By Michaela Collins
The first World Social Forum was called, in January 2001, to coincide with the World Economic Forum, which was taking place in the luxury Swiss resort of Davos.
The WEF is essentially the representatives of global capitalism deciding among themselves how to run the world smoothly in their own interests.
In the wake of opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), an attempt to eradicate all barriers to the free movement of capital, including social and environmental protection, the WSF was a conscious attempt to assert social values.
"One of the organisations to spur this mobilization was ATTAC - at first the Association for a Tobin Tax for the Aid of Citizens, and now the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens - that was starting to take shape in France at the time, also following a proposal in this direction by Le Monde Diplomatique. Today the association has some 20,000 supporters all over France and has inspired ATTAC groups in other countries round the world, including Brazil. The association is working to put into effect Economics Nobel laureate James Tobin's proposal for a tax on speculative capital movements as a way of controlling their present absolute freedom to circulate worldwide."
Immediately, both the value and the limitations of the Social Forums become clear. ATTAC is associated with the French Socialist Party of Lionel Jospin (recently wiped out in the French elections). Its critique of the effects of global capitalism focuses on the unique evil of finance capital, and its way of dealing with it is essentially social democratic/bureaucratic, i.e. rely on a tax (and therefore electing a government who will vote it through) rather than class struggle. But with friends in high places you can put on an impressive show.
New friends came in the form of the state of Rio Grande do Sul and its capital Porto Alegre, who agreed to host the WSF. Both the state and the municipal government are in the hands of the Workers Party (PT). "Cassen [of ATTAC and Le Monde Diplomatique] was enthusiastic and made the proposal to hold the Forum in Brazil. He felt it had to be in the 'Third World' - because that would also have a symbolic effect - and Brazil was among the countries in a better position to host a Forum like this. His too was the idea of hosting it in Porto Alegre, capital of a state that is steadily becoming known all over the world for its democratic experiences and efforts against neo-liberalism."
Brazil is 'Third World', well it's not quite G8, but it's not Lesotho either. It is the largest economy in Latin America. It has a huge foreign debt - but then so does the USA. What's happening here is a burying of class conflicts within the concept of 'Third World', 'the South', 'rich versus poor countries'. Brazil has its own bourgeoisie which is squeezed by the mega US/European capital.
The Workers' Party (see article on Brazil's election) in Rio Grande do Sul has created a certain level of participatory democracy and initiated progressive social programmes but it is not 'anti-capitalist' so much as 'anti-neoliberal'. The PT (or sections of it) want an alliance with the 'good' native capitalists against evil international finance capital. The call for the WSF was supported by ATTAC Brazil, CUT (the trade union federation), MST (landless rural workers movement), the NGOs, but also by CIVES (entrepreneurs association for citizenship).
The first WSF was huge (20,000 participants, and over 1,000 press) attracting large numbers of international delegates from the better off NGOs (lots of UN agencies) who mingled with thousands of local activists. Not really like with like. Another of those contradictions. The 'First World', the rich 'North', is not only or mainly composed of capitalists, but of hundreds of millions of workers, unemployed and poor people, who may be marginally privileged in relation to Brazil's poor but actually have much more in common with them than with their bosses. But by and large they didn't come to Porto Alegre (couldn't afford the air fare).
Porto Alegre 2002 was even bigger (50,000) and decided to call for Regional Social Forums, of which the European Social Forum is meeting in Florence 6-10 November. One of the issues of contention in the organising of this is the ban on political parties. This is a bit disingenuous. The WSF International Committee is dominated by the Brazilians, who are largely affiliated to the Worker's Party. The ESF will be taking place with the support of the municipality of Florence and the region of Tuscany whose governments are dominated by the Democratic Left. The dominant group on the Italian organising committee, which will decide the shape of the event, is Rifondazione Comunista (PRC). The ban on parties flows from the idea of the Social Forums as alternative centres to the WEF, somehow above politics. It comes from the view of a tripartite UN-style solution - governments/multinationals/NGOs acting in partnership to alleviate the worst excesses of untramelled capitalism.
"The Forum is not deliberative in nature and time will not be wasted in discussing the commas in a final document The intention is, by thinking together also on a 'globalized' basis, to make room - in greater depth each year - for the search for alternatives to the dominant model."
The ESF, like the WSF, will bring together thousands of activists and enable links to be made on the ground, but it is not a shortcut to building genuine anti-capitalism, which has to arise from actual organisations of class struggle where we are.
All quotes from : 'World Social Forum: origins and aims' by Francisco Whitaker, trans. Peter Lenny