Taimur Rahman Political Archive

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World Social Forum Karachi : A left critique

Posted by Taimur Rahman on March 17, 2006

Published in The Post 17/03/2006

Taimur Rahman

The World Social Forum (WSF) scheduled to be held in Karachi on March 24-29, despite all its not so insignificant shortcomings, will provide liberals and the left a chance to meet organizations and individuals of their own inclination. The experience of the Pakistan Social Forum (PSF) held in Lahore in January showed that such meetings give the left and liberals the opportunity to rail at the policies of the current government to a significant audience of activists.

However, a significant criticism with respect to the entire process of the WSF in Pakistan is that the forum remains completely tied in with the NGO community. But this could equally be justified by pointing out that the NGO community has only filled the gaping vacuum created by the absence of an organized left. Though some critics have tended to dismiss the WSF in Pakistan as largely “donor driven”, a more significant critique would look at how the WSF came into being and the direction it is travelling internationally.

The WSF first met in 2001 in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, as a challenge to the World Economic Forum (WEF) and claimed to organize an alternative to capitalist neo-liberal globalisation. The main ideas of the WSF were represented by the central slogan: ‘Another World is Possible’, and under this banner all those seeking a change from the existing status quo were very loosely grouped together. Four annual meetings of the WSF have been held, the last one in Mumbai, attracting international attention, particularly from young people influenced by the growing anti-capitalist anti-globalization and anti-war movements around the world. The WSF claims to provide an “open space” for all shades of dissent. A brief look at the Charter of Principles quickly reveals much in the way of the concept that the builders of the WSF have about a new world.

Clause 6 of the Charter of Principles states: “Participants in the forum will not be called upon to take decisions as a body, whether by vote or by acclamation, on declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority, of them and that propose to be taken as establishing positions of the Forum as a body.” Owing to the fact that the WSF does not expect participants to make any future commitment beyond their immediate participation, many contradictory voices, within certain limits, can continue to co-exist within this Forum. On the one hand, Clause 6 allows for a significant degree of latitude and flexibility, but on the other hand this clause relegates the Forum to little more than a glorified ‘discussion group’.

The anti-left orientation of certain leading elements within the WSF is encoded, albeit not in clear unequivocal terms, in the Charter of Principles. For example, Clause 10 of the Charter of Principles states: “The WSF is opposed to all totalitarian and reductionist views of economy, development and history and to the use of violence as a means of social control by the State.”

The organizers of the WSF consider the views of Communist Parties to be both reductionist and totalitarian and have explicitly stated in the Charter that they are “opposed” to such views and as a consequence all organizations that hold such views. It would have been far more straightforward had the organizers simply written: ‘The WSF is opposed to Communist Parties because the latter have a reductionist view of history and wish to create a totalitarian society.’ But such overt and open anti-communism would have no doubt repelled many elements that are ideologically bordering between communism and other ‘left-wing’ alternatives (Social-Democracy, NGOs, New Left, etc.). Abstruse terminology is more suitable to the WSF leadership’s objectives of winning over these bordering elements.

Second, the statement makes the rather strange statement that the WSF is opposed “to the use of violence as a means of social control by the State.” The fact, as any social scientist would know, is that all states, without exception, are built for social control through violence. One does not have to be a Marxist to appreciate that states exist for no other reason than ‘social control’ through a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. The statement is an absurdity for if one is opposed to ‘social control’ through ‘violence’, then one should be opposed to the very concept and existence of the state (as the anarchists or libertarians are). And if one is merely opposed to the ‘use’ of violence by the state, as opposed to the use of the ‘threat of violence’ by the state, then one would have to ask the purpose of spending billions to maintain a coercive apparatus that will not be used. The real reason why this semi-pacifist sentiment is inserted in the middle of the statement about reductionism and totalitarianism is the old and familiar, but utterly reactionary, prejudice that equates fascism with communism.

This pacifism continues in Clause 11, which states: “The meetings of the WSF are always open to all those who wish to take part in them, except organizations that seek to take people’s lives as a method of political action.”

Firstly, one has been bombarded with so many lies from the imperialist media about the “terrorism” and “barbarism” of resistance organizations and discovered so very often that the media image of resistance organizations is entirely contradictory to reality, that one is inclined to take all such talk of opposition to organizations that use violence with a high degree of scepticism.

Secondly, and more importantly, resistance organizations (for example, national liberation movements) are compelled by force of circumstance to wage wars of liberation. Given that such wars of liberation are largely a phenomenon of the Third World, the exclusion of such organizations under the pretext of the above pacifist assumptions will inevitably fall prey to social-chauvinism. In the more radical days of the 60s and 70s, a line of demarcation was always drawn between the ‘violence of the oppressor’ and the ‘violence of the oppressed’. Such a line of demarcation is conspicuous by its absence in the Charter of the WSF.

It was on this pretext that while the WSF organizational committee gladly invited government ministers from France, Belgium and Portugal, the committee decided to deny participation to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and also to the Basque nationalists in 2002.

Clause 9 states: “Neither party representatives nor military organizations shall participate in the Forum. Government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity.”

The ban on political parties in the WSF is an extremely serious issue. Whereas on the one hand the WSF raises the ambitious but inspiring slogan of “another world”, on the other hand it takes the rather timid position of excluding political parties, leaving one with the impression that this ‘brave new world’ will either apparently exist without political parties or at the very least be built without political parties. A political party by definition exists for the purpose of gaining state power. The exclusion therefore of political parties is simultaneously the exclusion of the quest for state power, including the quest of the oppressed for state power. Naturally such a course of action sits very well with post-modernists, liberals, libertarians, anarchists, critical theorists and all the various hues and stripes of the “new left”, but the rest of us are left with the rather quixotic view of the possibility of “another world” that will be achieved without politics and without state power. The real purpose of the WSF therefore becomes clearer. “Another world is possible”, but it must be built without political parties, national liberation movements, and communists. Who then will build this new world? The answer is provided in the Charter of Principles itself.

The WSF provides “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulations of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society…” The WSF is not for everyone, nor even for everyone on the left: it is for civil society alone.

What then is civil society? Briefly, civil society in the 17th and 18th century was used as a tool by bourgeois theoreticians in their attack on political forms that prevented the free accumulation of private property. In the last two decades, civil society has come to mean the multiple and various reform organizations of the global capitalist class. In both these periods the concept of civil society has served the same purpose: opposition to all political forms that prevent the free accumulation of private property. Is it a wonder then that the WSF, which is meant as a meeting ground for members of civil society (and not the ‘left’, as some would have us believe), would exclude political parties, national liberation movements, and communists? It is no secret that the free accumulation of private property was challenged mainly by political parties of national liberation and communism.

Is it not clear then that the WSF is built to ensure the further consolidation of civil society over movements of workers and peasants? If this nexus between such movements and civil society is arguably the best defence of an ailing system (i.e. capitalism) to prevent the formation and development of “another world”, then the WSF, far from ensuring the possibility of another world, ensures that another world remains as remote a prospect as possible. The entire plethora of plans to “democratize” the WTO, IMF, WB and MNCs, to “help, advise and pressure governments to change WTO policies” are merely pious wishes if they are not understood as part of a process for the working class to take state power. Workers power expressed through the historically transitional instrument of a workers state is the prerequisite for a world free from war, militarization, exploitation and oppression.

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