World Social Forum

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The WSF as Critical Utopia

Boaventura de Sousa Santos:

“Utopias have their timetable”, says Ernst Bloch.

The conceptions of and aspirations to a better life and society, ever present in human history, vary as to form and content according to time and space. They express the tendencies and latencies of a given epoch and a given society. They constitute an anticipatory consciousness that manifests itself by enlarging the signs or traces of emerging realities. Does the WSF have a utopian dimension ? And, if so, what is its timetable ?

The WSF is a set of initiatives — of transnational exchange among social movements, NGOs and their practices and knowledge of local, national or global social struggles against the forms of exclusion and inclusion, discrimination and equality, universalism and particularism, cultural imposition and relativism, that have been brought about or made possible by the current phase of capitalism known as neoliberal globalisation. The utopian dimension of the WSF consists in claiming the existence of alternatives to neoliberal globalisation.

As Franz Hinkelammert says, “we live in a time of conservative utopias whose utopian character resides in its radical denial of alternatives to present-day reality”.2 The possibility of alternatives is discredited precisely for being utopian, idealistic, and unrealistic. Under neoliberalism, the criterion is the market. The total market becomes a perfect institution. Its utopian character resides in the promise that its total application cancels out all utopias. What distinguishes conservative utopias such as the market from critical utopias is the fact that they identify themselves with present-day reality and discover their utopian dimension in the radicalisation or complete fulfilment of the present. Moreover, if there is unemployment and social exclusion, if there is starvation and death in the periphery of the world system, that is not the consequence of the deficiencies or limits of the laws of the market; it results rather from the fact that such laws have not yet been fully applied. The horizon of conservative utopias is thus a closed horizon, an end to history.

This is the context in which the utopian dimension of the WSF must be understood.

The WSF signifies the re-emergence of critical utopia, that is, of a radical critique of presentday reality and the aspiration to a better society. This occurs, however, when the anti-utopian utopia of neoliberalism is dominant. The utopian dimension of the WSF consists in affirming the possibility of a counter-hegemonic globalisation; it is a radically democratic utopia. In this sense, the utopia of the WSF asserts itself more as negativity (the definition of what it critiques) than as positivity (the definition of that to which it aspires).

The specificity of the WSF as critical utopia has one more explanation. For the WSF, the claim of alternatives is plural, both as to the form of the claim and the content of the alternatives. The other possible world is a utopian aspiration that comprises several possible worlds. It may be many things, but never a world with no alternative. Yet the question remains : once the counter-hegemonic globalisation is consolidated, and hence the idea that another world is possible is made credible, will it be possible to fulfil this idea with the same level of radical democracy that helped formulate it ?"

The World Social Forum as Epistemology of the South

Boaventura de Sousa Santos:

"Neoliberal globalisation is presided over by technico-scientific knowledge, and owes its hegemony to the credible way in which it discredits all rival knowledge, by suggesting that they are not comparable, as to efficiency and coherence, to the scientific nature of market laws. This is why the practices circulating in the WSF have their origin in very distinct epistemological assumptions (what counts as knowledge) and ontological universes (what it means to be human). Such diversity exists not only among the different movements but also inside each one of them. The differences within the feminist movement, for instance, are not merely political. They are differences regarding what counts as relevant knowledge, on the one hand, and on the other, differences about identifying, validating or hierarchising the relations between western-based scientific knowledge and other knowledges derived from other practices, rationalities or cultural universes. They are differences, ultimately, about what it means to be a human being, whether male or female. The practice of the WSF also reveals, in this context, that the knowledge we have of globalisation is much less global than globalisation itself.

To be sure, many counter-hegemonic practices resort to the hegemonic scientific and technological knowledge paradigm, and many of them would not even be thinkable without it. This is true of the WSF itself, which would not exist without the technologies of information and communication. The question is : to what extent is such knowledge useful and valid, and what other knowledges are available and usable beyond the limits of utility and validity of scientific knowledge ? To approach these problems raises an additional epistemological problem : on the basis of which knowledge or epistemology are these problems to be formulated ?

Science is doubly at the service of hegemonic globalisation, whether by the way in which it promotes and legitimates it, or by which it discredits, conceals or trivialises counter-hegemonic globalisation. Hegemony presupposes a constant policing and repressing of counter-hegemonic practices and agents. This goes largely hand in hand with discrediting, concealing and trivialising knowledges that inform counter-hegemonic practices and agents. Faced with rival knowledges, hegemonic scientific knowledge either turns them into raw material (as is the case of indigenous or peasant knowledge about biodiversity) or rejects them on the basis of their falsity or inefficiency in the light of the hegemonic criteria of truth and efficiency. Confronted with this situation, the epistemological alternative proposed by the WSF is that there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice.

This alternative is grounded on two basic ideas. First, if the objectivity of science does not imply neutrality, science and technology may as well be put at the service of counter-hegemonic practices. The extent to which science is used is arguable inside the movements, and it may vary according to circumstances and practices. Second, whatever the extent to which science is resorted to, counter-hegemonic practices are mainly practices of nonscientific knowledge, practical, often tacit knowledges that must be made credible to render such practices credible in turn.

The second point is more polemical because it confronts the hegemonic concepts of truth and efficiency directly. The epistemological denunciation that the WSF engages in consists of showing that the concepts of rationality and efficiency presiding over hegemonic technico-scientific knowledge are too restrictive. They cannot capture the richness and diversity of the social experience of the world, and specially that they discriminate against practices of resistance and production of counter-hegemonic alternatives. The concealment and discrediting of these practices constitute a waste of social experience, both social experience that is available but not yet visible, and social experience not yet available but realistically possible.

The epistemological operation carried out by the WSF consists of two processes that I designate as sociology of absences and sociology of emergences. I speak of sociologies because my aim is to critically identify the conditions that destroy non-hegemonic and potentially counter-hegemonic social experience. Through these sociologies, social experience that resists destruction is unconcealed, and the space-time capable of identifying and rendering credible new counter-hegemonic social experiences is opened up. The following description of the Sociology of Absences and the Sociology of Emergences represents the ideal-type of the epistemological operation featured by the WSF."

The World Social Forum as Political Emergence

"The newness of the WSF is more unequivocal at the utopian and epistemological level than at the political level. Its political newness does exist, but it exists as a field of tensions and dilemmas, where the new and the old confront each another. The political newness of the WSF resides in the way in which these confrontations have been handled, avoided, and negotiated.

Generally speaking, the political novelties of the WSF can be seen, first, in terms of the very broad conception of power and oppression that it seems to have adopted, and which responds to the fact that neoliberal globalisation is linked with many other forms of oppression that affect women, ethnic minorities, peasants, the unemployed, workers of the informal sector, immigrants, ghetto sub-classes, gays and lesbians, children and the young. This requires that movements and organisations give priority to the articulation amongst them, and ultimately explains the organisational novelty of a WSF with no leaders, its rejection of hierarchies, and its emphasis on networks made possible by the internet.

Second, the WSF strives for equivalence between the principles of equality and of recognition of difference, grounding the option for participatory democracy, which addresses equality without the exclusion of difference.

Third, the WSF privileges rebellion and non-conformity at the expense of revolution. There is no unique theory to guide the movements, because the aim is not so much to seize power but rather to change the many faces of power as they present themselves in the institutions and sociabilities. At this level, the novelty consists in the celebration of diversity and pluralism, experimentalism, and radical democracy.

It has become common to examine the WSF’s political experience in terms of problems and tensions at three levels : representation, organisation, political strategy and political action. According to its Charter of Principles, the WSF does not claim to be representative of counter-hegemonic globalisation, and no one represents the WSF nor can speak in its name. But then : whom does the WSF represent ? Who represents the WSF ? The WSF’s restricted geographical scope so far has led some critics to affirm that the WSF is far from having a world dimension. Some proposals have been made in this regard, including the decision to hold the fourth WSF in India. While this problem is real, I believe that the WSF must not be de-legitimised for not being worldwide enough.

A second, hotly debated question is the WSF’s organisation, particularly the relation between the Organising Committee (OC) and the International Council (IC), the organisation of each of the three Porto Alegre Forums, and each event’s structure.

These aspects have raised many issues, which I cannot discuss at length here. (See other essays in this section, and other sections in this volume — Eds). Among the most discussed are : internal democracy, including issues of transparency of decisions and the articulation between the IC and the OC; the hierarchical structure of the events, chiefly the distinction among different kinds of sessions and the importance accorded to each, a feature of which feminist movements have been particularly critical (following the two mottos —‘Another World is Possible !’ and ‘No One Single Way of Thinking’); and the top-down organisation of the events.

A third site of tension and critique is the relation with political parties, social movements, and NGOs. The Charter of Principles is clear on the subordinate role of parties in the WSF. The WSF is an emanation of civil society as organised in social movements and non-governmental organisations. In practice, however, things are ambiguous.11 In my mind, the issue is not whether relations with parties should exist or not, but rather to define the exact terms of these. If the relations are transparent, horizontal, and mutually respectful, they may well be, in some contexts, an important lever for the consolidation of the WSF.

A fourth area of contestation is size and continuity. To the steady increase in the size of the annual event, the IC has responded with a proposal to stimulate theme and regional, national and local events, that intercommunicate horizontally and that will not be articulated as preparatory for one another but as meetings with their own political value. Finally, there are issues of strategy and political action. As a radical utopia, the WSF celebrates diversity, plurality, and horizontality. The newness of this utopia in Left thinking cannot but be problematical as it translates itself into strategic planning and political action.

The organisers themselves acknowledge many of these tensions and criticisms, which suggest that these tensions are part of the Forum’s learning process. Some measures have been suggested, including the current restructuring of the IC and a deepening of horizontal organisational practices and systems of co-responsibility. Although it is clear that much remains to be done, it is fair to say that the WSF’s organisational structure was the most adequate to launch the Forum and render it credible internationally. The current consolidation of the WSF will lead it to another phase of development, in which case its organisational structure will have to be reconsidered so as to adjust it to its new demands and tasks ahead. For now, it should be acknowledged that the desire to highlight what the movements and organisations have in common has prevailed over the desire to underscore what separates them. The manifestation of tensions or cleavages has been relatively tenuous and, above all, has not resulted in mutual exclusions. It remains to be seen for how long this will to convergence and this chaotic sharing of differences will last.

The last point concerns precisely this, the notion of cleavages. Here again we find a site of political novelty. There is a meta-cleavage between western and nonwestern political cultures. Up to a point, this meta-cleavage also exists between the North and the South. Given the strong presence of movements and organisations of the North Atlantic and white Latin America, it is no wonder that the most salient cleavages reflect the political culture and historical trajectory of the Left in these parts of the world. What is most instructive however, is that despite the reality of the cleavages that could be at play — reform or revolution; socialism or social emancipation; the State as enemy or potential ally; national and global struggles; direct action or institutional action; and that between the principles of equality and difference — it is clear that what is new about the WSF is that the majority of the movements and organisations that participate in it do not recognise themselves in these cleavages. They have political experiences in which there are moments of confrontation alternating or combining with moments of dialogue and engagement. In these long range visions of social change cohabit the tactical possibilities of the moment, in which radical denunciations of capitalism do not paralyse the energy for small changes when the big changes are not possible. Indeed, many movements of the South think that no general labels — even Left and Right — need be attached to the goals of the struggles.

According to the large majority of the movements, these conventionally conceived cleavages do not do justice to the concrete needs of concrete struggles. The decision on which scale to privilege, for instance, is a political decision that must be taken in accordance with concrete political conditions. Similarly, for many movements it is no longer a question of choosing between the struggle for equality and difference, but of articulating one with the other, for the fulfilment of either is condition of the fulfilment of the other.

Nonetheless, there is a cleavage among the movements and even, sometimes, inside the same movement on whether priority should be given to one of these principles. Concrete political conditions will dictate which of the principles is to be privileged in a given struggle.

Any struggle conceived under the aegis of one of these two principles must be organised so as to open space for the other principle. Many of the tensions and cleavages mentioned above are not specific to the WSF, but belong to the legacy of struggles over the past 200 years. The specificity of the WSF resides in the fact that all these cleavages co-exist in its bosom without upsetting its aggregating power. The different cleavages are important in different ways for the different movements and organisations, providing room for action and discourse. Second, there has so far been no tactical or strategic demand that would intensify the cleavages by radicalising positions. On the contrary, cleavages have been fairly low intensity. For the movements and organisations in general, what unites has been more important than what divides. Third, if a given movement opposes another in a given cleavage, it may well be on the same side in another. In this way are precluded the accumulation and strengthening of divergences that could result from the alignment of the movements in multiple cleavages. On the contrary, the cleavages end up neutralising or disempowering one another. Herein lies the WSF’s aggregating power."


Edited version of part of a paper presented at the XXIV International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Dallas, USA, March 27–29, 2003.

More Information

  1. World Economic Forum on Impact of Web 2.0 and Emerging Social Network Models [1]
  2. World Social Forum as a Complex Civil Society Network
  3. World Social Forum as New Model of International Governance
  4. History of the World Social Forum and the Alterglobalization Movement