Global Policy Forum

Thematic Social Forum – Working Towards a Never Ending Democracy

From January 24th to January 29th the Thematic Social Forum, an offshoot of the World Social Forum, was held in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. The thematic meeting, focused on “Capitalist Crises, Environmental and Social Justice,” promotes an end to the international power structures that divide the world into a “centre” and a “periphery.” On the basis of a contribution made by Portuguese sociologist Boventura Sousa Santos, this IPS article outlines the Forum’s main objectives. Leaders and social movements should focus on the challenge of reversing trends such as the establishment of technocratic governments and the increasingly disorganization of states, with traditionally public services being replaced by widespread credit for the masses.  

Antonio Martins
January 27, 2012

For five centuries, Europe has taken it upon itself to enlighten the world, teaching it ways to address and overcome crises, from ideas and wars to missionary work and genocides.

But it forgot it only held a part of the world's knowledge and now it is on the verge of the abyss, and it is time for a different approach.

That is the assessment made by Portuguese sociologist Boaventura Sousa Santos who spoke to an audience of 300 at the Thematic Social Forum (TSF), which is being held from Jan. 24 to 29 in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and surrounding municipalities.

The TSF is an offshoot of the World Social Forum that originated in this same city in 2001.

This year's edition of the TSF focuses on "Capitalist Crises, Environmental and Social Justice" and has drawn some 10,000 participants.

The thematic meeting also promotes a future of widespread radical democracy, social relations based on the respect for human rights, and an end to international power structures that divide the world into a "centre" and a "periphery".

In June, another Brazilian city, Rio de Janeiro, will host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20, which is why the environmental crisis is also a key issue of discussion in Porto Alegre. Sousa Santos said he disagreed with the traditional approach to this issue.

"The first problem I have with this is the disagreement over the nature of the crisis. Seeing it simply as a matter of climate change is a highly reductionist approach. It's an economic and financial crisis, an energy crisis, a crisis of the environment and of civilisation," he said.

With this the sociologist arrived at the central point of his analysis: "As (Karl) Marx put it, the micro-irrationalities of capitalism lead to a macro-irrationality of life."

In the 50-minute address he delivered on Wednesday, this professor of Universidade de Coimbra (Portugal) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (United States) identified the threats through which this capitalist macro-irrationality is expressed. Four such threats are connected directly with the crisis of democracy.

These include an increasingly disorganised state, with traditionally public services replaced by widespread credit for the masses, which resulted in the current financial crisis; and the dissolution of democracy, as capitalism no longer needs it and promotes instead solutions like the current technocratic "democratorships" of Italy and Greece.

Another threat is the criminalisation of dissent, which is seen in South America in processes such as the forceful displacement of poor populations (Brazil) or in indigenous resistance movements (Chile).

And lastly, the prejudices inherited from colonialism: "Contrary to what could be expected, racism is on the rise again and gaining increasing strength. Moreover, there is no indication that sexism has become a thing of the past or that there is respect for sexual diversity. These expressions are vestiges of past colonial domination, which have resurfaced as prejudices."

For Sousa Santos, the shrinkage of the state and the assault on democracy are connected with three movements of capital that aim to seize collectively produced wealth: the rapid destruction of nature, the devaluation of work, and the commodification of knowledge.

The expert identifies democratising, decolonising and decommodifying as the new challenges that the movements participating in the World Social Forum must take on in this new phase.

"Democratising demands radicalism," he said. And he went to define "socialism as synonymous with a never-ending democracy that governs every space. Not just institutions, but also the workplace, the home, and the bedroom. Parties must understand that they don't hold the monopoly of political representation. And neither do movements."

"We are moving towards an era of presence, collective presence in the streets, occupying spaces that capital claims for itself, spaces not necessarily connected to an established movement," he said.

"Cities play a major role in the task of decommodifying life. We need to move dimensions such as culture, urban mobility, experiences and sociability outside the sphere of the market. The results would be immediate," he said.

"For example, culture, which is being trivialised, re-emerges immediately as a space of resistance as soon as it is treated as a right and as a product of human inspiration," he added.

With respect to decolonisation, Sousa Santos had some criticism for the government, despite his support for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and the governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Tarso Genro.

"Brazil has created so many positive models and it cannot be on side of neoliberalism or pat itself on the back for the 'new' Forestry Code or for simplifying environmental licensing processes to accelerate certain large infrastructure works," he said.

Near the end, the sociologist confessed he was "a tragic optimist. I believe we can change the world, but I know that change requires enormous efforts, mobilisations and even pain."

He also made some predictions for the near future. "This decade is going to demand more enlightened and creative leaders, and more combative social movements. The battle against social fascism is waged within institutions, but also on the streets through the defence of a never-ending democracy."


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