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The World Social Forum - the flip side to the World Economic Forum

By Gerda Roelvink - posted Thursday, 3 March 2005

What counts as politics today? This question elicits a range of contemporary answers. For many, the World Economic Forum held recently in Davos, Switzerland, represents the contemporary political playing field: that is the global political economy. For those of us that rely on the popular Australian mass news media to decide what really matters, the World Economic Forum not only dominated but was the stage.

However, for an alternative, empowering and more hopeful answer to this important question many now look to the World Social Forum held this year in its regular home, Porto Alegre, Brazil. What began five years ago as the flip side of the World Economic Forum coin, running in concurrent opposition, the World Social Forum now offers a very real example of its motto “Another world is possible”.

So if we are all too familiar with the politics of Davos, what characterises the political alternative offered by the World Social Forum? Rejecting the world game described by the political economy of TINA (there is no alternative) and the ideal of global revolution held by the old guard left (and those that wish to revitalise the left through Empire), the World Social Forum 2005 (or more accurately the Fórum Social Mundial) brings together a multitude of diverse peoples. Peoples joined, as prominent speaker John Holloway emphasised, in their refusal - NO.


No to capitalism, no to neo-liberalism, no to inequality and no to war.

Reaching beyond this no to “many yeses”, the Forum is constituted through an altogether different political language, which can be broadly described as a discourse of difference as it stands here and now. This language disrupts and denaturalises the object of refusal, recognising that like the alternatives, our world and political economy are actively produced, discursively and materially.

Positioned through this language, as J.K. Gibson-Graham has shown in relation to diverse community economies, the Forum is peopled by alternative political subjects: subjects open to different ways of being, while joined in their own projects and the collective process of building a new and more just world.

Finally, the Forum offers a diverse politicised range of collective practices, particularly around economic production or livelihood, including different relationships to the non-human environment and between the many different and diverse peoples of the world. Indicative of this are the German forest squatters, the worker occupied factories in Argentina, and the trash-picker co-operatives in Brazil. Each group is a living example of alternative organisation and relations in the construction of livelihood, not only re-politicising the creation and management of economy, but challenging and expanding its meaning.

However, it is one thing for trash-pickers to form a co-operative defining their own means of production and it is quite another to lead a dignified life sorting through the rubbish of Brazil’s largest cities (the health implications are just one obvious issue). Establishing wider relational networks of co-existence and support is only a small step towards addressing this issue. What is meant by economy and economic relations requires extensive rethinking here.

Meeting internal and external criticism of offering no practical means of action, these political projects and subjects now challenge the Forum itself: its structure, spatialisation and the very nature of discussion. However, it is not the response to these criticisms (such as in the form of a master plan) that is the promise of the World Social Forum. Rather, it is the questions themselves - the problem of alternative worlds - that is its true democratising potential, just as feminists have shown through the problem of “woman”.


In the future we will see more regionalised Social Forums and network politics. However, as I have suggested, the diversity of the Forum largely (but not solely) constitutes its politics, and if this character is lost through regionalisation or thematic networks the growing collective movement would be greatly weakened.

Indeed, at this year's World Social Forum there was some animosity towards English speakers (including myself), where an air of anti-Americanisation (and or anti-imperialism) all too easily veils the enormous inequalities within many Western nations, including the fourth world peoples in North America and Australia. This is related, in part, to how the political economy is conceptualised, particularly in relation to economy.

While the Forum quite rightly says no to the current mode of imperialism practiced through many Western non-government organisations, the exclusion of Western and or English speakers undermines the realisation of human interconnectivity and alternative networks supporting dignified ways of co-existence.

In my opinion, just one of many aired at the 2005 World Social Forum, it is important that the Forum expands and develops this strength - its diversity - and works towards the inclusion of peoples noticeable in their absence, particularly peoples of the Pacific. First Nation peoples, often the most disenfranchised, have long had to find alternative ways of existence without much, if any, support from their (post) colonial nation-states. Their narratives and struggles are vital to the political debate on dignity, community and economy. Generous financial support was found for the many interpreters attending the Forum, more needs to be done to give First Nation peoples the option of attending. It is in agnostic politics, a politics constituted through debate, negotiation and relational processes, that the political alternatives lie.

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About the Author

Gerda Roelvink is a PhD Scholar in the Department of Human Geography in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. She attended the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 26-31, 2005.

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