Global Policy Forum

Mumbai, WSF, and Our Futures


By Michael Albert

February 9, 2004

WSF 4 in Mumbai was a quite different experience than prior Porto Alegre WSFs. In many respects it was better organized. Women were far more visible, empowered, and empowering - often providing the most important as well as the best presented material. The attendee composition altered dramatically from being overwhelmingly South American with a significant U.S. and European presence, to being overwhelmingly Asian with a significant African and some U.S. and European presence. Whereas the city of Porto Alegre was a well off, small, left-administered welcoming host in a left-administered welcoming Brazilian state -- Mumbai was the indifferent massive financial center of an indifferent right-leaning India. The pervasive poverty of Mumbai's streets exceeded anything I had seen before. The mammoth Mumbai bustle transcended other bustle I'd seen, as well. It feels misleading to use the same term "diversity," to describe what was present in Mumbai and to also describe Western cultural variety. Diversity in India, and apparently in Asia more broadly, is truly diverse. My knowledge of India is less than minuscule. I went there to learn and I am not even sure I managed to do that. But two aspects particularly confused me. The slums are enormous and horrendously poor. Everyone knows that, and we also broadly understand poverty's imperial and corporate and caste sources. Seeing the hunger is different than just "knowing it," but even beyond that, what struck me is that despite the evident magnitude of suffering, the usual tension, anger, and rage that characterize slums in the U.S. seemed absent. Something in India leads those stretching their hands up from the gutters for a pittance to feed a family, or those working the corridors of five star hotels (that are barely as ritzy as small Holiday Inns in the U.S.), or those sitting outside shanties watching the relatively well off stroll past, to not exude hostility and anger and even knife-edge violence. I was told that theft from tourists is minimal and my meager experience around the city suggested the claim was true. The slums aren't policed that I could see and even at the interfaces between destitute and wealthy, the police presence seemed less numerous and less fearsome than in the U.S. Supposing that I was seeing even reasonably clearly, I would imagine the cause of the relative quiescence is religion, and in particular the caste system. On the one hand, I felt like this relative peacefulness probably made life at the bottom in India far less horrible than if everyone also constantly feared passers-by on every street, and if many suffered drug addicted or incarcerated or murdered relatives, as in many regions of the U.S. On the other hand, I felt like an age-old question - "why don't hungry people steal?" - was even more relevant here in India, with its hundreds of millions of desperately poor, than it is relevant, say, in the U.S., with thirty million below the poverty line.

At last year's WSF, Arundhati Roy worried that to have the events in India would enable India's fundamentalist Hindu elites to put a pretty face on the society, aiding their attempts to rise to horrific domination. After WSF 4, I haven't heard any comment on this possibility. But I fear that Roy may have been right. Roy herself, and a few others from India, and some folks from outside as well, quite courageously conveyed to the WSF attendees, as best they could in the time allotted, a picture of Hindu fundamentalism engorging its appetites with little restraint. They weren't tossing around epithets like "fascist" and "fundamentalist" lightly, as many in the U.S. do when referring to Bush. They knew what the words imply, and they used them knowingly, describing the thugs seeking to rise to ultimate power as willing, able, and already quite practiced at ripping the innards out of people - mostly Muslims -- for street sport as well as political gain. They described still localized but rising Nazi German violence levels, though without the concentration camps, as yet. The young child who watched in the streets of Gujarat as his Hindu school teacher killed his Muslim father. The mass rapes, the murders, the body limbs torn off and body organs mutilated, the slow but steady escalation toward the hell that is real fascism, was the image I got from speakers who I very much trusted. At the same time, however, I could not myself feel anything like this in the streets of Mumbai or Pune, a nearby city we also visited. There was nothing in the behavior or the words of the potential victims or of the potential purveyors who I encountered that gave away feelings that they were afraid that they would soon be victim or victimizer in a burgeoning massacre. And so this was the second big aspect of India I could not comprehend. People I met were not thinking of leaving the country, or of security in any sense. And on the streets, people were not displaying the macho brown shirt style or the savvy fear that you might anticipate in a run-up toward fascism. Yet, even against my own senses, I believed Roy and others who described what they thought was coming. I suspect that the massive celebrations of diversity and hope within the Mumbai WSF events left very few people going home to the West wondering, as I was, if they would soon be opening their homes to people fleeing an India that had gone berserk.

But what of the WSF itself?

The fact that it was teeming with attendees and speakers, becoming a kind of progressive self-contained universe, was nothing new. That many more people were marching and celebrating outside speakers' venues than were attending the speaking events themselves was new, however. It apparently owed in part to poor translation facilities. If you came from parts of India that didn't leave you fluent in English or Hindi, you were at a loss to understand many talks being given. But I suspect people not attending talks had another reason as well. As with other WSFs most of the presentations were about how bad globalization, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and caste relations, not to mention Hindu fundamentalism, are. The people parading all day outside the talks knew all this without having to hear it. Does it really make any sense to get up on a stage and talk about the ills of poverty and of indignity in a city like this - where walking five minutes in any direction outside the gates of our event offers incontrovertible evidence of the claims -- evidence so powerful, so humbling, so sickening, and so overwhelming, that no speaker could possibly expand on its message? That said, this WSF marked a continuing evolution of the forum process in desirable directions. The slogan "another world is possible" has now become so central and ubiquitous that it begins to grate a bit in its constant repetition. But, on the plus side, the constant repetition is provoking further elaboration. People are taking the slogan beyond assertion to description. The WSF has been propelling a mood receptive to vision and is now getting serious about pursuing vision directly. To not only assert another world's possibility, but to also describe its main features will be very much to the good. And the same is true for the WSF's continuing impetus toward causing diverse and even mutually hostile elements to civilly attend to each others words. This too is good. Two central tensions of the WSF still exist, however. First, the WSF has been a venue for information exchange. When you do that over and over, with the information remaining mostly start to atrophy. Taking the event to a new continent means reaching new audiences so that old substance is rejuvenated by reaching new listeners. But many people want more than that. They feel that with a burgeoning momentum of connections and commitments spanning the world, there ought to be a program that the WSF adopts, furthers, and wins. What about the WSF programmatically addressing war, say - or corporate globalization, or the trends in India, for that matter, or even something narrower such as boycotting particular firms engaged in especially horrible practice. The response from what I think is probably a large majority of WSF organizers is that the WSF and the forum process more broadly isn't about itself becoming a new programmatic organization, or even about itself congealing a movement of movements, but is about creating a mechanism for all those who themselves might wish to do those things to interact with one another and learn from one another and create ties and then act as they deem desirable. The WSF achieves that necessary and desirable communicative goal, its defenders say, so why risk ruining it? The venue is so wide in its participants that it is folly to think they could all work together as a united organization with a single shared program. Social democrats, Leninists, anarchists, feminists, and all kinds of local groups can't be welded into united activism just by decreeing the WSF to be a new International. Rather, with the WSF as a communicative venue, its defenders say, we have a local, regional, national, continental, and world vehicle to assist those who want to construct viable and worthy cross-border alliances and movements of movements. Let the participants get on with those tasks, but let them construct their new mechanisms beyond the WSF, by all means.

I think this formulation is reasonable. The forum process shouldn't try to become what it is too broad to sensibly attain and it should persist in what it does well. Yet, the fact remains, the glue that has held the forum process together and the innovation that has given it momentum, are beginning to lose their gloss. Something needs to be upgraded or renovated or added to provide new momentum, even while carefully avoiding risking what is still working well. What about this as a possibility? The Social Forum process, at every level, is about information exchange. One big improvement would be if the information exchanged, especially that which is highlighted and emphasized in the most major and best promoted sessions, swung more toward issues of vision, strategy, and practical lessons from what people are doing, and away from descriptions of oppression and analyses of oppression's all too familiar systemic roots. But even this reorienting of focus, as positive as it would be, would still leave us with a gigantic apparatus being used only to talk, dance, sing, and otherwise experience one another's views and styles, and to do so only for a few days each year. Can't the WSF apparatus do something that is more sustained, without pulling apart inwardly? Well, if the purpose of the WSF is to debate, assess, and help people utilize information - why can't the forum movement try to facilitate worthy and inspiring information flow all the time, and not only during the events? Why can't it put its weight behind aggressively supporting alternative media, on the one hand - and behind aggressively assaulting mainstream media, on the other hand? No one related to the WSF process, I think, would balk at either of these agenda items as being somehow contrary to their local beliefs or priorities. It so, then why can't the WSF help organize into existence an international movement working on behalf of enlarging alternative media on the one hand, and of coercing better content from mainstream media on the other hand? In this sense the WSF could undertake to help build a new international activist offensive on a scale like that of the anti-corporate globalization movement, but now with targets all over every country, including mainstream TV, radio, and print media outlets worldwide. The effort would have an activist, "raise the social costs until you meet our demands" component. And the effort would have "a positive build a better world" in our own media component, as well. The only ideology this media movement would need is that truth in media is better than lies in media and that media concern for the well being of billions is better than media concern for the well being of thousands and that media in the hands of the people is better than media in the hands of corporate behemoths. And this ideology could be adopted without violating or even transcending the WSF's current definition - which is to facilitate honest, respectful, progressive, information exchange. A WSF media focus might provide excitement and momentum sufficient to rejuvenate and galvanize the forum process, as well as providing an immensely valuable contribution to movements worldwide.

The second major tension dogging the WSF has revolved around internally living up to its own values. We want transparency, democracy, participation, even participatory democracy in the world around us. But these qualities don't exist regarding the WSF's own operations and that creates an abiding tension, not to mention ensuring that the developing structure has embedded at its core failed techniques which will, in time, fail again. What can we do? This is a very nearly intractable problem, as the defenders of what has been done until now implicitly claim. The fact is, we don't have massive movements in country after country that are themselves participatory and accountable, so how can we possibly generate something international that is way better on these counts? It is a fair question. And what has been done to date, when one remembers this context and question, though far from optimal hasn't been as horrendous as it could have been. My own inclination, nonetheless, is to feel that having an international decision making council composed of people who are largely unaccountable and even unknown to anyone outside the convened room, and above which council there operate even smaller groups with still more power and still less transparency and accountability - however, understandable, is not a recipe for lasting and even accelerating success. But would reforming this international council apparatus by requiring that everyone involved be openly known, and be accountable to large constituencies, and operate with final say instead of being subordinate to still smaller and even less accountable groups - solve the problem? It would help a lot, that's true. But is it a possible goal in our current international situation? Are there are a sufficient and diverse enough array of constituency-based progressive organizations to produce recallable, accountable representatives to such an international council? More, even if it could be done, would it be enough? As another possibility to consider - perhaps in parallel - what if we the Social Forum process began to see itself as the fledgling infrastructure of an experiment not only in international communication, but also in participatory democracy? Can we envision social forums forming locally in cities and villages all over the planet? I am told there are a hundred in Italy. Imagine that density of per capita local forums, and even four or five times that level world wide. Could this wide spectrum of local forums become a layer from which are chosen bodies of, say, from 100 to perhaps 1000 recallable representatives, for each country, who would be the accountable, recallable, decision body for that country's Social Forum? And could the country-wide forums then choose, even if by imperfect means, accountable and recallable decision bodies for regional events? And so on. It isn't hard to imagine all kinds of interesting options...once the broad idea of having the social forum structure be generated bottom up from local forums, rather than hanging top down from a yearly central forum. I suspect that many other problems of the forums - such as having the same speakers repeatedly, overemphasizing analyses of ills and underemphasizing reports and lessons of activism and ideas for vision and strategy, unbalanced gender and geographic representation, and financial difficulties for attendees made bitter by bonuses for the notables, might evaporate were this kind of dynamism and exemplary participation developed. I also suspect many new innovations and exciting elaborations would percolate upward from the people who daily engage in the activities that make the forum possible. This would all be hard to do, of course. But at some point, don't we have to move from talking about people having a real say to people in fact having a real say?

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.