated at the 2006 WSF. One was to “get
political” by making the Forum “the 5th International:” forming allied
political parties and taking state power. Thus host Hugo Chavez challenged the
Forum to "draw up strategies of power in an offensive to build a better
world” via a socialist “front.” He explained: “We cannot allow [the WSF] to
become a folkloric and touristic event…We must have diversity and autonomy, but
also unity in a great anti-imperialist front.”
There were also “stand pat”
defenders of the Forums’ non-partisanship. One Forum organizer, Candido
Gryzbowski, warned that to act globally through political parties, as had
socialist “internationals” extending from the Soviet-based international
parties back to Marx, would require a divisive search for a uniform ideology.
Yet Gryzbowski offered no alternative action, implying it is enough for the Forum
to share information only and not act as such.
While we agreed that
party-building would be divisive, we also felt the “stand pat” option confused
non-partisanship with inaction. So we propose a third option: that the Forum
as such be used by its constituent social movements to act not in the political
sphere, but in the economic or civil society sphere, by focusing on
building regional and global solidarity economies.
We point out to Gryzbowski that
the WSF has already taken action. The charter’s limit of the WSF to a
forum role was conspicuously violated when the November 2002 European Social
Forum called, and then the January 2003 World Social Forum organized, a
world-historical protest against the then-forthcoming Iraq war. On February
15, 2003, between ten and thirty million protesters filled the streets of 800
cities on all continents. It was the largest demonstration in history and the
first truly global one.
To be sure, no “proposal for
action” was “decided.” The WSF simply took action, producing a
non-partisan protest. The war was not stopped, but a global opposition
to it was confirmed that endures today. If ideological agreement is a
condition for joint action, division is a risk. But February 15 proved that
the WSF as such can act effectively without such agreement. Had
ideological accord been a priority, the WSF’s variety of nations, parties and
ideologies would have been an obstacle; on February 15 it was a strength. And
had the WSF’s aim been mere state power, it would have lacked the vast
organizing appeal of moral authority. As it was, Arundhati Roy called February
15: “The most spectacular display of public morality the world has ever seen.”
The need for global action is
pressing and the WSF could be its agent. We watch in “shock and awe” as what is
in effect a global state wages a global war against humanity; innocent victims
multiply daily, from poverty if not from guns. Despair dogs us. Even if we
can see our way clear to a socialism without Stalinism, we are tempted by the
comfortable cynicism of “there is no alternative.” We need less a vision of a
better future than examples that prove one is possible. So the need that
impelled the choice of Puerto Alegre―to demonstrate the viability of an alternative to
capitalism―is even more pertinent today. And if the examples actually build
that future, so much the better.
How, then, can encouraging the
solidarity economy replace capitalism? Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution” may
be showing the way. As it pursues a sort of 5th International
strategy, it is also sponsoring a large new cooperative sector capable of
proving itself more efficient and just than the surrounding capitalism (see our
“Venezuela’s Cooperative Revolution,” Dollars & Sense, July/August
2006). If such a strategy on a global scale were to prove that democratic
production can better meet human needs, the expanding solidarity economy could
attract massive defection from capitalism.
This has never been tried. Were
the WSF to adopt such a strategy it would first be necessary to prove that economic
action at a global level is possible for ordinary people. Thus the
transformation might start with:
• A global boycott of pertinent products, organized in
advance by the WSF. Multi-nationals are unmoved by political protest if
everyone gets a Big Mac on the way home. Economic action, hard to organize, is
directly potent. The months-long boycott of U.S. products following start of
the Iraq war might be built on. Even now, Coca-Cola often markets in the
Mid-East under other brands.
• On a global “neighborhood assembly” day, neighbors might
stay home to assess needs and resources. Brazilian participatory budgeting,
Argentine “neighborhood assemblies,” and Venezuelan “communal councils” could
provide models. Tax breaks could help coop buy-outs and public contracts could
go to newly democratized enterprises.
• A global “buy coop, boycott multi-nationals” week would
radically boost the solidarity economy. National chains might be passed up for
democratic enterprises; child and elder care might be got from neighborhood
coops; credit unions could invest democratically. In Mexico, Pascual sodas
might replace Coke or Pepsi; in Argentina CUC shoes (a coop) might replace
Adidas. Going beyond Coop America’s “Green switch,” switching spending from
the capitalist to the exploitation-free solidarity economy would prefigure a
broader shift to worker control of the means of production.
On a global “economic democracy” day, workers might switch their labor
from the capitalist to the democratic economy. Instead of working to profit
others, they might meet needs more directly by starting a credit union, coop,
or local currency.
• A global “general strike,” initially a day, might combine
buying and labor switches with a neighborhood assembly day. The injustice of
wage labor as basis of a system that pits classes, neighbors, and nations
against each other would yield to direct, egalitarian relationships as
framework and means for meeting needs.
Such collective consumer and worker action could ultimately
shift production from patriarchal capitalism to worker-control socialism.
That economic processes should be
democratic is, we submit, a non-partisan, even a non-ideological, goal on which
anarchists, socialists, and other WSF constituencies already demonstrate
convergence. Active global sponsorship of economic democracy by the WSF as
on February 15―ought therefore to satisfy 5th International
advocates of effective action. At the same time “stand pat” guardians
of WSF independence of parties and ideology can acknowledge that such
sponsorship is no more partisan than was opposing the Iraq war. To 5th
International advocates, we say: if the point is to change the world, why take
state power as privileged means to that end when today’s movements show that
building the solidarity economy can directly change it? Moreover: since
building the solidarity economy is a recruiting tool for Chavista “21st
century socialism” it is fully compatible with later taking state power and
forming a “front.” To “stand pat” advocates, we say: since, instead of
building the solidarity economy in the basement, the construction simply moves
to center stage upstairs, the shift is small and preserves existing
To all sides we say: building the
solidarity economy will not be easy. Weaning ourselves from
centuries-old consumer passivity will take moral fiber. But solidarity with a
global movement impelled by the World Social Forum will help―a lot.
On to Nairobi 2007
The Forum will have its first meeting in Africa in 2007.
Realistically, we doubt our option will be taken up. Roberto Savio of the WSF’s
“governing” International Council asks: “Is it possible to increase the WSF’s
capacity for action? The answer is essentially ‘No.’ It has not been possible
to move past the idea of an ‘open space,’ which allows for the exchange of
ideas and experiences and the creation and strengthening of alliances but
prevents the formulation of proposals or calls for concrete action by the
forum.” February 15 is of course an obvious counterexample overlooked by those
Savio complains of here.
Still: On to Nairobi. Africa has
been underrepresented in the WSF and no consensus can be complete without this major
part of humanity. Our proposal’s inclusiveness suits it to the WSF as a
still-growing movement. It might gain acceptance after Nairobi.
The Caracas Forum inspired us. Its under-appreciated powers
drew us into debating its direction. We hope others will join in. The debate
is only starting, but it already belongs to all of us.
Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone are
members of the GEO collective. They are also among the co-founders of the
bilingual Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where
they serve as research associates, and are co-authors of many articles on
Cooperative Economics and Jean-Paul Sartre.
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