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Another World Social Forum is possible

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The road to the WSF 2013 in Tunis and beyond

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For those who have not had the time or resources to attend the World Social Forum 2013 preparatory meeting in Monastir (July 12-17, 2012), it was not easy to stay informed about the progress and outcomes. Meanwhile, thanks to some participants who live-streamed and recorded the entire event on video, transcripts of the sessions are being made available on the web. [1] Deciphering these notes from Monastir certainly doesn’t give a comprehensive picture of the current state of the WSF process, but at least it offers us a first impression: a very raw and chaotic mixture of statements, proposals, concerns and critical questions in Spanish, French and English (interventions in Arab are to be translated), reflecting both the precarity and the potential of the WSF.

Here I would like to share some reflections on the ongoing organisational process towards the WSF 2013 in Tunisia. Secondly, I will present some suggestions to overcome these limitations, suggestions that are largely derived from recent experiences within the square movements and the international networks of Occupy and Indignados. And finally, I will ask you some personal questions…

Some alarming impressions from Monastir

The program, which was finalized just shortly before the meeting, consisted mainly of presentations by various local, regional, thematic and ’new’ movements. Although a number of active movements was not present, these meetings have brought an interesting and lively update on localised struggles around the world, especially from the Maghreb region.

The schedule also promised a session of the WSF International Council (IC) to “begin a discussion on the future of the WSF and of the IC itself”. [2] The IC was set up in 2001 as a permanent body to give continuity to the WSF process, and since then it is the main decision-making body of the WSF. The outcome of this IC meeting in Monastir has been summarized as follows: “[A] working group was established in order to review the functioning of the IC and its liaison committee, which had been largely inactive of late. Criticism was raised concerning the low level of organization and preparation which characterized the preparation assembly, despite the fact that progress was made. But we will come back to this.” [3]

The most obvious and crucial decisions that have been taken somewhere before or during the meeting have not been motivated nor communicated, namely the date and location of the coming WSF: 23-28 March 2013 in Tunis. Meanwhile, the visit of a group of WSF delegates to the Tunisian prime minister Hamadi Jebali had fueled rumors that the WSF could be used to postpone the general elections to be held around the same date. [4] As far as I have been able to find, the IC has made no public statements, on this or any other subject, except one condemning an act of gender violence during one of the meetings in Monastir; and nor have any members of its leadership. [5]

Another alarming signal is the absence of information and discussion about the financial situation of the WSF, while the costs for the participation of at least 20,000 people are estimated at approximately € 1 million. [6]

Altogether, the continuously delayed response to (self)criticism and the very limited communication offer little guidance to the Tunisian organising committee and all others who are willing to participate in the process towards the coming WSF. “[N]o podemos empezar cada foro desde zero”, we can not start from zero every time we organise a forum, as one of the participants in Monastir complained. [7] But maybe it’s about time to stop waiting for the IC and others to move. If we agree that the WSF could and should become a place, a moment and a process to connect, renew and empower all our various struggles around the world, we have to take the WSF and its process into our own hands and recreate this so-called open space according to our own values.

Some thoughts on the production of open spaces

“A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses. A social transformation, to be truly revolutionary in character, must manifest a creative capacity in its effects on daily life, on language and on space.”

Henri Lefebvre [8]

During the last decade many critical writings and discussions have been dedicated to the methodology of the social forum: the choice of thematic axes, the promotion of self-organised events, the transparency of decision making, strategies of communication and moblisation, the inclusiveness and extention of the forum. Unfortunately, most of these interesting and important exchanges remained within circles of ’professional’ activists and academics. I think it’s time to revitalize these debates and bring them to the center of the social forum process, in order to confront theory with practice, transform critical thought into critical action.

To (re)open this debate I would like to present some suggestions for major shifts within the process of building open spaces such as the WSF:

1. From thematic axes towards self-organised multidimensional spaces of resistance and alternative practice

A key method to structure the program of the WSF is the division into thematic plenaries, seminars, panels, workshops or even ’spaces’. For some of us this will remain a solid handhold and all we expect from a forum. But if we also hope for crossbreeding of issues, the rise of new coalitions and a little more adventure, we have to go beyond static and pre-defined classifications. The square movements of Arab Spring/Indignados/Occupy have shown us the possibility of mobilising and organising through radically changing the meaning of an existing space: away from the normality of everyday life dominated by state and capital, driven by the shared understanding of the urgency to resist and develop alternative forms of social life. The deep and disastrous crisis of our globalised political and economic systems can not simply be challenged step by step and sector by sector, but only by permanent wave of actions from, and in all directions. I believe that such a global uprising can not be orchestrated by any movement of movements, but can only arise from a multidimensional sense of solidarity among all participants.

Can we build a WSF that enables participants to give meanings to the venues and spaces themselves? Of course this doesn’t mean that we have an empty program, guarantee some basic facilities and just see what happens. Instead, we can all start today with proposing workshops, debates and other activities, find partners, mobilise our friends, etc. For example, I would start to organise around some of my personal favorite axes: the local forum (see 2), communication (see 3) and the future of the WSF itself (see 4).

2. From a global moment towards a network of localized struggles (and vice versa)

The catchiness of Arab Spring/Indignados/Occupy was caused by the ability to easily translate its open models to many other places, serving various objectives, combining the characteristics of direct action, meeting point and outreach campaign. There was no pre-existing network to coordinate the spread of camps around the world. These networks have been built from the local camps and squares. Through these networks many proposals have been put forward culminating in the global day of action on October 15th 2011.

From its beginning the WSF has chosen an opposite approach by starting from the global level. We all know that it’s wishful thinking to assume that from the WSF the other world will trickle down upon everyone of us. On the other hand, we have seen that the concept of the social forum has had widespread resonance on regional, national and local scales. We should do anything possible to make these experiences, especially the local ones, more visible during the WSF. Because this could be the most touchable and promising outcome of the event: to learn how to set up our own spaces to continue and deepen our struggles directly related to our own neighborhoods, workplaces and daily lives.

3. From one-sided towards interactive communication

The square movements of Arab Spring/Indignados/Occupy reaffirmed that communication is our ultimate weapon, our double-edged sword that exposes all injustice in the world and unites us in an indestructable networked global community. The availability and understanding of a new range of weaponry has changed the scope and possibilities of organising global resistance: online and mobile communication tools. These new tools do not simply replace, but amplify the traditional means such as speeches and declarations. Moreover, through livestreams, blogs, social media, online meeting software, translation and collaboration tools, our generations can interact with and contribute to any struggle anywhere.

I have followed the ’Extended’ projects from the WSF in Belem, Dakar, and most recently the meeting in Monastir. Considering the circumstances, the volunteers did an amazing job every time. But I think it’s about time that the communication between the spaces of the WSF and the outside world becomes an integral part of any activity within the WSF. Providing free wifi at the venues will probably one of the most wanted services among participants, next to the excellent system of simultaneous translations and free water. The WSF could become one big workshop to exchange and improve our skills in modern communication.

4. From event management towards a permanent and open process

One thing the movements of Arab Spring/Indignados/Occupy and the WSF have in common: its future remains uncertain. Both phenomena have suffered from a certain decline in activity and visibility. But I’m pretty sure that many of us are still confident that our efforts were not in vain.

In the view of my not so optimistic impressions of Monastir, especially that the IC apparently can not fulfill its promise to provide continuity to the WSF, I think we should look for other ways to bring new dynamics and fire to our processes. I propose to move the entire debate about the future of the WSF to the center of the open space and the heart of the preparatory process. All the decision-making processes should be open to all participants. For example, the date and location of the next WSF events in 2014 and/or 2015 can be discussed and determined during the WSF in Tunis. This may not be easy, but if it succeeds it means that the mobilisation towards the next forum can begin immediately in a direct relation to the input, outcomes and evaluation of Tunis 2013.

Maybe the IC is still working on a vision and plan for its own role and the future of the WSF. Who knows? Meanwhile, the organising committee in Tunisia, is left with an enormous organisational, logistical and financial challenge. Realizing that local, national and regional struggles to carry on the revolutions will be a rightful priority to our friends in Tunisia, we must do everything possible to support the local organisers and make the WSF a delight instead of a burden.

Next steps?

There is much more to say about how we could produce the open spaces of the future WSF. The recent and continuing experiences within the movements of Arab Spring/Indignados/Occupy may certainly shine a light on this.

For now, I have a question: what would you and your friends, comrades, colleagues want to do at the WSF in Tunis, or in relation to the WSF in Tunis? I do not mean this as a question of conscience and I admit that this question is probably just based on self-interest. I simply want to get a kind of indication of the expectations and willingness of others, to weigh whether it’s worth to get serious.

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[1] “Déroulé video des rencontres de Monastir 2012 12-17 juillet” last updated on 2 August 2012, retrieved on 4 August 2012…

[2] “The Preparatory Assembly to the World Social Forum 2013 – July 12 to 17, 2012”, 10 July 2012

[3] Ronald Cameron, “The International Council lays the foundation for 2013’s World Social Forum”, 3 August 2012…

[4] Hend Hassassi, “Postponement of Tunisia’s Next Elections Denied”, 23 July 2012…

[5] WSF International Council, “Declaration of the International Council of the World Social Forum on Acts Violence”, 15 July2012…

[6] Gianluca Solera, “Après le Forum de Monastir, il est temps de s’unir”, 27 July 2012

[7] See: “Déroulé video des rencontres de Monastir 2012 12-17 juillet” last updated on 2 August 2012, retrieved on 4 August 2012…

[8] Henri Lefebvre, The production of space, 1991 (First published in 1973),…

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