ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento
New challenges for organizing
The World Social Forum (WSF) was a gathering mechanism for activists, movements, and projects to exchange information and experiences simultaneously, publicly, in one place. In these regards it was a great success. The venue existed. People gathered and used it.
Some feel not enough activism and program, was generated. I am not sure the extent that is true or not. How many people have been inspired by the WSF to activist efforts? How much international solidarity has emerged? Of course it was less than optimal, after all, we want to win and we haven't, as yet. But was it less than might reasonably have been anticipated?
A second concern was that too little unity emerged. Yes, folks came together, met, and developed ties and trust. But to what degree were differences aired and overcome? To what degree did the WSF display anger that everyone shared, but fail to explore positive vision and strategy to patch differences and develop new unity? Here I think much more could have been accomplished, if addressing vision and strategy had been prioritized.
A third concern, related, looms large. There has emerged too little continued organization spanning countries and yielding lasting international program. But to say there has been too little as if this effort failed, is somewhat inaccurate. This aim was never sought at all.
But we might then ask, is there any plausible path toward a considerable international organizational and programmatic coherence? Could activism bearing on media, finances, immigration, rape, kinship, war, and climate, be united such that all such endeavors in all countries gain insights from the rest, and gain strength from unity with the rest and from shared focus and methods?
I think it is simple to imagine patterns such developments could take. For example, we could develop international activism for liberated media highlighting targets of demonstrations and demands in all major countries, and even all major cities. These could foster alternative media as well as pressure or occupy mainstream media. Or we could develop local and national campaigns replicated repeatedly from place to place, all summing to an international campaign for a shorter work day and work week. This could include no reduction in total income due to shorter hours for the poor, but reduced incomes for the well off and rich, or even stronger redistributive features. Or we could develop campaigns for alternative energy development or open borders or an end to violence against women, and of course for many other gains.
These kinds of cross city and cross country unified activism didn't emerge from the WSF discussion venues, and especially not from discussion venues which never got far into issues of vision and strategy, preferring, instead, to mostly focus on analyzing current injustices. But if they didn't emerge that way, how could they emerge?
It is a hard question. More, some might wonder, who needs such widespread unity? They might add that what we instead need is only whatever is appropriate in each individual city and country. We don't need for what happens in one place to broadly replicate and be part and parcel of what happens elsewhere. The trouble is, there probably is such a need for cross country activism for at least three reasons.
First, having campaigns in a particular country becomes far more likely if there are parallel campaigns in other countries - and likewise for cities. The momentum that arises when one's activities resonate rather than existing alone is enormously helpful. And the more replication with, of course, refinements – the more momentum and inspiration. If anyone thinks Greek activism doesn't abet energies in Spain and vice versa, they are confused. If anyone thinks the emergence of comparable levels of resistance in France, Germany, Italy, or the UK wouldn't propel Spain and Greece further, and ignite more broadly, again, they are confused. So the first reason is psychological and motivational. It is far far easier to struggle knowing that one's efforts are not singular and alone. It is easier still when you feel they are spreading like a contagion.
Second, there are lessons to be learned. And while each city campaign or national campaign will differ from the rest due to the peculiarities of the particular city or country – its history, people, and current conditions – there will also be major commonalities. And lessons regarding tactics, demands, ways of communicating about each, and much else can be shared.
Third, there is outright mutual aid and magnification. The activists in one country can literally provide support and even resources, for those in another, in turn affecting insights, and morale, as well as direct capacity to win gains. Any campaign in a country has far better chance of winning gains if it is part of an international process than operating alone.
Towards a unified international program?
Okay, so it follows that it would be very nice for the forces seeking a better world to be coherent across cities throughout a country, and across countries throughout the world. Still, how does such coherence and unity arise?
Only time will fully answer that question, but I think we can, perhaps, describe an endeavor that might contribute positively. We could develop, for example, an international organization, with excellent insights and commitments, that is built out of national branches and local chapters which are all federated, and which each operate as collectively self managing entities, with the whole doing likewise, and with a heavy emphasis on striving for unified activity and aims even while also respecting and even nurturing dissent and diverse experiments with contrasting approaches.
Why would having an organization with these features help? Because it would help activists around the world, who liked and joined the organization, develop their views in communication with one another, leading in time to lots of shared activity. Unity would not be imposed by some center – but would arise from shared agreements, all of it then consciously linked. Through such a process we could start to see programmatically unified international actions even while each national and local variant operated under its own auspices. Which is just what the above account suggests we need.
The WSF never aspired to such a result. It did not have a clearly enunciated shared analysis, nor did it have or even seek shared vision and strategic guidelines. It did not have a public and self managing decision making structure or commitment. Nor did it have any serious views, so far as I know, about nurturing, respecting, and experimenting with dissenting views.
Suppose one agrees that having such an international organization would be desirable. What additional features might it need to have, to play such a role? Clearly, in the modern era, with the insights of the past six or seven decades, it would have to be multi focus – emphasizing race, culture, gender, kinship, politics, economics, ecology, international relations without prioritizing any above the rest. It would have to strive to plant the seeds of the future in the present. It would have to combine prioritizing attaining coherent shared activity with serious and structurally guaranteed respect for dissenting views about what that activity ought to be. It would have to utilize the best insights and practices that emerge, but not elevate subsets of folks to domineering positions. It would have to respect and build on the diversity of insights and actions that characterize the diversity of local and national sites, even as it also aspires to a clear and compelling vision of key institutions of a sought after better future for all.
My own inclination, as I look around the world and see the various alignments of people who already fight for a better world, locally or more broadly, or who want a better world but have no means, or perhaps not the hope to fight to win one, is that such an organization, to be a site for evolving and propelling powerful program into the furthest reaches of aroused constituencies, would need to be quite explicit about what we might call a minimalist maximalist view and orientation. It would have to be ambitiously maximalist in that it seeks to win new defining economic, cultural, kinship, political, and international institutions able to sustain people's natural inclinations for and pursuit of self managing control over their own lives, solidarity and mutual aid with others, pleasure in diversity and its celebration, and equitable distribution of rights, responsibilities, and rewards. But it would have to be modestly minimalist in recognizing that while it is our responsibility to give future generations an institutional setting where they can make their own choices, it is their right and responsibility - and not ours - to make those future choices, and while we have to work to win change, including having a high level of unity, we also have to realize that most strategic and tactical issues are matters of context, and studiously avoid thinking we can or should have fixed views about such matters.
One effort to create something like this – one effort that I know of, that is – exists and is trying to grow. The International Organization for a Participatory Society. Perhaps there are other efforts. If we had had something like this, rooted in countries around the world, perhaps the WSF process would have been less susceptible to the concerns at the start of this essay. And that suggests, the failing was not in the WSF per se, but in the lack of surrounding organizational basis for expanding most effectively on the WSF promise.
- Michael Albert, long time activist and writer, works at Znet, is co-author of the economic vision called participatory economics, and is currently working hard to help build the new International Organization for a Participatory Society.
A Spanish version of this article appears in the magazine América Latina en Movimiento, No. 484, April 2013, ALAI: "Foro Social Mundial: ¿Momento de replanteamientos?". http://www.alainet.org/publica/484.phtml
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