The Center Isn’t Holding Very Well

by Immanuel Wallerstein

The list of countries with enduring and worsening civil strife is growing. A short while ago, the world media were highlighting Syria. Now they are highlighting Ukraine. Will it be Thailand tomorrow? Who knows? The variety of explanations of the strife and the passion with which they are promoted is very striking.

Our modern world-system is supposed to permit the Establishment elites who hold the reins of power to debate with each other and then come to a “compromise” that they can guarantee. Normally these elites situate themselves in two basic camps – center/right and center/left. There are indeed differences between them, but the result of the
“compromises” has been that the amount of change over time is minimal.

This has operated as a top-down political structure, within each country and geopolitically between countries. The outcome has been an equilibrium slowly moving upward. Most analysts of the current strife tend to assume that the strings are still being pulled by Establishment elites. Each side asserts that the low-level actors of the other side are being manipulated by high-level elites. Everyone seems to assume that, if their side puts enough pressure on the
elites of the other side, these other elites will agree to a “compromise” closer to what their side wants.

This seems to me a fantastic misreading of the realities of our current situation, which is one of extended chaos as a result of the structural crisis of our modern world-system. I do not think that the elites are any longer succeeding in manipulating their low-level followers. I think the low-level followers are defying the elites, doing their own thing, and trying to manipulate the elites. This is indeed something new. It is a bottom-up rather than a top-down politics.

Bottom-up politics is sometimes alluded to when the media speak of “extremists” becoming important actors, but the locution “extremists” misses the point too. When we are amidst bottom-up politics, there are versions of every complexion – from the far right to the far left, but including ones in the center. One can bemoan this, as did
Yeats in one of his oft-quoted lines from The Second Coming:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

But note that Yeats is attributing the category of “best” to the old elites. Are they really the best? What is indeed true, to cite one of Yeats’s less quoted lines, is that “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”

How then can we navigate politically in such an environment? It is very confusing analytically. I think however that step one is to cease attributing what is happening to the evil machinations of some Establishment elites. They are no longer in control. They can of course still do great physical harm by imprudent actions. They are by no means paragons of virtue. But those of us who wish to seek a better world to emerge from this chaotic situation have to depend on ourselves, on our own multiple ways of organizing the struggle. We need, in short, less denunciation and more constructive local action.

The wisest lines of Yeats are the last two in the poem:

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

As our existing historical system is in the process of dying, there is a fierce struggle over what kind of new historical system will succeed it. Soon, we may indeed no longer live in a capitalist system, but we could come to live in an even worse system – a “rough beast” seeking to be born? To be sure, this is only one possible collective choice. The alternative choice is a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian system, also seeking to be born. Which one we
shall see at the end of the struggle is up to us, bottom-up.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s Commentary No. 377, May 15, 2014; originally posted at

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Conspiracy Theory in America (book review)

Lance deHaven-Smith: Conspiracy Theory in America (University of Texas Press 2013, “Discover America” Series)

This book by a professor of political science from Florida, USA, summarizes how the Americans have viewed the political conspiracies of their rulers from the 18th to the 21st century. The starting-point for author deHaven-Smith is that the founding fathers of the USA where conspiracy theoreticians. He shows that the constitution of the USA with its division of state powers and its famous checks and balances is based on a conspiracy theory and thus that “conspiracy” is a keyword in America’s political history.

The American constitution was designed to regulate and limit the possibility of high crimes that might destroy or actually would destroy the republic and end in tyranny. It used to be politically correct (to use a slightly anachronistic term) to suspect politicians and statesmen of conspiracy. Charles Beard (1874-1948)  was according to deHaven-Smith the last Amercan political scientist who shared the original American perspective on conspiracies. After the second world war, American political science has been heavily influenced by, on the one hand,  the liberal Austrian philosopher K.R.Popper (1902-1994), who delivered an original and  devastating critique of “the conspiracy theory of history” (thus not particularly of the role of conspiracy theory in America’s history); and, on the other hand, the works of Leo Strauss (1899-1973), another, but conservative, European philosopher with a very different approach to politics; like Plato and Machiavelli, Strauss would allow political leaders to commit high crimes and tell the people “noble lies” whenever necessary for what they held to be a good cause.  The different and contradictory intellectual premises and views of Beard, Popper and Strauss are brilliantly elucidated (and aptly summarized in a figure and table) in the third chapter in of the book (“Conspiracy Denial in the Social Sciences”).

“Significantly, although we speak of conspiracy theory as if it were an objective reality understood similarly by everyone who uses the term”, deHaven-Smith writes

“its meaning varies from one theoretical context to another. Consequently, people are often talking past each other when they differ on the issue. When speaking of conspiracy theories, Beard, for example, means hypotheses about specific actions by identifiable persons or groups that result in identifiable advantages for these groups in law or political institutions. In contrast, Popper usually means a superstition-like belief that large societal calamities, such as wars, financial crises, famines, and the like, were caused by such amorphous categories of people as economic classes, races, ethnic groups, and so on. Strauss does not use the term “conspiracy” at all, but speaks instead of “noble lies,” so for him a conspiracy theory would be an ill-considered speculation, probably be a non-elite and perhaps partially or fully true, casting doubt on a noble lie. Thus for Strauss we might say a conspiracy theory is a “dastardly truth.” ”

The disagreements between these three accounts of conspiracy theories are “subtle and complex”, deHaven-Smith adds, because “such is the nature of differences between divergent philosophical perspectives.”

Of course, “Conspiracy theory in America” is not only a book about the history of some political ideas. It is also a political work in a the best sense of that word.  deHaven-Smith describes how, after the murder of President Kennedy 1963, and as a result of a veritable campaign by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the notion of “conspiracy theory” took on its present derogatoriness. Among other things, he clarifies the role of the CIA’s dispatch number 1035-960 from 1967. This document was later (in 1976) obtained by a Freedom of Information request and published by the New York Times.   “Essentially”, writes deHaven-Smith, the

“Dispatch 1035-960 instructed CIA agents to contact journalists and opinion leaders in their locales about critics of the Warren Commission [the official commission on the murder of JFK]; ask for their assistance in countering the influence of “conspiracy theorists” who were publishing “conspiracy theories” that blamed top leaders in the U.S. for Kennedy’s death; and urge their media contacts to criticize such theories and those who embrace them for aiding communists in the Cold War, trying to get attention, seeking to profit financially from the Kennedy tragedy, and refusing to consider all the facts.”

The combined effect of the post-war turn in academic political science and the subsequent political indoctrination campaign was that anyone — and not only any American, because the propagandistic use of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has also spread to Europe and other parts of the world — who thinks that the leaders of our goverments is still capable of high crimes in this modern, democratic and technological era, risks to be labelled as a conspiracy nut and politically marginalised.

In the later parts of the book deHaven-Smith goes on to develop and explain the concept of “state crime against democracy” (SCAD) as a tool to be used in the analysis of present-day high political conspiracies. deHaven-Smith’s SCAD construct is not completely new for the book in question here; it has previously been used by, for instance, the authors of a special issue of American  Behavioral Scientist in their effort to make sense of e.g. the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. (See ABS Volume 53 Number 6, February 2010.)

The political science of prof deHaven-Smith can actually help its students, both academics and laymen, to understand what is going on in America and even in world politics in this period where the American superpower is declining.

Mikael Böök
Master of Social Sciences

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To the Evaluation Team

Below, two recent postings from the mailing list of the international council of the World Social Forum. The letters are made available here on the assumption that the messages and archives of the WSF-IC, including the evaluation and discussion of the WSF events, belong in the public domain. M.B.

> Date: Sat, 30 Apr 2011

> From: Susan George

To the Evaluation Team,

We’ve been asked by the members of the permanent WSF organising committee to comment on the Dakar WSF. I’m not following the list of proposed questions, however pertinent. I’m sorry if that makes your task more difficult, this isn’t my intention.

As all your correspondents will have already told you, despite serious competition for the title of Worst Organised World Social Forum, Dakar won 1st prize among the five or six I have attended. This had nothing to do with “Africa” or “Africans”-the one in Bamako in 2006 was extremely well organised. [I didn't go to the one in Nairobi]. I am willing to accept part of the standard explanations and excuses offered–the Government, the change of University Rector, the strike time being compensated for and so on. However, I also learned from a person who had to put together an emergency press conference for a lot of furious foreign journalists, that the organisers had known about the change of Rector and the likely consequences since November. Madame Diop, the Director of the UCAD Library to whom I paid a courtesy call, informed me that she had had to find places in her library at the last minute for journalists for whom no arrangements had been made. Since 10.000 students per day want these places [the student population is 60.000] it was a struggle for her to give up 200 out of the 1700 that exist but she gave the journalists the whole mezzanine floor. She had also contributed 28.000 photocopies “until the budget ran out”. Madame Diop was supposed to be at a conference in another African country during the time of the WSF but felt obliged to cancel her participation because of the huge and unforeseen demands being made on the library.

Apparently all decisions concerning the WSF were concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people and nothing could advance without their approval, so bottlenecks necessarily developed. Despite the absence of facilities, of information, of rooms and of programmes, the city of Dakar was plastered with large colour posters announcing the forum. On the central Place de l’Independance, there was one about every 2 meters. Frankly, this would not have been my priority….

We simply cannot allow this kind of disarray to continue. People who were new to the process and didn’t know anyone except the people they came with were completely confused. Those of us who already had our networks were informed by SMS and phone where to go for what activity-the various people responsible performed miracles, by the way–but the result was that one really saw mostly the people one already knew. My hope was to meet Africans-thanks to a woman I know from North Africa, I was able to sit in on part of a large session Samir Amin was holding-where everyone but me was African. I’m pretty sure Samir would have been happy for Europeans, Latin Americans etc to attend but they didn’t know about it. I met a few other Africans by chance or because they sought me out. For me, the forum wasn’t at all a waste of time because I managed to get to my 4 or 5 engagements but I can imagine the sum of disappointments and sense futility that many must have felt. All this has an obvious political cost.

The evaluation team may want to consider having a permanent team of paid, experienced organisers who know all the things one has to think about to organise a successful forum and then go to each site to cooperate with the local hosts on the spot long ahead of time. They find out how to reach all the goals locally; they check off all the points on the checklist in that particular place. The needs are always the same, it’s not a question of “culture”. I don’t know, but something has to to be done. We have to stop re-inventing the wheel at every WSF. We want to change the world and can’t even manage our own affairs.

For years I have been proposing that the Forum decree a day of action worldwide-an attempt was made to do this in January a couple of years ago and apparently there were events in as many as 1500 locations. The problem is that no one but the participants knew it. We should have a day with a common, very broad theme and a commission of imaginative and artistic people should be charged with making a nice long list of suggestions about how to make the action visible and media-friendly, with inexpensive materials and not requiring great numbers of people. This is part of being effective in doing politics. Everyone can interpret the theme according to local culture and preferences but without our own efforts we are invisible and in today’s world invisibilty means irrelevance. January isn’t the best time in the Northern Hemisphere! Maybe we could compromise on a Spring-for-you/Autumn for us date.

Personally I have benefitted hugely from meeting people, particularly other “scholar activists” doing really interesting work. Collectively speaking, I suppose the best thing to have emerged over the years from the WSF are the thematic networks which are doing really good work. Maybe the same amount of money should just be spent on bringing all the key people in network X, Y and Z together once or twice a year. This would be more manageable for everyone and probably more productive.

Now I must go back to finishing a piece about Obama for a collection being put together by one of the few Africans I met at the WSF-so contacts do often lead to something, even under difficult conditions.

Very good wishes, solidarity and good luck to the Team which has an extremely difficult job,

Susan George


New book: “Whose Crisis, Whose Future?” Polity Press, Cambridge

Livre recent: “Leurs Crises, Nos Solutions” [Albin-Michel]/ “Sus Crises,Nuestras Soluciones” [Icaria/Intermon]

> From Mikael Böök

> Date: Thu, 5 May 2011

Dear Susan George and all,

thank you so much for your evaluation of the Dakar WSF! Yes, I agree with you: the organisation failed miserably, and many participants, especially newcomers, must have been astonished and consternated to begin with, but frustrated and disappointed in the end. As you say, it is easier to make something out of the social chaos supposed to be the social forum for those, like you and myself, who have previous WSF-experiences and contacts.

As I wrote earlier to this list, I spent most of the time with the staff of the UCAD Library (btw, thanks for mentioning their head, Marietou Dionghe Diop, who made such a great job for the WSF) to develop the role of the library in the continuing process of the WSF, and to organise a collection for posterity of the WSF’s activities. I still think that was very meaningful, so I do not regret for a moment that I attended the Dakar WSF.

You identify, correctly I think, one of the reasons for the organisational failure, namely, that the decision-making came to be concentrated to a too small group of people. Now, when that happens, which btw is more the rule than the exception in all groups and societies, it is all too easy to put the blame on some members of that same small group of decision-makers. In this case, then, one could point at, say, Taufik, Buuba and Minou. However, in my opinion, it would be rather unjust to accuse these persons, the organisers, who also had to work like dogs, just like Mme Diop at the library.

No. It is necessary to go to the root of the problem, which is that we have to create a new type of organisation or, actually, to continue to develop the new type of organisation which is implied in our concept of the open space. The clue, the red thread (‘In Greek mythology, Theseus rescued himself out of the labyrinth of Minotaur by following a red thread, given to him by Ariadne’) is to be found in the library, and more precisely in the organisation of the modern library, which is striving to provide all information to all as promptly as possible. There is a certain family resemblance between the library and the social forum, which we need to take as our starting point.

A first requirement, then, is to adopt an own system of classification of our activities. By activities, I mean all our intellectual and cultural activities during and between the forums, which, of course strive not to remain purely intellecual, but to transform into a material force, a hegemony, if we like to use the word which the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci liked to use.

In short, it has to be the hegemony of the open space. This could also be described as the power of the reasoning citizenry (somebody would perhaps like to call it ‘multitude’, if not, more traditionally, ‘the public’). This is a rather different kind of hegemony than the one A.G.  was theorizing about in his prison cell (in the 1930s), because it cannot be led by a political party. Neither can it be ideologically united. Still, it can have that skeleton of an organisation which is provided by a number of actionable themes, or axes, of our activities. This is because, to put it simply, we humans have some hings in common. Water, for instance. Or cities. Health problems. The need to educate our children. Well, the 21 actionable themes which were proposed for the Nairobi WSF by the WSF-IC in the fall of 2006, give you the approximate idea. If you have forgot them, just have a look at

An important point here, which I shall mention before coming to the end of this letter, is that we have to stay content with an approximate, that is, unfinished and open, set of permanent themes or axes of our organisation. Thus it has to be a kind of compromise. We have to recognize, and agree, that nobody is in possession of the abolute and definitive Truth, not even the Pope, the Imam or the Professor.

Susan, I immediately wanted to put the text of your letter on the blog of the Network Institute for Global Democratization (NIGD) so that all readers of the library (yes, I think of the internet as an extension of the traditional library of books, journals and manuscripts) might have access to it. And then I thought it would be polite to ask you for permission. However, having pondered this question for a while, I no longer see the need to ask you for your permission. After all, the messages to this list, if any, must be considered to be public domain. Morally, you who post your messages here, own what you write and what we read. From the social point of view, however, this list is a public service the content of which is owned by the library. The decision-making of the WSF cannot be private nor secret. Let’s publish all the information immediately to everybody.

Greetings from a small country up in the North, all the best,

- Mikael

PS The new “working party new thematic axes”, which has recently been founded by Francine Mestrum, does not yet have an own mailing list. If it had one, I would of course have copied Susan’s message and my reflections above to it.

Mikael Böök * book ät * gsm +358(0)-44 5511 324 *  * *

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A short 1st of May update from Finland

by Mika Rönkkö

To start with, take a look at Teuvo Hakkarainen´s First day in parliament so you get an idea:

Well, the True Finns will chair key Parliamentary committees in the parliament: the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Administrative committees. This means that in addition to foreign affairs and defence, the party will have a key position in the processing of legislation affecting the police, municipalities, and immigration issues.

The Administrative Committee is to be chaired by outspoken immigration critic Jussi Halla-aho. Helsinki District Court has fined Halla-aho for violating the sanctity of religion (charges of incitement against an ethnic group were dismissed by the court.). Halla-aho has associated Islam with paedophilia in his blog writings. He also wrote for example that robbing passers-by and scrounging on taxpayers’ money might be a national or even a genetic characteristic of a certain people, that “individuals can justifiably be placed in a hierarchy of values according to how the removal of their abilities or skills from the use of the community would weaken the community” and that the notion of equal human worth is a typical proclamation of this age, similar to the notion from previous centuries that the sun orbits the earth, or the doctrine of Papal infallibility, that women have no souls, or that masturbation causes short-sightedness.

The True Finns might even enter the next government, with the National Coalition Party (conservative/liberal) and the Social Democrats, and are seeking similar ministerial posts as in the Parliament commissions.

To be fair, True Finns (39 seats of 200 MPs) are a very diverse crowd, a strange composition of populists, with a considerable part belonging more to the left populists than right, especially on economic policies (this might effect Portugal bailout issues in EU). Most of the True Finns are not as clearly racist as the Swedish Democrats, Danish Peoples Party or the Progress Party in Norway, though they are definitely supporters of a revival of conservative values. Less than a third of them could be associated with the reactionary xenophobic right, calling for stricter controls on immigration, whose main ideologue is the above-mentioned Jussi Halla-aho (A Slavic linguist, his dissertation was on historical nominal morphology of Old Church Slavonic). A Considerable part of the True Finns comprises followers of the Finnish Rural Party, which is seen as the predecessor of the True Finns.  The Finnish Rural Party was a traditional rural populist party advancing a social justice agenda against elites. MEP Timo Soini, a charismatic chair-person and the absolute leader of the True Finns, the only force keeping the party together, is a former Finnish Rural Party political secretary.

Lastly, one has to keep in mind, that in these Parliamentary elections the Left did very well in Helsinki (doubled seats), and is radically changing and growing fast. Left alliance chair Paavo Arhinmäki had most votes in Helsinki district and did clearly beat Jussi Hallo-aho. Nationally the Left alliance lost seats but did not do so badly as expected and got 8.3 % of the votes. The Greens lost nastily (they lost 5 seats, and got 7.2% of votes), certainly due to their neoliberal policies in the government. The Social democrats also lost less than expected, with 19.1% of votes.

In conclusion, (and this has not been recognized by the international media about the Finnish elections), it were the government parties which were the major losers (central and coalition parties + greens). The Real Finns landslide victory is mostly a protest against government (and EU) neoliberal policies – unfortunately, we will now witness very nasty collateral effects in the form of Halla-aho xenophobic crowd.

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World Social Forum 2013: Where? In Montreal?

by Teivo Teivainen, 9 March 2011

Some busy time has passed since the International Council meeting of the World Social Forum, held immediately after the WSF in Dakar in February 2011. One of the key open questions for the future of the process is where to organize the WSF 2013. It was mostly assumed that the process has gotten new energies with the Dakar experience and that there should be a global WSF event in 2013, maintaining the two-year periodicity we have had for a while.

As could be expected, no decision was made on this question during the IC meeting. There were some “candidates”, and even if it is somewhat uncomfortable to talk about the process as if it were a question of choosing the site for Olympic Games, we are now facing a process of proposals and assessments.

The key possible sites that were mentioned were Porto Alegre, Galicia and Montreal. Other places were also mentioned in informal discussions (example included “new Tunisia”, Barcelona, somewhere in East Asia, India, and the United States), but the three seemed the most serious proposals, with some preparatory work behind them. One new thing is that we are now seriously discussing the possibility to organize the WSF somewhere in the global north.

The Expansion Commission of the IC, in which I have been relatively active over the years, was given the task of preparing a report on the question. As I will be visiting Canada a couple of times this Spring, including the International Studies Association meeting next week in Montreal, I was assigned some of the responsibilities for following the Montreal proposal. I have agreed to meet some of the key proponents of the WSF 2013 there (e.g. from the organization Alternatives (, and also people critical of the proposal (from anarchist/autonomous activism).

For the time being, I do not have any personal position on where the WSF 2013 should be organized. I would be most grateful for all proposals on what kinds of things we should take into account when assessing whether it might be a good idea to organize the WSF 2013 in
Montreal or somewhere else.

This text was originally part of a message to the e-mail list of the Network Institute for Global Democratization on 8 March 2011

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Preliminary Notes on the World Social Forum 2011, Dakar

by Giuseppe Caruso

Dear all,

here is my report of Dakar and the IC meeting (it is a bit long). It is only
in English but Ciranda has often marvelously translated my things in other
languages so maybe…

As always feel free to share it and any comments would be greatly


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The World Social Forum, Egypt, and Transformation

by Immanuel Wallerstein

dear nigd members. i am sending you my commentary
of feb. 15 which is on the wsf. these
commentaries are always translated, with a bit of
delay, into various other languages: always
french, italian, spanish, portuguese, tukrish,
korean, and chinese. sometimes other languages.
if you want these other language versions, go to

Feb. 15, 2011

The World Social Forum (WSF) is alive and well. It just met in Dakar, Senegal from Feb. 6-11. By unforeseen coincidence, this was the week of the Egyptian people’s successful dethroning of Hosni Mubarak, which finally succeeded just as the WSF was in its closing session. The WSF spent the week cheering the Egyptians on – and discussing the meaning of the Tunisian/Egyptian revolutions for their program of transformation, for achieving another world that is possible – possible, not certain.

Somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 people  attended the Forum, which is in itself a remarkable number. To hold such an event, the WSF requires strong local social movements (which exist in Senegal) and a government that at least tolerates the holding of the Forum. The Senegalese government of Abdoulaye Wade was ready to “tolerate” the holding of the WSF, although already a few months ago it reneged on its promised financial assistance by three-quarters.

But then came the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and the government got cold feet. What if the presence of the WSF inspired a similar uprising in Senegal? The government couldn’t cancel the affair, not with Lula of Brazil, Morales of Bolivia, and numerous African presidents coming. So it did the next best thing.

It tried to sabotage the Forum. It did this by firing the Rector of the principal university where the Forum was being held, four days before the opening, and installing a new Rector, who promptly reversed the decision of the previous Rector to suspend classes during the WSF so that meeting rooms be available.

The result was organizational chaos for at least the first two days. In the end, the new Rector permitted the use of 40 of the more than 170 rooms needed. The organizers imaginatively set up tents across the campus, and the meeting proceeded despite the sabotage.

Was the Senegalese government right to be so frightened of the WSF? The WSF itself debated how relevant it was to popular uprisings in the Arab world and elsewhere, undertaken by people who had probably never heard of the WSF? The answer given by those in attendance reflected the long-standing division in its ranks. There were those who felt that ten years of WSF meetings had contributed significantly to the undermining of the legitimacy of neoliberal globalization, and that the message had seeped down everywhere. And there were those who felt that the uprisings showed that transformational politics lay elsewhere than in the WSF.

I myself found two striking things about the Dakar meeting. The first was that hardly anyone even mentioned the World Economic Forum at Davos.

When the WSF was founded in 2001, it was founded as the anti-Davos. By 2011, Davos seemed so unimportant politically to those present that it was simply ignored.

The second was the degree to which everyone present noted the interconnection of all issues under discussion. In 2001, the WSF was primarily concerned with the negative economic consequences of neoliberalism. But at each meeting thereafter the WSF added other concerns – gender, environment (and particularly climate change), racism, health, the rights of indigenous peoples, labor struggles, human rights, access to water, food and energy availability. And suddenly at Dakar, no matter what was the theme of the session, its connections with the other concerns came to the fore. This it seems to me has been the great achievement of the WSF – to embrace more and more concerns and get everyone to see their intimate interconnections.

There was nonetheless one underlying complaint among those in attendance. People said correctly we all know what we’re against, but we should be laying out more clearly what it is we are for.

This is what we can contribute to the Egyptian revolution and to the others that are going to come everywhere. The problem is that there remains one unresolved difference among those who want another world.

There are those who believe that what the world needs is more development, more modernization, and thereby the possibility of more equal distribution of resources. And there are those who believe that development and modernization are the civilizational curse of capitalism and that we need to rethink the basic cultural premises of a future world, which they call civilizational change.

Those who call for civilizational change do it under various umbrellas. There are the indigenous movements of the Americas (and elsewhere) who say they want a world based on what the Latin Americans call “buen vivir” – essentially a world based on good values, one that requires the slowing down of unlimited economic growth which, they say, the planet is too small to sustain.

If the indigenous movements center their demands around autonomy in order to control land rights in their communities, there are urban movements in other parts of the world who emphasize the ways in which unlimited growth is leading to climate disaster and new pandemics. And there are feminist movements who are underlining the link between the demands for unlimited growth and the maintenance of patriarchy.

This debate about a “civilizational crisis” has great implications for the kind of political action one endorses and the kind of role left parties seeking state power would play in the world transformation under discussion. It will not be easily resolved. But it is the crucial debate of the coming decade. If the left cannot resolve its differences on this key issue, then the collapse of the capitalist world-economy could well lead to a triumph of the world right and the construction of a new world-system worse even than the existing one.

For the moment, all eyes are on the Arab world and the degree to which the heroic efforts of the Egyptian people will transform politics throughout the Arab world. But the tinder for such uprisings exists everywhere, even in the wealthier regions of the world. As of the moment, we are justified in being semi-optimistic.

Prof. Immanuel Wallerstein

Dept. of Sociology
Yale University
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The World Social Forum returns to Africa

Marc Becker
February 14, 2011

Fifty thousand activists from around the world descended on Senegal’s capital city of Dakar at the westernmost point in Africa the first week in February for the World Social Forum. Meeting on an almost annual basis since its first gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, the WSF provides a space to discuss and debate proposals and collaborative actions to build a new and better world.

The WSF first met as a response to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Instead of exclusionary spaces that placed corporate greed over human needs, the WSF championed the daring proposition that indeed another world is possible. The WSF now has a decade of bringing together social movements dedicated to a struggle against neoliberal capitalism and militaristic imperialism, and in favor of constructing a world based on humane fairness and social justice.

Through a sequence of global meetings in Brazil, India, Kenya, and now Senegal, as well as many more local, national, and regional forums, the WSF has fundamentally shifted political discourse to the left. Bringing the forum back to Africa helped refocus attention on the region as well as linking local realities to a global struggle.

The forum met in the context of an ongoing crisis in the global capitalist system. This crisis has had its most visible impact in the poorest countries, and can be seen through problems in the financial, food, and energy systems as well as climate change. Neoliberal policies of privatizing public resources that international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have promoted have had a particularly negative effect on Africa.

To confront these issues, the Dakar forum was organized around the three main themes of deepening a critical analysis of capitalism, strengthening struggles against capitalism and imperialism, and building democratic and popular alternatives to these systems of oppression.

The six-day meeting began with a massive march from downtown Dakar to the university where the forum subsequently held its events. Participants were in high spirits, and their chants and banners revealed a wide range of social justice issues they had come to champion. The march culminated with a rally at the university featuring a speech from Bolivia’s leftist president Evo Morales. Morales denounced imperialism, and pointed to the importance of the forum as a school where activists could come to learn how to build stronger, more powerful, and more effective social movements.

A thousand activities were planned over the course of the forum. The first day of meetings focused on Africa and the African diaspora, including a session with the daughters of Franz Fanon and Malcolm X in which they debated the legacies of their famous fathers for today. A meeting with former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva emphasized his work to build closer relations between Africa and his South American country. Not only is Brazil home to the forum, but it is also home to the largest African diasporic population.

The following two days featured self-organized activities representing the wide range of interests and concerns that activists brought to the forum. Evenings were filled with musical and cultural events as well as informal networking. The final two days were dedicated to convergences of organizations, networks, and international movements during which participants proposed actions around common themes for building a better world. The forum finished with a closing ceremony at which organizations presented their statements and programs for action.

The WSF was initially conceptualized as a space for divergent civil society groups to meet and collaborate around common concerns. It was designed to mobilize and empower grassroots organizations rather than creating a unified movement with a specific agenda. Its failure to make statements has opened it up to criticism by some who would like to take advantage of its momentum to advance a specific political agenda.

Facing a hegemonic Washington Consensus that favored privatization of resources when it first met in 2001, the WSF initially emerged out of anarchistic tendencies that viewed governments as part of the problem. Organizers explicitly excluded governments, political parties, and armed insurgent movements from this meeting of civil society. Global political discourse has shifted significantly to the left over the past decade, and nowhere is this more apparent than in South America. As a result, more participants now warm to the idea of using political parties and governments as instruments to solve the problems facing the crisis of global capitalism.

As with all WSFs, most of the participants came from the host country, with large caravans also bringing delegates from neighboring West African countries. Senegal’s former colonial overlord France also contributed a significantly large number of participants. In comparison, Asia and the Americas contributed relatively small delegations. Many WSFs are multilingual events, but in francophone Africa, French became the lingual franca leaving some participants from the former British colonies of Nigeria and Kenya feeling excluded.

The larger social forums have attracted as many as 150,000 participants. In comparison, the 50,000 activists in Dakar seemed to be quite small. Nevertheless, the largest forums have been held in Brazil and India with much larger populations than the twelve million people in Senegal. Since forums draw so heavily on the host country’s population, as forum founder Chico Whitaker noted, the size of this forum should be seen as a success rather than a failure.

Each social forum acquires its own style and unique characteristics. Unfortunately, the 2011 Dakar forum will be known for its frustrated chaos. This is unfortunate because it was a forum with a high degree of unrealized potential. Africa is no stranger to the social forum process, and the region has had more social forums than any other continent.

A series of logical problems plagued the Dakar forum. The task of organizing the forum was apparently more than the local committee could handle, but yet it refused offers of international assistance. In what has become a standard problem at WSFs, the schedule of events came out late and in piecemeal fashion, making it difficult if not impossible for many participants to find their sessions.

Further complicating the issue, due to an earlier strike classes were still in session at the university. Students displaced activists from planned meeting spaces, leaving some participants wondering why the forum could not have done a better job of incorporating students into the events. Organizers quickly set up tents to house the sessions, but the chaos and a lack of space led to the cancellation of many sessions.

Most significantly, in the aftermath of popular uprisings that toppled authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt, Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade feared the arrival of well-organized social movements that could similarly place his government under siege. The expense and logistical difficulties of hosting such a large meeting require the tactile consent if not outright support of the host government, but in Senegal an antagonistic president sought to sabotage the forum.

A running debate within the forum is whether a world meeting of social movements is worth the financial cost, environmental consequences, and logistical nightmares involved in organizing such a massive meeting. Too often only well-connected non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with access to the time, financial resources, and visas necessary to travel can attend the forum instead of grassroots organizations that are its intended base. Some activists have proposed holding a virtual meeting instead, yet (as many universities find as they move away from online education) much value is to be had in face-to-face meetings.

After a successful run of ten years of meetings, the future of the WSF is unclear. At the close of the meeting in Dakar, the forum’s international organizing committee met to plan future strategies. When the forum first met in Porto Alegre it embraced a novel strategy of organizing around social and economic justice issues from the perspective of the global south. Although logistical problems have worn some of that initial shine off of the meeting, for many participants coming together every two years in a global meeting still holds much value. As long as the WSF continues to meet, the global justice movement shows no sign of abating.

Marc Becker teaches Latin American History at Truman State University, and writes on social movements in the South American Andes. More information on the Dakar meeting is available on his website

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On the WSF’s outreach

“A strongly felt and long drawn anxiety is shared by many World Social Forum organisers and supporters. Its relevance vis-a-vis global politics and even vis-a-vis global progressives seems to be unstoppably fading away after a very promising start and exhilarating first few years. Why? And what, if anything, can be done about it? These are crucial questions and questions that need careful consideration especially while approaching what promises to be one of the most inspiring WSF global events, Dakar 2011, an event that could deserve way more attention that it can, as things stand now, possibly get. An event that wishes to convene women and men, organisations and communities to contribute to the articulation of what the organisers have suggested to call “The New Universality”. “

Thus opens NIGD-member Giuseppe Caruso his reflections about the situation of the World Social Forum. Read the whole piece plus comments at Giuseppe’s blog.

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World Social Forum International Council Meeting Dakar November 2010

The next World Social Forum will take place in Dakar, Senegal, 6-11 February 2011. The International Council of the World Social Forum held a meeting 9-11 November in Dakar.

Three reports from the meetings by NIGD members:

Guiseppe Caruso, Downwind towards Dakar

Francine Mestrum, Report on the meetings in Dakar November 2011

Silke Trommer, ASF Council WSF IC Meetings 112010

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