“1000 Struggles, 1000 Challenges”

The scope and the diversity of popular movements world-wide are so rich and wide that any attempt to straight-jacket them into a single analysis is futile. What we can do is identify brand trends and also, suggest some questions that could be discussed by the International Council of the WSF in Porto Alegre.
This synthesis comes as a personnel perspective coming out of many discussions, texts and reports that were produced by many people in many countries. With this synthesis, you can consult the compilation that was made region by region which exposes this vast tapestry of popular struggles.
Pierre Beaudet (Intercoll)

1. Globalization 2.0

In different manners according to different contexts, capitalism is currently reorganizing its power. Many aspects are taken into account including governance, political economy, culture, rights qui were and are imposed as laws, rules, national policies and transnational ‘free-trade’ agreements, repressive and control mechanisms, and also, by various markers as symbols, values, widely-accepted ideas.
This process has accelerated since the 2007-08 financial crisis that spread out through the entire system of globalized and financialized contemporary capitalism. As stated by the Landless Peasants Movements of Brazil (MST), the 1% has decided to launch a general offensive against popular and middle classes, assaulting working conditions and wages, imposing mass unemployment, privatizing resources. State by State, except a few, are going that way, at the national level and through transnational accords such as TAFTA, so that national polices are put into a cage governed by a sophisticated system of financial institutions and international organizations. To put it simple, neoliberalism, led by US imperialism and its subalterns, is rebooted and presented as a ‘necessity’ to avoid further crashes. The ‘aggressivity’ of US imperialism under its various forms comes partially from the fact that the US as a declining power is unable to impose what it had hoped to achieve 20 years ago, i.e. a unipolar world. Currently, it tries to confront ‘emerging’ powers like Russia and China but it finds itself in a very ambiguous situation world-wide,
In the meantime, the policy of austerity in the North, like structural adjustments programs in the South, implies growing gaps between the haves and the have not, increased poverty and exclusion, as well as divisive tactics to avoid the environment challenges.
One might ask: why the 1% has chosen that path? After all, during the last big world crisis, the ruling classes had opted for another path inspired by Keynes. It is still around as an option, but it remains confined to a small minority arguing for neo-Keynesian and ‘green capitalist’ approaches. In reality, the vast majority of the decision-makers think they get away with their attacks on the peoples. They think that the correlation of forces is in their favour. They think they can sideline popular movements and struggles. Instead of accepting necessary reforms, neoliberal rulers are leaning towards authoritarian policies, marginalizing bourgeois democratic institutions and confining civil society more and more.
Meanwhile, mainstream center-right policies that have been the ‘norm’ for many years are metamorphosing into rightist alliances not afraid of using the language of the ultra-right. Political space is redefined between ‘right’ and ‘ultra-right’ with several bridges between them. The extreme-right becomes ‘acceptable’, losing its status as a delirious fringe, surfing on neoconservative ideologies using xenophobia, hate (‘everyone-against-everyone’) and racism[1]. In more ‘extreme’ cases, this new power structure does not hesitate to launch ‘endless’ war, aimed to destroy whole states and nations, as we currently observe in the Middle East and large parts of Africa.
In the meanwhile, multilateral structures set-up after the Second World War and inspired by Keynesianism (like the UN) are marginalized and paralyzed. Attempts by ‘emerging powers’ to restructure that space are opposed by the declining US Empire, unable, with its usual subalterns to impose its hegemony. That on the other sides triggers violent conflicts for resources and control in many regions (like the Middle East and Africa) where big powers are using proxies.
War and Oil : the Dangerous Intersection

Questions to explore

  • How popular classes are dislocated by the current policies?
  • Can ‘neo-authoritarianism mutate to fascism?
  • To what extent reactionary ideologies are penetrating popular consciousness?
  • What remains of popular sovereignty in a regime under the command of non-accountable technocratic structures?

2. Confrontations

Rebooting neoliberalism, as stated before, goes on because the popular forces have been unable, so far, to build a counter-hegemonic project. They found themselves in a situation of fragility, destabilized by the non-stop reactionary policies. Social democracy, which had been the political vehicle for many popular struggles, finds itself in the dead-end of the ‘third way’, becoming incapable to fight for social reforms. ‘Really existing’ socialists countries have imploded, leaving the Soviet Union is a second-grade imperial power, and China as the site of fast-track capitalist transformation, putting social and political movements that had been inspired by these experiments into a state of confusion[2]. The demise of these two gigantic revolutions of the twentieth century closed down a chapter of history marked by the French revolution and major social uprisings of the past century.
This is not however the full picture, because, in many ways, popular movements have not sit idle. In the first half of the 1990s, a new wave of struggles came about from the indigenous rebellion in Mexico to a vast multitude fighting back globalization in Seattle, Genoa, Buenos Aires and many locations. The challenge was to marry ‘teamsters’ and ‘turtles’ (as it was termed in Seattle, to that ‘old’ social movements (like trade-unions) could join new organizational experimentations using the language of alter-globalization, feminism and ecology.
These struggles established a critical mass based on unemployed graduates, women, indigenous, slum dwellers and landless peasants. In parallel, the ‘pink wave’ that brought progressive governments to hold on different components of the power system erupted in South America. Vast coalitions from the top to the bottom deepen the reach of popular movements that later became even more audacious through the ‘Arab spring’ and the Indignados in Southern Europe), mutating elsewhere with Occupy and many other mass mobilizations world-wide. They have experimented new social-political alliances, like in Bolivia and Spain. They have benefited from a new pattern of internationalization facilitated by new mechanisms such as the World Social Forum and the Venezuelan-led ALBA project. They have mobilized large parts of the population from graduate unemployed to urban slum-dwellers and rural dispossessed communities
With all of this, the popular camp succeeded for a time in destabilizing the wall of power, but they were unable to go over these powers. In fact, they were unable to ‘think’ power in a way which have responded to the subjectivities of the new popular mobilizations. And so in fact, the 1% mostly stood on top. Except in South America, where progressive governments came about as the result of the popular mobilizations. Even there and beyond the change in governance, globalized capitalism was able to block in-depth transformation and force austerity policies while pursuing the dangerous capitalist path of. Extractivism, accepting the capitulation to world capitalism as a sort of inevitable fatality.[3] This led several progressive governments in conflict with their own principles and with popular movements that had supported them in the first place. The right and the ultra-right bounced back on these limitations.
Are we then, as suggested by neocons ideologues, at the point where ‘history is ending’ with the definitive triumph of capitalism? Well really, only fools would believe that. The contradictions within capitalism can only but generate more and more explosions and dead-ends. On the other hand, popular movements are alive and kicking. They are able to block many of the neoliberal reforms. Their political influence is seen through innumerable attempts from Berny Sanders to PODEMOS and left alliances world-wide. Many signs indicate that huge rebellions such as the Arab and African springs are likely to comeback.[4] There is more realism within the movements about the fact that the struggle will be protracted.
Questions to explore

  • Can social-democracy reinvent itself?
  • How can progressive coalitions in South America regain the initiative?
  • How to build popular counter-hegemonic projects and intervene in the political arena?

3. Challenges

Let us face the fact, the next period will be tough, perhaps even very tough. Trade unions for example, can expect to fight very hard even to maintain some of the conditions they had imposed through fierce struggles until today. They are weakened by industrial dislocation and fragmentation and other immense changes that underlines the passage of the proletariat to the precariat.
Other movements are able to resist with still a lot of vigor, like the environmentalists, who have in many ways, conducted a very successful ‘battle of ideas’ although, concretely, they have still not have won too often (on climate changes particularly). In other situations struck by war and violence, movements fight to survive, save lives and defend basic rights. Through the spectrum, one can observe new social and political practices, indeed, a new culture of transformation put forward by the new generations, searching for non-authoritarian and non-hierarchical models. Yet, no one can discount the difficulty that are faced in the present reactionary climate entertained by big media and political ‘personalities’ using demagogy and lies in a spin that Donald Trump is currently reinforcing. Building convergences becomes even harder and in many ways, there is a trend to fragment, to confine itself to local or sectoral battles.
So the debate is on. It requires robust intellectual work, not the kind we see in universities, but work coming from within the popular movements and supported by ‘organic intellectuals’ (a la Gramsci) who dare to struggle, dare to think and dare to win. For sure, this radical intellectuality does not start on a blank page: there were so many ‘ancestors’ that left us with methodologies (not ready made ‘models’). Critical thinking is ‘praxis’, where practice intersects with theory[5].
What are the priorities? The first is take back the initiative and destabilize the hegemonic block. For that, there is no other way than to constitute very wide alliances, which means transcending a certain left tradition of division and sectarianism. The goal being to identity the points of convergences. To achieve this, there is a sort of a cultural challenge: to respect, to be tolerant, to avoid any attitude (prevalent in the past) that made movements thinking that they were detaining the ‘only true’ revolutionary theory. It is very difficult, but possible, to assemble different subjectivities, sensitivities, systems of beliefs, without leaving out the same basic principles of social justice, democracy by the people, equality between genders, respect for the original peoples (adivasis, aboriginals, etc.) and for pachamama, which is at the base of life[6].  Strategic analysis, like ethics, is necessary to sustain movements and their capacity to fight and even, sometimes, to win.
Then there is another priority. Popular movements need to reinforce their role of incubators, prefiguring the post-capitalist world to which we aspire. It is now well understood that changing society is not ‘taking power’ as some sort of a fixed asset, a castle or even a group of oligarchs. There is not spectacular and single event, where suddenly, the people can capture, smash and reinvent the state. Despite the fact that there are strategic confrontations, the struggle for emancipation is like the ‘war of positions’ that Gramsci spoke about. Movements try to build a counter-hegemonic project and while attempting to change society, they need to change themselves, building an ‘alter’ society within organizations, institutions, sites and locations where society needs to decide. It is a daily battle, to defend the common good, to fight back the impact of globalized capitalism, to nurture equitable relations between genders, generations and cultures, and even with non-human life forms and the natural environment. All of these forming an organic whole, whose happiness of one depends on the happiness of the other. This what we can observe in Barcelona, Detroit, Montreal, Casablanca, Bangkok, La Paz/El Alto, Buenos Aires, in the Amazon as well as in the Sahel. There are many of these ‘small’ battles around, like the recent confrontation that led to a significant victory by our Lakota brothers and sisters in the USA[7]. Time and again, popular movements are serviced by professionals, technicians, teachers, who make their skills available to struggles. They can contribute a whole lot, especially when they are able to transcend class privileges and hierarchies.
In these endless attempts to reconcile the immediate battles and the long-term reconstruction are strategic decisions and options, leading to the question of organization. Once a certain Vladimir Illitch[8] had seen that the organizational challenge was not technical or narrowly ‘organizational’ but political. It was necessary to proceed to the ‘concrete analysis of the concrete situation, not come up with fancy models detached from their historical environment.
Since then, the semi-military and hierarchical mechanisms that were useful then are totally outdated not only to confront power but even more, to change it. Many emancipation movements learned the hard way that they had to find their own path, like in the anti-imperialist struggles of third world movement. They needed to revisit their projects and so they did, with the help of some of their ‘organic intellectuals’ like Frantz Fanon, Carlos Mariategui, C.L.R. James and many others. They left behind the ‘model’ that was promoted by the Third Internationale and won tremendous battles.
Today, that third world liberation ‘model’ is also outdated, although the left behind important methodological tools that need to be appropriated. Many questions remain unresolved in the present moment. In parallel, new anti-imperialist and liberation movements emerge. Peoples want their rights, including the right to self-determination, which is about self-respect, dignity and sovereignty, and not all ethnic nationalism or racism. It is shameful that the right has appropriated some of these battles like the struggle against free-trade agreements. There is nothing wrong in claiming the necessity of popular sovereignty. Demands from oppressed nations (Kurds, Palestinians, and Saharaouis) or for national rights in situations like Scotland, Basque country, Quebec, Catalonia are certainly legitimate. Social and national emancipation go in fact hand in hand in an era characterized by a cosmopolitan globalized bourgeoisie for which sovereignty, democracy and rights are part of the past.
In the meantime, popular movements, resist, rightfully, being instrumentalized by political projects. They cherish their autonomy and their subjectivity, they don’t want that to be submerged. At the same time, the political terrain cannot be ignored. Should popular movements then, confine themselves to be pressure groups, and not front line protagonists? In cases where popular movements remained distant from the chambers of power, as it was under progressive government in South America, it turned out that the initiative was slowly lost. The progressive parties eroded their social capital and went too far into the accommodation with the 1 %.
If this posturing is questioned, so is the approach which says to ‘keep away’, to ‘change the world without taking power’. The assumption is that the political battle is always lost. The political space is a trap and so is the idea to organize the convergences. Creating ‘liberated’ spaces is then the solution, through a methodology that focus on direct action and direct governance, without hierarchy, whereas individuals are totally free. It generates a sort of horizontalism that has limitations, that ignores the differences and consider ‘the’ people as homogenous and becomes indeed an ‘imaginary people’. It is hostile to theory which is considered as a device to consolidate the power of those who ‘know’.
It becomes then a cult, the reverse of the previous cult where the declared ‘vanguard’ would solve all problems. Movements governed by that vision tend to fragment and adopt a ‘counter-culture’ elite style[9]. Eve in the Zapatista experience well established within libertarian circles, there is a leadership. There is a strategy, including military dimensions. It is not possible that everything is discussed by everyone, although, and this is where the Zapatista innovation is so important, the ‘leadership’ commands by obeying, listens, builds the consensus, avoid any adventurism and vanguardism.
In this moment where mass mobilizations are fragile and where the right is retaking control, there is an urgent need to reassess and not confine ourselves into our own hopes. For sure, there is no question or even possibility to go back to old-style strategies and organizational models. To struggle against hierarchy and control however does not mean simply a ‘permanent assembly’. Convergence is the result of work, not a spontaneous outburst. It is up to the movements and their ‘organic intellectuals’ to produce the intersectionality that brings peoples together, like what happened in Bolivia, where as popular movements created their own political formations.
Questions to explore

  • Where are the weak links of capitalist power and how we can capitalize on these to win?
  • How to develop further the people’s ‘laboratory’ where post capitalism is not only discussed by university graduates, but by struggling organizations who are building, even at a small scale, popular power? How can we tackle the political space in a way that empowers peoples?
  • How to invent creatively organizational forms that allow maximum direct democracy and strategic capacities and avoid authoritarianism and vanguardism of the old left?

4. The Future of the World Social Forum

For some time now, many popular movements have benefited from the internationalist exchanges and support through people’s coalitions like Via Campesina, la World March of Women and many others. Through diverse experiences, successes and failures, the WSF has been the mirror of these efforts, sometime an incubator, and mostly, a site to freely debate, question, deepen our understanding. It even incubate many creative ways and allow more isolated and small movements to have a larger access. It is to the credit of those who saw its significance and its potential, like Chico Whitaker. The WSF was far from perfect, also vulnerable to bureaucratic reflexes and unduly influences by those who had more resources, money and influence, without being at the front line of the important struggles.
15 years later, movements are taking stock. The point of departure comes not from the WSF itself, but from the changing environment. Movements and their ‘organic intellectuals’ need to confront the ‘monsters’ that neoliberalism has created. There are less and less progressive governments to shield grass-roots initiatives. It is evident that strategies and organizational modes must be revisited.
This has not much to do with what certain comrades seem to be afraid of, as if the WSF should be transformed into another ‘International’. That time is out. But is required is a more systematic effort by the WSF to support, stimulate and elaborate strategic options so that the needs of the popular movements are addressed effectively.
So, if there is no ‘true revolutionary line’ to establish, how to make the WSF an empowering process as it was in its initial period. It is not going to happen by magic. The search is on:

  • How to build transitional strategic networks elaborating new strategies, based on investigations and consensus-building, using new methodologies and, like Boaventura Sousa Santos says, to ‘decolonize knowledge’. This cannot happen only if people meet every two or three years. It needs to be a permanent activity.
  • How to make the forum more effective and more related to current struggles, without building a tightly closed hierarchy between struggles and movements? In other words, how can we, during and in-between forums, build convergences, which is not, as stated before, a ‘natural’ and ‘spontaneous’ process, but something that is constructed, otherwise with hard work and many efforts.
  • How to stimulate, encourage, support citizen’s movements at large to invest in, use and profit from the WSF as a broad platform for change, democracy and social justice.

At the end of the day, the Forum could be more focussed, facilitating (not leading) regional and sectoral initiatives and organizing transitional convergences to that every 3 years, we have a world meaningful gathering. It I nice to have friendly encounters, but in this grave moment, it is not enough. Once that Is said, the WSF can only be a tool, a useful assemblage, related to, working for and with popular movements, fiercely independent from political parties, progressive governments, and even more importantly, from this hybrid animal which we call ‘NGOs’.
Questions to explore

  • What are new mechanisms to set in place so that the WSF retains its relevance?
  • How to reduce the fragmentation and the bureaucratization of the Forum and focus on convergences?
  • How to root the Forum even more with popular movements and grassroots organizations?

Find a compilation of regional reports – English, French, Spanish – on the right (pdf). 

[1] In many instances, this turn to the right uses religion, or to be precise, ‘fundamentalist » political-religions outfits transforming Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism as vehicles for hate and violence. This is observed in a wide variety of states including the USA, India, Egypt, etc.

[2] Read the contributions of Christophe Aguiton and Walter Baier.

[3] Read Émilio Taddei, Maristella Svampa, Massimo Modonesi, and Pablo Solon on that.

[4] On this, read Maher Mahine and Gilbert Achcar.

[5] For Marx, “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.  Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical”. 

[6] Read Pablo Solon, « Algunas reflexiones, autocríticas y propuestas sobre el proceso de cambio en Bolivia”.

[7] These ‘small’ battles are never so ‘small’. Segments of the people fight and sometimes win, like the students at JNU (India) who defeated the onslaught by the right-wing, like Polish women who force the government to backtrack on its policies to limit reproductive rights, like homeless peoples in Barcelona and Athens who fight to the right to the city.

[8] Otherwise known as Lenin.

[9] The American activist-philosopher Nancy Fraser, also explains that certain movements over exaggerated their identity which becomes an end in itself. Feminists, Gay activists, minorities, are not fighting only for themselves. They are one and they are part of the whole.