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Debate on WSF


Thursday, January 19, 2006

From Teivo T., on the NIGD and Debate lists, in response to my rejoinder yesterday :
http://www.openspaceforum.net/

Jai

Subject: Debate with Jai Sen: should we distinguish between George Bush and
Evo Morales?

Dear Jai,

It is exciting and educating to read your comments, even if I am not sure
all participants in the lists where this may go to are that thrilled to read
our dialogue. In any case, for those interested, I have put some comments
between your lines. For those not willing to bother to read through the
whole of this dialogue, let me put a provocative question in these opening
lines: Do you really think the World Social Forum and the global justice
movements should relate to the government of Evo Morales in the same way we
should relate to the government of George Bush?

I have separated my comments in your message with -- --

Hugs

Teivo

Wednesday, January 18, 2006
From: Jai

I am responding here to the messages recently posted on this list from Teivo T. and Immanuel W.

Teivo and Immanuel, thank you for your strong comments on my open letter on the World Social Forum. You raise some important issues, but I think that the really key issues - issues that are fundamental to all of
us as social and political actors - are still eluding us. So I think I must try and respond, in clarification and in rejoinder. I hope that my response can help in taking forward a more general discussion - not only this one,
about the WSF, but about cultures of politics more generally.

I am responding here jointly to both interventions. There are 3-4 issues that I want to respond to : The question of principle - The power of ethical practice; Questions of politics : Autonomy, and Power-to vs
Power-over; Left vs Right ? But this is not the only axis; and : Is 'opposing neoliberalism' still the key question for the World Social Forum ?

1. The question of principle : The power of ethical practice
If the World Social Forum has elected to formulate a Charter of Principles, which it then asks all those participating in the Forum to adhere to (as it did in the case of the Mumbai Forum, where all those registering were asked
to declare whether or not they were in agreement with the Charter), its leaders and organisers should also keep to it; otherwise it becomes opportunism, and breeds cynicism. I assume we agree that this is hardly the direction the Forum should move in.

As Teivo, you acknowledge, the WSF's Charter says that "government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this Charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity". You see this as a way to
differentiate between different government leaders, and therefore a way to rationalise the WSF inviting government leaders whom it agrees with; and by extension, rationalising the involvement not only of Ch?vez but also his
government in the Caracas Forum. I confess I am surprised to see your position.

--
Teivo's comment:

These are two different issues:

You are perfectly right that I think (and the Charter says) that one can differentiate between such government leaders that accept the WSF principles and such that do not. In this sense, it is understandable that someone like
Hugo Ch?vez might be invited to speak and someone like the Pakistani president might not.

It is, however, a different issue whether the involvement of a government leader, beyond being invited to speak, becomes problematic. I agree that the involvement of Ch?vez in the WSF process, especially in the Caracas WSF to
be held next week, has various problematic features. I will be very curious to analyze this matter when I go to Caracas next Monday, and will hopefully be able to assess this question in more detail after some days there.
--

But I think that there is a very different issue involved. The operative term in this clause of the Charter is "personal capacity". So yes, this leaves open the possibility either of such leaders (whether the Finnish or Belgian Foreign Ministers - who, as you know, have come in the past - or Lula or Ch?vez) to come on their own, or even for the WSF to invite them to participate - but in either case they would need to be told that they can only be there in their personal capacities and not, as was done in the Forums organised in Porto Alegre, as Presidents of their respective
countries. And certainly not, by extension, the governments they happen to head. I would hope that you might agree with this.

--
Teivo's comment:

It is indeed very difficult to maintain that they are invited in 'personal capacity'. I understand it means they are, from the WSF perspective, not participating as (registered as) delegates of their governments, but this distinction is quite formalistic. I agree with you that this is a problematic issue.

By the way, if I remember correctly, the Belgian Foreign Minister announced before one of the earlier WSF events (2002, it seems) that he would come to Porto Alegre to participate in the WSF as some sort of 'bridge' between the
WSF and the World Economic Forum. I remember that the Brazilian Organizing Committee told him quite clearly that he would not be welcome because he did not represent the values of the WSF.
--

What seems to be happening in the case of the Caracas Forum seems however to be a far cry from this 'participation in a personal capacity'. The available reports - and I am happy here to have you confirm this reading -
suggest that the government is playing a major role in actually organising
the meeting. (For instance, in an article I cited in my letter, by Rafael
Uzcategui, he says that "room and board, transportation, will be done by the
Venezuelan army for the lesser delegations?, which of course refers to the
vast majority of participants in any Forum.
http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=206".) But if this is the
case, then I do not think that it is enough for you - especially as a member
of the WSF International Council - to say "My intention is not to deny that
the Chavez government may be involved in the WSF in Caracas in ways that are
highly problematic. But?? and to quickly skip on to Musharraf ! What is
your and the NIGD's position on this ? And what is the IC's position on
this ?

-- Teivo's comment:

The decision to hold the WSF in Caracas did imply various kinds of doubts
inside the WSF International Council, even if formally it was a consensual
decision. As representative of NIGD in the WSF Hemispheric Council meeting
where the decision to hold the meeting in Caracas was in practice decided
and then immediately submitted to the International Council plenary meeting,
I was, if I remember correctly, the only one that pointed out that the
decision is likely to lead to various suspicions and debates, and that there
should be particular care not to let the Ch?vez government get too heavily
involved. I did, however, express as my position that I agreed with the
decision to hold the event in Caracas. My opinion on to what extent the
government involvement has thereafter become too heavy, as I said above,
will become clearer after I get to Caracas next Monday.
--

Mine, evidently, is that the Venezuelan government should definitely not be
involved (let alone its army !) - and that the organisers of the World
Social Forum, at both the global and national levels, have to make every
effort from their sides to comply with the spirit of the Forum's Charter in
what they do, and to ensure that they do not ask for or accept this degree
of "support?. Yes, certainly, special municipal services are required for
such a large meeting, and also other logistical help, but this is very
different from this kind of major role. So I think there is an issue of
principle involved, and that all of us have to take positions on this.
Personally, I believe that the WSF will only be stronger if it is willing to
not just talk but walk strongly ethical politics, and to resist striking
convenient alliances.

--
Teivo's comment:
Yes, these are important issues. I was, for example, quite astonished to hear that the Youth Camp was planned to be held in a military airport.
--

Immanuel, you have urged that we need to be realistic about such things, and about the scale of these events and what is required to organise them; and you suggest that 'transparency' and 'diversity of sources' be our two guiding principles. I believe however, that there are serious issues of principle involved here, as above and which I also come to in my next point.
To accept money - from several sources, transparently, and hopefully without too many conditions - is one thing; to be underwritten like this, and where the author of the article I refer to goes on, after a review of the history of Ch?vez' movement in Venezuela, to argue that the manner in which Ch?vez is conducting his politics is destroying social movements in the country, is something else. Tragically, the upcoming Forum seems to be only a vehicle
for this. I hope you will agree.

--
Teivo's comment:
While I have various doubts about the way Ch?vez runs things in Venezuela, it is too simplistic to simply say that he is destroying 'social movements'. There are various social movements that I appreciate, such as the Brazilian
Movement of Landless Rural Workers MST, who seem to think that relating to Ch?vez can be useful. More generally, Ch?vez is a certainly very controversial figure, also among the global justice movements, but his impact on the movements cannot be reduced one-sidedly to 'destruction'.
--

2. Questions of politics : Autonomy, and Power-to vs Power-over
Teivo, you have characterised my arguments as being "an overly depoliticized (or "na?ve") understanding of "civil society", and you go on to say that "'articulations among the movements constructing this process [of alternative power], and their links with political parties and governments, are questions that cannot simply be assessed with na?ve dichotomies between 'civic movements' and 'traditional political actors' as if their ideological orientations would not matter."

--
Teivo's comment:
Yes, I recognize myself in these words.
--

For me, these issues are at the heart of what I tried to say, or signal, when I said "But what are the 'sides' in this game, in these politics ? And who is on which side ?". So let me try to clarify and respond (even if I am a little na?ve about such things).

I think that we do agree, in principle at least, that (as you put it) "constructing 'alternative power', different from the traditional state-centric forms of changing the world, is one of the most fundamental (potential) contributions of the WSF process". Okay. But the key question is - how can we achieve this; what is the praxis ?

As I see it, and as I have argued before and argue in more detail in a forthcoming essay ('Understanding the World Social Forum : The WSF as an emergent learning process - Notes on the dynamics of change' - tentative
title), the strength and power - and meaning - of the Forum is the relatively autonomous space that it creates, provides, and stands for. Not only that it is (relatively) open, but that it is (relatively) autonomous. I also now argue, in this forthcoming essay, that this is happening not entirely because of the intentions of the architects and organisers of the
Forum but because the Forum is one of the great open spaces - commons - of history, where we as a species gather in order to understand our own humanity; because it is an emergent process; and because it is showing an
extraordinary ability to learn as it moves along. In short, that its relative autonomy is primarily a function of the organic force that led to its creation and that is reproducing it each year.

--
Teivo's comment:
I have no major disagreements with any of this and I would like to read your essay. I deal with similar issues in a book manuscript I hope to finish very soon (tentatively titled 'Democracy in Movement. The World Social Forum and
the Boundaries of the Political') .
--

In the context of our discussion here, the key issue is the openness and autonomy of the Forum. I believe that this is the fundamental meaning, and message, of the Forum - and this is why it speaks to so many and why it is
attracting people so widely, from all over the world and from all walks of life - and even if local organisers, with their understandably more pragmatic and particular visions of what a given Forum is about ("an event") then sometimes try to exclude those they feel do not quite 'fit in', the Forum is often overwhelmed by the sheer force of people pouring in. As Chico (Whitaker) has so eloquently written, it is precisely this fact of the planned meeting being overwhelmed that makes the Forum what it is.
(http://www.choike.org/nuevo_eng/informes/1557.html.)

But this - this idea, this possibility of creating and sustaining autonomous space, which I believe is the soul of the Forum - is precisely what stands to be lost if the Forum's organisers succumb to the exigencies of local
situations, by seeking and/or accepting major 'support' from the local or national state (or market, for that matter).

--
Teivo's comment:
Yes, this is a risk, and there are various contradictions in the process and I am glad you point them out.
--

As above, both of you refer to the 'important support' that the Forum receives from (some) governments. I have no problems with this. As above, what I have problems with is if governments, in other words the State, and
which in my understanding includes political parties, go beyond 'supporting' and actually become the infrastructure for the Forum. Which is what happened in the case of the SWP and Mayor Ken Livingstone in the case of the European
Social Forum in London, and seems to also be happening in the case of the Caracas Forum. Given this, it should be no surprise that just as in London where many activists felt it necessary to create an autonomous zone, in Caracas too activists are organising an Alternative Social Forum (http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=15"2). Is this, which is a direct result of their own actions and policy decisions, what the organisers of the World Social Forum want to see happening, as a regular feature of the Forum ? To me, it seems to erode the entire idea of the WSF as alternative, and to instead institutionalise the WSF as the establishment.
--
Teivo's comment:
I would believe many in the WSF tend (or hope) to see the Caracas forum as a particular case, where the government involvement is indeed problematic, and hope that in the future and in other localities the involvement of
governments will not be as intense. In the WSF learning process, the Caracas event may be seen as one episode of which we need to draw lessons, some of which you eloquently point out.
--

(Before I get tarred again, none of this is to deny the historical importance of the State. But recognising this should not distract us from the task of also building civil and popular politics as an alternative.)

The issue before the Forum - and to all of us involved in constructing alternative power - is how to construct open and autonomous spaces. I believe that this can only be done by doing it, and by struggling to preserve the openness and autonomy.

--
Teivo's comment:
I do believe prefigurative politics, practicing what you preach, is a key element of the WSF and it has not been paid enough attention by the organizers. I also agree that the Caracas WSF has problematic features that may be in contradiction with this principle. At the same time, 'the' issue of the Forum cannot be only to construct open and autonomous spaces, but more importantly to help construct a democratic postcapitalist world. In this task, we need to be both prefigurative and strategic.
--

I am sure you will agree that the State or Market will not and cannot do this, by definition; nor can it be achieved by depending on state or market actors.

--
Teivo's comment:
While I consider myself quite critical of state-centric interpretations and find that most antisystemic movements have historically given too much importance to the strategy of conquering the state, I do not consider 'states' and 'markets' are equally problematic features of the capitalist system we face. They are both problematic, but not in the same way and not to the same extent. I believe that if we take the construction of a postcapitalist world seriously, the main adversary can be located in the capitalist 'markets' (that are in fact often constituted in very centrally planned way). In this process, as well as in any democratic future, we need political institutions. These institutions can have many forms, of which state-form is only one.

The existing states have often been intimately allied with capitalist power, and the strategy of conquering the state has proven to be a deficient and contradictory way to change the world. At the same time, some democratic advances can be made in and through the states or parts of them. For example, I was quite happy when Evo Morales won the presidential election in Bolivia last month, and I hope his government will be able to open some new spaces for democratic movements that struggle against capitalist power (and, of course, against many other things such as racism that should not simply be reduced to capitalism).
--

By saying this, I do not mean to suggest an irreconcilable schism in politics between civil, popular (and I distinguish between the two), and state actors (and I therefore think that your characterisation of my position is unfortunate). Necessarily, civil and popular actors will need to relate to and work with state actors - as they will also, with market
actors - but this is different from being subsumed, and from losing their autonomy.

--
Teivo's comment:
One more, I would like to make some distinction between working with state actors and with capitalist market actors, whereas you seem to equate them all too easily.
--

[part deleted, to get to our agreements and disagreements more quickly]


3. Left vs right ? But this is not the only axis In my understanding, this classical dichotomy - in this case, which Teivo, you seem to suggest we must use and retain almost as a guiding principle - is also where I think that there is a major conceptual problem.

--
Teivo's comment:
Even if I believe the left-right terminology is a useful way to make ideological distinctions, I was no means offering it as 'our only guiding principle', especially because of the historical baggage such terms have and the fact they are perceived quite differently by different people. For me, being on the left is to believe in radical democracy that tries to overcome all forms of domination, especially but not only of the capitalist kind.
--

The problem for popular and civil action, and for all those struggling for power-to, is not only about right and left; it is also that both the formal Right and Left believe in centralised power(-over). But if so, how are we to relate to them in different ways ?

--
Teivo's comment:
If you define centralized power as state machineries, I do indeed believe we can and must relate to some of them in different ways that to others. To the extent you think we should relate to, say, the (assumedly leftist) Evo
Morales government in Bolivia in the same way we should relate to the (imperialist right-wing) George Bush government in the United States, we have a serious difference of opinion.
--

Please do not understand and represent this as a kind of defence of the state-political right, or as an argument for attempting to build links with it.

--
Teivo's comment:
Not at all, I interpreted it as a defense of the position that we should relate to all governments in a similarly autonomous way, without ideological distinctions. And I disagree with that position.
--

It is only to point out that there is also another axis involved. Just as you posit a left-right axis, I believe that we also need to posit and accept an axis in terms of centralised power vs emancipatory power; of power-over vs power-to (and, though I am not entirely happy with this terminology, of vertical vs horizontal politics). It is therefore within the
terrain defined by both these axes that we have to move and to make strategic decisions.

--
Teivo's comment:
OK, this makes more sense. Of course, I might argue that the centralized vs. emancipatory power distinction is something inherent to the right vs. left distinction, but this is not the issue here. Especially considering the
history of the 'really existing left' that has conquered state power?.
--

And even if there are tendencies within the Left that can make a claim to more emancipatory politics, we need to be wary of the assumption that 'the left' as a whole and leftist leaders are always natural partners and allies of popular or civil movement. These are the 'other sides' I referred to.

--
Teivo's comment:
OK, this also makes sense.
--

Indeed, 'the Left' tends too often to take this (and popular movement) for granted; but civil and popular actors in almost all contexts where the Left has been in power will attest to how difficult such situations often are for
them, and in some cases, far more so than when more centrist or even rightist parties are in power.

--
Teivo's comment:
OK, though I would not like to be overly relativistic on this point. I think the situation for the movements in Chile during Pinochet's government was more difficult that in Chile during Allende. This is not to say there were
no serious difficulties during Allende, but it would be incorrect and stupid to equate the two.
--

This same situation arises in post-liberation contexts, such as South Africa.
--

Teivo's comment:
Yes, I agree that the ANC government does not have a very good track record here. But I hope you are not saying we should relate to it exactly the same way we did to the Apartheid governments that preceded it, are you?
--

As I see it, the WSF offers a crucial opportunity to address this question. But if it is to be addressed, it can only happen through genuine mutual respect, and not by assuming, as your letters seem to suggest, that popular and civil movements are necessarily the weaker actor and therefore must approach the Left for its support and collaboration, almost as a supplicant.

--
Teivo's comment:
Well, what I am saying it that in many ways these movements (the ones I appreciate most, including the MST) constitute an important part of the Left.
--

By saying this, I do not mean to exaggerate or romanticise the strength of popular or civil movement, as a 'challenge' to state political movement; I think the question of respect comes in from somewhere else entirely. I would like to suggest that the WSF is an extraordinary manifestation of civil power - power in the sense of shakti, energy, not of control - and its organisers should therefore negotiate from a position of this strength, not of any weakness.

My own sense is that the experiment that the WSF represents can also be a significant turning point for the left. But for this to happen, we need to not reify, or deify, The Left, or to accept or legitimise the ideology of power-over. We need instead to posit and defend the alternative, of power-to. For me, this is the fundamental challenge. The Forum is, and can be, space where this takes place.

--
Teivo's comment:
Even if I am not totally convinced of the power-over/power-to distinction (in the formulation of Holloway, for example) as something that should be our only guiding principle, I mostly agree with you here.
--

4. Is opposing neoliberalism' still the key question for the World Social Forum ?

Finally, Teivo I deeply appreciate your compliment on some of the arguments I have made about the WSF. I need now to address your doubts about my position on whether or not opposing neoliberalism should be a criterion for
participation in the Forum. Thank you for raising this point, even though I did not refer to this in my letter. I hope I can convince you on this point too !

First, I think I need to point to the fact that there are at least two broad groups of people who do NOT 'oppose neoliberalism'. One, those who are in favour of it, strongly or mildly; and two, those who are ambivalent about
opposing it - who identify neoliberalism as the market in operation and do not see this as being all bad. Unfortunately, your letter, as also most Forum literature, tends to assume only the first category, and to not address the second in any way at all, almost as if it does not exist - but where this is almost certainly the huge majority of people, and is therefore
for me the crucial political actor.

As I see it, we can only change the hearts and minds of people if we are willing to engage with them directly. Not polemically, but directly. In my understanding, the Forum is now (not earlier) reaching a point where it, as
a process, has the power, and the confidence, to offer space for debate with people who differ from it on fundamental principles. By saying this, I am signalling not only neoliberalism but also centralised power and the state.

Let us in fact be frank about this and accept that in reality, there are already - and perhaps have always been, from the very first meeting - many people who participate in the Forum who are ambivalent / do not actively oppose neoliberalism but who do believe in human rights and equality; and some who actually believe in neoliberalism but still attend the Forum because they find everything else that it offers worth their while; and that it is often the case that it is discussion with such people that is the most stimulating. This includes, for instance, many of the Dalit groups in India who attended the Mumbai Forum - but where the presence and contribution of precisely these groups was also so celebrated.

This happened in a very pronounced manner in one of the workshops I was involved in co-organising in Porto Alegre last year. Recall also the panel discussion that NIGD organised at the Mumbai Forum (on 'The Politics of the
WSF's "Open Space" : Prospects and Limitations of the Struggle against the Empire') where members of the audience vociferously *protested* the argument of most of the panellists that the Forum should be restricted to only
like-minded people, and ultimately forced Chico Whitaker, as one of the original organisers of the Forum, to accede that the WSF would review this question.

--
Teivo's comment:
The WSF principles allow for an impressive variety of opinions, so it is not really about 'same-minded people' in a narrow sense.
--

The Forum needs to draw long-overdue lessons from this kind of experience, and take the courage of now opening the Forum to people with different views - both those who are ambivalent and those actually disagree with the Forum.
It is absurd to go on pretending that the Forum is still only made up of people who oppose neoliberalism.

--

Teivo's comment:
There has not been, now should there be, any strict ideological litmus test for all participants of the WSF. I also think discussions with people who are not opposed to 'neoliberalism' can be quite enlightening, sometimes much
more than discussing with fellow anticapitalists. The question here is whether the porous boundaries of the WSF should be redefined, as you seem to suggest, so that it is no longer defined as a meeting place for people opposed to domination of the world by capital and imperialism, as the Charter currently states.

It is important to have spaces where those who believe in the broad ideological lines of the WSF can debate with those that think differently. The Bridge Initiative is one attempt to construct such spaces. Inside the WSF, one example of facing this question was the invention of roundtables of dialogue and controversy.

While the WSF needs to remain in movement and some of its practices need to be reinvented, I believe it should be maintained mainly as an arena (with some attributes of a movement of movements) for those who are committed (with different degrees of commitment, and obviously also ambiguities and contradictions) to building a post-capitalist (or 'post-neoliberal, if you prefer) world. I do not think it should become a colorless open space in the sense that it should try to attract all possible civic movements of the world. Even if opening it to everyone could increase the numbers of people who attend its meetings, it would risk losing its purpose as the space for articulations among the movements who want to create the other world that we assume possible.
--

The WSF does not like to acknowledge this, but as an institution it is, as is well known, still largely run by a vanguard; or at least, a vanguard that thinks it is running it.

--
Teivo's comment:
Yes, there are important issues and hierarchies of power inside the forum that cannot and should not be fantasized away. Vanguard can be one way of naming them, making them visible.
--

My sense is that the vanguard now needs to take a look at and catch up with the actually existing Forum - which I believe has already moved past this stage. As I see it, the most important role that the WSF is now playing in
world politics is not only in terms of opposing neoliberalism (though this remains significant too) but of providing a space for exchange and debate such has never existed before in history; and where it can therefore play a
role in world politics, and in forging cultures of politics, that has never been played before.

--
Teivo's comment:
Again, the main purpose of the WSF should not be to debate for the sake of debating.
--

In short, I think that the Forum should welcome the ambivalent, and that it can and should now, selectively and progressively, and on its own terms, open space for neoliberals to attend and participate - just as it does for
Presidents, but in their personal capacity.

--
Teivo's comment:
Here we clearly disagree again, if you mean that Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Gates should be invited to participate in their personal capacity 'just as' Evo Morales or Hugo Ch?vez. There is a difference in the ways we should relate to them.

Warm hugs from Lima,
Teivo
--
19.1.06 16:24
 



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