Focusing the Struggle

The World Social Forum’s primary achievements are gathering the multiplicity of movements fighting neoliberal capitalism and imperialism, and maintaining the open space to keep alive mutual education and networking. But aside from the kinds of adverse power relations critiqued by grassroots activists in Nairobi, the WSF’s main disappointment remains our inability to converge on strategy, generate agreed-on joint actions, and forge cross-sectoral ties.

Here in Durban, South Africa, we have had some interesting debates about WSF politics. By way of background, post-apartheid South Africa has entailed three bouts of independent-left protest against global conditions, with more than 10,000 people marching against the UN’s World Conference Against Racism (in Durban, September 2001) for failing to put reparations for slavery/colonialism/apartheid and Zionism on the agenda; more than 25,000 demonstrating against the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, August 2002) for embracing neoliberal environmental and social strategies; and tens of thousands protesting the war against Iraq (countrywide, 2003-04).

South African activists have also been trying to remove the boot of the Bretton Woods Institutions from Third World necks, including defunding the institutions that are most often responsible for neoliberal repression across the Third World. In addition, activists have won dramatic victories against the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights regime, by demanding generic anti-retroviral medicines instead of branded, monopoly-patented drugs. Similar struggles are underway to “deglobalize” food in light of the threat of genetically modified organisms from transnational corporations, to halt biopiracy, and to kick out the water and energy privatizers. And then there are the average 16 protests per day, according to police records, against domestic South African targets. For most strategic activists here, the point is to seek “nonreformist reforms” insofar as they achieve concrete goals and simultaneously link movements, enhance consciousness, develop the issues, and build democratic organizational forms and momentum.

This background contributes several different answers to the question of whether the WSF needs to transcend its diffuse form and become more explicitly political. A fierce debate unfolded last July at the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) Workshop on the World Social Forum, captured in a book our colleagues at the Delhi thinktank CACIM issued just before Nairobi.

Four positions emerged, beginning with a “top-down” albeit very eloquent analysis by Samir Amin and Francois Houtart made originally in January 2006 – the Bamako Appeal– just before the polycentric WSF. The Appeal calls for an explicitly political program as an alternative to neoliberal globalization.

Second, however, CCS associates Franco Barchiesi, Heinrich Bohmke, Prishani Naidoo, and Ahmed Veriava critically dissected reasons not to adopt a political program, drawing upon the autonomist critique of 20th century universalist ideologies.

Third, a more explicitly socialist strategy was advanced by cadres like Trevor Ngwane, an organizer for the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. Given how badly capitalism has supplied the South African masses with jobs and affordable vital services, some of the more substantive independent-left social movements – especially in Johannesburg’s Anti-Privatization Forum – have adopted “socialism” as their constitutional objective.

The advanced proletarian-based consciousness and intensely exploitative situation in Johannesburg does not prevail everywhere, of course, and it would be unreasonable to expect a “socialist” movement to develop from the national Social Movements Indaba (which collects several dozen such local left movements), or especially from continental efforts such as the Africa Social Forum. But this is the favored direction of many, possibly by uniting explicitly socialist currents within the WSF.

But fourth, the foundational critiques of capitalist neoliberalism are already located, I’d argue, in the struggles and documents of globally connected activists. In past decades, “internationals” were forged from labor, socialist, women, youth, anti-racism/colonialism, anti-war, and other such movements, actively seeking commonalities across borders.

In addition to these movements, future international initiatives will more tightly link organizations devoted to minority rights, civil rights, democracy, indigenous people, cultural freedom, human rights, sexual identity, disability rights, and elder and youth rights. There are, in addition, many other issue-based movements that already coordinate advocacy and protest, in many cases taking leadership from the South where movements are more militant and the stakes higher: finance/debt/aid/investment, trade, recuperated factories/coops, corporate disempowerment and anti-consumerism, land/agriculture/forestry/fisheries, housing/urban access rights, water, energy, health, food/nutrition, social security, education, other environmental struggles, media, policing/prisons, and information and communication technology, to name a few.

In addition to better targeting of common enemies (such as the Bretton Woods twins, the WTO, the White House, and the European Union), the challenge, I think, is to gain more coherence not only for networking among these movements, but also in finding sites of interlock where their own political programs can be drawn on for the sake of a larger – and firmly grounded – manifesto that would inspire a new generation of coordinated global/national/local activism.

One national-scale example of an all-encompassing political project – which perhaps would emerge from greater linkages across and between these movements, and much closer attention to their traditions of struggle – comes from South Africa: the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme. That document attempted to fuse the historical struggles of the Mass Democratic Movement’s component parts, drawing upon the analyses, strategies, tactics, and alliances built in some cases over decades. Though the neoliberal African National Congress did a subsequent U-Turn on the vast majority of progressive mandates in the RDP, it remains a crucial statement of South African social justice aspirations.

If such a global-scale project is not hosted by the WSF, where then?

Patrick Bond is a political economist based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Development Studies in Durban, where he directs the Centre for Civil Society (http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs). He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).