Photo: This mural in Seattle's Chinatown echoes the slogan of the World Social Forum: 'Another world is possible'. CC BY-SA 3.0 - Photo: 2019

The Long Walk from World Social Forum to World Party

Viewpoint by Roberto Savio

The writer is publisher of Other News, a vehicle for “voices against the tide”, and founder of IPS-Inter Press Service News Agency. This article is being reproduced courtesy of Other News with the writer’s permission. He can be contacted at and his articles and comments can be read on Facebook @robertosavioutopia

ROME (IDN) – I was a member of the world’s first international party – the Transnational Radical Party – founded in 1989 by Italians Marco Pannella and Emma Bonino. The previous year, in West Berlin, I witnessed the mass protest against the meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, a precursor of the Battle of Seattle in 1999 where 40,000 protesters disrupted the annual meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

I was even detained for a day by the police, even if I had merely been a witness: the fact that I was foreigner made me automatically suspect. In 2001, I was involved in creation of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. I also witnessed Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz addressing Occupy Wall Street protestors in 2011.

Most recently I have been closely following the advent of the new nationalist and populist wave in Europe and I have come to the conclusion that I can be more useful as a practitioner than as a theoretician in the cultured and interesting debate that Paul Raskin has opened on a world political party.

The Transnational Radical Party chose a human rights agenda, as Pannella had done in Italy with the Italian Radical Party: abolition of the death penalty, depenalisation of soft drugs, freedom of medical choice, including euthanasia, an end to female genital mutilation in Africa and Arab countries, the importance of scientific research free of religious dogma as part of bioethics, creation of the United States of Europe, a multicultural, inclusive and environmentally-concerned Europe. It called for the inclusion of Israel in the European Community, and mounted public campaigns on Tibet, the Uighurs (a Turkic ethnicity living in East and Central Asia), the Montagnard (a Vietnamese Christian minority) and the Chechens.

This human rights agenda was able to link intellectuals and activists from many countries (especially Europe and Latin America). But it never became a mass movement, and it dissolved in 1989. It had been strongly influenced by the May 1968 events in France centred on the fight against centralising structures, and had indicated that the struggle should become individual and free from any command.

The WSF was the closest thing to a world movement which coalesced around construction of an alternative to that represented by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. It was the result of a visit to Paris in 1999 by two Brazilian activists: Oded Grajew, who was working in the field of corporate social responsibility, and Chico Whitaker, who was in the Social Network of Justice and Human Rights, an initiative of the Brazilian Catholic Church. They were incensed by TV coverage of Davos and went to meet Bernard Cassen, general director of Le Monde Diplomatique, who encouraged them to organise a Counter-Davos, not in Europe but in the South of the world. They returned to Brazil, organised a committee of eight Brazilian organisations and in February 2000 received the support of the State government of Rio Grande do Sul. In 2001 the first WSF was held in Porto Alegre, coinciding with Davos. We thought that 3,000 people would come (just like Davos), instead there were 20,000 participants.

The impact was so great that the Brazilian committee organised a consultative meeting the following year in Sao Paulo, to discuss continuation of the WSF.  They invited a number of international organisations, and on the second day appointed all of us as the International Council. The Council was not, therefore, born from planning to organise a really representative structure. Efforts to bring balance to its composition never got very far. Many organisations wanted to become members of the Council, without any criteria of representation and strength. The Council quickly became just a long list of names, but with few participating. Furthermore, they kept on changing at every council meeting, which left the Brazilians (Chico Whitaker in particular) with de facto ability to have a strong influence on the process.

The WSF held a large number of meetings. There was the yearly WSF itself, which always had close to 100,000 participants (the meeting in 2005 had 150,000), The WSF moved out of Latin America, first to Mumbai in India, with the participation of 20,000 Dalits (untouchables), then to Africa and so on. The march against the American invasion of Iraq saw 15 million people marching all over the world. George Bush dismissed that as a focus group, and the war continued.

In addition to the annual WSF, two other main events were created: regional WSFs and thematic WSFs, providing umbrellas for people to meet outside the central WSF. Local WSFs could then be held in any country, as part of the general WSF process. A most probable estimate is that, from 2001, the WSF has brought together over one million people, who have paid their own travel and lodging costs in order to share experiences and dream together for a better world.

Some points of this enormous process (which I do not see now replicable as the idea of a party), must be considered for our debate. Civil society is made up of many threads. We have no time to go into this, but Boaventura de Sousa Santos, the Portuguese sociologist who studied the WSF and also departed in disagreement with the lack of change from Chico Whitaker and others, has written an interesting study on the “translation” which was necessary to bring those threads together.

Women’s organisations, for example, are concerned about patriarchal society, indigenous organisations are worried about exploitation by white colons, and human rights organisations have an agenda that differs from that of those concerned with the environment. To understand each other, and share and work together, a process of translation of those priorities in order to be able to think holistically took place. It is what is now called identity.

Any world party has to face this issue because there are no indigenous organisations in Europe, and there are no activists on the impact of infrastructures in Asia or Africa. In other words, while it is easier to build mass participation against a common enemy, it requires much dialogue to build a movement. Certainly, the WSF was fundamental for creating the awareness that a holistic approach is necessary to fight injustice, climate change, uncontrolled finance, growing social injustice, etc. And that is an important point in the creation of a world party.

Over all those years since the creation of the Transitional Radical Party, through all movements which have been created, and now in the Yellow Jackets, there is a common thread. For the immense majority of participants, the notion of a party is linked to power, corruption and lack of legitimacy. The WSF has “decreed” the irrelevance of the concept of ‘party: it is opposed to any political declaration from the WSF (because it could divide the movement), to the creation of a spokesperson on behalf of the WSF, and in favour of horizontality as the main basis for governance of the WSF, the WSF as a space for meeting, not for organising actions.

Actions could be taken by those participating forming alliances, but the WSF could not make declarations or plans of action. The International Council was not a governing body, just a facilitating structure. The media no longer came to the WSF because they had no interlocutors given that there were no spokespersons. Even a declaration on something which could potentially create scission, such as condemnation of wars or appeals on climate action, was forbidden. The result is that the WSF has become something akin to a spiritual exercise: useful for those who participate, because they emerge with more individual strength, but with no impact on the world.

This is a major handicap for a World Party. Those who would be its largest constituency in principle reject the notion of a party, which automatically creates structures of power, opens up to corruption of ideals, and leaves individuals without participation and representation. The Yellow Jackets are a sobering lesson of this. The political world has lost legitimacy, participation and young people. It is totally separated from culture, research and intellectualism. To be real, a World Party cannot be based on a few people. It must address and solve those issues.

Here, three considerations are important.

The first is that Internet has changed participation in politics. Space and time are no longer the same. Time has become fluid and short. Tweets, Facebook, etc. are much more important than the media.

Jair Bolsonaro, for example, was elected president in Brazil through social media. This is a general phenomenon, from Matteo Salvini in Italy, to the Arab Spring, to Brexit. American newspapers as a whole print 62 million copies a day. Of these, the quality papers (such as WSJ, NYT and WP) account for just 10 million copies.

Trump’s tweets have 49 million followers. We know that only four percent buy newspapers, and they look only at Fox News, which is an extension of Trump’s tweets. So, when Trump makes absurd claims – such as  that when he visited Queen Elizabeth, he could not go to the centre of London because there were so many people waiting for him that the police advised him against going, when in fact there were 200,000 people on the streets protesting his visit – those 49 million believed him blindly. The quality media publish a fact checker, which has dramatic figures about his lies and misguided truths. His followers will never read those, and if they see them they will not believe them.

We need to be able to access this kind of mobilisation. I, for one, am not able to use Twitter efficiently. And Aldo Moro, the Italian Prime Minister assassinated in 1978 by the Red Brigades (manipulated by a stronger force), would not have been able either. Politics jump from one topic to another in a short period of time. Gone is the ability to follow processes, we only follow events. And the same is happening with the media.

The second, and as a consequence of this, is that Internet has gone the wrong way as far as politics are concerned. Instead of becoming an element of participation, it has become an element of atomisation.  A whopping 73 percent of its users declare that they carve their own world, a virtual world that they can build according to their wishes. As a result, debate among people (especially young people) has waned. Users go onto the Internet, dialogue with like-minded people, and insult others. The result is that young people vote less and less, with results like Brexit, where 88 percent of adults voted compared with 23 percent of young people, who demonstrated against the result of the referendum the day after, with onlookers shouting at them: “You did not vote and now you protest?’.

The third is that there is now a divide between town and countryside, which is just the tip of the iceberg of a much more significant divide: between those who feel left out by globalisation, and think it went in favour of those living in towns, the elites (which are considered to include intellectuals), and those who have not been its victims. It is sufficient to look at where Trump obtained his voters from in 2018, with no significant support in the towns. He lost the popular vote by two million but the peculiar American voting system, a heritage of the process of unification of American states, today gives a disproportionate representation to the smaller and least developed American states. The same phenomenon was behind Brexit, and is happening all over the world.

This has led to an unprecedented situation. Those who feel left behind are now legitimised to mistrust the elites. For a long time, ignorance has been a reality in every country, but there is now the arrogance of ignorance. The Yellow Jackets revolt against the elites, with Emmanuel Macron as a symbol, is shared by the followers of Trump, Salvini, Le Pen, Bolsonero, and so on. And it is ironic that the political system, considered everywhere the main enemy, is in fact the most ignorant in modern times. Once, if the likes of Nelson Mandela, Adlai Stevenson, Olaf Palme, Salvador Allende and Aldo Moro were to have met, they would have had some books on which to base their discussions. Today, this would be highly improbable among even parliamentarians, let alone Trump, Teresa May and Angela Merkel.

This brings us to reflect on what happened to degrade politics and policy. My own reading is that there was a sum of factors, all at the same time.  The fall of the Berlin Wall led to Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative). It was the end of ideologies (the end of history), those shackles that had brought us to wars. The cry was to be pragmatist. But when politics become just the solution of a single problem, without a long-term and organic vision of the step you are taking, you are being utilitarian, which is a different perspective.

At the same time, we had the Washington Consensus among the IMF, the World Bank and the US Treasury on how to run the world. The benefits of globalisation would lift all boats. Anything which was not productive was to be curbed: social costs, education (Reagan even wanted to abolish the Department of Education) and health, which were unmovable and should be privatised. The public system, the state, all that was movable (trade, finance, industry) was to be globalised. Microeconomies were out. It took 20 years for the IMF and the World Bank to belatedly restore the role of the state as a regulator, beyond the market. But by now the genie was out of the bottle. Finance has taken its own life, over and above economic production. And the unprecedented concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands is just a symbol, which adds to the exasperation of the losers.

Also very important was the ‘Third Way’ theory of Tony Blair, who decided that because globalisation was inevitable the left could ride it and give it a human face. The result is that the left lost its constituency, and workers now vote for the new populist parties, which are growing everywhere. The left-right debate, which was largely an ideological debate, has disappeared. Why should people feel passionate about politics when it has become basically an administrative matter?

 And this brings us to the conclusion. To create a World Party, we must find a banner under which people would gather. I think that, in today’s world, the right does not need to structure. Stephen Bannon’s attempt to join all populist and xenophobe parties is valid as long they have a common enemy: Europe, multilateralism. But if you push people to nationalism and competition, it will go the way of the much-proclaimed unity between Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, who declared themselves brothers, united against the common enemy, the European Union. But as soon they come across a concrete theme, such as how to deal with immigrants, their competing interests get the better of their brotherhood. I have no doubt that the forthcoming European elections in May will see a strengthening of anti-European forces, but that will be far from the end of Europe.

This growing tide will exhaust itself, once it has become clear that the nationalists’ and xenophobes’ programme of making the national past the future will last until they take the power, and it becomes clear that they have no answers: this is what the Italian government is finding now.

Echoing Gramsci, a party should be able to rally the masses for a common goal. This goal, according to reality, should be able to interpret and rally the majority of people. Today, the common denominator has been globalisation. Many historians think that the engines for change in history have been greed and fear. Since 1989, we have been educated to greed, which has become a virtue: and since the crisis of 2008 (a direct result of greed), fear has become a powerful reality. Immigrants are now the scapegoats, when they have always been a resource. When, in American history, could a wall with Mexico have justified the longest-ever government shutdown?

What bonded people together until 1989 was values. It is enough to read any country’s Constitution to find those values: justice, solidarity, ethics, equality, law as the basis of society, and so on. Today we live in a world where nobody speaks of values (unless you take the market as a value), and least of all in the political world.  It would be an arduous challenge, but a world party should be based on values, defence of international cooperation as a guarantee of peace, and on the fact that competition and greed produce few winners, and many losers.

We must recognise that there are millions of people in the world engaged at grassroots level, hundreds of times more than the WSF. Our challenge is to connect with them, with those are working to change the current trend. This, I am afraid, is a long walk. In setting out on this walk, we must make it clear that we are not the elites, that we also consider ourselves victims sharing the same enemy. We share the same values, but can we find the language to make that connection? After all, communication is the basis for participation. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 February 2019]

Photo: This mural in Seattle’s Chinatown echoes the slogan of the World Social Forum: ‘Another world is possible’. CC BY-SA 3.0

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