SOCIAL FORUM REPORT: Horizontally Challenged

By Mute, 12 July 2004

A special report on this January's Word Social Forum in Mumbai and the forthcoming European Social Forum in London

It wasn’t long after Seattle that the anti-globalisation movement acquired a civil society supplement in the form of the World Social Forum. First hosted by the populist social democratic enclave of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, it was dedicated to creating an inclusive but critical occasion for discussing the burning questions of neo-liberal globalisation. The WSF brought together an unlikely mix of reformists and revolutionaries, the latter tending to be on the periphery. Like an anti-globalisation protest without the Black Bloc, for some the WSF was all talk and no action, for others it was all too pragmatic in its proposals for giving neo-liberalism a more human face.

Since then the WSF – held subsequently again in Porto Alegre in 2002 and 2003 and then in Mumbai in January this year – has grown in visibility and produced its European incarnation, the ESF (Forums were held in Paris last year and Florence in 2002), although it has never commanded as much media attention as the anti-globalisation protests outside World Bank and WTO meetings. But the Forum’s already problematic composition as an umbrella meeting of ideologically and organisationally disparate groups, including a mass of caring-capitalist NGOs, re-packaged Trotskyist and social democratic parties and state ‘hijackers’ of the movement like Lula da Silva and Hugo Chavez, has cost it credibility with more radical anti-capitalists.

Questioned, criticised or ignored by many, since at least the ESF Florence in 2002, Forums have generated counter-conferences held by those who consider the official agenda, constituents and one-way, mass rally format too representationalist, reformist, or downright reactionary to sit through.

With another ESF not ony possible but imminent in London later this year, we decided to take a look at the WSF’s immediate past and the disputes surrounding the organisation of the forthcoming London Social Forum. Two authors, Rahul Rao and Olivier de Marcellus give us their views on the first Indian WSF in Mumbai this January, while Isa Fremeaux reports on the preparation for the ESF.