I guess it was on year 2000, while organizing for the S26 protests when I first heard about the World Social Forum (WSF). The idea was to have a permanent counter forum to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the meeting of corporations' CEOs, governments' officials and academic leaders to discuss global policies for the world. This counter forum, designed to oppose the economic forum, was structured however on the very same basis: a meeting of global leaders to discuss global agendas - but instead of banks, corporations and governments, representatives from unions, NGOs and social movements.
Since the very beginning, this bureaucratic and elitist structure clashed with the new forms of organization brought by the new movement against capitalist globalization. The World Social Forum never aimed at being just a summit meeting of the bureaucratic left, but being a large convergence space for debate, including both the "new" and the "old" left and actually using the momentum and energy brought by the new part of the movement to make something large and with big political impact. So, despite the WSF having core activities that literally duplicated the WEF structure, more open and free spaces for debates and workshops were set.
Since the very first WSF, the tension between the more open spaces and the core activities was permanent. For the organizing committee - made of the Brazilian PT (Worker's Party), French Organization ATTAC, Brazilian leftist union CUT, the MST (Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement) and the Catholic Church (among a few others) - most of the political significance of the Forum rested in its "core" activities: a set of debates, panels and meetings, which they decided were the important ones and over which they fought among themselves to have control. Those core activities were the ones really publicized by the WSF press office and the only ones to get any coverage from the media (even from most of the alternative media). So, for the outsider, the WSF, since the beginning, was this series of activities that the organizing groups decided were relevant and over which they made an open effort to direct all the spotlights.
Outside that, participation was pretty open. I can't recall any serious incident of a group not being allowed to participate, except perhaps for Colombian guerrilla FARC who had space for a press conference denied over the argument that they were an armed group (someone replied: what about the representatives from the French government, a much more dangerous armed group?). So, despite minor incidents, a number of relatively open activities developed around the core activities - activities which were meaningful and participatory and which were considered by most people attending the WSF as the most interesting and important.
It was on the workshops' space, which could be proposed by any group, or at the activities set up at the Youth Camp (a park where most of the youth camped, under awful conditions) or at parallel activities taking placing autonomously somewhere in Porto Alegre that people got to know each other, where they could share experiences and where they could actually talk and be listened. At those places and only there you could see the practices and the spirit of the new movement the WSF supposedly embodied.
This dual and conflictive structure was very rarely perceived by the radical groups who very often described the WSF (in a sense, appropriately) as bureaucratic and reformist. This interpretation, however, reinforced the official interpretation of the forum and of mainstream press who saw the big activities with the big names as the central part of the WSF. But whatever it had of significance and importance was elsewhere and this elsewhere was what attracted the tens of thousands who traveled to Porto Alegre. Those were not dumb or naÃ¯f people mislead by a bureaucratic elite. Those were people who came because the WSF was a place to meet people from around the world, to listen and to talk about different experiences and struggles and - even - to listen to what the big names had to say. That's what the WSF was about despite what its bureaucracy and the press wanted people to believe.
There's been a lot of discussion in radical circles over whether or not we should participate (and if so, how) in the WSF or in the regional forums (European Social Forum, Asian Social Forum, etc.). Linden Farrer has made this controversy explicit in a discerning article called "Abandon or Contaminate". Many people involved in the People's Global Action network, for instance, have defended setting up autonomous spaces close to the forums to "contaminate" them with our practices. Opposing "contamination" projects such as the Intergalactika Laboratory at the WSF or the "Hub" Camp at the European Social Forum - where alternative autonomous spaces were set somehow parallel, somehow within - critics point to the serious risk of participating in the very process of cooptation of our movement.
Several pages could be written about the way the WSF was openly manipulated by Brazilian institutional left and by international NGOs to co-opt us and to present their part of the movement as the whole of it and so, in a way, to channel all our novelty and energy into hierarchical and bureaucratized forms of politics. One could mention the way Brazilian PT has used the WSF as propaganda for its policies, presenting Porto Alegre as the socialist paradise it certainly isn't or the repression led by PT's police against autonomous groups during WSF II or yet the outrageous organizational boycott during WSF III to every single autonomous activity within it, from Radio Muda (probably the most important free radio in Brazil) to Indymedia, from the forum Life After Capitalism (organized by American magazine Z) to the Intergalactika Laboratory of Global Resistence.
None of that, however, could match the political use Brazil's new elected government made of our movement. Lula, Brazil's new president, gave an opening speech at the WSF and then, immediately after, took a flight to SÃ£o Paulo and then straight to Davos to speak to the bad guys, "building a bridge" - in his own words - between the two forums and - also in his words - "taking the message of Porto Alegre into Davos". But who put him in a position to speak in behalf of the movement? And how could his amazingly right-wing speech stand as "Porto Alegre's message"?
In Davos, Lula's speech was basically a criticism of the protectionism of the rich countries. Quoting his speech: "We want free trade, but free trade with reciprocity. It's useless to make an effort to develop exportation when rich countries preach free trade and practice protectionism." "We want free trade": is that the message Porto Alegre should send to Davos? Is this the outcome of all the years of struggle against neoliberalism and institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization? Not only Lula went to Davos speaking on our behalf. He went there and on our behalf spoke for free trade, criticizing people in Davos for not being neoliberal enough.
Is this reason enough for us to boycott the Social Forums once and for all? I really don't know. What I do know though is that the Social Forums are attracting a wide range of people, many of whom we really want to bring to our part of the movement. It's not enough to sit and criticize the Forum and erroneously suppose people are being manipulated by it. We should somehow set our own events and attract those people - be it by setting parallel events in the "contamination" strategy, be it by setting our own autonomous meetings - not meetings of activists, but open meetings where we can present our views to a wider public. It's time to stop merely criticizing and start more effectively opposing the outrageous assimilation of our movement by the worst practices of the old institutional left.