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Publication Details

Reference
Waterman, Peter  (2009) Labour at the 2009 Belem World Social Forum:
Between an Ambiguous Past and an Uncertain Future1. Global Labour Charter Project : 1-30.

Summary
The time, the place and the focus
The time: this was the first World Social Forum (WSF) since the profound
financial/industrial crisis of capitalism, late-2008, the consequent labour layoffs, and
the desperate and extreme state measures to restore capitalism – largely by throwing
obscene amounts of money at the financial institutions that were the immediate cause
of the crisis. The place: Belem is a tropical city of some two million, at one mouth of
the Amazon river, and therefore a potent reminder of the Amazon basin and forest -
'the lungs of the world' - whose nature and peoples are under threat of extinction by
capitalist globalisation (plus local capital and the Brazilian state). The focus: for the
first time the WSF declared a single focus – on this Amazonian environment and its
peoples and movements.

Now, Point Two of the WSF's objectives reads (in somewhat iffy official translation):

For the release of the world domain [liberation from the world
domination – PW] of capital, multinationals corporations, imperialist, patriarchal, colonial and neocolonial domination and unequal systems
of commerce, by cancelling the impoverish[ed] countries of debt.

(World Social Forum Programming 2009:7).

This may be a long-standing formulation2 but it nonetheless did me good to see it
confirmed on the front page of the Forum supplement of the regional daily, Diario de
Para (February 1). Here it was stated (in English!) that

Criticism against capitalism was the focus of the World Social Forum. But, after all, what are the actual alternatives to build a better world?

A fair-enough question, given that so many anti-globalisers think a re-assertion of
state and inter-state power would do the trick. Also because, as we will see, the nature
of the WSF is quite ambiguous, giving rise to somewhat differing left analyses (e.g.
Toussaint 2009, Pleyers 2009, Costello and Smith 2009).

Another innovation, taking shape over the years, was the devotion of the
Forum to 'self-managed activities', these dominating the first days of the Forum. And
this move in the direction of...what?...indirectionality? was accompanied by 'thematic
tents', and extended by 'Belem Expanded' (locally and globally, in place and
cyberspace) and completed by a 'Day of Sectoral Alliances', which included a final
'Assembly of Assemblies' in which it was intended the FSM would sum up or
concentrate, or anyway express, its orientations and coming activities.. I am myself
not sure whether all this makes the WSF more participatory even if it makes it more
diverse. My feeling is that it rather exemplifies the notorious 'tyranny of
structurelessness' (Freeman 1972) under which those with the desire, the means and
the experience to dominate do so wearing a cloak of at least semi-invisibility.
A final - actually the initial - innovation was the mentioned focus on the
Amazon and the indigenous peoples of the world. The indigenous peoples, in
particular of the Amazon, were highly visible and integrated into much of the
programming. But there were complaints from some of the Amazonians that they
were still being treated as folklore. And there were – predictably – differences
expressed between the comparatively long-organised Andeans and the recentlyorganised
Amazonians. This specific problem/movement focus raised in my mind the
question of when we can expect such on labour or on gender/sexuality/women – both
clearly multi-voiced parties and neither particularly folkloric.

That maybe 90 percent of the participants were from Brazil (some 60-70
percent from the state of Para alone!) might have given an exaggerated impression of
labour participation since the sites were full of people wearing the red teeshirts of the
Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT). It was nonetheless my impression that theMy compañera, Gina Vargas, who is on the WSF International Council (IC), assured me in Belem that it was a long-standing formulation which I had not seen because I don't read official WSF documents seriously. (A touch, a touch, I do confess!). But the WSF has been rather better known for its opposition to neo-liberalism than to capitalism. And the phrase ‘domination by capital’ is open to a Keynesian corollary in which this ‘domination’ can be offset by the state, or another in which it can be countervailed by an increased role (not qualified) of civil society (customarily undefined). Both such tendencies, separately or combined, could be found in presentations of Susan George and Walden Bello(both fellows of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam), when I returned to the Netherlands, March 2009 (http://www.tni.org/acts/debatingeuropebello.pdf). presence of national and international union organisations and of labour activists was greater than previously. Survey evidence may later confirm whether this was so.

For the rest, it must be said that – despite the customary complaints
concerning its suburban siting, the distance between sites, timetable changes, room
cancellations and the often rough accommodation – most of the experienced
participants I spoke to after the event considered the Forum a success. This may have
been in part due to the relatively small size of the city, and to the challenge implied
by the high temperature, high humidity and frequent tropical downpours. I, in any
case, found the city easy to move around, friendly...and most of my events in their
scheduled places. Not every participant, of course, had a cellphone and a hotel room
(with air-conditioned mosquitoes) or even an umbrella. But even the kids in the tent
city on one university site seemed to be comparatively satisfied with the conditions.
And the organisation of such a gigantic and complex event by a relatively small team
of organisers remains something of a miracle: we saw the future and it worked (if
unevenly).

Belem treated the Forum as other cities might do the Olympics.3 And I do
have to say that that bilingual supplement in the major daily paper of the State of
Para, the Diario de Para, was not only WSF-friendly but professional, compensating
for the absence of the daily edition of Terra Viva from the Inter Press Service, to
which we have become accustomed (for this special edition, see
http://ipsterraviva.net/uploads/TV/wsfbrazil2009Pt/photos/TERRAVIVA%20FSM%2
02009_WEB_30-01-09.pdf)
. Indeed, I rather depended on the Diario for reports on
what I was missing (90 % of Forum activity?), having early decided that I was NOT
going to search through the 142-page, three-column, half-kilo, three-language
Programming – to find anything.

It was, thus, only later, at the farmhouse of Brazilian Forum founder, Candido
Gryzbowski (some hours North of Rio, surrounded by mountain greenery and in the
company also of other congenial Latinos/as) that I finally confronted the
Frankenstein's Monster of the WSF, the Programme, in search of the word 'labour',
'union' or related terms (in one or more of three or four languages). I have to say that
this further convinced me that the Forum is an agora as much in the sense of a
marketplace as of a meeting-place. On the assumption that each of the 143
Programme pages listed just 45 events, then dividing by three (for languages), and
then dropping a few pages of introduction and a back page list of sponsors, we still
have 2,000 3-hour events, which, divided by four (thus excluding the Opening and
Closing Days) still leaves us with some 500 events per day! Let us consider the
Labour Question for one such day. Whilst inviting anyone with a minimal command
of mathematics to do better than myself here, I challenge anyone to reduce the number
of competing 'labour related' events, of Theme 6, listed on page 26 for Shift One (of
three), for January 29; I make it around 45. These then taking place on one of two
campuses, separated by a bus-ride of some 15 minutes (excluding waiting time), and
then distributed (in one case) at maybe 30-40 minutes walk from the campus bus stop.
3 This comes close to a problematic truth. The city is involved in ‘improvement’ for a World Football Cup bid as well as for our more-modest WSF. By ‘improvement’ I wish to suggest there is a negative side to this – the clearing of settlements of the poor to the advantage of the already excessively ‘improved classes’ in Belem. There is surely a problem in the WSF being complicit with evictions, just as it was complicit in the exclusion of the Nairobi poor from the WSF there in 2007. For the Belem case, see http://eng.habitants.org/zero_evictions_campaign/observatory_belem/background_news
_about_ the_observatory_on_belem/the_chart_of_belem


I began at this point to feel nostalgic for the World Youth and Student
Festivals of the 1950s, at which the programme was pre-determined by a Sovietfunded
vanguard that decided everything for us, shipped us to the site and then bussed
us around, with its loyal national subordinates further decreeing that, for example, we
individualistic Brits should wear white shirts and grey trousers or skirts (which,
having just recovered from the uniformity of World War Two, we signally failed to
do)

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