Volume 5, No. 2-3, February-March 2004


The WSF or the Celebration of Dissent



Where thousands gather who are opposed to some aspect or the other of globalisation and its impact on the lives of the people there is no doubt a feel good factor amongst the crowd. The sponsors had so organised the show, so as to turn it into a carnival. Struggle, or at least preparing for it, was nowhere on their agenda. Those more serious about fighting imperialism crossed the road to the MR event.

The very inaugural session of the WSF was enough to show the nature of the WSF. Except for Arundhati Roy, all the other speakers like Shabana Azmi, the Nobel Peace laureate, Shirin Ebadi of Iran, etc. spoke in vague and non-committal terms. Generally Noble Peace Prize winners are pillars of the establishment backing US foreign policy. So it was surprising to see one such at the WSF. This year, both Bush and Blair are on the long list of suggested winners for this ‘coveted’ prize!!

Present at the WSF were about 78,000, the bulk of whom were paid-for delegates, inclusive of a so-called Japanese Peace Boat, which dropped anchor at the Mumbai port. A youth forum ran parallel to the main convention at a place about 20km from the WSF site. Officially (the actual figure would be much higher) Rs.8.5 crores were paid on the expenses for the event — this is exclusive of the delegate’s costs of travel and hotel, looked after by their respective institutions to which the delegate belonged. Many an NGO funded the travel and other costs for the peasants, dalits and other delegates that arrived at the venue. 60% of the Rs.8.5 crores came from the NGOs Oxfam (linked to the British government), Hivos and Novib (both linked to the Netherlands government), according to Gautam Modi, coordinator of the media cell of WSF.

Serious Debate or Carnival?

On the surface of it there was scope for serious debate, when in fact the bulk of the people were more involved in the carnival outside the main halls and rooms. Daily reports came in that the bulk of the halls were empty. Even Frontline reported (Feb.13, 2004): " Many of the centrally organised conferences and panel discussions — the so-called ‘big tent’ events in the large meeting halls — were rather sparsely attended. The featured speakers had been heard at earlier gatherings and themes addressed seemed to offer little in way of novelty".

So for example, on one day the newspapers reported a Hall with a seating capacity of 10,000, had barely 250 in attendance. The main Hall on the "World of Labour" central discussion had 1,000 people and the "Struggles against neo-liberalism and War" session had even less. Even the session on "Discrimination & Casteism" was sparsely attended.

Extracts from Arundhati Speech at the WSF:

Arundhati pointed out that they have to go beyond words, saying, "we must not just support the resistance in Iraq but we must become the resistance". Further she adds:

In the era in the War against Terror, poverty is being slyly conflated with terrorism. In the era of globalisation, poverty is a crime. Protesting against further impoverishment is terrorism, And now the Supreme Court says that going on strike is a crime..... Like Old Imperialism, New Imperialism too relies for its success on a network of agents — corrupt, local elites who service Empire...... Lula was the hero of the WSF last year. This year he is busy implementing IMF guidelines, reducing pension benefits and purging radicals from the Workers’ Party........ Radical change will not be negotiated by governments; it can only be enforced by people. ..... If all our energies are diverted into this process (debate) at the cost of real political action, then the WSF runs the risk of becoming an asset to the enemies. What we need to discuss urgently is strategies of resistance.


And even those that were taking place were very often drowned in the sound of drums, singing and slogan-shouting. In addition there were large number of ‘protest’ amidst the carnival, like one even against the eviction of slums in Indore. It is difficult to understand as against whom such people were demonstrating against, as no authorities were present at this venue. Not surprising, the "Free Tibet" activists, who have the backing of the US establishment, dominated the boulevard. WSF has also been open to the fanatical Proutists and Anand Margis, who have attended all the earlier events — in Mumbai they were not allowed in by the CPM.

But real demonstrations did also take place as with the dalits demonstrating against discrimination of the organisers, who claimed that all dalit stalls were allocated near the toilets. The rape scandal involving a senior judge from South Africa and a female NGO, claimed the WSF limelight for two to three full days out of the six.

So, let alone not being action oriented, the WSF was clearly not even serious about its workshops and debates.

Passivity & Reforms to the Fore

Gandhian passivity and economic/political reform were at the centre of the bulk of the discussions; whether from the ruling class ‘left’ or the NGOs. The bulk of the speakers merely called for some adjustments in the structures of the multilateral institutions, and strongly advocated their continuance. Often the views reflected that of the various rival imperialist powers.

Leading this trend was the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz {was a member of the US Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) from 1993 to 95 during Clinton rule and served as CEA chairman from 1995-97; to then become chief economist and senior vice-president of the World bank from 1997-2000}. It is being portrayed as though he was some dissident due to his resignation from the WB, supposedly over their dealing of the S.E.Asian crisis. But that crisis took place in 1997 and he resigned in 2000 — i.e. about the time Clinton left the White House.

In order to give legitimacy to the WSF, many have sought to give the impression that the major rallies in the West were WSF organised. Imanuel Wallerstein, senior Research Fellow at the Yale University and Director of the Fernand Braudel Centre, NY, said quite clearly "the Feb.15, 2003 demonstrations was not a Forum activity". Of course, to take credit for it, he added that it was "a direct result of the existence of the Forum"

Addressing a ‘big tent’ on "Aid, Trade and Debt’, he held out a real possibility of salvaging a new deal for the poor from the present global regime. He called for "institutional reform at the global level in which the multilateral agencies would not intrude into the sovereign space of a nation to decide on the social security system....". Elsewhere he frankly stated, "I support the WTO. Some rule of law is better than none". He also proposed that SDRs (Special Drawing Rights) be launched as a global currency to supposedly end the monopoly of the dollar. Surely he is not so naive as not to know that the presence of any global currency (call it with any name) is bound to witness the domination of the most prominent imperialist power of the time.

At another session Walden Bello, one of the leading lights of the WSF, went so far as to suggest as an alternative to the IMF/WB/WTO, the "strengthening of the regional axis of nations like SAARC, with a peoples’ orientation". Does he not realise that all such regional formations are done at the instance of one imperialist power or the other to consolidate their spheres of influence and markets. SAARC, for example, is nothing but a tool of Indian Expansionism, backed by the US to push for a Free Trade Area in South Asia by which Indian big business and TNCs based in India can have free access to the entire South Asian markets.

Another prominent intellectual of the WSF, George Monibet, the author of "The New Age of Discontent" was for some utopian new global apex parliament. Insted of veto rights in the UN, he proposed a new body where "a country’s weight is dependent on the size of the population and the quality of its democracy". But who is to measure the quality of democracy of any country?

On the Seminar on "Corporate Globalisation in Asia" they said that Asian countries have to develop a parallel system on par with other international agencies — like an Asian Monetary Fund and Asian Bonds. In the interests of Japanese imperialism they said that to achieve the above bilateral trade amongst Asian countries needs to be enhanced. Concluded "Japan’s recent move to sign a trade pact with the ASEAN was a positive move".

Another utopian alternative suggested, in effect, denied the people their sovereignty and their nation-state’s right to self-determination. They said that the "nation-state was an instrument of the erosion of the autonomy of several communities.... Re-constituting the centralised power of the nation-state was not the main priority; rather the marginalised committees required empowerment". This amounts to nothing but playing into the hands of the imperialists that want weak states throughout the world so that their domination is facilitated.

Then the seminar on the Housing Crisis was dominated by high-flying UN sponsored NGOs. Taking part in this was the COHRE (Housing Rights and eviction) the National Forum for Housing Rights (NFHR) and Habitat International. COHRE has official consultative status with the UN and the OAS (Organisation of American States).

Such were the mundane alternatives being suggested at the major events of the WSF. Others, by top NGOs, like Action Aid, were even worse. So, for example, Rick Rowden, policy officer of Action Aid, USA, spoke of auditing World Bank expenditures to prevent corruption.

Besides, in response to imperialist and fascist violence, there was a continuous call for "peace", rather than a call to struggle against it. Gandhi was the apostle of the WSF and his non-violence formulae were asserted again and again, notwithstanding Che’s tea-shirts all over the grounds. Such blind commitment to non-violence in the face of imperialist (particularly US) terror and war-mongering is nothing but playing into the hands of the imperialists. When resistance is called for, they talk of "PEACE".

A Who’s Who at the WSF

Unlike the earlier WSF conferences ruling class social democrats, this time played low key, avoiding the lime-light, and pushing the NGOs and others with a more acceptable face to the fore-front. But they were there in full force, steering the events, accompanied by other pillars of the establishment.

Parallel to the WSF, the World Parliamentary Forum (WPF) held a two-day convention. Nelotpal Basu of the National Coordination Committee of Legislators said that 200 parliamentarians from 25 countries attended the event, which was part of the WSF. Amongst some of those present at the WSF were the Cultural Minister from Brazil, present and past Congress Chief Ministers from India, like Sushil Kumar Shinde (Maharashtra) and Dig Vijay Singh, and a host of CPI/CPM leaders and academicians.

BBC News: 20th June 2003 - Bush praises Brazil’s Lula

The two men announced a series of joint projects ranging from energy to business development in Brazil and fighting Aids in Africa.

"Brazil is an incredibly important part of a peaceful and prosperous North and South America," Mr Bush said as he received Lula for an Oval Office meeting.

But since taking office, Lula has impressed Washington with a combination of economic discipline and an ambitious long-term programme to combat poverty in Brazil, our correspondent says.

Mr.Bush said: "This relationship is a vital and important and growing relationship."

"On a personal prospective I am very impressed by the vision of the President of Brazil. He not only has a tremendous heart, but he has got the abilities to encourage prosperity and to end hunger."

For his part, Lula spoke of a great partnership but it should, he said, be based on sincerity and trust going beyond a few occasional photo opportunities.

The Brazilian president was accompanied by no fewer than 10 cabinet ministers, in the biggest Brazil-US summit since World War II when President Frank D Roosevelt persuaded Brazil to join the war effort.

With such comradrie, it was not surprising to see Lula as the Chief Guest of the BJP on Jan 26.

There were four representatives of the French government present. For the third time in succession the French President had sent his staff to the WSF. British Labour Party MP, Jeremy Corbyn, plays an important role at such events.

At the seminar on "Democracy & Freedom of the Press" A.B.Bardhan (general secretary of the CPI), N.Ram (close to CPM) and two members of parliament from Sweden and Norway, addressed the gathering. The Youth Camp was addressed by Sitaram Yechuri (CPM PB member), Marianne Ericson, a member of the European Parliament, Lawrence Brew of the World Student Christian Federation.

Juan Somavia, the director general of the ILO (International Labour Organisation) talked of grass-roots mobilisation. Present too was the former US Attorney-General (under Clinton), Ramsey Clerk, to speak at the "World Court of Women on US war crimes".

Besides all this involvement of a host of top politicians from the ruling circles, at the WSF, there was also involvement of government representatives, such as on the discussions on WTO issues, where senior officials from Brazil and India interacted with activists.

How can a body that professes to be anti-globalisation have such a vast gathering of prominent pro-globalisation elements present, most of whom are linked to the actual policy implementation at one level of the government or the other? This is a point that requires serious "reflective thinking" for anyone who really wants to confront the ills of imperialist globalisation and war. Of course, while the anti-globalisers let off steam, beating their drums, singing and shouting slogans, these top-hats quietly go about their duty, institutionalising dissent. The safety valve has let off the steam and the pro-imperialist brew is ready for consumption, neatly dressed up in attractive anti-globalisation coating.

The opium of the WSF may drug you into peaceful slumber, to be awakened one year later for yet another round of festivities.

Organisation of Confusion

In the 4-days of the WSF-seminar schedule there were as many as 2,400 seminars, workshops, etc — i.e. 600 per day. These included the ‘big tent’ events comprising the three conferences/public meetings each day (with over 10,000 capacity) and the 10-odd panels/round tables/testimonies each day (with about 4,000 capacity). The rest of the time/space was given out to the participating organisations for the 600 seminar/workshops each day (with 200 capacity).

In the official programme chart of the WSF (which goes into 130 pages) the bulk of the ‘big tent’ events were organised by the WSF themselves or by the top NGOs and fronts of the ruling social democrats. Basically the so-called space open for others is the small rooms that accommodate up to 200. With such a jumble of hundreds of meetings going on simultaneously on some of the most irrelevant topics, it becomes difficult for the discerning public to get any coherent picture of what is going on. When, together with this you get the carnival, street plays, documentaries, etc also going on, the utter incoherence is complete.

Important topics are submerged in a torrent of irrelevant issues, the bulk being micro-level subjects of little overall relevance. To just give a sample of some of the 2,400 topics:

Day 2: Counterpoints to Violence - by APPRA (Asia-Pacific Peace Research Association); Combating Religous Intolerance through Conflict Resolution by Churches Auxilary; ChallengesFacing Sexual Rights Activism by PRISM; HIV/AIDS by Action Aid (Nigeria); South Asian Parliamentarians Forum by Pakistan Social Forum; Voices of disabled Children by CAR; Gun Control by South Asian Federalists; Role of Spirituality in Development by ERICOR; etc.

Day 3: How to Redistribute wealth and Power globally by CIDSE; Engagement with Gandhi by JP Foundation; Forum on Global Democracy by Global peoples Assembly Movement; Human values and Building a Sustainable Society by Art of Living; The role of NGO in the Public Debate by coordination Sud; Tribals may have enough to eat by Churches Auxiliary; Dance in a different Body by Apae; Giving voice to Global Democracy by International Movement for a Just World; How to use UNCTAD?; Lesbian Activism in a patriarchal society by Aanchal Trust; United Nations Reform; Child Rights by PAIRM; Sustainable Tourism by ECOT; Sexual Rights by CREA; etc

Day 4: Future of Self-help and Co-operation by TN Science Forum; Grassroots Democracy for Women in Governance by MRA; Women in Conflict and Peace Building by ActionAid (Great Lakes); Links between Trade and Ecological Debt by World Council of Churches; Consideration for Animals, a social justice issue by PETA; Education to Deprived by RSD; fighting Tax Evasion by Attac, Germany; The non-violent Peace-force; conflicts Resolutions and Peace Making by National Council of Churches in India; etc.

Day 5: Survival of Indigenous People by NAPM & Others; HIV Aids: The Global Challenge by ActionAid, Africa; Building Links for Socialist Renewal by Links; Cuba: Another world is Possible by Intal; Moving from Agitation to Political Change by Peoples Rights Movement; Securing Just Peace by ActionAid, Asia; Religious Resources to Overcome Violence by the World Council of Churches; Women & Water by Diverse Women for Diversity; Building a New World through Research by SNDT; Children role on the Peace Process by Secours Catholique, The Workshop of Thinking by 36,6 Foundation, etc.

Within these hundreds of workshops on such issues every day (where organisations like ActionAid and Attac themselves had about 20 each and where Church organisations were extensively represented), the handful of workshops by the ‘revolutionaries’ and progressives was a mere drop in the ocean, having little or no impact. Added to this, given the fact of the WSF carnival atmosphere, even these discussions were the least important event — sparsely attended and non-serious. With such a pattern of discussions it makes meaningful intervention difficult. Together with a lack of transparency of the top-brass in the decision-making procedure, the real democratic ‘space’ as idealised by the orgnisers is not that real as made out. And when this ‘space’ extends to a host of imperialist themselves (or their spokesmen) it becomes all the more suspect.

A Potent Mix

Whether the WSF exists or not, the danger is more deep-rooted. The vast NGO network throughout the world, together with the existence of ruling-class social democratic parties, acts to diffuse the discontent of the masses that continues to rise due to the worsening living conditions of the masses under globalisation. Now the fusion of these two reactionary streams into the WSF provides a Potent Mix, particularly for the progressive intellectual — a postmodernist anarchy of ideas, interwoven with a ‘left’/socialist rhetoric. This potent mix acts as an effective wall against the revolutionary that seeks to impact this scenario — if one talks socialism it is dismissed as old fashioned and anyway their social democrats are already saying so (therefore, in their eyes, it is nothing new); if one talks ‘modern’ (say like subcomandante Marcos), the danger is doing so, at the cost of ideology.

So today, to carry revolutionary Marxist (i.e. Maoist) ideas amongst this section of the masses effectively, it not only requires a higher level of ideological content used creatively to the current situation (not in the standard stereotypes), but also a clear line of demarcation from the social democrats, with some lessons drawn from the failures of the earlier socialist experiments.




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