The World Social Forum and the Internet Social Forum
April 13, 2015
I write from Greece, after a disappointing WSF in Tunis. Although I met many fine folks, especially from Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Turkey and Egypt, I felt the amorphous structure of the WSF let it be something other than a driving force for a new world. The failure to engage with political issues meant that dynamics such as involvement of governments and overt homophobia were never discussed formally.
Governments played not-so-behind the scenes roles in Tunisia, and their machinations went unquestioned. As an example of overt government intervention, supporters of Syrian president Assad disrupted the first hour of a workshop on the Syrian revolution. Entering the room, they tore down flags and posters and created a near fistfight among a few dozen people. After some time, youthful WSF security arrived wearing orange vests, and they succeeded in separating the two groups and corralling the interlopers to an outside square. The session continued, but at the end, a passionate supporter of the king of Morocco disrupted the closing remarks of a Palestinian speaker from Camp Yarmouk in Damascus, who finished his responses to questions by expressing support for the people of the western Sahara. (As a stateless people oppressed by occupiers, is it any surprise that Palestinians support others like themselves?) Apparently this Moroccan had been sent by his government to prevent any reasoned discussion of Morocco’s occupation. Several people told me that the man who disrupted the end of the session was a paid agent of the government of Morocco, as apparently were dozens of others. Of the 800 or so Moroccans in attendance, I was told by reliable sources that all but about 200 were sent by the government—and that the same proportion held for the equally large Algerian contingent.
A session claiming to be about continuing struggles in China consisted of a well-organized group of Chinese people who offered little more than the government’s official version of contemporary Chinese history from the Great Leap Forward to the present. Insisting that the Communist Party’s leadership was more skilled than Western elites, the group essentially gave the government’s views while pretending to be an NGO.
Less overt government involvement may perhaps have accounted for the sudden power failure in our session on the internet and revolution. Arriving several hours early, we had a projector and connection to the Ecuadorian embassy in London all ready, yet as soon as it came time for Julian Assange to talk via internet, the lights went out. We used the computer’s battery to run his talk and a Q&A with only a PC as the monitor. Although a few of the nearly 100 people in attendance left in frustration because they could not hear well, the event nonetheless inspired us and, as we subsequently learned, energized him. No sooner had the battery expired and Assange vanished, the lights came back on. The rest of our talks were also quite engaged, particularly from bloggers in Tunisia and Morocco who were behind the Arab Spring. (Assange’s talk and others can be heard at http://yachana.org/reports/wsf2015/assange.html).
As for overt homophobia, I witnessed gay people who were told to leave by security, whom they had called after being taunted by some participants. As the small contingent carrying rainbow flags marched out of the main gate, they were energetic but shocked and saddened by their expulsion. Over the next 2 days as the WSF International Committee met continually, they were apparently too busy to even discuss this transgression of their own charter (which explicitly mentions “genders”).
Although I have been a very optimistic supporter of the WSF in my writing and speaking, my first-time attendance made me much more critical. If there are not serious adjustments made in the WSF’s orientation and informal structures of power, I am afraid it will not amount to more than an annual (or biannual) networking event for those able to get visas and who have money to attend. The decision, for example, to hold the 2016 in Canada certainly means that many people from the global South will not receive visas.
One promising event in Tunis was a meeting to form an Internet Social Forum. Many people attended the meeting and expressed hope that the group could go beyond the limitations of the WSF. Yet, some of those present were key organizers of the World Social Forum, and they insisted that the structure and content of the ISF be similar to the amorphous politics of the WSF. Arguing against any manifesto or statement of principles beyond the charter of the WSF, they hope to depoliticize and keep amorphous the ISF.
The promise of the ISF is that it could be a tool to envision concretely the kind of new world which we believe is possible. We could develop an online plan for how such a world would look and how it might function. Economists could be enrolled to create mechanisms for participatory regional investment bodies; political scientists in conjunction with tech folks might design mechanisms (such as exist in Iceland) for online participatory decision-making bodies; scientists and engineers could discuss with workers better production techniques and less polluting technologies, and so on.
If we allow the ISF to be an amorphous body that Google, Microsoft and their proxies use like governments used the Tunis WSF, we limit its possibilities in advance. That is why the ISF needs a strong political manifesto stressing that all participants must be committed to building a new world and to developing a vision for such a world.