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Another world

| 22 January 2004

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This week over 100,000 people gathered from all parts of the world to say “No” to military imperialism and cutthroat capitalism, and “Yes” to dignity, solidarity and real freedom. Ian Douglas reports from Mumbai
Anyone entering the North Eastern Electricity Supply Company of Orissa (NESCO) grounds in the Goregaon suburb of Mumbai this week was confronted by an explosion of colour. Amid half-a-dozen cavernous disused warehouses, over one hundred impromptu tents for seminars, and a main stage area the size of three football pitches, the World Social Forum (WSF) held what must be one of the most enormous social action workshops in living memory, if not ever.

Thousands of panels, many thousands of speakers, waves and waves of demonstrations and rallies, banners and drums, loudspeakers and singing, dancing and marching: it is almost impossible to do justice to the scale of what happened here.

“Let us fix our eyes beyond infamy,” wrote Eduardo Galeano, “and imagine a possible world.” While there was plenty of the latter this week, few could dismiss with an easy or sardonic laugh the former. Not only has the WSF become the world’s largest space of gathering for civic expression in a troubled world, it has also become the world’s largest forum for fact collection and information sharing on the increasingly questioned agendas of the governments and corporations which command present history. No corporation can boast the kind of allegiance and solidarity shown here this week. And no government can claim exception to the biting indictment presented by the WSF of the way that we are currently permitted to lead our lives.

Not all is uniform, however. Difference and dissension, say the organisers, are at the heart of the WSF. And indeed there was much of this. Criticised for pursuing an agenda of reform, not revolution, the pragmatics of the WSF have come under attack this week in Mumbai. The city itself was an apt location. One of the poorest cities in India, with millions, not thousands, living literally on the doorsteps of their neighbours or places of work, the radicalism of neoliberalism, and its ravaging effects on the Third World especially, were brought powerfully to the fore, and generated alternatives not only to the present order of world politics, but to the WSF itself.

Wall graffiti all over the city made sense soon enough. “Debate alone cannot build another world,” “Globalisation cannot be humanised” and “Imperial capital cannot be reformed. It must be smashed,” were just some among many messages greeting delegates wherever they went, along with a pervasive “MR 2004″. “Mumbai Resistance 2004″ was this week camped directly opposite to the WSF, claiming to represent the true nature of struggle, and giving a voice to a range of radical movements which the WSF itself eschews, or says it does.

So, two social forums happened this week in Mumbai. But what were the dividing lines? What were the issues at stake?

“The WSF is not the forum for struggles. They say so themselves. They are for discussion and debate,” Darshan Pal, an organiser of MR 2004, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Many, though not all, in the WSF quietly agreed. “Essentially we’re saving the butts of the elite,” commented one WSF delegate, seeing the WSF as a mitigating force: a safety-valve and a wake-up call to the “PR problem” of governments, corporations and institutions. “We think that maybe sometimes debate is needed,” continued Pal, “but that never in the history of man, in the history of society, did some change happen without action.”

Away from internal division — an air of hilarity added to this scrap by the appearance of a third faction disputing the “friendly” way in which MR 2004 staked its claims against the WSF — both the Mumbai Resistance and the WSF, and all others besides, were at least united in this: something is deeply wrong, something which must be addressed, with the way the world is headed.

The WSF began in Davos in 2000. Inspired by the “Intercontinental Encounters” organised in Chiapas in 1996 and Madrid in 1997, and building on the energy of the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 and the Global People’s Action movement, the WSF was born as an alternative to the neoliberal agenda of the World Economic Forum of Davos. Its first fully-fledged meetings were in Porte Alegre, Brazil, in 2001, drawing over 20,000 participants from 117 different countries. In 2002 this grew to 50,000 from 123 different countries. In 2003, it reached 80,000 from 130 countries. Some estimates from this year place the figure of attendees at 170,000.

The weekend began as it meant to go on. A power plenary including celebrated writer Arundhati Roy, Nobel-winning human rights activist Sherin Ebadi, British anti-war MP Jeremy Corbyn and director of the Palestine National Initiative Mustafa Barghouti fired the first volleys: against the war on Iraq, against the occupations of Palestinian lands and of Afghanistan, against the tyranny of global institutions, corporations and the Bush administration, against the destruction of human rights and the environment, against racism and sexism and every form of discrimination, and in favour of direct action for justice and peace.

And as if that weren’t enough, democracy itself, the sacred cow of Bush et al, was exposed as a sham. Representative democracy, the WSF exists to demonstrate, has utterly failed. Civil society can and must reclaim its fundamental rights amid authoritarian states, and unaccountable institutions and businesses. As debates intensified over the next four days, no one was able to shake the declaration made by Corbyn at the opening plenary: “There’s another power on the face of the earth: the power of world public opinion to see the world in a different way, based on peace, based on justice, based on humanity.”

Few people here have been able to dismiss such oratory as worthless rhetoric. What perhaps is different in this WSF from its previous incarnations in the Americas is that the grassroots organisations and communities of India have rescued the WSF from what it may soon have become: a talking shop for essentially rich intellectual elites with time and passports in their hands.

Indeed, for those who came only for the intellectual cut and thrust some minor annoyances were in store: like the constant racket of thousands of drums, the unabashed and vocal celebration of the everyday peoples from all around India and the sub-continent. Though many have little to celebrate, it is this spirit of faintless determination that will mark the 2004 WSF, and perhaps provide valuable lessons for the core of the WSF organisation itself. The true value of these days was not secured by the $19 million it took to set up what is, to be sure, a remarkable social infrastructure here in Mumbai. Rather, it is in the people who turned up in their tens of thousands, quite oblivious to ins and outs of intellectual point- scoring, ego enhancement and its minor victories, but who know perhaps more than most what globalisation is really about.

We can’t deny that important things have been said here; important lines of solidarity and support formed through words, in declarations, in speeches and debates (on both sides of the divide that opened up, cut through by Goregaon’s Western Highway, though perhaps not too seriously, within the movement). Perhaps all these advances were only strengthened by the incredible, irrepressible, energetic celebrations invading every ear in every hall or seminar tent.

The unhappy news for some, even if their preferred channels of media covered it, is that Marxism is alive and well and, unfortunately, History has not ended. And the still further worse news is that the sheer documentary presentation of the crimes of corporate civilisation and states in the age of terror is practically overwhelming here. Over 500 individual stalls selling books, reports, campaigns and new realisations filled several of the enormous warehouses.

This week in Mumbai it is not looking good for the powers that be.

This piece was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly, 22-28 January 2004, Issue #674: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/674/in5.htm
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche