Initial differences

Scratch the surface, and the agendas of the World Economic Forum and the World Social Forum are closer than they seem.

Ayse Feriel

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Topics Politics

In the aftermath of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in New York and the World Social Forum (WSF) in Brazil’s Porto Alegre in February 2002, it became clear that participants of both platforms have more in common with each other than they would like to admit.

The mainstream media coverage presented the two ‘world forums’ as diametrically opposed – with the WSF depicted as the platform for the critics of global capitalism and the WEF as a showcase of the system’s success. But if these two events are anything to go by, the WSF’s organisers may end up merely legitimating what they claim their forum stands against – that is, ‘a process of capitalist globalisation commanded by multinational corporations and by governments and international institutions’ (1).

The alternatives proposed by those participating in the WSF are, the story goes, ‘designed to ensure that globalisation in solidarity will prevail as a new stage in world history…and will rest on democratic international systems and institutions at the service of social justice, equality and the sovereignty of peoples’.

Walden Bello, executive director of the Bangkok-based policy and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South, and professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines, has recently noted that ‘Porto Alegre, site of the WSF last year and again this year, has become the byword for the spirit of the burgeoning movement against corporate-driven globalisation’ (2). Bello, who entered the spotlight in 2001 after a televised debate with the financier and philanthropist George Soros, argued that the Enron debacle and Argentina’s economic collapse have ‘brought back with a vengeance the global elite’s pre-September 11 crisis of legitimacy’.

Yet while the WSF works under the banner ‘another world is possible’, its rhetoric reflects similar fears and anxieties to those held by their counterparts in the WEF, and the same narrowness of focus. The WSF’s aspirations stretch only to seeking a medium for a more regulated and restrained economic system – which is the goal of the WEF, too.

Participants of both the WEF and the WFS admit that capitalist globalisation is not a uniform process leading to the same outcomes across the world, and hence argue it should be controlled. For example, according to the Global Governance Task Force of the WEF, poverty blights the lives of nearly half the world’s population, while environmental degradation is becoming so severe as to undermine the capacity of the planet to sustain human civilisation.

The task force stated in 2001: ‘If the world is to manage global problems more effectively and equitably than has to date been the case, we will need strengthened intergovernmental institutions and the best combined efforts of governments, business and the civil society.’ (3) Meanwhile, Indian economist Jayati Ghosh Jawaharlal from University and Ideas, India, argues that deregulation of capital flows ends up changing the nature of capitalism in developing countries. Consequently, ‘We have to go back to regulation and a controlled system and force the market to do what we want’.

Those who fall into the ‘pro-capitalist’ camp are increasingly concerned about how to curb the excesses of their system. Their ‘anti-capitalist’ opponents echo this concern. In a debate on civil society and globalisation hosted by the London School of Economics (LSE) on 14 February 2002, Susan George, vice president of Attac France (the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), and associate director of the international research organisation Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, emphasised that participants of the WSF wanted globalisation, but of a different kind. ‘We are not an anti-globalisation movement. We are pro-solidarity and pro-democracy.’

What exactly is the humane globalisation envisaged by the participants of the WSF? The main themes covered in Porto Alegre were: ‘The production of wealth and social reproduction’, ‘Access to wealth and sustainability’, ‘Civil society and the public arena’ and ‘Political power and ethics in the new society’. There were several proposals put forward during the conferences, seminars and workshops for practical ways to address these four main themes, such as boycotting the products of the 10 ‘socially most irresponsible’ transnational corporations, creating a ‘solidarity economy as an alternative to neoliberal globalisation’, debt forgiveness for the poorest nations, access to basic drugs, particularly for AIDS and malaria at the lowest price, and the introduction of taxes on global financial transactions.

As Vittorio Agnoletto of the Genoa Social Forum has put it, ‘[The anti-globalisation] movement, internationally, has to be qualified as a movement against this globalisation. [It is opposed to] the globalisation of profits for a few people, and to the free circulation just of goods’ (5)

The WSF’s rhetoric might sound quite radical – but luminaries of the WEF have begun to talk a similar language. The core themes of this year’s annual meeting were: reducing poverty and improving equity, sharing values and respecting differences, advancing security and addressing vulnerability, redefining business challenges, re-evaluating leadership and governance and restoring sustained growth. Although international leaders from business, government and academia were mainly preoccupied with tackling head on ‘the extraordinary challenges faced by the world after the attacks of 11 September’, their tactics were strikingly parallel to those employed by the WSF.

In its efforts to establish a dialogue with the WSF and other anti-capitalist civil society organisations, the WEF relied on the popularity of musicians like U2’s Bono, who said that the developed world needed to make people believe that it really cared about the developing world. Politicians, too, seemed keen to give the impression that they wanted ‘another kind of globalisation’. No fewer than six French cabinet ministers travelled to Porto Alegre in an attempt to use the forum as a platform for campaigning just three months ahead of elections. Some members of the French government, including prime minister Lionel Jospin, have already boosted their anti-globalisation credentials by backing Susan George’s Attac France.

For Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, the WEF was an opportunity to address the global elite on behalf of the ‘downtrodden masses’. He argued those people were not the victims of globalisation, but their problem was that they were excluded from the global market (6).

Despite their efforts to represent a form of anti-systemic resistance, and to emerge as a counterpoint to the WEF, the forces of Porto Alegre are likely to become part of the structure they love to hate. As Immanuel Wallerstein, professor of sociology at the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University, New York, has pointed out, none of the remedies proposed by the WSF is enough to change the fundamental structure of the world-system: ‘What the forces of Porto Alegre need to do more clearly is firstly, to analyse where the capitalist world economy is going structurally, and what are its inherent weaknesses; and secondly, begin to outline an alternative world order’ (7).

But it is unlikely that the WSF will take Wallerstein’s advice. The limits of it horizons were revealed by Susan George’s comment at the recent LSE debate: when asked about the possibility of fundamental world change, George answered that the campaigners might ‘want caviar, but it is not on the menu; there are noodles and potatoes only’.

Is another world possible? Maybe – if advocates of global change could come to terms with the actual meaning of the term, rather than seeing progress as destructive and championing further regulation and restraint.

Ayse Ferliel is a financial journalist.

Read on:

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(1) See the World Social Forum Charter of Principles on the World Social Forum website

(2) Social summit sets stage for counteroffensive against globalisation, Walden Bello, 31 January 2002, Znet

(3) Global Governance Initiative, Statement of the Task Force (.pdf), WEF, 2001

(4) Global tax and political decisions on the World Social Forum website

(5) Comments on the base document for the Conference on Prospectives of the global movement of the civil society, Vittorio Agnoletto, on the World Social Forum website

(6) ‘Globalisation on Trial’, Kofi Annan, Turkish Daily News, 7 Feb 2002

(7) Porto Alegre, 2002, Immanuel Wallerstein, 1 February 2002, on the Binghamton University website

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