The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

World Social Forum: where next after Tunis?

Since its first meeting in Porto Alegre/Brazil in 2001, the World Social Forum has provided a key focus and meeting point for groups opposed to neo-liberal globalisation. Considering the current crisis of the global economy, success of the Forum process has become ever more urgent. In this guest post, John Hilary assesses the most recent World Social Forum, which took place in Tunis from 26 to 30 March 2013. 

Photo by John Hilary
As the cradle of the Arab uprisings two years ago, no venue could have been more appropriate than Tunis for the 2013 World Social Forum. All Tunisians we spoke to were proud to be hosting the WSF, noting that such a gathering would be next to impossible in neighbouring Libya or Egypt at present. Activists from Tunisia’s main trade union federation UGTT, which had played a major role in the uprising against the Ben Ali regime in 2011, spoke of the sense of power that still imbued much of Tunisian civil society, and the determination to follow through on the revolution so that political liberation might be followed by social and economic transformation as well. There were few illusions as to the huge challenges still facing the country, not least the external threat from transnational capital seeking to make inroads into the economy by means of secret deals with the government. Yet there was a strong sense of hope for the future of the country, if only Tunisians could maintain control of their own affairs.

The regional significance of the first WSF to be held in the Arab world was also palpable. The political struggles being played out across the broader Middle East were an ever present backdrop to the Forum, as were the social and economic challenges that still face all countries of the Maghreb and wider Arab world. The packed women’s assembly held at the start of the Forum confirmed the central role played by women in the Arab uprisings, while the recurrent theme of violence against women spoke of the continuing fight for gender equality in all countries. The threat posed to the region by the EU’s new generation of ‘deep and comprehensive’ free trade agreements was also regularly remarked on, negotiations towards the first of these (with Morocco) having begun just three weeks earlier. News that a delegation of 96 trade unionists and human rights activists from neighbouring Algeria had been prevented from travelling to attend the Forum underlined the continuing restriction of basic freedoms still experienced by many across the region.

Photo by John Hilary
Palestine was a dominant theme at the Forum, which closed in a mass solidarity demonstration through the streets of Tunis to mark Palestinian Land Day (30 March). The Palestine tent provided a central point of defiance to Israeli oppression in the midst of all other Forum activities, ensuring that the powerful testimony of Palestinians who had travelled to Tunis acted as a continuing inspiration for the international BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement. In addition, a strong Saharawi presence served to remind people that Western Sahara is the one African colony still to achieve its independence, 38 years after being occupied by Moroccan troops. One of the most prominent banners welcoming people to the WSF stated simply in Arabic, French and English: ‘Together for Palestine – Together for Western Sahara’.

The international aspect of the Forum was not wholly integrated with the regional, as most meetings on climate, tax, trade and other aspects of the capitalist crisis were held in a different part of the university campus from those on Arab or Maghrebian politics, and with limited participation of local activists. The substantial European presence at the Forum reflected not only the ease of travel to Tunis from most European capitals, but also a creeping professionalisation of the WSF in favour of NGOs and single-issue campaigns – a critique levelled at the process by participants from the Occupy movement, which held its own assemblies in a square within the university campus hosting the Forum.

Photo by John Hilary
In this broader respect, the political future of the WSF remains to be decided. The Brazilian trade union federation CUT, one of the founding supporters of the WSF process, had come to Tunis with a written critique of the hijacking of the Forum in recent years by groups of independent intellectuals (such as the GRAP grouping in Brazil) and the weakening of its original anti-capitalist orientation. Noting that the holding of five major international events under the banner of the WSF in the past 14 months had seen a ‘trivialisation’ of the WSF, the CUT called for a return to biennial Forums and a genuinely democratic, inclusive process to marshall the collective forces of the world’s social movements against the capitalist system.

The original conception of the WSF as purely an ‘open space’ for the coming together of anti-systemic movements has developed over time towards assemblies of convergence that seek to construct common actions around particular themes, such as the international mobilisations against the Iraq war ten years ago. In addition, several Forums (including Tunis) have worked towards final statements to encapsulate these convergences, offering direction to the future work of the movements, even if with no formal status. Yet the task of forming these tendencies into a coherent political challenge to capitalism remains – hence the recent appeal from WSF founder luminary Chico Whitaker for the Forum to morph finally from open space to global movement.

Photo by John Hilary

Capital has seized on the opportunity created by the systemic crisis of 2008 onwards to launch a new assault on society and expand its operations in global North and South alike. The inability of the world’s progressive forces to seize the moment for transformative change hangs in the air as a challenge to our collective efforts to create a better world. Yet the current conjuncture still offers unprecedented opportunities to build transnational movements of action against capital, as traditional boundaries between North and South dissolve in the face of a common threat. If the WSF can rise to that challenge by creating a global political movement, it will have proved its continuing importance to the future of humanity.

John Hilary is Executive Director of War on Want

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