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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