Beyond the Tyranny of Blueprints: WSF as Experimental Form

Published earlier in Social Action, Vol 54, April-June 2004

Shortly after the World Social Forum (Mumbai 2004) I came across an article by Cecilie Surasky, an American Jew, posted on a discussion list by a friend from Amsterdam. The article was startlingly entitled “Anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum?” and naturally invited one to read it immediately. It transpired that the author was the Communications Director of an organization called “Jewish Voice for Peace” that works for a peaceful and democratic resolution of the Palestinian problem and is therefore, also anti-Zionist. She was writing from within the specific context of a well-known but disturbing trend in Jewish politics, particularly in the US. A glimpse of this troubling context is provided by the fact that important voices among Jews, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in particular (which has been known for its important work in hunting down Nazi criminals worldwide), has been portraying the World Social Forum (WSF) “as one of the centers of the ‘new anti-Semitism'”.

Surasky further reports that “these charges have been picked up by various journalists as evidence of a dangerous new trend on the left.” The SWC had described the atmosphere at the third WSF in Brazil the previous year as “anti-Jewish”, according to her. She therefore landed up at Mumbai to check out first hand: “I have come to the WSF to be loudly and visibly Jewish…and to see for myself this purported new tidal wave of hatred of Jews from the rest of the global left.” The actual event of course, turned out to be something entirely different and if anything, Surasky ended up making some of the most moving friendships with many Arabs. Her account of these friendships in the article is quite touching in itself. What was most amazing for her, however, was that on return she found that the SWC had published an article on the WSF in the Jerusalem Post, entitled “Networking to Destroy Israel”. It further claimed that the WSF Mumbai event had been hijacked by “anti-American, anti-Israel forces”. As Surasky puts it, it became clear that many of these propagandist accounts made practically no distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism or in fact, any criticism of Israel.

The important thing about the WSF however, was that it provided a space to some one like Cecilie Surasky, a “come out” Jew, as she puts it, to meet, exchange notes and make friends with people from the Arab world. So did it to the innumerable others who have so far only known about the ‘Other’ through representations by propaganda machines like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and their Arab counterparts – or through the US media. This is of course, one small episode in the big event called the WSF. But the WSF is actually made up of literally thousands of such episodes. It was an occasion where the displaced Tibetans – supporters of the Dalai Lama – could move about prominently, distributing their literature, making friends and allies from different parts of the world. It was an occasion where the Dalit groups of India could make their voice heard before a vast gathering of people who were all fighting for their own liberation from oppressions of different kinds.

There were adivasi groups from different parts of India speaking about their lives and there were different groups of environmentalist/ ecological movements raising issues of ecological destruction, and mass displacement. There were people of the sexualities movements moving around distributing their own literature, holding their own sessions, demonstrating for their cause. As a delegate, Rahul Rao put it in another electronic discussion list:
“In this regard, an event organized by Rainbow Planet (17/1) represented – for me – everything that was right about the WSF. Organized as a space for people of alternative sexualities in which to celebrate their difference, it featured testimonials by ‘ordinary’ people speaking about the joy and struggle of being queer. These were not academics, policymakers, NGO careerists or people speaking in any sort of formal representational capacity. They were simply individuals speaking for and about themselves as lesbians, sex workers, hijras.”

The militant Dalit presence in the Asia Social Forum (ASF) in Hyderabad, held in January 2003, had already been quite impressive. This time round it was like a veritable storm that took the WSF by surprise and I heard left-wing activists from Europe and America speak about their experience of attending their sessions and watching their demonstrations with a certain degree of awe. More important however, is the fact that within India, in the period of the preparation for the ASF to the WSF event, the process itself facilitated the development of closer relations between different movement groups; new spaces of dialogue have opened up. To take just one instance, the relations between the Dalit groups and the environmentalist groups have not always been very easy. The latter’s insistence on preservation of traditional livelihoods cannot but arouse deep anxieties among Dalit groups and this is one of the reasons that they view any such suggestion with a great degree of suspicion. As a consequence, they rarely, if ever, come to the same event. However, this was a space where they could participate alongside and open up some spaces of conversation. The deep divisions between these different standpoints cannot of course, be ‘resolved’ in the course of a single event – or even many events, for that matter. Yet, it is important that many possibilities of dialogue and interlocution have opened up. We are beginning to appreciate each other’s specific problems and understand the complexity of the different issues involved.

Take another instance. Once again, I quote Rahul Rao, this time on the sense of being South Asian. “No one could have missed the rich symbolism of Indo-Pakistani solidarity at the opening and closing plenaries and indeed through all six days of the WSF”, says Rahul and continues: “Being South Asian is something I have never really experienced in any tangible, meaningful sense. The very identity has always struck me as vague and amorphous – something that can only be experienced at a great distance in London or New York and certainly meaning less and less to me the closer I get to South Asia.” But who could have missed the magic of the moment when this bond suddenly emerged with all its force and power? He continues: “But sitting on the maidan at the opening ceremony surrounded by Bangladeshis, listening to Junoon perform on a Bombay stage brought a lump to my throat.” If Cecilie Surasky made friends with Arab men and women, we were doing the same, defying artificial borders, with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

This was the WSF. A moment of connection. A moment of understanding each other. A moment of forging friendships and solidarities. Friendships and solidarities proscribed by state and nationalist elites. Friendships proscribed by fascists and revolutionaries alike: friendships across borders, friendships between men and women, between men and men and women and women, between Pakistanis and Indians, between Jews and Muslims, between Israelis and Arabs, between displaced Tibetans and Dalits…The WSF…a moment of “reflective thinking and debate”, as its charter puts it.

But where is the struggle against globalization and imperialism in all this? A shrill voice tears through this magical moment, tearing it to shreds…or so it thought. Whose voice is it? “Civil servants of the Truth” and “bureaucrats of the revolution” French philosopher Michel Foucault had once called them. This is not the time, they proclaim, to engage in idle chatter and reflective thinking. It is the time for action, they aver. The English media, completely sold out to globalization, called the WSF a talk shop. So did the bureaucrats of the revolution. They wanted “a blueprint” – a script written in advance, according to which they will mould the world. Talking, reflecting and exchanging ideas is useless activity – apparently a waste of time. Everything must be laid out – in black and white. It must be laid out because it is already there, readymade and clear as daylight. If you cannot see it – this blueprint of the future – then it is because you do not have the access to Truth. Truth, that is One and Indivisible, to which only those with the magic wand can have access. “Another World is Possible” (the main slogan of the WSF) is too amorphous an idea. Ambiguity and amorphousness cannot be allowed. Neither state elites, nor fascists and revolutionaries can tolerate ambiguities. You are either man or woman; black or white; Hindu or Muslim; Pakistani or Indian; bourgeois or revolutionary: you are either for or against…And you must state it now. Right now.

This is a debate that has been thrown open and it is important to enter it. It is important to enter this discussion here, for it has serious consequences for the future. Is the WSF a movement, a platform for action? Must it become one? What is the meaning of “having a blueprint”? Why does the WSF explicitly forbid action and joint declarations from its platform? This is a question that is not only posed by the bureaucrats, but has also animated many who did participate in the WSF. I remember at least one speaker in the opening session make a plea for some sort of common action. I also remember discussing one evening outside one of the tents with friends who thought too, that there should have been at least one big common slogan against the Hindu Right and the War on Iraq.
Parenthetically, we may note that the solution to this problem exists within the very format of the WSF. We have the freedom as participants to carry any banner with any slogan that reflects the broad ethos of the WSF; there is no need to get it ratified by any superior authority like the organizing committee etc. But the idea that there should be a common call for action seems so innocuous and innocent. Yet this is precisely where the problem lies. This is the thin edge of the wedge, for behind this apparently innocent demand for action lies a whole set of practices and assumptions that have guided – or misguided – radical movements through the twentieth century. The problem here arises not because forging of larger solidarities and going in for common actions is by itself problematic. On the contrary, they are what we all aspire to. What is really problematic is the idea that common action and solidarities are only possible on the basis of a common programme or a blueprint. Every party on the Left worth its salt wants unity – but under its tutelage, with a blueprint drawn up by it (which effectively means its leaders). The logical form of such an argument for unity and common action is worth uncovering. It runs something like this:

Proposition 1: If you are seriously opposed to globalization (not necessarily corporate globalization but globalization, per se), then you must fight it.
Proposition 2: If you seriously want to fight it, then you must have a clear set of statements about its destructive impact on people’s lives and an equally clear set of statements about what you want. In other words, you must have a declaration that puts things clearly in perspective.
Proposition 3: If you want the declaration to be clear and unambiguous, then you must entrust its drafting to those who know best. Clearly the 100, 000 people assembled in the NESCO grounds in Goregaon, Mumbai cannot all sit together to draft a declaration.

Does it still sound quite unexceptionable? Let us follow the logic it a bit more, in that case. A declaration or a programme is above all a matter of “a line”. And the struggle for “the correct line” has seen people being eliminated in their millions through the twentieth century. That is how important it is – this desire for the purity of “the line” – to revolutionaries when they are in power. When they are not in power, they split. Pure revolutionaries cannot be in the same movement with the impure: the Dalits, the feminists, the ecological movements, the gays and lesbians, and so on. Their presence makes things too amorphous. That is why every revolutionary sect that claims to “fight” and “resist”, ends up splitting many times over. Once they have parted ways with the undesirable, non-revolutionary, non-class social movements like the ones mentioned above, they can only split among themselves. So what is a magical gathering of over a 100, 000 people can be split into thousands of little sects all over again, if the WSF were to ever become a platform of action.

People from different social and political currents, with different immediate agendas, come into the WSF space to make connections, to forge solidarities, so that they can return to their respective battlefields with a new sense of working in synergy; with a sense that they are part of a growing worldwide community whose fate has been thrown together and at some level they must also fight Empire, fight corporate globalization – for that alone will expand the space for their own struggles. That alone will create the possibilities of a world where no friendships are banned; a world that is free of caste oppression, patriarchy, homophobia, racism, ecological degradation… They do not come to the WSF to say: “let us all forget caste, race, patriarchy and simply fight corporate globalization.” There is no trade-off possible here. On the contrary, they seem to say that “we come to the WSF precisely because we do not want to forget any of these struggles, nor subordinate any of them to any grand revolutionary design prepared by powerful men sitting in these proposed boardrooms of dissent.” Yet, that is precisely what a common call for action demands: the prioritization of one struggle, one question, over all the others. “Let us fight the common enemy now and not divide our ranks with divisive issues”. Does it sound familiar? This was the clarion call of Balgangadhar Tilak and his henchmen when they threatened to burn down the pandal of the Indian Social Conference in the last years of the 19th century, because the Social Conference discussed “divisive issues” like caste and women’s oppression.

So, who drafts the final declarations and the calls for action? If all 100,000 people cannot sit together to do so (and clearly they cannot), then who does? Representatives? Who selects these representatives? What about the majority of people present who come as individuals and who do not want to be represented? Look at the history of struggle in the past century to get an answer. Let us begin at home. The Bihar and Gujarat movements of the mid 1970s were spontaneous struggles, fought by common people but the various sangharsha samitis that were formed were packed with opportunity seeking political party activists. They decided and the people fought. When peasant struggles like the Telengana and Tebhaga movements of the 1940s were fought, were the ordinary peasants ever in a situation to decide the course of the movement? The decision to withdraw the Telengana movement had to be taken in Moscow, after a delegation of the united communist party went there for consultations in 1951. We can go on with instances from across the world. Everywhere, from the smallest to the largest movements, there is a pattern. Delegation and representation become the very mechanisms of the negation of democracy, as MN Roy pointed out long ago.

The WSF took shape in the context of the emergence of some very different kinds of movements – movements like those inaugurated by ‘Seattle’ in 1999. These movements are characterized by open horizontal communication directly among participants and with no hierarchical organizational structure to guide them. These movements in fact reflect the growing synergy among different sectional struggles and are predicated upon the mutual acceptance of the equal status of all participants. This may have its weaknesses: it cannot act as “efficiently” as a bureaucratic revolutionary machine but it is worthwhile experimenting with these new emergent forms, given our experience with the former. If only for this reason, it is important not to be lured by the impetuous calls to action and the revolutionary phrase. It is necessary to remind ourselves that it was for this historical reason that the WSF was conceived as a “mere space” for connecting and getting to know each other.

The WSF is a new form – a new political form that needs to be thought through more seriously. Its strengths need to be developed even while we try to find ways of overcoming some of its weaknesses. Probably, we need to think of the WSF as a form of carnival, a festival of the movements, rather than a movement itself. The movements that are going on outside are what give it its strength. It does not need to replace them. It does not even need to become a decision-making body spewing out radical declarations. The “sad militants”(Foucault) do not understand the power of the carnival, of the joy of connection, the power of being together. That is what the WSF provides today. However, no form should be seen as final and fully developed. The WSF too is a form in emergence. It too has its life and will like every other form have its own death. If in the course of its life it enables the forging of larger solidarities and connections, it will have played its role in giving some shape to the forces of social transformation.

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