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Bond, Patrick (2007) Linking below, across and against: World Social Forum weaknesses, global governance gaps, and civil society’s political, ideological and strategic dilemmas
Paper presented at the Democracy and Social Movements Institute SungKongHoe University, Seoul, South Korea, 28 May 2007 : 1-27.

The last few years have not been ripe for global reforms, as witnessed by some telling intra-elite battles decided mainly by the arrogance of the United States government: the inability to expand the UN Security Council in September 2005; the potentially-permanent breakdown of the Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations in July 2006; the minor shift of voting power within the IMF board of governors in September 2006 (which strengthened several countries at the expense of Africa); the failure to expand the Kyoto Protocol at a November 2006 conference in Nairobi; and the lack of Middle East, Gulf, central Asian and Horn of Africa peace settlements or indeed prospects.

Likewise, this appears a ‘down time’ for global-scale social change work in the radical tradition, if by that one considers full-fledged attacks on institutions like the World Trade Organization in Seattle (1999) or the G8 in Genoa (2001), or the more surgical activities (including solidarity) that characterized defense of Zapatismo in Mexico after 1994, or of Cochabamba water warriors after they kicked out Bechtel in 2000, or of factory occupations in Buenos Aires after 2002, or of the right to water and electricity in Soweto, or a myriad of struggles for human rights and democracy in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Colombia, etc. To be sure, in June 2007, we can expect formidable protest against the G8 by mainly European activists in Rostock, and the World Bank annual meeting in September plus the G20 session near Cape Town in November may be important markers of ongoing militancy. The anti-war movement also provides occasional shows of strength, especially in sites like Italy where US bases are at stake.

Still, it is sometimes argued that since September 2001, alliance-growing internationalism in the North (especially long-sought unity between social movements, environmentalists and labor) and the space or impulse to conduct protest against corporate globalization in the South have both withered a bit, or at minimum failed to maintain the momentum required given ongoing global-scale threats. If Joe Stiglitz is correct, in Globalization and its Discontents, that fair trade activists and the Jubilee movement were crucial to getting his reformist critique onto the agenda, then it is not surprising that Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, George Soros and other high-profile global Keynesians have themselves made no progress.

Without a doubt, there continues to be hectic advocacy work across borders carried out by NGOs, international labor federations and environmentalists. But the waning visibility of militant community-based tree-shakers probably prevents the petit-bourgeois NGO jam-makers from finding any fruits for – or of - their labors. Setting aside the remarkable rise of left-leaning Latin American governments and their puncturing of the International Monetary Fund’s self-financing model, next to nothing has been accomplished to reform the world over this time, aside from dubious debt deals, permission to produce generic AIDS medicines, and a slight increase in North-South aid. The move by some globally-conscious activists to anti-poverty campaigning is one reflection of how weak the genuine anti-poverty campaigners are, in articulating a coherent global-scale political project.

But this is not meant to sound so pessimistic. Instead, for advocates of global justice, the period since 2001 also witnessed two kinds of constructive activities, one in building the World Social Forum and its constituent movements, and the other linking social movements across borders usually sector-by-sector – albeit with insufficient linkages between the sectors. In his important politico-anthropological book on Africa, Global Shadows, James Ferguson offers this confession:

Traditional leftist conceptions of progressive politics in the third world (to which many anthropologists, including myself, have long subscribed) have almost always rested on one or another version of the vertical topography of power that I have described. ‘Local’ people in ‘communities’ and their ‘authentic’ leaders and representatives who organize ‘at the grassroots’, in this view, are locked in struggle with a repressive state representing (in some complex combination) both imperial capitalism and the local dominant classes. The familiar themes here are those of resistance from below, and repression from above, always accompanied by the danger of cooptation, as the leaders of today’s struggle become the elites against whom one must struggle tomorrow.

I do not mean to imply that this conception of the world is entirely wrong, or entirely irrelevant. But if, as I have suggested, transnational relations of power are no longer routed so centrally through the state, and if forms of governmentality increasingly exist that bypass states altogether, then political resistance needs to be reconceptualized in a parallel fashion.

Hence we begin such a reconceptualization – a vast task which can only be done through myriad debates and struggles, and with activists from the ‘grassroots’ as our most serious guides – by checking the progress of the World Social Forum. From disputes between the various camps within the WSF we might reconstruct a map of ideological currents that span Third World Nationalism, the Post-Washington Consensus reformers and the disturbing fusion of neoliberalism and neoconservatives to be found in most multilateral agencies. Those with any lingering hope for global governance as a route to global eco-social justice under prevailing power relations should, after this reality check, perhaps instead refocus on those cross-border, cross-sectoral and cross-cutting alliances that can rearticulate how to best fight global-scale repression in all its manifestations.

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