|Mobilising 'World Opinion' - The Movement of all Movements|
A detailed examination of the global justice movement as a representation of public opinion through the activities and objectives of the World Social Forum movement, whose ubiquitous slogan is 'another world is possible'.
Mobilising 'World Opinion' - The Movement of All Movements
27th July 2007
Written by Adam W Parsons
Edited by Rajesh Makwana
Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are left wondering what’s next after the hollow promises made at Gleneagles for ‘more and better aid’ have proven to be an irreverent smokescreen at the latest G8 summit; environmental issues are becoming more fashionable and yet protracted than the campaigns against poverty and unfair trade; whilst the peace movement is being widely condemned as “politically impotent” and prone to collapse. There is no doubting amongst pundits that “the crisis is clear,” that a better world “is possible” and that a humbling of the White House “is necessary”, but for the first time since ‘alter globalisation’ became a phrase there is an embryonic but definite note of recognition on the required direction for change.
The conception of a ‘movement of all movements’ evolved out of the historic Battle of Seattle in 1999 that gave birth to the official struggle against corporate globalisation, along with the realisation that, without a common agenda, the necessary global alliance of causes would remain a disparate ambition. Following a year and a half of protests against the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the first World Social Forum (WSF) in Brazil was billed, in Naomi Klein’s words, as “an opportunity for this emerging movement to stop screaming about what it is against and start articulating what it is for.”
The result was a passionate, loud and ostensibly confused affair with an undefined set of outcomes under the slogan "Another World is Possible" - hundreds of simultaneous activist workshops debating a gamut of social issues, the term ‘pro-democracy’ adopted instead of the aggressive stance of antiglobalisation, but certainly no single, united voice for change, nor any blueprints for action or strategies for reform. “What was strange was that we weren’t cheering for a specific other world, just the possibility of one,” wrote Klein in 2001; “We were cheering for the idea that another world could, in theory, exist.”
World Social Forum Charter of Principles
The World Social Forum Charter of Principles that followed were understandably detached from setting forth any uniform set of political demands; it was agreed that “it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society,” and that no-one will be authorised “to express positions claiming to be those of all its participants,” remaining principally as a “framework for the exchange of experiences”, a “forum of debate”, and a “movement of ideas that prompts reflection.”
The WSF slogan adopted in 2001 remained the marching song of all ensuing Forums across the globe; in 2002, Arundhati Roy famously said; “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing...” although by 2003, at the European Social Forum (ESF) in Paris, a common vision of what this world might look like was far from surfacing; the phrase ‘alter globalisation’ may well have been coined, coming from the French term alternmondialism (to indicate a “new form” of globalisation based on human development, international cooperation and social justice in place of purely economic concerns), but as for a professed “call of the assembly of social movements” to forge an answer as to the question ‘how to get there’, the best that three days of more than 500 meetings could offer was a long list of perceived wrongs, a vigorous protest diary, a restatement of known positions, and the creation of “an informal network” amongst European NGOs.
Three years and more than a dozen social forums later, the criticisms and appraisals of the burgeoning ‘brainchild of social movements’ are remarkably unchanged; attendance levels may have grown from 20,000 in 2001 to more than 150,000 at the 2005 gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil, reflecting the amassing hunger for pluralism and convergence amongst the broad-based network of grassroots organisations spread in their countless thousands across the world, but the basic criticism is still repeated that the WSF is in effect an “annual festival with limited social impact” and a “forum of ideas with no agenda for action.”
WSF is at a ‘Crossroads’
The entire movement is “at a crossroads,” wrote Waldon Bello, Executive Director of Focus on the Global South and one of the most notable strategic thinkers within the WSF, after the “disappointing” seventh Forum in Nairobi this year. Whilst acknowledging the critical functions for global civil society that the Forum performs, not least in providing a site and space to debate the “visions, values and institutions of an alternative world order built on a real community of interests,” he also underlined the need for a “common strategy while drawing strength from and respecting diversity.” If the Forum is unable to anchor itself in “actual global political struggles”, he reflected, “...is it time for the WSF to fold up its tent and give way to new modes of global organisation of resistance and transformation?”
The consequent question, seldom pondered by commentators, is what would such a “new mode” of resistance look like, what characteristics would it entail, and what form of “global organisation” does it require?
This climactic debate on the future of the Forum, more broadly significant as a symbiotic discussion of where the global justice movement is going as a whole, was further illustrated in the first US Social Forum held in Atlanta in June; the event, with around 10,000 people attending almost 1,000 workshops held in disparate hotels around the city, was noteworthy for omitting any left-wing celebrities from the plenaries, as well as for excluding large multinational NGOs and political parties from the planning committee as in previous Forums. It was also inarguably successful as a “snapshot of the progressive forces that will ultimately shape national and international politics”, but the old concerns over the coordinated effectiveness of the movement were again repeated - that a ‘democratic deficit’ still exists within the movement itself, and that the plethora of issues represented make it hard to articulate what is required on a local and regional level, let alone on a national or global scale.
One reviewer enthusiastically saw the “global alternative” to corporatisation as a new world that “can exist (antagonistically) within the already existing world,” implying an island of social justice in an otherwise sea of poverty and inequality, perhaps reflecting the sense of inertia and lack of alternatives that lies behind the banner of an opaque but “possible” other world. “For seven years we have built a global consciousness,” says Thomas Ponniah (co-editor of Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum); “The question is, what next?” It is a question that will inevitably grow louder as the planned series of fragmented and localised Forums take place next year along with the much-anticipated Social Forum of the Americas, before the next WSF resumes in two years time.
The ‘Open-Space’ Debate
In a response to Waldon Bello’s demurrals over the necessary vehicle for social change, Chico Whitaker, another prominent representative on the International Council of the WSF in Brazil, countered that the Social Forum from its inception was considered an “open space” for debate and discussion as opposed to a self-defining “movement”, and that any proposals for action “should be reserved specifically for civil society.” Her contention that the WSF still has a vital role to play in terms of “communicating with the world” the message that another world is indeed “possible” is unquestionably true, but this doesn’t countermand the important issue of what the “movement” actually is, where it is going, and how it needs to be mobilised if any prescriptions for political-economic reform are ever to be achieved. If the World Social Forum is not a “movement” that can determine or organise a strategy of ‘counter-power’ and political change, then what will?
The origins of popular protest are generally traced back to the ‘people power’ successes of the later 1980s, characterised by peaceful and spontaneous insurrections against autocratic governments. Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and a renowned scholar on nonviolent social movements, has catalogued in detail why armed insurgencies are proving less effective than mass public action; “The moral power of nonviolence,” he writes, “is crucial in the ability of an opposition movement to reframe the perceptions of key parties: the public, political elites, and the military, most of whom have no difficulty supporting the use of violence against violent insurrections.” Citing the example of the South African struggle against apartheid, nonviolent resistance is not only successful in dividing the status quo and immobilising government troops, he says, but also in “challenging the attitudes of an entire nation and even foreign actors.” The late 1980s is often referred to as the greatest era of revolution this world has ever seen, with the unimagined events of 1989 – the toppling of the Soviet empire amidst the emancipation of Hungary, Czechoslavakia, Poland, East Germany and the fateful student uprising in Tiananmen Square – as comparable to 1789 or 1848.
‘People Power’ Successes
Despite these unqualified turnarounds led by civil society, wider questions are now being asked of their lasting effect in the post-Clinton era. This is best illustrated in the country that coined the phrase ‘people power’ in 1986; after the peaceful overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship in the Philippines, the public were not only fighting for the ballot box, but “for food on their table, a roof on their head, a job to earn a living – things which the post-1986 political order has not been able to deliver to the vast majority of Filipinos.” More than twenty years later, 57% of Filipinos still consider themselves poor, almost identical to the 55% who did in 1983, whilst 20% remain unemployed, around 2,000 people leave the country each day to search for work abroad, and the lowest 20% earners earn a mere 5% of the wealth – exactly the same statistic as in 1985. While academics dub the constitution as “democracy lite” or a “polyarchy” rather than truly participative, another people-power-type uprising took place in 2001, only to be replaced by elite factions and more instances of corruption, vote-rigging, and an ever-renewing political crisis.
The analysis of ‘people power’ successes becomes more complicated when considering non-violent movements against U.S.-backed governments, resulting in counterinsurgency strategies such as ‘low-intensity conflicts’ to retain some measure of legitimacy for the government, counter-elite plots and stage-managed elections to preserve the current political order in line with U.S. economic interests, or the inimical power of transnational institutions such as the International Monetary Fund which, as Zunes argues, “can essentially determine the economic policies of newly democratic countries and hold them responsible for debts accumulated by previous dictatorships.” Nonviolent movements may be victorious in enhancing civil and political rights in a country, but “such movements may be unable to improve people’s social and economic rights.”
People Power Fatigue
This is the crux of the emergency facing the global justice movement as a whole, solely united on the basic cause – as defined in the first principle of the World Social Forum Charter – of non-violently opposing neo-liberalism and the “domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism.” Until this indefinable ‘movement’ can by unified intercontinentally for greater humanitarian causes than simply the ousting of repressive rulers, the phrase ‘people power’ will continue to be replaced in newspaper commentaries with ‘people power fatigue’.
A second form of people power emerged on January 1st, 1994, when an indigenous army walked out of the remote Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, in Mexico’s poorest and southernmost state, and staged a revolution in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that came into effect that day. The Zapatistas, taking their name from an earlier Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, became a global symbol for the ideal of a non-violent ‘war’ against corporate globalisation through the means of civil society support and international solidarity; the Zapatista struggle, visioning a truly democratic and ‘bottom-up’ political system that prioritises human rights over economic growth, set the pace for later transnational protests at meetings of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Economic Forum (WEF) and the annual G8 summits.
Arguments once fought out in the pages of academic journals, easily dismissed by the well-paid staff of multilateral financial institutions, were now being fought out on the city streets, as outlined in an Irish Times commentary from 2000; “The last two decades have seen the dominance of a narrow, individualistic economic ideology whose inspiration can be summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s classic phrase that there is no such thing as society. We are now witnessing the revolt of that society, demanding that its needs be taken into account and challenging the assumptions that giving greater freedom to market forces results in a better quality of life for all.”
Democracy Movement Across Latin America
This crossover of politically motivated and economically-focused grassroots struggles has become embodied within the rise of the “democracy movement” across Latin America, especially since the election of Evo Morales in early 2006, the first indigenous President in the mostly indigenous nation of Bolivia. In a stretch of countries from Mexico to Chile, once governed by military juntas, dictators, and terror regimes, many see the pictures of thousands of empowered South Americans in the streets as a beacon of hope in the fight against neoliberal globalisation and First World economic hegemony.
One of the most paradoxical phenomenon accompanying the rapid growth in grassroots movements, and arguably the greatest barrier faced in effectively mobilising public support for global justice issues, is a parallel mass withdrawal from politics and a deepening sense of apathy in the richest nations. Rick Wolff, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, traces the roots of this “broken relationship between the mass of people and politics” to the decline of the welfare state; from the 1930s, governments did not merely talk about serving the public, but became more involved with caring for people than ever before; “Beyond unemployment insurance, social security and government jobs, a widespread feeling arose that governments could, should, and would serve peoples’ basic human needs.” The result of neoliberal policies from the 1970s meant that fewer people received public services whilst privatisation took the “basic issues of life” out of the government’s realm of activity, leading to “disappointment, disgust, and disengagement.” As a consequence, only those mobilised around these issues stay in politics, whilst the remaining population loses interest or becomes only momentarily involved by the glut of television adverts preceding elections, meaning that the politician with the most funding has the greatest chance of winning. Politics for the rest of us, says Wolff, is a “spectator sport suffering declining interest.”
Celebrity Culture and Global Justice
Mass campaigns headed by non-governmental and civil society organisations such as Live 8 and Make Poverty History, whilst undoubtedly all “positive expressions of an emerging democratic globalisation,” are forced to manipulate celebrity and music culture to engage the global public on issues of “shared humanitarian responsibility”, as opposed to relying on any established institutions or structures. The reasons for the undermining of citizens’ faith in the efficacy of democratic government have long been debated and catalogued in the forums of Open Democracy; the reach of multinational corporations, the influence of a few powerful states and unaccountable international institutions, the weakness of the United Nations as a force for positive government, the remoteness of governance of the European Union, the cynicism and populism of the corporately-owned media, and increasingly the monstrous threats of climate change.
In an age that pays idolatry to supposed ‘democracy’, the democratic claim of universal equality is harshly mocked by “the intensification of global inequalities that marked the end of the 20th century”, not to mention the endlessly commented hypocrisy of the Bush administrations championing of warfare in the name of ‘freedom’. Add to this a widespread distrust of radical alternatives to capitalism with the outmoded rhetoric of ‘power’ and ‘revolution’, a fear that is expertly reinforced by the mainstream reporting of large-scale protests, then the limited means of garnering popular support for international issues can be readily perceived; the global public are long since disillusioned with politics, turned off by televised images of violent demonstrations, increasingly chary of making donations to distant causes without any end, and rightly suspicious of any movement that begins with an ‘anti’ or ends with an ‘ism’. The militant Left, historically privileged with the badge of honour when it comes to social transformation, are being forced to realise - like the Zapatistas - that the magnitude of our challenge requires a great worldwide movement never heretofore seen, not with bloody courageous violence or with the pointing of a gun, but with the peaceful, implacable joining of minds who finally recognise that “they need us more than we need them.”
World Opinion: the New Superpower
It required the spontaneous assembling of millions of ‘ordinary people’ during the Iraq anti-war demonstrations to begin questioning this “new superpower”  in global affairs: world opinion. The protests themselves may have been subject to the usual criticisms of strewn “debris and confusion”, a carnival atmosphere, and tacitly racist messages next to lewd or silly slogans, but the fact remained that history was made on 15th February 2003, that no previous political demonstration in even the UK had been larger than half a million people, let alone the dependable estimated turnout of 1.8 million, three times bigger than anything before. With a “racially-mixed middle England composition” including grandparents and everyday families, the crowds were not only protesting against the lies of politicians and the ignominy of an illegal war, it appeared, but against the uncontrolled prioritising of greed and economic dominance over human lives, and an unvoiced prescient sensing of worse to come.
World opinion, often defined as a product of the end of the cold war, was first evidenced in the ending of apartheid in South Africa, the formidable campaign against landmines, and the ongoing demands to cancel Third World debt. Such spontaneous outpourings of public goodwill as the response to the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004, or the compelling of the Queen of England to have a civic procession as part of Princess Diana’s funeral, are also part of its manifestation; world opinion, in this literal sense, is not a ‘movement’ at all, but rather a “public space” within which everyone - from the journalist to the bureaucrat, the student to the housewife - can make up their mind, as reasoned by the commentator Anthony Barnett in his formative article of 2003.
Mass protests and demonstrations, the trademark and personification of the global justice movement, must take place outside the systems of power and hope to make themselves 'heard' through the media to influence and shape policy; world opinion, on the other hand, is an unmitigated force of consensual mass agreement that holds no party allegiances or crystallised form. "I am describing something new, still uninformed and open,” wrote Barnett, “how will it balance emotion or reason? Can it sustain itself? Is it really beyond fashion and the moods of the mob? Is there just one world opinion?” The Social Forums, he adds, can only seek to influence or inspire the impalpable, intervallic cycles of world opinion that “exists in different ways in different places” and constitutes a substantive force of change.
How Live Earth Failed
This reshaping of our conception of ‘the movement’ was reiterated in the current example of the Live Earth pop concerts, the purported “most mass marketed show of celebrity activism in history.” Although Bob Geldof was typically crass in his rebuff that “We are all ****ing conscious of global warming,” he also encapsulated an important criticism; that popular awareness of a critical global issue is ultimately powerless until it galvanises action through world opinion. “This could be a revolution if it were a mass rally with clear political objectives,” said George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network. “Imagine millions of people taking to the streets around the world with a coherent agenda for slashing greenhouse gas emissions. But it is not. It is a rock concert with climate infomercials spliced between bands singing about the people they fancy.”
Al Gore’s vision of first ‘getting their attention’ is eminently tactical, as well as the seven-point pledge calling on governments to agree, within two years, an international treaty that cuts global warming pollution by 90 per cent in developing countries, and by more than half worldwide; “the climate crisis offers us the chance to experience what few generations in history have had the privilege of experiencing,” he said recently; “a generational mission: a compelling moral purpose: a shared cause.” It would indeed be churlish to knock Live Earth, as one campaigner put it, but it is still valuable to examine how we will embrace Gore’s professed “genuine moral and spiritual challenge” to prioritise the reduction of carbon emissions when considering a world in which four million people are starving to death, billions lack access to clean drinking water, and 50,000 die needlessly each day from poverty.
One of the most widespread criticisms of Live Earth was its tacit endorsement of “minimal and tokenistic behaviours as proof of our virtue,” the ‘replace your light bulbs’ response to climate change that underlines our “patterns of collective denial” and fails to address the fundamental problem: that ‘individual action’ will remain largely futile until the new forms of global governance are debated and a more equitable, rationalised and unbiased economic system is eventually introduced. “The most important thing you can do is get involved in the political process and get rid of these corporate toadies,” said Robert Kennedy Jr. at the New York concert, advice which may have been more readily applicable, if ironic, than the rousing words from Al Gore.
A commentary by the author Mark LeVine, entitled Why Live Earth Will Fail, also revealed how the organisers left grassroots activists out of the conversation, those at the forefront of the struggles against climate change and environmental degradation, hence reproducing a top-down and “relatively painless” notion of activism that refuses to make clear the obvious links between global warming and the economic policies of the Bush Administration, along with the other First World governments who support “war and dictatorships to ensure our access to oil.” LeVine might be essentially correct in his virulent summation that “They”, meaning the corporations, political elites and those who materially benefit from the existing system, will do “whatever is necessary – lie, cheat, steal, oppress, exploit, murder and wage war – to maintain control of a world economy that sees half the world living on $2 per day or less while inequality and poverty increase in line with the amount of CO2 in the air, in order to continue to reap their huge salaries and bonuses and maintain their stranglehold on power.”
A Truly Grassroots Democratic Platform
Whilst Live Earth may have succeeded in augmenting and synthesising a worldwide ‘awareness’ of the need for humanity to join together and avert mass catastrophe, it arguably failed to understand or effectively utilise the necessary power of world opinion. “People will get excited by seeing their favourite acts and may learn that climate change is a problem,” reads the ‘About Us’ description of Alive Earth, the alternative web-based production that spanned the same hours as the international pop concerts; “But will they feel challenged. Will they feel angry. Will they feel involved in a global movement against climate change? We are less sure.” As the organisers of Alive Earth pointedly recognised - that people will not change “when they are told what to do: they need to feel supported and personally involved” - the key principle of world opinion is that it cannot be directed, commanded, or placed within somebody else’s opinion of what actions ‘must’ be taken.
World opinion may not be a ‘movement’ of itself, but from this consensual global responsiveness an overarching vehicle of beneficent influence has the potential to be borne. “In all the years I’ve been a journalist, I’ve never know public consciousness to have risen as fast as it’s rising today,” said John Pilger in a recent speech, adding that “this growing critical public awareness is all the more remarkable when you consider the sheer scale of indoctrination, the mythology of a superior way of life, and the current manufactured state of fear.” As we have witnessed in the fateful consequences of the Iraq war, the irresistible weight of world opinion is often prophetic and seldom wrong; what this “second superpower” still awaits is a truly grassroots, democratic platform that can activate the process of its organisation, not a nebulous banner of what is “possible” without delineation.
The Social Forums have revealed the lesson, over more than six years, of too many causes and not enough action, whilst displaying the promise of horizontal networking and unprecedented collective empowerment; the astonishing successes of ‘people power’ have also shown, over more than 20 years, that resolute and peaceful protesters can be more indomitable than autocrats or warmongers; and after two decades of mass non-governmental campaigns, from Live Aid in 1985 to Live Earth in 2007, we have the evidence of an untapped, international basin of goodwill that requires only its own expression instead of the top-down directives coming from celebrities, pop stars and ex-politicians.
Corporate globalisation, without any ready alternatives till today, has now the challenge of an emerging newborn influence that knows no national or racial barriers or religious differences. As individuals we may feel separated, impotent and unimportant, but as part of a transnational movement with a selective petition of demands – based on the simple, human principles of cooperation, sharing and justice – we may find ourselves in a position to definitely shape world affairs. The prospective rapidity of worldwide changes could reasonably prove, if the Two-Thirds majority world realise the power of joining hands, beyond the erstwhile dreams of even the late Mahatma and Luther King.
 Naomi Klein. A Fete for the End of the End of History (The Nation, 19th March 2001)
 See review by Sanjay Suri. European Social Forum: Another World, But How? (Inter Press Service, 18th October 2004)
 Waldon Bello. The World Social Forum at the Crossroads (Foreign Policy in Focus, 8th May 2007)
 Michael Leon Guerrero, US Social Forum – What Another U.S. Might Look Like (Yes Magazine, 15th May 2007)
 See, for example, Max Uhlenbeck. A Light Within the Heart of Empire: the 2007 US Social Forum (MRZINE, June 2007)
 Jason Del Gandio, The US Social Forum: Creating an Alternative World (dissidentvoice.org, 9th July 2007)
 Quoted in Anthony Barnett. The Three Faces of the World Social Forum (OpenDemocracy.org, 30th January 2007)
 Chico Whitaker. Crossroads Do Not Always Close Roads (Reflection in Continuity to Waldon Bello) (wsflibrary.org, 23rd May 2007)
 As referred to by Hugo Chavez when he addressed the World Social Forum in January 2006; “We must have a strategy of ‘counter power’. We, the social movements and political movements, must be able to move into spaces of power at the local, national and regional level.”
 Stephen Zunes. Recognising the Power of Nonviolent Action (Foreign Policy in Focus, 31st March 2005), see also Nonviolent Social Movements (Blackwell, 1999), co-edited by Stephen Zunes.
 Rebecca Solnit. Welcome to the Impossible World (TomDispatch.com, 14th May 2006)
 Herbert Docena. State of Emergency in the Philippines: Back to the Future (ZMag.org, 5th March 2006)
 Zunes, ibid.
 Peadar Kirby. Opening Scenes of a New World Order (The Irish Times, 21st October 2000)
 Rick Wolff. Mass Political Withdrawal (Monthly Review, 2nd February 2007)
 Isabel Hilton and Anthony Barnett. Democracy and OpenDemocracy (openDemocracy.org, 12th October 2005)
 In reference to Arundhati Roy’s famous speech to the World Social Forum in Brazil, 2002; “Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
 Anthony Barnett. World Opinion: the New Superpower? (openDemocracy.org, 18th March 2003)
 Douglas Murray. Marching to Hell (openDemocracy.org, 20th February 2003)
 Anthony Barnett, World Opinion. Ibid.
 Bjorn Lomborg. Live Earth: Deaf to Reality (The Guardian UK, 3rd July 2007)
 Quoted by David Smith. Gore Show is set to be Biggest on Earth (Observer UK, 1st July 2007)
 George Marshall. Why Rock Won’t Save the Planet (The Guardian UK, 5th July 2007)
 Quoted by Max Fraser. Signing Off from Live Earth (The Nation, 7th July 2007)
 Oliver Tickell, journalist and campaigner on health and environment issues, and the architect of the “Kyoto2” initiative. See his article: Live Earth. (openDemocracy.org, 10th July 2007)
 George Marshall, ibid.
 Quoted by Max Fraser, ibid.
 Mark LeVine. Why Live Earth Will Fail (CommonDreams.org, 7th July 2007)
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