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Building Other Possible Worlds

The 99% and the 2015 Tunisian World Social Forum

Karen Buckley (karen.buckley@manchester.ac.uk) is a Hallsworth research fellow at the Institute for Development Policy and Management (IDPM) in the University of Manchester.

The World Social Forum 2015 being held in Tunis may not present a welcome prospect for those who await the immediate consolidation of an alter-globalisation agenda. However it does suggest that the process of resistance may yet be as important as any outcome. 

Galvanising Protest

It has been suggested that recent Occupy movements can learn a lot through looking at the history of the World Social Forum (WSF) (Caruso and Teivainen 2014). However, as with much of global activism, WSF's resistance to neoliberalism and imperialism is entangled within the continued propagation of neoliberalism by states, corporations and elites. In this context, the forum offers a space for global connectivity and articulation that attracts occupy and resistance movements to engage with issues of global consequence. However, to merely reproduce past ambiguities towards the “global justice movement” or “movement of movements”, wherein its constituents are perceived to stand apart from dominant economic and political structures, would be mistaken.

The forum has long modelled itself on the idea of an open square where tens of thousands gather to establish various points of convergence in their work and develop networking opportunities. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academics, students, charities, faith-based organisations, social movements, trade unions and others engage within this space and are often assumed, sometimes in a greater than merited leap of faith, to be united by their common opposition to neoliberalism and interest in developing alternatives.

Defeat of Alter-Globalisation Movements

Many alternatives have been proposed from within this space, but a new global left or novel form of politics has not yet emerged and nor are some participating organisations and movements particularly concerned to engage in this way. Over the years, important questions have been raised concerning the defeat of the alter-globalisation movements from which the impulse for the forum derived.

Some people feel that if the forum has fulfilled its purpose of suggesting an alternative but has not yet crystallised it into a political form it should make way for newer movements. Questions have been asked on whether Latin American electoral left politics has co-opted the WSF—after all, the forum has its origins in the home of the Brazilian Workers Party.

Role of Tunis WSF 2015

At most, organisers of the upcoming World Social Forum in Tunis can hope, in a repeat of the Tunis WSF in 2013, to present a well organised event that partly captures a continuing snapshot of the aftermath of the Jasmine revolution; continues to preserve a space for creativity, music and culture; encourages Occupy enthusiasts; and repeats the dynamics of exchange and networking amongst participants who are by now well familiarised with each other. In any case, the Tunisian organising committee for the 2013 WSF had highlighted that for them the forum is a new step in their struggles against dictatorship and exploitation. It hoped that this would give them the opportunity to meet those “who struggle against the dictatorship of financial markets and the dislocation of society within their communities and organisations, people who are fighting to develop democracy, equality, solidarity, justice and peace, and also those who are fighting for the protection of the environment and the Commons”.

Locating the forum at the El Manar University of Tunis campus again in March 2015 may, in the words of a Tunisian volunteer at a closing “Future of the Forum” assembly last time around, give Tunisians a second chance to really benefit from the forum. Perhaps the forthcoming forum will also present another opportunity for visitors to learn from the experiences of Tunisians and other new movements. At a time of increasing dissatisfaction and mistrust of an institutionalised WSF International Council—a group of about 150 movements and organisations that gathers periodically to discuss forum methodology, extension, communication, strategy and resources—this may give fresh impetus to a recent proposal for the replacement of the International Council with a new collective of more militant organisations committed to respecting perspectives emerging from forum activities on “the political, social and economic reality of the world” (Whitaker 2013).

Why Tunisia is Important

However the WSF’s position within a wider continuum of resistance and role in shaping of alternatives to neoliberalism gives it far more resonance than any attempt to attribute to it a singular logic of organisation or resistance. In this context, the upcoming WSF in Tunisia remains just one format through which potential alternatives are shaped by the many actors involved. This may present yet more frustration for those awaiting from the forum the emergence of a singular alternative to rival the pensée unique of neoliberalism.

Instead, some forum participants use this space to continue to protest the reassertion of neoliberalism following the recent global financial crisis. Some of the sessions at the last Tunisian WSF in 2013 sought out: new strategies to confront climate change; how to build international solidarity at a time of crisis; what an alternative Mediterranean regional space would look like; and the future direction of the WSF process. Self-organised sessions also addressed a range of issues such as those surrounding debt, poverty and social protection, religion, sexual violence, communications and media, mining and food sovereignty. These open up the spectre of neoliberalism to counter not only its format in economic policies supporting market-led development but also social and militaristic reassertions on the part of states, corporations and elites. From these discussions emerged a host of potential alternatives to current models within an as yet unrealised strategy of achieving power beyond protest and networking.

Conclusion

The failure of a singular pensée unique on alternative globalisation to emerge from the World Social Forum explains its lack of public resonance, particularly as the public’s attention has shifted from identification with the forum’s slogan that “another world is possible” to the Occupy refrain that “we are the 99%”. Broadly highlighting the growth of inequality between the top tier of society and the rest, the latter captures the public imagination and puts pressure on the alter-globalisation “movement of movements” to keep up. While this may not present a welcome prospect for those who await the immediate consolidation of an alternative agenda, it does suggest that the process of resistance may yet be as important as any outcome. Perhaps it is for this reason that expressions of global protest and networking which will take place at the forthcoming World Social Forum in Tunisia remain relevant towards constructing other possible worlds.

References

Caruso, G and T Teivainen (2014): “Beyond the square: changing dynamics at the World Social Forum.”, Open Democracy, 7 December, , https://www.opendemocracy.net/giuseppe-caruso-teivo-teivainen/beyond-square-changing-dynamics-at-world-social-forum, accessed on 27 February 2015.

Whitaker, Chico (2013): “World social forum: space or movement? Thinking about the WSF International Council future in new perspectives.” Trying to Understand: Chico Whitaker’s Shelves, 1 April, http://chicowhitaker.net/artigo_eng.php?artigo=44, accessed on 27 February 2015.

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