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World Social Forum

The Politics of the WSF’s “Open Space”

Facilitators: Heikki Patomaki & Thomas Ponniah, with the help of Marc Becker

Speakers: Boaventura de Souza Santos
Chico Whitaker
Meena Menon
Immanuel Wallerstein
Jai Sen
Virginia Vargas
Anibal Quijano

The heritage of the WSF is that of 1968, the failure of the Old Left and also, in part, the failure of the New Left as well. This point of Immanuel Wallerstein provides a starting point for discussing the politics of the WSF itself. Boaventure de Souza Santos emphasized that the WSF is about avoiding the negative and tragic utopias of the 20th century and about developing new critical utopias. These critical utopias presuppose new non-Occidental forms of knowledge. Now that the spirit of Porto Alegre has been successfully replicated in Mumbai, the next step is to democratize the WSF itself. One possibility is to use new information technologies in order to have instantaneous referenda in the WSF and thereby make the forum more truly participatory.

Chico Whitaker, one of the architects of the conception of ‘open space’, stressed the dangers of either falling back to the past of Leninist vanguardism or degenerating into absolute dispersion. The open space method is meant to overcome this choice. However, the WSF should also be seen as an incubator of new political projects and networks. Outcomes matter too. Other than Jai Sen, and to a more limited extent, Anibal Quijano, there was consensus about this. Jai Sen argued that the WSF is not genuinely open. Even its minimal political programme excludes a number of concerns and individuals; in fact, no space can be neutral. He would like to open up the forum to everyone. Virginia Vargas countered this by saying that she does not accept the idea of allowing in for instance right-wing religious fundamentalists.

Meena Menon, in turn, ridiculed the idea that open space is a postmodern concept. The method of the WSF is not a philosophical but a practical question. The open space of the WSF works well in bringing the activists together and that is its justification. Quijano made the qualification that the WSF also facilitates debates between those who disagree. For Wallerstein, the WSF is a method for getting different antisystemic movements together. It might even been seen as the method, given that at this world historical point it is “the only action in town”. Wallerstein criticized the democratic deficit of the WSF but not the method of open space as such. There is a need for both open space and real political outcomes. Therefore, the WSF should explicitly allow for organising action-oriented networks and even facilitate their actions (“giving rotating contact phone numbers to the WSF”).

Wallerstein also underlined the fact that real decisions are being made at the WSF all the time, such as the decision to take the forum to Mumbai. However, there are 150 insiders in the International Council, one or two thousand semi-insiders who follow, and take part in, discussions but do not participate in decision-making. Then there are those hundreds of thousands who participate in various social forums but merely abide with decisions made by the few. This is why there is a widespread perception that the WSF is a top-down organization, despite all talk to the contrary. The decision-making procedures should thus be made much more clear, transparent and democratic, to the furthest extent possible.

Whitaker congratulated NIGD for organising the first large-scale public event to discuss the politics and future of the WSF. He also responded positively to the criticism that the WSF is not sufficiently democratic. There are already committees exploring ways to develop the democratic procedures of the WSF. Less has been done on the problem of facilitating the emergence of action-oriented networks. The WSF is already a parliament in the original, latin sense of the term, as a place to talk and converse (parlar means to talk, mentum a place or space). The next thing might a panel on the possibility of developing global democratic political alliances or transnational parties of opinion from within the WSF, fit for an era where democratic politics is creating spaces not confined by sovereign states.

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