[WSMDiscuss] The emerging world social movementwithin which the WSF refounds itself

Tord Björk tord.bjork at gmail.com
Fri May 29 15:01:26 CEST 2020

Sorry that this contribution comes late.

The emerging world social movement within which the WSF refounds itself

A contribution by Tord Björk to the Zoommeeting on the future of the World
Social Forum initiated by Jai Sen and Gustave Massiah 2 May 2020. The full
title of the subject I was invited to talk about was: What is the nature
and character of the worlds of alterglobalism and emerging world social
movement within which the WSF exists and of which it is one constituent
part, and to which it – as it re-founds itself - must relate?

Due to overload of work this contribution is may be somewhat different from
what I said in the online discussion although in general the same.

This contribution build primarily on empirical analysis of the statements
from the main international peoples movement on the Covid-19 crisis as well
as other NGO actors on the same topic.

The contribution also builds upon experience of international movement
building since the first UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm 1972
and the environmental civilization critical movement against EU in Norway
that contributed to a victory in a referendum the same year. A movement for
environment and solidarity that as been carried forward in the antinuclear
movement, peace movement, climate movement and as international coordinator
of the ESF in Malmö 2008. Today primarily in coperation between Friends of
the The Earth and Via Campesina in Sweden and internationally as well as
Activists for Peace involved in the European/Prague Spring 2020 meetings
and the European process towards the WSF in Mexico anas well as
International Peoples Assembly in Europe.


The implosion of walls between movements in reaction to Covid-19 crisis is
a key to understanding the emerging world people's movement. The pandemia
have unleashed a development within all main people's movement during some
decades to address not only its own main issues but also relate to issues
of concern for other movements. The kind of nuanced way to develop both a
multi issue resistance and alternatives often attributed to spaces like WSF
or the exchange of experience between movements have now occurred within
each movement.

This opens up new avenues for anyone seeing global democratic movements as
crucial in solving the general social and ecological crisis. It comes in a
time when the movements are weak apart from several temporarily outburst of
protests mainly on national level the last ten years with peaks in the
beginning of the decade and at the end. At the same time corporate power,
privatization and austerity politics seems stronger than ever penetrating
every aspect of life including the way movements and political parties
communicate more and more in the interest of US based digital platforms.

The result is a situation for the emerging movement were centrifugal forces
are strong. The necessary combination of tightness between sufficient
knowledge and action is hard to achieve when each moment of such a
mobilization is professionalized. We het numerous educational and single
issue campaigns but no amassing able of change the power relations in our
societies or the world.

To understand the present situation for the movements it is necessary with
generalization. One can describe the emerging world people's movement with
the help of three parameters. Two concerns issues and another form. We have
the tension span between movements focusing in one end social issues and in
the other end ecological issues. Another content span is between focusing
on resistance here and now and in the other end so called prefigurative
struggles or building of alternatives. When it comes to form we have the
span between open space and representative forms of uniting a movement or

The span between social and ecological has been manifested not only in more
explicit ways as that between movements addressing primarily environmental
issues and those addressing primarily social issues. It can also be seen in
terms class base were those focusing on social issues are more urban and
industrial focused with development as a key concept and trade unions as
one of their main pillars of attraction. Those focusing on ecological
issues have often a more rural and agricultural, forestry and other rural
economy focus with civilizational critique as a key concept and small
farmer and similar movements as their main pillar of attraction. It is no
coincidence that the only main people's movmemnts mentioning indigenous
peoples in the Covid-19 cirisis statement is Friends of the Earth
International and campaign Demand Climate Justice.

Of course there are in both cases movements and NGOs accepting the system
as it is. Organizations addressing social issues as a form of charity or
bureaucratic trrade unions seeing a movement among workers more as a threat
than than a strength for the working class. Or organizations addressing
environmental issues as piecemeal questions for technical and other changes
within the system or farmers organizations adjusting themselves to the
agroindustry and financial interests.

But when looking at the system-critical social and ecological movements
there are differences that have played out also in the so called ”world of
alterglobalism” and the social forum process. The use of the term globalism
is such an issue. While the mass movements in the South as well as system
critical ecological movements in the North never changed its
antiglobalization identity or never took to its heart the
alterglobalization concept many on the left and the social forum process
made this concept central to their concerns.

Personally as an environmentalist and identifying myself with concepts
supported by the mass movements in the global South and rural movements in
the North I protested against the shift from antiglobalization to
alterglobalisation. In Sweden it was carried out by the Anarchosyndicalist
weekly soon followed by Attac and man others that saw in the WSF open space
formula a way forward for peoples movements. The problem with the shift was
its idiosyncracy showing the lack of interest in biological realities among
the left. The material reality in the globalization concept is the claim
that there is an ongoing compression of time and space in the world. Such a
compression of biology or what we also can call ecosystems and
relationships in the biosphere and atmosphere is an ecological catastrophe.
This has been clearly exposed by the Covid-19 pandemia as this
globalization of biology caused by agroindustry, industrial forestry etc
creates more and more zoonotic virus in one end and health problem in the

The left in the North and their close cooperation partners in the South
created instead their own globalization concept devoid of its material
content with a focus only on the social side. Terms as globalization from
below came into fashion and the less problematic concepts as
internationalism for cooperation across all borders were replaced by a
vision of alternative globalization and not alternative to globalization. A
simplistic notion showing the disinterest among the left for biological
realties. This conflict spelled out in the European Social Forum which was
used by the left for their social and sometimes pro EU agenda thus never
replacing the invalid WSF declaration at the official ESF website with the
first version from April 2001 were only social conflicts are made central
as capitalism and imperialism while the second since valid declaration from
June 2001 putting equal emphasis on social and ecological concerns was
dismissed while environmental movements were treated as junior partners.

In the present moment the strength of the cooperation between Friends of
the Earth, La Via Campesina and the climate justice movement has grown
while that of the left, trade unions and movements addressing social
justice broadly has been weakened. This makes a more balanced
socio-ecological cooperation possible built on the class alliance of rural
and urban people asked for by La Via Campesina.

The other content span between those focused on large scale resistance here
and now and those focused on prefigurative forms of struggles and local
alternatives has also been present i different ways. At the moment one can
see this expressed in initiatives like the Tapestry of alternatives,
Transition Towns and many similar efforts are popular together with so
called ”Coalitions of the Willing” bringing together urban municipalities
that wants to go further on social and often climate issues, quite often
with a blurred relationship to entrepreneurship and cooperation with
companies while at other times far more radical than any movement focusing
on large scale resistance.

The third tension span concerns form and can be expressed as a difference
between open space and representative forms of organisation. The open space
formula has been a tool for several initiatives to enlarge
international participation in both discussing and action. Avaaz is a US
based net campaigning platform claiming t have more than 50 million members
world wide. The concept member used here lacks democratic rights to
influence the decision-making of the organization. The content have also a
tendency to slide from opposing wars in the 00s to promoting wars in the
10s with humanitarian arguments. There is in general a lack of a
comprehensive system critical way of addressing issues. This is
understandable as anyone can make their own appeal for something with the
help of Avaaz, a sort of perfect open space. You are then claimed to be a
member of Avaaz and used as a legitimation of the organization. You also
receive the selected campaigning actions by the unaccountable leadership of
the organisation.

Many similar forms of open space models has become more and more dominating
at least among middle class campaigning while working class and farers are
becoming more marginalized in public discourse. Also left wing projects use
this form of organization as Progressive International initiated by DiEM25
and Yanis Varoufakis supported by intellectuals as Arundhati Roy and Naomi
Klein as well as the Icelandic Prime minister and many pink tide

Representative forms of organization as political parties can also
strengthen their role in society but often more due to growing support from
state funds or corporate funding than due to actual participation.

Empirical evidence and exchange of experience seems of less interest among
some of the main opponents in the debate. If such evidence is brought up by
proponents of open space it is the problems that was caused by vertical
decision making and factionalism among the Left in a state centric system.
The experience of the ecological and other non-leftists movements that are
not state centric are excluded as a point of reference. These movements
have used different combinations of horizontal and vertical or
representative forms of decision-making and discussion long before the Left
believes they invented the wheel with the open space formula and WSF.
Already in 1972 such multiissue alternative forums were held during the
first UN conference on environment dealing with issues as war, development,
urbanization and depopulation of the countryside, indigenous way of
alternatives to the present world order, and working conditions in
daily life, the last a social issue seldom seen at social forums. The fact
that the Norwegian Social Forum was established in 1999 before WSF shows
that the claim of being unique is not valid.

On the other side of the tension span the proponents of turning the whole
WSF into a decision-making actor share som common theoretical limitations
with their opponents. Both seems to believe that changing WSF or keeping it
as it is is the key to come forward for the emerging peoples movement
capable of addressing the socio-ecological crisis. This can be questioned
from empirical and theoretical points of view.

Firstly WSF is not a unique place for bringing together the movements of
movements” and creating learning processes among them. There has been long
before WSF and since it started direct connections between movements and as
expressed recently in relation to the Covid-19 pandemia also learning
processes within a movement making it able to integrate several issues in a
comprehensive way. It is generally accepted that the climate justice
movement, Fridays for Future and extinction Rebellion have developed
outside the social forum process. This is even more the case with the
movement for food sovereignty started in Nyeleni i Mali 2007 by La Via
Campesina in close cooperation with friends of the Earth and others. It was
also expressed at the 125 year anniversary of the International Peace
Bureau in 2016 when the chair of InternationalTrade Union Confederation
ITUC and Friends of the Earth International was invited to speak about
climate justice transition.

Theoretically the proponents of open space seems blind to the power
relations created by market relationships in an open space giving priority
to those who have resources to be present. They also seems naive in their
way to claim the advantage open space have for creating learning processes
when there is no common action outcome. That such a separation of
discussing and action prioritizing the former for the latter might be a
class interest for intellectuals and professionals in NGOs seems never to
have occurred in their minds.

The proponents of turning WSF into a decision-making process seems blind to
the problems of the power relationships built into vertical decision making
processes. That such vertical decision-making processes might be part of a
civilizational problem of bourgeoisie forms of representative associations
making real change of power relations impossible seems not to have occurred
in their minds, nor the class interest among intellectuals and
administrators of such associations making them unable to see the
limitations of this way of organization.

My main concern has been primarily the lack of interest among main people's
movements to unite for a common socio-ecolgical struggle to save our
societies and the world. This lack has partly been due to the systematic
erasing of the memory of how such movements can change history from public
discourse. This situation has not been helped by intellectuals having more
interest in discussing WSF than actual movements. How the goals of WSF
actually is carried out by peoples movement outside the social forum
process or in some cases as an opposition to the open space formula that
have dominated and crippled many social forums have seldom been of

But that said the inability of the peoples movements to untie is not mainly
due to external factors but the faults of the movements themselves. The
decision-making procedures of these movement can often be as byzantine as
that of the International Council for WSF. There is also seldom a Jai Sen
or Teivo Teivanen trying to make the process more visible although in
general there are more open rules to follow.

It might be first now that the main peoples movements are mature enough to
take next step and live up to the statements they made about the global
crisis they made due to the Covid-19 pandemia. Walden Bello writes also
concerning the difference between the financial crisis in 2008 and now that
this time people are also more matyre and will not as easy accept going
back to the way things were before that caused this and several other
global crises.

This may open up for a schizophrenic solutions to the endless struggle
between open space and decision-making opponents by inviting to a well
prepared Assembly of Social Movements at next WSF with a coherent plan of
action. A plan prepared by in depth seminars on the issues and focusing on
possibilities for such mass actions that brings together broad popular
movement across rural and urban and social and ecological cleavages.

Maybe both opposing strands are now so mature as well as man main people's
movement that they are able to look forward for synergy possibilities
rather than separating each others attempts. Maybe one can see that a far
more stronger ASM than before with a key role for main movements will be a
way to enable global action on a sale not seen before while maintaining the
WSF as a whole as an open space. Maybe the time has come for such a
combination of strength. I hope so.

Tord Björk

Member of Friends of the Earth Sweden and Activists for Peace

email: tord.bjork at gmail.com, skype: tordbjork, tel: +46 (0)722 15 16 90
address: Götgatan 7 A, 29133 Kristianstad, Sweden
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