Some Concerns and Proposals for the World Social Forum

Yesterday, the World Social Forum debuted in Montreal. This will be the first time the WSF has been held in North America. Two concerns for the radical left have emerged from the current state of the Forum. First, is the denial of visas (and possible detention) of radical organizers from the “third world” (including a candidate for UN Secretary-General)and second, whether the WSF is worth engaging with at all.

With regards to the first concern, most of the denied visas were for delegates from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Iran, Nigeria, Haiti and Nepal. Each of these countries have strategic interests to Canadian capital. Haiti has been ruled by a coup government instituted by the US and Canada after the earthquake which exploits the country heavily for US and Canadian firms. Iran is engaging in a complicated negotiation over the arrest of Canadian researcher Homa Hoofdar. Nigeria is a key petro-colony whose production is not meeting expectations.  Morocco maintains the occupation of Western Sahara, which Canada’s mining companies extract phosphate from. The DRC is cornered between its resources being pillaged by warlords selling to western IT companies (including Canada’s RIM), or being pillaged by western companies directly. Nepal is a subject of Canada’s joint defense projects with India, which enable India’s blockade of Nepalese Maoists (and assaults on India’s own Maoist movement).

Regardless of the motivations for each national case, this is a manifestation of Canada’s fundamentally racist immigration policy, especially as it concerns those from Africa and the Middle East. In fact, happening in tandem with the  the WSF, immigration detainees in Ontario,  locked up without charge, are staging a hunger strike to protest their conditions. 

 There are other examples of Canada’s immigration policy being tied up with its imperial exercises (indeed, this is an important component of Canada’s economic history). Thus, this makes the issue of Canada’s denial of visas to key activists from the aforementioned countries (and others) a powerful point of struggle to expose the the Canadian state as imperialist and anti-people.

However, there is the second concern to consider. Is the WSF worth it? Since its founding, the WSF has shifted away from being an assembly of progressive anti-capitalist social movements and mass organizations, towards a softer position that, while still featuring the occasional radical, relies heavily on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) to legitimize and sustain itself (this slow rootless passivity becoming dominant just as Brazil, where the WSF was founded, is being taken over by a soft coup) Canada’s Revolutionary Communist Party issued this statement on the WSF:

On the eve of the opening of the “World” Social Forum to be held from August 9 to 14 in Montréal, we invite you to read and share the articles published in this special issue from the Aspects of India’s Economy journal. They were published in September 2003, a few months before the holding of the 4th edition of the WSF that happened in Mumbai. They present a sharp critique of the limitations of the WSF and the impasse in which it was—and still is—located, for refusing to support a global, militant and consequent opposition to the world imperialist system. The PCR-RCP has never participated in various social forums that took place in Canada or elsewhere and is not taking part in the 2016 edition. By doing so, we endorse the call for boycotting the WSF recently issued by the comrades of the Revolutionary Democratic Front of India.

For those who can read French, there are also those few articles from the PCR-RCP and the former RCP(OC) that you may want to read and share regarding the WSF.

While the opinions of one Maoist political party in a capitalist center (which, despite having some excellent examples of mass work remains relatively marginal compared to its third-world contemporaries) might be easy to dismiss, the call for a boycott from a large mass organization in India, where an active revolution is taking place, backed up with research should give us pause for consideration. In particular, the accusations in the 2003 report should trouble anyone who calls themselves an anti-imperialist. Two of the foundations listed as funding the WSF are even managed by the Canadian government (Aspects, 2003), and WSF 2016 lists McGill University, which develops weapons for the Canadian Forces, as a major partner.

At the root of the Aspects critique is the question the WSF’s purpose. They accuse the WSF of being complicit in what Arundhati Roy aptly calls the “NGO-ization of Resistance“, where the role of NGO’s is to present themselves as alternatives to austerity and imperialism, but really only re-code and normalize these processes with band-aid solutions. Roy notes, as does the Aspects Journal, that the growth of (predominately western-initiated) NGO’s coincided with the opening up of India’s economy to globalization and privatization. It is these same NGO’s which act as cash-cows for Indian elites and PR stunts more concerned with media relations than actually feeding people  that supported the Mumbai and subsequent social forums (Roy, 2014; Aspects, 2003).

A cartoon endorsed by multiple Indian revolutionary organizations, showcasing their opinions on the WSF

Certainly the Canadian state’s racism must be denounced and struggled against, but more than anything this case highlights problems inherent to the current WSF . How much time and resources did those delegations put into visiting Montreal, which instead could have been used in their fight against their local ruling classes and imperialists? Indeed, the decision by the upper apparatchiks of the WSF organizing efforts to hold the Forum in Canada without accounting for immigration issues outraged Montreal Indymedia:

 Given this well-known power imbalance in the globalised (sic) world, the decision to hold the World Social Forum in Canada, a notoriously difficult country to gain entry, should have been coupled with a proactive commitment on the part of the International Council and the local organizing committee of the WSF to follow through with and facilitate the approval of visas requested by WSF registrants. Participation of the global south in the WSF is fundamental if we are to keep the WSF tradition authentically rooted in the experienced needs of the majority of our planet’s population. It is unacceptable that a WSF be organised without explicit support of activists from the global south.

As someone still bitter over the mainstream left’s embrace of the west-led destruction of Libya and similar plans for Syria, I should also note that one of the main events features Gilbert Achar, who has consistently championed western airstrikes on Gaddafi’s and Assad’s forces and has supported replacing these (admittedly problematic and not socialist) anti-imperialist nationalist leaders with violently sectarian forces and failed states supported by NATO.

In spite of all this, some still look to the WSF with a level of optimism, though to give proper credit there has been some backlash against the WSF’s NGO-ization. One might hope that these controversies encourage  a split which rejects the participation of NGOs and other pro-imperialist organizations but it may yet take some time. This de-radicalization and absorption into neoliberal norms can be placed in a wider context of what Max Forte (who is a Montreal resident) describes as the “New Victorianism” – a period of imperial decadence in the central capitalist countries which compensates for the decline in their overall worldwide dominance. Forte notes that this period, like the previous Victorian Era, is marked by Social Imperialism, by which he means both the embrace of imperialism by ‘socialists’ and the mobilization of the neglected underclasses towards attacking outside enemies rather than their ‘own’ ruling class (Forte, 2016).

Forte connects the logic of “safe space” politics to the logic of the “no-fly zone” imposed on Libya. Both are based on an attachment to securing the neoliberal order, with identity politics as a component of humanitarian imperialism. For clarity, I do not be take this to mean that exclusive “safe spaces” such as trauma centers or special political organizations, or the desire for oppressed people to seek safety and refuge is reproducing liberal hegemony (quite the opposite!), only that these forces are increasingly appropriated and mobilized in the name of liberal hegemony (e.g homonationalism) in the same way that socialist language is appropriated through pro-imperialist tendencies under this New Victorianism. 

David Harvey has a parallel critique, saying “I think much of the Left right now, being very autonomous and anarchical, is actually reinforcing the endgame of neoliberalism.” Again, not that the desire for safety or safe spaces is part of neoliberalism in-and-of-themselves, but the increasingly decentralized, even depoliticized, manner in which these spaces function leaves them open to appropriation and infiltration by neoliberal hegemony, a process which is now deeply entrenched in these spaces. 

Symbolic solidarity: signing a Palestinian flag at the WSF

This is what others have called the Tyranny of Structurelessness or the dogma of “Movementism“. This is especially pertinent to Palestine and Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) solidarity. The WSF supports the “civil society” movement of BDS which is  commendable on its own, but not enough. By refusing to directly engage in political struggles like the Palestinian cause, preferring to remain “civil” and “autonomous”, the WSF fails to understand Palestine as being a national liberation struggle, creating a limitation on the forms of solidarity that can take place purely to feel-good, symbolic acts like the one pictured besides, while neglecting other crucial points of solidarity like political prisoner support. It is also why Gilbert Achar can comfortably attend WSF alongside BDS, despite championing the destruction of two of Palestine’s strategic allies.

In tandem with this, the logic of the “no-fly zones” being enforced in and around working class peoples turns the supposedly progressive identity politics practice above against the general masses (Forte, 2016). Again with Palestine solidarity, Christopher Winston in St. Louis was censored by anti-hate bodies for publicly speaking out against Israeli neglect of Palestinians. The same protection bodies put in place by affirmative action to protect people of color in academia, were turned on Winston.

While I am not aware of what the PCR-RCP means when they endorse the boycott call from the RDF, the wording of “The PCR-RCP has never participated in various social forums” (PCR-RCP, 2016) implies a level of passivity in this action that I think could be replaced with something more active (I am also not in a place to comment on what resources are available to the PCR-RCP and how they should be best used, my argument is purely in the context of focusing on the WSF). From reading the RDF’s statement I believe there may be space to organize efforts on behalf of the denied activists while remaining true to the spirit of solidarity with the RDF boycott.

In the RDF statement, the authors mention a Mumbai Resistance Forum held as a radical alternative to the World and Asia Social Forums. The MRF attracted radical and revolutionary organizations to concentrate their efforts on actually challenging capitalism and imperialism (Rao and Kishor, RDF, 2016). A serious effort in Canada to struggle for visa approval for the denied activists, while at the same time inviting them to an “alternative” world resistance forum could help gather radical forces in Canada and support the radical elements in the World Social Forum without having to participate in the Forum.

It should be noted that the World Social Forum is not the only “international” for anti-capitalist organizations. The International League of People’s Struggle, despite having its own issues, boasts strong ties to the ongoing Philippine revolution and several other social movements, and has several affiliated organizations in Canada.

While I am not connected enough with the ILPS and similar organizations and thus cannot comment on what course of action they can or should pursue to advance their own struggles, if our objective is an alternative WSF, a concerted effort of organizations like ILPS affiliates,organizations like the PCR-RCP, and other radicals conscious of the problems of NGO activism, could radicalize the struggle to admit the denied visas and build a network to start an alternative WSF in the future. Obviously this effort is cannot coerce the activist it struggles to admit to join the alternative forum, and thus this effort is heavily contingent on the opinions of the denied activists, a risk many organizations may understandably not want to take at this present moment.

While the opportunity for forming an alternative to the WSF in Canada may have passed, this struggle for admittance by the denied activists highlights some severe issues in both the Canadian state and the World Social Forum’s composition. The blame for this controversy should be placed squarely on the Canadian state and immigration agencies, but there is no denying the WSF will have some accounting to do in the near future.

Effigies representing the denied activists are paraded at the WSF opening rally 

EDIT: Since posting this, I have been made aware that the International League of Peoples Struggle is indeed in Montreal. They will be hosting an event Right to Exist Right to Resist: Building the Anti-Imperialist United Front which I encourage all comrades to attend. Other radical Montreal events can be found in the Kersplebedeb newsletter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s