In 2001, something rather unique came about in the wonderful world of social movements. A few thousand activists mostly from Brazil met in Porto Alegre to discuss openly, without a pre-fixed agenda, on strategies and theories to oppose neoliberal policies, and brainstorm alternatives. Thus the Forum was born ...
In 2002 and 2003, the process continued in Porto Alegre. Under the inspiration of the Latin American movements, the focus was shifted towards alternatives, in the wake of on going giant mobilizations and in preview of center-left coalitions winning elections. At the same time, a simple charter was established basically to indicate that the drive was going to remain with social movements. Last but not least, the Forum started to coordinate social movements around an anti-war platform, first in Porto Alegre, then in Firenze (European Social Forum).
In 2004, the Forum moved to Mumbai, and there was another shock. The excluded, the peasants, the dalits came forward, challenging not only the ‘official' left, but the basic narrative of transformation. Later in 2006 after a return to Porto Alegre, the Forum moved to the world (Caracas, Karachi, Bamako), opening up new spaces, bringing other multitudes in a babelian but somehow convergent process. In the meantime, the Forum branched out in about 50 countries and cities, as well as around themes like cities, education, science, arts, etc.
Later the Forum flopped in Nairobi (2007), but then bounced back in Belem (Brazil) in 2009, this time around environmental issues and a rather explicit critique of the centre-left coalitions which have ruled at least partially various states in South America. Today, the agenda of the Forum is to move further in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where social movements are rather dispersed, so as to invite and encourage local initiatives.
There have been many critiques of the Forum, from the right but often from the left. The ultra radicals are not happy because it is not all-out anti-capitalist and opens its door to "soft" social movements like trade unions and NGOs. Intellectuals like Samir Amin and others think it should be agree on an agenda otherwise it will become "folkloric."
All in all, these critiques are often valid but miss the point. The Forum is the reflection of the social movements, a site where their images and sounds meet. In this political moment, it is highly important and positive that this confrontation/dialogue takes place. The only "alternative" would be the kind of fifth or sixth International that nostalgic leftists, mostly white, male and middle class would dream of.
The political moment of today at a generic (therefore simplistic) level is that of accumulation of forces and battle of ideas. After more than 70 years of not only "really existing" but failing socialism, it will take many more years and efforts to rebuild a transformative perspective. Just to mention one domain, the traditional left view based on "modernization," "industrialization" and "growth" with equity is bankrupted and needs to be replaced with a totally different conceptual and political program (sometimes called, not clearly, as "ecosocialism"). In the organization realm, who would not see the rise of horizontalist networks able to coordinate and converge, but without losing their primary identity? All of this and many more is dissected, examined, debated and debatable in the multiple foras that exist and that are somehow related, to a myriad of forms, to the WSF.
Many dynamic social movements and leftist networks have captured that and are using the Forum for what it is, not for what it is not. However different trajectories are manifested according to history, political culture, and organizational experiences. The WSF has been used widely in South America, in southern Europe, in the Maghreb, for example. It is not capturing the imagination in other parts of the world, although it is slowly taking shape in the USA, Sub Saharan Africa, and East Asia.
In Quebec and in Canada, its presence is asymmetrical. It is strong in Quebec, where many activists have gone to the world to participate, and where two national foras have been held already in Montreal, with over 15 regional and city-wide foras. In Canada, the Toronto Social Forum was a bold attempt to break the ice, but did not overlive its first initial success. Back in 2003, a small number of people went across the country to consult movements on the idea of a Quebec-Canada-First Nations Forum, but it was abandoned after a few (but important) rebuttals. Perhaps it's time to try again.
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