Is the U.S. Social Forum primarily an arena for movements to propose a diversity of alternatives or is it a political agent of the left that pulls movements together into a counter-hegemonic program? Photo: Sasha Y. Kimel/Flickr

In 1933, Mexican artist Diego Rivera completed his Detroit Industry fresco cycle. The abundant, controversial work, considered one the 20th century’s outstanding achievements of monumental art, covers the four walls of the Garden Court in the Detroit Institute of Art.

The murals illustrate the dignity of the worker in relation to the history of technology — from its origins in agriculture to the factory floor of a Ford auto plant. The most intriguing aspect of the murals lies hidden within the outline of a gigantic stamping press on the South Wall: the press intimates a resemblance to the Aztec deity Coatlicue — the goddess of creation and destruction. Through the image Rivera suggests that in the 1930s the deity revealed herself, in all of her contradictions, as technology. The murals present us with the latter’s dual nature — factories and smokestacks, passenger planes and war planes, vaccines and poison gas — implying that technical progress always offers us the choice between self-immolation or an increase in human flourishing.

The obvious question that the Detroit Industry fresco cycle poses to us is what would the eminent artist design if asked to do a contemporary version of the murals? How would he depict the tragedy and possibility of Detroit and America, a city and country with heroic histories of activism, that have been steadily crippled by a generation of neoliberal economic policies?


The World Social Forum (WSF) was created in 2001 as an arena for social movements from around the planet to propose alternatives to the current crisis-ridden form of globalization. Since the first Forum there have been hundreds of regional, national and local fora oriented around the same aspiration with each event attracting thousands of activists.

The 2010 US Social Forum held in the last week of June in Detroit had 15,000 participants from across the United States and from around the world. Social movements came looking for community, discussion, and resolutions for creating a better Detroit and a better USA. As with its predecessor, the 2007 Forum held in Atlanta, the USSF National Planning Committee has once again demonstrated – -better than any other organizers — its capacity to construct a genuinely diverse grassroots Social Forum. Workshop after workshop, panel after panel, plenary after plenary, were populated with women and people of color leading the discussions.

The unique genius of the U.S. left lies in its thoroughgoing belief in self-representation, that is, the under-represented should represent themselves: the poor should speak on behalf of the poor, women should speak on behalf of women, and the unemployed should speak on behalf of the unemployed. This emphasis on self-representation is present across the global left but nowhere is it more evident than in the U.S. The Forum pulled together an array of indigenous people, church clusters, feminists, socialists, environmentalists, labour organizers, anti-war activists, anti-racists, ethnocultural groups, anti-imperialists and autonomists, producing an impressive convergence of difference [1].

The space of action

One of the central debates in the Social Forum process concerns the question of whether the Forum is a space or an actor: is the Forum primarily an arena for movements to propose a diversity of alternatives or is the Forum a political agent that is pulling movements together into a counter-hegemonic program? Officially the World Social Forum’s Charter of Principles takes the position that the Forum is a space that does not aim to take positions that speak for all of its participants. Many activists have interpreted this decision as leading to an inevitably self-absorbed, dispersed and ineffective politics.

However, within the U.S. Social Forum process there is a mechanism for crystallizing political action. That mechanism is the People’s Movement Assemblies (PMA) The PMA builds on the Assembly of Social Movements format used at the World Social Forum: at the end of each WSF the assembly utilizes the last day of the event to plan political action — such as protests against war, corporations, or bio-devastation. The People’s Movement Assemblies follow this precedent but with an important innovation: they are held before, during, and after the Social Forum, thus giving movements more time to build durable strategies.

The assemblies are community meetings that have been occurring across the U.S. from August 2009 to June 2010. One of the goals of the PMA as stated by the National Planning Council representative Ruben Solis is to facilitate movements “connecting across lines in a way that has a real impact on power.” These meetings give individuals, family members, neighbours, organizations and regional populations occasion to come together, evaluate challenging social circumstances — such as gender inequality or the militarism — and propose innovative long-term solutions.

The assemblies are vital in the current U.S. and global context. Last year, I wrote that the election of President Obama was an opportune moment for social movements [2]. The president, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, is a genuine centrist who can be moved to the left if faced with substantial social movement pressure. What I did not predict was that if progressive movements did not pressure the president then conservative movements would take advantage of their absence.

It has been evident over the past year-and-a-half of Democratic rule that the unrelenting pressure of Tea Party activists at high-profile events: town hall meetings, Republican primaries, and the Massachusetts Senate election in January, has discouraged Democrats from pursuing substantially innovative goals. The People’s Movement Assemblies offer progressives an opportunity to put pressure on congress members and senators, insert alternative candidates in Democratic primaries, and advance a liberatory national agenda.

The contradictions of localism

The key challenge for the assemblies is that many progressives, unlike conservatives, have a narrow outlook in terms of understanding the potential of political power. Among conservatives, there are those who believe the State is the key vehicle for advancing their goals as well as those who believe that the State is a threat to their freedom. Similarly on the left, there are those who believe that the State is crucial to for promoting equality — as well as those who believe that the State is intrinsically hierarchical. This latter perspective is disproportionately influential in and disabling to the Social Forum process.

Rightwing libertarians, despite their distrust of the state, have always understood that they should possess state power and that they should use it to implement their vision and their corresponding goals. In contrast, the localist wing of the left seems to believe that they can do an end run around the state. They avoid governance, do not propose better candidates, and do not build alternative political parties. For this reason, above all others, progressive mobilizations have not achieved as much political impact over the past year as their counterparts on the right.

A good example of this political weakness was the healthcare reform that was recently passed. The reforms would have been significantly better if they had included a “public option” — but progressives were not at town hall meetings mobilizing to advance better policies. The Tea Party activists however were and they eventually forced the Democrats into passing a minimal — rather than comprehensive — healthcare reform. The importance of the USSF’s People’s Movement Assemblies is that they give progressives the possibility of constructing powerful coalitions that will engage at all levels with the political process while articulating visionary policies to create another, better United States.

Unfortunately the activists at the USSF, in general, did not propose to engage with the electoral system of the world’s powerful state. There were “numerous resolutions on issues ranging from workers rights, displacement and global migration, challenges facing Detroit and other post-industrial cities, media justice, transformative healing, and fossil fuel extraction.” There was an impressive emphasis on inter-sectionality, that is, pulling together diverse concerns, but a closer review of the PMA resolutions reveals a trend to strategies that are local, non-electoral, participatory and uniquely protest-oriented. While there are calls for an alternative political system, the strategies do not immanently engage with the current one: there are no substantial proposals for an alternative political party or even ideas on challenging incumbents in political primaries.

This non-electoral emphasis is consistent with the general dynamic of the Social Forum process since its inception in 2001. Many activists have complained that the Social Forum’s stress on the local and plural — while leading to a festive, compassionate atmosphere — does not necessarily lead to substantial social change. Over the last decade we have witnessed the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, the Great Recession, mounting attacks on immigrants of color and increasingly worse statistics associated with climate change. The inability of Social Forum movements to prevent the above calamities, or to even force better policies in light of these crises, points to the intrinsic weakness of non-electoral, localist strategies. Because of the Social Forums we have greater social movement community, participation and networks — but we do not have political results: the chairs on the deck have been moved closer together but the ship continues to sink.

A multi-scalar strategy

The USSF’s limitations are the constraints of the Social Forum process in general. While the various anti-authoritarians, autonomists, and radical democrats have in the past criticized statism for its lack of participation, diversity and community, it is precisely the new statist left in Latin America who have been the most experimental in terms of incorporating citizen deliberation, alternative identities and local autonomy. A full house greeted the USSF screening of Oliver Stone’s new documentary “South of the Border.” The film applauded the achievements of the key leftist presidents of Latin America. The most telling point of the narrative was when President Lula of Brazil, with the nodding approval of the other leaders, told the interviewer that he wanted to see a “South American Constitution, a South American Federation, and a South American Labour Union”. These presidents understand the importance of a multi-scalar strategy that links the local, national, regional and international: they understand that the goal of progressives over the last 200 years has been to create a global civilization that meets our material and cultural needs. The audience’s obvious affection for the Latin American leaders belied the localist and non-electoral discourse of much of the USSF.

The audience reaction, and the plethora of Latin American solidarity movements present throughout the USSF, demonstrated that progressives will embrace political figures who can incorporate the local into larger scales of governance. Social and political leaders with a multi-scalar vision are needed not just in Brazil or Bolivia but also in the United States — because the challenges facing Detroit and the nation cannot be solved simply at the neighborhood or municipal level.


The 2010 U.S. Social Forum was a nest of antinomies, on one hand it was a great accomplishment: it was more diverse than any other national Social Forum, it had over a thousand workshops, and there was a call for more than 50 national days of action. On the other hand, the consistent emphasis on the local and the non-electoral suggests that the social movement energy that was kindled at the Forum may not necessarily translate into political influence: the USSF’s aspirations may remain locked in the realm of the social.

To return to our initial question: what would a contemporary Diego Rivera paint if asked to depict the plight of the U.S.? He would have little to celebrate: the dignity of the worker and social benefits of technology have been replaced by the humiliation of 17 million unemployed, by the attempt to legally harass immigrants in Arizona, and by an oil spill that is suffocating the Gulf of Mexico. For possibility Rivera would certainly build on the idea of self-representation — the genius of USSF 2010 — but for transformation he would have to look south to the innovative multi-scalar politics that are being practiced beyond the U.S. border.


[1] Thanks to CACIM (Critical Action – Centre in Movement), NIGD (Network Institute for Global Democratization) and SSF (Sociologists Without Borders) for organizing an informative session at USSF 2010 titled “Rooting the Social Forum process in the everyday practices of the subaltern — how else are other worlds possible? A critical engagement with the U.S. Social Forum & the World Social Forum.”

[2] Ponniah, Thomas. Societies Without Borders, Volume 4, Number 2, 2009 , pp. 254-260(7).

Thomas Ponniah is a lecturer on Social Studies at Harvard University, the co-editor of “Another World is Possible: popular alternatives to globalization at the World Social Forum” and a member of the Network Institute of Global Democratization — one of the founding organizations of the International Council of the WSF.


Thomas Head Shot by Monianne (1)

Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...