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Globalisation from below


Blogging from the World Social Forum for New Internationalist


The global justice movement has no a magic potion. What it does have is the World Social Forum in the Southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande de Sul. This global gathering of social movements met this week to discuss plural, diverse alternatives to the single neoliberal model.

At the World Economic Forum in New York, corporate and political bosses swan around the Waldorf Astoria Hotel plotting the future of corporate globalization. At the same time in Porto Alegre, Brazil, tens of thousands of activists from around the world gather for the World Social Forum to carry on the process of ‘globalization from below’. NI co-editor Katharine Ainger reports on another world currently under construction.

‘I have here a magic potion given to me by a great magician of the Amazon. It has marvelous properties and can work miracles,’ says Durito the beetle, taking a bottle of sherry out from under his shell.

I ask: ‘And if you take this potion, will it enable you to understand neoliberalism and construct an intelligent alternative?’

This is a tale by Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, gently parodying the radical inability to propose a single, programmatic alternative to capitalism – and also the totalitarian desire to create one. The global justice movement has no such magic potion. What it does have is the World Social Forum in the Southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande de Sul. This global gathering of social movements met this week to discuss plural, diverse alternatives to the single neoliberal model.

‘The movement hasn’t died – it has grown up. According to the final, mind-boggling conference registration count, eighty thousand participants from 131 countries descended on the city of Porto Alegre for the World Social Forum this week’

After the death of a protester in Genoa and the attacks of the 11 September, commentators were quick to declare the movement dead. Major protests against the World Bank scheduled for Washington on 30 September were scaled down; the World Trade Organization avoided a re-run of the debacle in Seattle by launching a new trade round in Qatar, where there was no right to democratic protest. The definition of a terrorist is becoming daily more elastic, and these have been dangerous times for dissent.

But rumours of the movement’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The movement hasn’t died – it has grown up. According to the final, mind-boggling conference registration count, eighty thousand participants from 131 countries descended on the city of Porto Alegre for the World Social Forum this week. Also this week, twelve thousand protesters in New York successfully navigated their toughest political landscape yet, facing NYPD’s finest to take their message to the corporate leaders at the parallel events of the World Economic Forum. Doing what the press-police nexus had least predicted, they protested non-violently with discipline and wit, carrying slogans such as: ‘We are all Argentina. You are all Enron.’

And this week the movement was setting the terms of the debate. James Wolfensohn, head of the World Bank, wooed and was summarily refused entry to the World Social Forum. The CEOs, meeting inside the Waldorf, in New York were stumbling over themselves to adopt the language of social responsibility. The Porto Alegre meeting is setting the terms of debate because it is the only global forum able to talk about the fact that people around the world are fighting for their economic, and not just political, suffrage.

This movement is not going away, because at Porto Alegre Ugandan fishworkers, Brazilian landless peasants, Indian dam protesters, Colombian trade unionists, French financial tax campaigners, young anti-capitalists (11,600 of them in the youth camp), pan-African debt campaigners, Nobel prize winning novelists, international peasant farmer unions like Via Campesina, met to talk, strategize, and describe another possible world. No one participant came to the meeting understanding the true dimensions of the movement – no one left without a dizzying sense of the millions and millions involved.

Maturity, however, does not mean a single blueprint is being designed by the World Social Forum – history has taught us to distrust such blueprints. The World Social Forum is an inspirational, fluid space of unlikely coalitions – trade unionists and environmentalists, young direct-action activists and the landless, North and South, think tanks and mass social movements. And what few commentators seem to understand is that we have never been short of alternatives – but that we propose as we oppose.

‘What few commentators seem to understand is that we have never been short of alternatives – but that we propose as we oppose’

Most of our alternative models evolve organically from the demands of social movements themselves – from the ground up. And very often, these demands are about fighting for already existing resources and rights against the enclosing moves of the globalizers.

The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement of the World Trade Organization, for example, is a protectionist measure that enshrines the property rights of corporations over seeds, genes, plant varieties. The simple alternative to this proposal is to keep these things as they have been since time immemorial – as part of the common trust of humanity. But since this common heritage is under attack, we need to enshrine its status, to say ‘this far and no further’.

One of most exciting proposals out of dozens emerging from the Forum is the launch of the Treaty to Share the Genetic Commons, which was endorsed by the Italian Green Party and other parliamentarians, as well as a whole swathe of other organizations. It declares, with complete legal justification: ‘That the Earth’s gene pool… exists in nature and therefore must not be claimed as intellectual property,’ and is part of the global commons ‘to be protected and nurtured by all peoples’. Along with similar proposals for water currently being worked on, it will be offered up at the UN’s World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg this September, one of the next major landmarks for the movement.

‘The simple alternative proposal is to keep things as they have been since time immemorial – as part of the common trust of humanity. But since this common heritage is under attack, we need to enshrine it status, to say “this far and no further”.’

The treaty to share the genetic commons emerges from a clear momentum in movement thinking. For not just seeds and genes but water, education, healthcare, the internet, public spaces, the world’s climate, scientific knowledge and cultural production, are all becoming ‘enclosed’ and privatized by corporate globalization. Perhaps next year will see the launch of a declaration to reclaim the global commons to define all those sectors in which the needs of the market and the tenets of free-trade agreements must in law be subservient to the collective rights of people and nature.

In the one year since its inception, the World Social Forum has become an international landmark. In 2003 there will be regional social forums in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa – and in the Middle East, in Palestine, in the build-up to next year’s event in Porto Alegre. In 2004 it will be held in India. Far from disappearing, the movement now has its very own activist Olympics.