The World Social Forum is today widely celebrated as a great movement. With its design of being an open space for convergence, and especially with its slogan ‘Another World Is Possible!’, it has widely inspired people in many parts of the world – people concerned about the state of the world we live in – and is seen as a major contribution to seeding, incubating, and sustaining not only social and political movements for change but also hope. 
This is perhaps all the more so because it has taken shape and flowered during a dark period in world history, which has seen the massive expansion of imperialist war during the first decade of this century; the financial crisis of neoliberalism in 2007 and the waves of instability, immiseration, and deepening precarity for ever wider circles of people that this crisis has sent out across the world since then and that continue, even today, to spread, now both in the North and the South; and the definitive emergence of the crisis of climate change – with all its devastating, unpredictable consequences – which is a direct result of the over-exploitation and abuse of Mother Earth. There has perhaps been very little like this, in history.
There is no question that a decade and more later, the WSF continues to excite and inspire many people, including simply as opportunities for peoples of different cultures to meet and to simply learn about the world. The experience of the recent world meeting of the WSF process in Tunis in March 2013 is just one example, and there are some who even argue that the formation and experience of the WSF over the prior decade in some ways also seeded and inspired the other waves of movement that have broken out so widely across the world since 2011 – the uprisings in North Africa and West Asia, the Occupy movement in North America and Europe – and indeed, during the decade before that, the wave of movement leading to regime change in as many as nine countries in South America.
But if we stand back, it also seems to be the case that even after a decade and more of this extraordinary process, while in political terms we are living through times of rising resistance at the same time in material ways the world seems little different than where it was in 2000, when the WSF started – and that in some ways at a global level we seem to be in an even more precarious and dangerous moment. In relation to this, the WSF has periodically been strongly criticised as being far too much of a talk shop, and beyond this, of in reality being not a space for radical thought and action but rather a moderate and moderating current, one or more steps removed from the real world, that has diverted people who are concerned and looking for ways to resist, from more militant and radical politics. 
In particular, it has been argued that by its very creation and by the ‘alternative’ that it has offered from the early 2000s, of deliberation rather than direct action, and sustained as it was by heavy institutional funding by foundations in the North and in Brazil by the state – which certainly helped it sustain the spectacular growth that it experienced – the WSF has contributed to taking the wind out of the more militant alterglobalisation movement that was peaking at precisely that moment. A variant of this was the forceful argument in 2007 that the WSF had perhaps done whatever it could and that it was now time for it to pack up and move on. 
Another provocative argument that is today rising is that the rise of the WSF – along with its sponsorship by international aid organisations – has in turn only legitimised the work of these organisations and strengthened their hold over civil organisations (‘ngos’) at local and national levels, and beyond this, has also enabled them to coopt influential individuals who were till recently progressive (and in some cases, radical) activists.
Is all this only a question of the design of the WSF, or do its politics actually not threaten the Empire – or for that matter, any empire, structural or political? And to the contrary, do its politics actually tend to create counter-currents? These are difficult and complex questions, but they must be faced.
It is precisely for these reasons – that, on the one hand, the WSF is so widely celebrated, and on the other where it is faced with such difficult questions now – that it is so necessary and useful to stand back and to try to critically understand the WSF as a historical process. As many others have said however, the WSF is too large, too complex, and too rich for any one single reflection to express its fullness. The following is therefore a crude attempt to look only at certain aspects of it. In particular, I will do this by focusing on something that I have argued elsewhere is one of the great strengths of the WSF, its apparent ability to learn as it goes along and to thereby be a powerful example of an ‘emergent’ process.[1] In this essay however, I try to open up this assertion, and to politically read it.
To make clear where I am coming from, I write this essay as someone who has been involved with the WSF in many different ways since its early days, including briefly in an organising capacity (in India); as a participant first as an individual and then through the several events that the organisation I am with, CACIM, has organised at successive editions of the WSF; as a commentator on movement; and as an editor of several books on the WSF.[2] I am from India, male, middle caste and class, and now aging, and have primarily been a social activist and then a researcher of movement.
The formal history of the WSF has it that it was conceptualised by a few senior Brazilian and French campaignists during 2000 as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum and as a platform for building opposition to neoliberal globalisation (and in particular as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum), and that it started off with a first meeting in Porto Alegre, in Brazil, in January 2001; and that it has since then flowered across much of the world. 
Without going into details here, there is reason to think however that what became the WSF was in fact in planning for several years before this – from about 1996-97, when the name and the concept of opposition to the WEF was first put forward at meetings in Europe, and where what in 2001-2 became its slogan, ‘Another World Is Possible!’, was first spelled out in 1999. What has become the phenomenon we today see was therefore conceptualised not suddenly but over several years by members of certain progressive civil organisations from both the North and the South – broadly of socialist tendencies – as an instrument of counter-hegemonic world politics, and thus must be understood as a very particular strategic intervention within a much larger and wider landscape of social and political action, with many different ideological thrusts.
Beyond this, and while the WSF is general seen and projected as a ‘project of the South’ (primarily since its formal founders were a group of eight Brazilian organisations and its first meetings were held there), it is surely important that even if recognise the importance of the influence and inputs of the Brazilians – and of the rich traditions of civil politics that had been forged in Brazil from the 1970s – we also need to recognise all its roots, some of which lie in the internationalist North, and not politically romanticise it as exclusively being ‘an arrow from the South’.
Just to remind ourselves, the WSF was only one of several strands of ‘global’ social movement that were active during that period. It is most commonly seen as an important manifestation of an explosion of an ‘anti’ or ‘alter-globalisation movement’ (or what others term the ‘global justice and solidarity movement’, and yet others, the ‘global justice movement’) that burst into visibility at the big anti-WTO ‘Battle of Seattle’ in late 1999 – and which some argue was inspired by the Zapatista outbreak in 1994. This movement took shape especially in the North but some parts of this were also linked with movements in some parts of the South, and where it was this larger, wider arc of movement that some authors argued became a global force of the struggle for social justice. 
A less known but influential parallel global social action process, that emerged before the WSF but in later years also sometimes met during WSF-related meetings, was ‘PGA’, People’s Global Action, which took shape in the second half of the 90s, broadly speaking coming out of the Zapatista action in 1994 and then the ‘intergalactic’ encuentros that the Zapatistas convened in 1996 and 1997. Yet another significant related process that also took place during those years was the Jubilee Debt Campaign.
Equally, and although 1999 is best known in movement circles for ‘Seattle’, this action was in fact preceded that year by major direct action demonstrations that took place in London, Paris, and Cologne, and was followed by similar major actions against the WTO, the World Bank and IMF, and the G8 during 2000 in Genoa, Washington DC, Prague, and Gothenburg. In other words, all of this took place during the very year that the WSF was finally given shape to, before its first actual meeting in January 2001. And this first meeting of the World Social Forum was then followed by another major action against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April 2001 – which was the same month as the first draft of the WSF’s Charter of Principles was prepared.
In short, the organisers of the WSF were surely aware of all of this, and to some degree at least must have designed their very ambitious intervention – which was therefore only in addition to all of this – to play some particular roles within this emerging landscape.
In turn, this burst of alterglobalist movement itself only followed two full decades during which transnational social movement and action took shape in the late 1970s and 80s in the form of transnational social campaigns around specific issues such as World Bank funded development projects, with solidarity actions in the North, and of protests across the South against so-called ‘structural adjustment policies’ imposed on countries by the IMF and the World Bank. This wave of movement then burst onto even more public arenas in the 1990s with a wide range of campaigns and actions against GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) and then the WTO, against the FTAA, and also against MAI (the Multilateral Agreement on Investment). All this then took full flight during 1999 and then on through the early 2000s.
And this wave of transnational action in turn took place in the context of a longer history yet, over the previous 2-3 decades, of more national or domestic struggles against colonialism and of deepening struggles on the ground – in the South and in the North – against continuing racism, casteism, and internal colonialism, and for democracy and democratic rights; and also of new internationalist currents of the feminist movements, the liberation theology movements, the environmental movements, the anti-war movements and the civil rights movements, and the movements against apartheid, among others – and where the pulse of all of these movements today course through the WSF.
Equally important – and especially in relation to the formation of the WSF and its first being held in Brazil – were the major developments that took place in the Latin American region during this general period, and in Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina among other places. These include the historic formation of the Workers’ Party in Brazil in the early 1980s and the election campaigns of Lula, trade union leader and the candidate of the Workers’ Party, for the presidency of Brazil from 1989 onwards – finally succeeding only in late 2002 (and which, since the WSF in Brazil was at that point closely linked to the Workers’ Party, in turn gave a huge boost to the WSF event held in Porto Alegre in January 2003); the even more historic election of Evo Morales, a cocalero and trade unionist and leader of MAS (Movement for Socialism party) as President of Bolivia in 2005, the first fully labouring class and indigenous person to be so elected; and also the historic fightback by the people of Argentina on the streets of the country during the early 2000s after the country had been brought to its knees by the IMF during the 1990s. In general, the decade of the 2000s were a decade when the people in several countries across the region voted in leftist governments, and when, equally importantly, and as a direct outcome of the reassertion of indigenous peoples in the region, the continent has come to be also known by its indigenous Quechua name, Abya Yala.
Keeping all this in mind – and even this is only a part of all that was going on during that period -, we need to consider the possibility that the particular organisational form and culture for which the WSF is today so widely celebrated, of being an ‘open space’ for exchange and deliberation, was perhaps conceptualised quite specifically as a means towards some very particular political ends the organisers had in mind with respect to this wider universe of increasingly turbulent movement. Tentatively, I suggest that this can be summarised as placing emphasis on deliberation rather than on action or, for instance, on what is referred to as ‘prefigurative politics’ – living out the change and social relations that you want to see taking shape in society. 
While each of these (deliberation, action, and prefigurative politics) are dialectically linked, and certainly not opposed – and indeed, where this character is why I myself came to be so interested in and inspired by the WSF, and where broadly speaking this is also the credo of the organisation I work through -, I suggest that an emphasis on one can lead to one not necessarily leading to the others (in this case, deliberation); and that it can even draw energy away from the others. Part of our search to understand the WSF – in history, and now – must therefore be to understand whether this has been the case, and if so, what this form and culture is, why its founders chose this path, and what the implications are for social justice and change.
‘Civil society’
In short, I suggest that a key aspect of this is that the WSF is a creation and instrument of civil society, and that the genetic class and caste character of what is called ‘civil society’ has contributed strongly to the roles that it has played over the past thirteen years and that it is, by and large – though with some exceptions –, still playing today. 
As stated in its Charter of Principles, the WSF “brings together and interlinks only organisations and movements of civil society from all the countries in the world, but intends neither to be a body representing world civil society…” (emphases mine).[3] I emphasise the term ‘civil society’ because although this term is today used loosely to refer to all of society that is ‘not government’ (and where it is probably used in the Charter in this way), it in fact both disguises sharp structural divisions within societies and also hides the manner in which dominant sections of all societies, which assign this very positive description of being ‘civil’ to themselves, tend to discriminate against and oppress other sections of society. (They sometimes do so almost without being aware of it, but this is precisely because this is structural and instinctive.) It also hides the reality of civil societies all over the world taking it as their historical duty to ‘develop’ and ‘civilise’ the world through internal and external colonisation, where necessary through repression and subjugation. 
While individuals and organisations belonging to civil societies have certainly also contributed hugely to the democratisation of the world – for instance, through the banning of slavery, the struggle for women’s rights, the environmental movement, and so on -, we need to also face the reality that others equally belonging to civil societies have equally contributed to, been accomplice to, and/or in many places led, the great crimes of history: This includes processes of colonisation, slavery, expropriation, immiseration, and – at times – genocide, such as through the colonisation of the Americas and of Australia and through the caste structure in South Asia and elsewhere. And more generally, in social reality everywhere huge sections of society at large continue today to be excluded from so-called ‘civil society’ and discriminated against until and unless they are willing to be ‘civilised’ and assimilated or to have their cultures extinguished – or to rise and create civil societies of their own that challenge the dominant order, as is now increasingly beginning to happen.
In other words, the term ‘civil society’ is riddled with profound contradictions.
But the point here is that I suggest that some of all of these tendencies have tended to also play themselves out within the WSF, as a creation and instrument of civil society. I also suggest that it is not an accident that this is happening at a stage in history when – and just as always in history – significant sections of those who I term have been rendered as the ‘incivil’ struggle both to build their own lives according to their own traditions and values and in resistance to the domination and colonisation they relentlessly face. In short, although it certainly also plays other roles, a key characteristic of the WSF is that it has been created to draw people into civil deliberation – into a deliberative mode of relation to society and to social change – and therefore, and even as it inspires people, it also tends to change the positionalities of participants to processes of change.
This has various consequences. Just to cite two, on the one hand, and even if the Clause quoted above says that “[the WSF] intends neither to be a body representing world civil society”, over the past decade and more the International Council of the WSF process (and more generally, the WSF as a whole) has become a key space for the building of alliances between leading sections of civil societies from around the world – which not only means coordination for social action but also a coalescence of power, at national, regional, and global levels, and even if not yet exercised in that way. And through gaining this power, in turn, the co-option and sometimes coercion of others, including those in movement. The currents of power are relentless, and constantly in motion.
And on the other hand, and as Janet Conway has argued much better than I can:
…. The WSF has been thrown up by the social forces unleashed in this conjuncture as a laboratory of practices for other possible worlds. As such, it is a carrier both of myriad future possibilities and myriad contradictions of the present. … As a site, it is at a leading edge of the transition, where other possible futures are being imagined and constructed. But as a creature of the transition, the WSF is also firmly rooted in the order that is passing. … [It] is simultaneously among the finest expressions of the emancipatory traditions of Western modernity and a site for the reproduction of their contradictions, hierarchies, and exclusions. The World Social Forum is producing ‘others’ who are consigned to its edges, its margins.[4]
…. In its quest to incorporate and still steeped in visions of a single counter-hegemonic movement, the WSF is a thoroughly modernist project that privileges and produces modern subjects, while marginalizing others whose positionalities expose the unavoidably specific, limited, and arguably dangerous character of any such all-inclusive and utopian undertaking.[5]
That this broad question is now also a matter of great concern for at least some within the WSF’s leadership has become dramatically evident very recently, with the publication and circulation at the Tunis Forum by the Brazilian trade union federation CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores; ‘Unified Workers’ Central’) of a statement that is bitterly critical of how some of the founders, belonging to civil organisations, have usurped the leadership and marginalised mass movements.[6]
Given that CUT was one of the eight founders of the WSF, and given its importance in Brazil – and notwithstanding the contradictions in its stance that some observers have pointed out -, the position that it has taken, and the manner in which it has taken it, is in any case likely to be a vital development in the history of the WSF.  But I believe that the question that CUT has raised is not just about what some call the ‘ngoisation’ of the WSF. Rather, I suggest that this character is structural, and therefore relates to a much larger and deeper question, of the political role of the WSF in world struggle today.
Over the past decade and more, the WSF has therefore been an extraordinary process, but I suggest that it also needs to be politically read in these terms. In this attempt to understand the WSF as a historical process, the following explores this ground.
Learning by doing?
As mentioned above, I have earlier argued that one of the strengths of the WSF is its ability to learn as it goes along. I want here to take the next step of asking the question: ‘Learning by doing, yes, but to what ends?’.
Even though the WSF likes to say that it is a ‘self-organising’ process, perhaps understandably enough the starting role and position of the WSF was assigned to it by its founders (and not by participants).  Its founders chose to start the WSF by launching a war of position against neoliberalism, and so the emphasis in the WSF during its first years, in 2001 and 2002, was on opposition – opposition to what was then commonly termed ‘globalisation’, referring to the wave of neoliberal globalisation that had swept the world during the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  But the ferment of the first year of the WSF, and also of the times in which it was taking place, also quickly led to the adoption by the WSF of ‘Another World Is Possible!’ as its slogan – a phrase that had been first spelt out by one of its conceptualisers back in 1999, Susan George -, which perhaps reflected the shift that was already taking shape in the Forum at that early stage, from a stance of opposition to one of proposing alternatives.
Following the 2002 Forum, the emphasis in the WSF moved decisively to also include opposition to war (though not so much to alternatives to war). In October 2002, a US-led alliance of nation-states launched war against Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre and other symbols of imperial power in the US, and then moved to creating a context that would allow it to also attack Iraq (the infamous ‘weapons of mass destruction’ argument).  As it happened, the first European Social Forum that had coincidentally been scheduled to take place in Florence, Italy, in the very next month, November 2002, was therefore marked by a huge demonstration against the war on Afghanistan and against the threatened war against Iraq.  And the 2003 world forum that followed soon after in Porto Alegre in Brazil, in January 2003, then provided a space for anti-war movements from many parts of the world to meet and to plan, among many other things, what turned out to be rallies in many parts of the world on February 15 2003 protesting the war, involving an estimated 15 million people, which is said to be the largest ever such demonstration in history. 
Even though the meetings of a rapidly expanding and increasingly popular WSF already included events about a wide range of issues of more immediate social concern, its formal agenda during its first two years was therefore concentrated on these two strategic macro questions. This then suddenly came to change.
In addition to the above already ambitious agenda, and as a part of their vision of the WSF as a globalproject, during 2001-3 the initiators of the WSF also intentionally globalised the Forum by causing to be organised, in January 2004, the first world meeting of the WSF outside Brazil, in Mumbai, India. This was preceded by extensive planning for the Mumbai Forum, including the holding in India in January 2003 of an Asian Social Forum, which was a rehearsal for the organisation of the world forum in that country the following year. (In reality, the ASF was also conceived as a chance for Indians – the Indians of India – to prove to the-then mostly Latin American and European leaders of the WSF – some of who then knew little about India and were sceptical about Indians being able to manage something like this – that they were capable of doing so.)
The Mumbai Forum was different to the WSF events that had preceded it in many ways, and arguably influenced the future of the process very substantially. As opposed to being organised by a small committee (as in the Brazil, the group of eight organisations who founded it), in theory at least it was planned by a broad-based General Body made up of over a hundred civil organisations, that delegated responsibilities to a smaller organising committee. It was held in a disused industrial site as opposed to an elite private university campus.  But most noticeably, and aside from its huge size (150,000 participants), the Mumbai Forum also turned out to be a huge convergence and celebration of diversity, marked by the strong presence of women, Dalits (‘oppressed’ or crushed peoples, the so-called ‘untouchables’ in the Hindu caste system), Adivasis (indigenous peoples), and mass organisations of the landless and of many other sections of labouring peoples, and also very visibly, peoples of various sexual orientations; in short, of large sections of the incivil in Indian society. (Though very noticeably, Muslims in general stayed away, in a city and country that has a large Muslim population.)
Although the Mumbai Forum was marked by a concerted attempt by organisations and individuals affiliated to the established left to take over the process because the party left felt threatened by the ‘free thinking’ that the WSF represented, the Forum itself nevertheless turned to be a great convergence and celebration of movement that to a large degree in turn overwhelmed the attempt to dominate it. And crucially, because of the particular features of social reality and social-political movement in India the stance of opposition moved from being not only to economic globalisation and to war but also to the structures that rage in Indian and South Asian society, of patriarchy, caste, and religious fundamentalism; in other words, also to internal structural empires.  In many ways, this shift – combined with presence of the incivil – transformed the WSF at that point, sending out messages that rippled across the globe that I suspect were picked up by peoples elsewhere in similar situations structurally.
The subsequent edition of the Forum, held once again in Porto Alegre in Brazil in January 2005, was the context for several major new initiatives, some of which even the organisers said were the direct outcomes of what they learned from the experience of the Mumbai Forum: One, and although not actually expanding the organisational base as in India, in initiating a process of online participatory planning, to decide on the themes for the Forum; two, moving the Forum from the very institutional and elite base where it had started, the PUC (the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, the Catholic University) to being scattered in theme clusters all around the city centre, along the shores of the Guaíba River – and, learning from the relatively low-cost planning for the Mumbai Forum, held in tents; and three, and clearly again learning from the social composition of the Forum in Mumbai, creating space in the Brazilian WSF for the first time for the marginalised in Brazilian society – in this case, for indigenous peoples and for the quilombos, the runaway slave communities of Brazil; in short, some sections of the incivil in that very rich and diverse country (and who had till then been largely absent, and excluded, in the first two meetings).
In addition, four, the 2005 WSF pushed what had historically till then been the heart of the Forum in Brazil – big meetings held in stadia and auditoria, addressed by famous personalities – to the margins (and even dropped the earlier huge plenary sessions), and conversely brought the earlier margins of the Forum, the so-called ‘self-organised activities’ (workshops, seminars, and panel discussions, organised by autonomous organisations) to the centre. Five, it also brought the large and vibrant Youth Camp – which had till then been located far away from the Forum site – into the very centre of the theme clusters; and six, for the first time since it started the WSF gave individual participants the same status and privileges as organisational delegates. We today take this as granted; till then, and even though such delegates made up 60% of the participants, the WSF had given such people lesser privileges such as no access to translation facilities (!), and also made them wear different coloured badges so that they were clearly visible (and could be discriminated against).
The 2005 Forum – the fourth in the WSF process – therefore marked a steep rise in its learning curve, on a number of counts.
The 2006 edition of the WSF pushed the boundaries even further, at many levels. Rather than holding just one single world meeting, as had been the practice till then, ‘the World Social Forum’ this time was simultaneously organised in three places across the world – on the three continents of the South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) and in three (colonial) language regions (French, English, Spanish): In Bamako, Mali; in Karachi, Pakistan; and in Caracas, Venezuela. In other words, the Forum in 2006 was more truly a world affair and, to again use a term I tried using back in 2002, for the first time became truly manifest as ‘an efflorescence across the world’.
Beyond this, each of the three Fora had its own political significance: The Bamako Forum marked the first time the WSF was organised in Africa, the continent that has been most deeply ravaged by the final phase of 19th century colonialism and by neoliberalism; the Caracas Forum was in many ways an act of solidarity with the now late Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution he led and represented, against whom there had been a coup in 2002 that was widely seen to have been engineered from ‘outside’; and holding the Forum in Karachi was an attempt to create an open space in a tightly controlled, near-dictatorial state.
In many ways, this step – of moving from a single-centric Forum to a polycentric one scattered across the world, and each with its particular political overtones and strategic intentions – was therefore potentially as important a step in the WSF’s evolution as the holding of the Forum in Mumbai in 2004, and again sent out multiple messages.
The 2006 Forum marked the end of the fifth year of the WSF.  In the second half of its first decade, the Forum continued to evolve, at many levels. At a world level, a full world meeting of the WSF was held in Africa for the first time in January 2007, in Nairobi, Kenya, in a declared attempt to draw together ‘forces of resistance and alternatives in the continent most ravaged by both colonialism and neoliberalism’. While again an important convergence, the Nairobi Forum was in many ways a tumultuous and historic meeting for the WSF, not least because for the first time in the WSF’s history, it was confronted with social reality: Popular movements from the surrounding areas who were incensed because they were excluded from the gathering because of the unaffordably high registration fees, and joined by some of the more militant participants from within the Forum, broke down one of the gates separating the WSF campus – a stadium – from the outside world, and entered it. Some of them took over and occupied a restaurant run by a hotel owned by a notorious Minister; others took over other less-used stalls.
The Nairobi Forum was also perhaps the first time that a WSF event brought in corporate funding and also armed guards to provide ‘security’.  This said a great deal not only about prevailing social and material conditions in Nairobi and Kenya but also how about the organisers of the WSF wanted to relate to them.
In 2008, ‘the WSF’ attempted to dematerialise itself and exploded out of its boundaries – but in very particular ways.  For the first time the WSF was held not as one meeting but as a ‘Global Day of Action’, where instead of a single meeting being organised in one part of the world, a call was issued by leading participants in the WSF process (mostly members of its International Council) to all those who wished to take part in ‘the WSF’ to organise events and actions on their home ground; taking the decentralised experiment of polycentric fora in 2006 to yet another level.  Just as was happening during centralised events, thousands of meetings took place in locations across much of the world.  The main reason for this shift happening was the resistance that had grown by then within the WSF community to having relentless annual world meetings – which was by then proving hugely demanding on all those who took part –, but also, looking back, doing this also perhaps helped the WSF escape even if for one year the harsh confrontation with social realities that had taken place in Nairobi. But while it can still be seen as an imaginative response to these pressures, class-wise – by the very nature of the technology involved in the Call and the nature of the Call – the Global Day of Action was largely a middle class, civil affair.
In 2009, for the first time the world meeting of the WSF process in Brazil was organised elsewhere than in Porto Alegre, which had by then come to known as its birthplace and ‘home’ insofar as this was where it was held successively for the first three years (2001-2003) and then again in 2005. This time it was organised in Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon river and of Amazonia, and where for the first time in the history of the WSF process, a worldmeeting within the WSF process was given a thematic focus: First, the global ecological and climate crisis, with Amazonia as a symbol of what is under threat, and second, and in a rather understated, complex, and arguably colonial way, the future of indigenous peoples – who are the original inhabitants of Amazonia and today remain among its main occupants.
I term it as ‘colonial’ because there was no recognition in the organisation of the Belém Forum that the meeting was being organised on land taken from the indigenous peoples in whose name the meeting was called there, and because although there were was a small but significant number of such peoples present, there was also little or no attempt to address the profound issues of transcultural, transcommunal translation between them and the sudden hordes of outsiders like myself – the vast majority settlers – who descended on Belém. 
However significant the experience was for all of us who had the privilege of going to Belém, for the most part the indigenous women and men who attended seemed widely to be rendered as exotic creatures, thereby only reinforcing colonial stereotypes. Aside from what was starkly evident on the roads of the campus where the Forum was held, the testimony we got from indigenous speakers at the meeting we from CACIM organised with others at Belém to discuss these issues played a strong role in bringing me to this conclusion.
Looking back, the other very noticeable feature of the Belém Forum was that the event again retreated into a walled university campus, and that was once again, just as in Nairobi, heavily guarded by armed security personnel. Although this might well again have had to do with the social and material conditions that the organisers felt prevailed in these locations – with a sprawling working class favela just opposite the university gates, and where visiting participants were constantly reminded about the lack of safety on the streets -, that this was now the case for the second time in a row suggested that ‘the WSF’ had decisively moved into a new phase in terms of its relations to society. By its choices, it was clearly displaying a relationship that was uncomfortable with deprivation and its consequences – but that was also uncomfortably close to how elite sections of civil society live in gated and securitised neighbourhoods in much of the South (and for the matter, to how the WSF’s nemesis, the WEF, organises its meetings in the North). 
Along with this, two major new experiments were also undertaken for the Belem WSF: Belem Expanded, towards enlarging participation in the planning of the WSF 2009 through the net, which was an institutionalisation and systematisation of the practice started in 2005 of planning the Forum in a participatory way, and OpenFSM, the construction of a permanent virtual open space “to build another possible world”. But by their nature and the technology they demanded, both of these were by definition experiments for expanding the participation of ‘civil societies’ in the Belém Forum (and for deepening the reach of the WSF in these worlds) and not for expanding the participation either of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon who had not been able to come or of the incivil in Belém.  This initiative also sharply contrasted with the presence of the armed guards who were clearly there not to keep out the civil participants, but unnamed ‘others’. Perhaps they were afraid of a repeat of ‘Nairobi’.
This dichotomy was only further highlighted by the fact that at the meeting of the International Council of the WSF in Belém, and despite it being held on the land of the Amazonian indigenous peoples, the IC itself had only one member organisation that directly represented indigenous peoples, out of the 180 or 200 who were present. The huge irony of this glaring fact seemed totally lost on the meeting, which also made no reference at all to the social reality within which they were meeting, on conquered but unceded land.
Finally, the fact that both of the subsequent two editions of the world meeting of the WSF process have been held in Africa – in 2011 in Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa, and most recently in Tunis, in North Africa – is of the greatest significance both for the WSF process and for social movement more widely, both intentional and unintentional. 
The 2011 event was held in Dakar both because of the recognition within the WSF’s International Council of the strategic importance of Africa in the neoliberal project (and therefore also for its counter-hegemonic project) and also because of a longstanding demand by francophone Africans – since back in 2002 – to hold a world event in their part of the continent (and keeping also in mind that the first full WSF event in Africa, in 2007, was held in anglophone Kenya). 
Another reality that came to be of great importance for many participants, especially from the Americas, was that in history, Dakar was one of the most important ports for the infamous slave trade. The holding of the WSF there therefore now made visible, in a most profound way – for all participants, whether of African or other origins – the deeply historical and cultural umbilical ties between Africa and all of the Americas.
But as it turned out, the Dakar Forum came to have totally new additional meanings. As it happened, it coincided both with the historic Tunisian uprising during December 2010-January 2011 (and with the government of president Ben Ali collapsing on January 14 2011 and the president fleeing into exile just weeks before the Dakar event), and also with the equally historic uprising in Egypt starting on January 25 2011 and culminating on February 11, even as the Dakar Forum was taking place, with the announcement that president Mubarak would step down. So at one level, and even though the Dakar Forum itself was marked by massive disorganisation, and even if it was largely cut off from the discontent that was also raging at that time within Senegalese society, it was nevertheless bathed in the glow of these fires of resistance and hope that were now burning on the continent, that lifted the hearts of everyone who was there.
As is well known, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in 2011 widely ignited similar unrest throughout northern Africa and west Asia, and also encouraged the expression of related and similar discontent through the Occupy movements in North America and Europe, and also the indignado and other actions across southern Europe. (Less known is that the uprisings had been preceded and was accompanied by similar unrest right across the continent of Africa.) The decision to hold the 2013 event in Tunis – in what had suddenly become a world-historical space – therefore perhaps had several reasons, some on the surface and some underlying: It was in recognition of the Tunisian spark that lit the 2011 uprisings; it was in response – much more, say, than in the case of the Mumbai Forum, when it was the Brazilians who wanted the Forum to be held in India – to the wishes of Tunisian organisations who had been involved in the uprisings to organise a world event there in order to take forward their movement; and it was also to consolidate the WSF process in Africa and in the turbulent Arab region.
Whereas the Dakar Forum was marked by disorganisation – and thereby also by deep disappointment for thousands of participants –, the Tunis Forum was apparently, from all reports, very well organised. But at a different level, both Fora can perhaps be said to have been ‘successful’ in terms of their objectives, as outlined above. Naturally enough, participants at the Dakar Forum saw some linkage between what they were doing and the uprisings, even if tenuous, and the coincidence with the uprisings elsewhere on the continent gave it a glow of legitimacy (and helped people overlook their disappointments). 
But on the other hand, because both events again took place in the context of popular movements taking place on the streets and squares of cities – after 2011, not only in Africa but across much of the world – the fact they were yet again held in university campuses (and in Tunis as in Belém, again with heavy ‘security’ in place), also seems to reveal the WSF in another light, of shying away from the front lines and remaining an institution of civil society that still, after a decade and more, needs ‘security’ and the walls of civil institutions to allow it to function. It would be one thing if the rallying cry of the WSF in these locations had been, for instance, to ‘occupy the university’ and to liberate it. But it has never been this and to the contrary the WSF has limited itself to simply using the campus and being safely within its walls – and in a way, ‘the university’, with all its politico-cultural connotations, has therefore become the natural place for the WSF to be, cut off from the city and from society at large.
And indeed, it was in and from Tunis that this message was broadcast for the first time in the history of the WSF, where activists from the Occupy and related movements took it upon themselves to create an insurgent ‘Occupy the WSF’ force – outside and around the walls of the WSF, and in the streets and squares of Tunis. Things like this have happened in the WSF before – such as processions from the streets of Porto Alegre in 2002 bursting into and weaving through the Forum – but never in a politically articulated sense like this.
There is perhaps more than symbolic truth to this reality. As will have become evident from the above, in 2004 and 2005 – a brief period in the decade and more that the WSF has existed – it managed to get out of a walled university campus and into the city, but only to retreat to one in 2009, in Belém, and it has remained in such campuses since then. (In 2007, in Nairobi, it was held in a similar place. The local organisers organised the WSF in an even more gated, securitised, and remote location, a stadium far away from the city, with two rings of high iron fences and armed guards.)
Both observers and the organisers of the WSF like to compare and sort of equate the WSF with the Occupy and other public movements. It would only be good for the WSF if it could build up the courage to also move out from behind walls and into actually existing society, and in addition to creating space for exchange and reflection, if it was to use each event – and each preparatory and planning process – as opportunities to develop and live out the new politics that are discussed in the Fora but not acted upon there.  And more fundamentally, to make itself a part of the new politics that are today bursting out all over the world, rather than just talking about them but then standing apart from them.
In addition, the world meetings of the WSF process have also come to attract a wide range of other civil events and processes that see themselves as complementary to the politics of the WSF. This has included the World Forum of Mayors and Local Authorities since 2002; the World Education Forum since 2003; the Feminist Dialogues since 2004; the World Forum on Theology and Liberation every two years since 2005 and right up to the Tunis Forum in 2013; and in 2009 and 2011, a World Forum on Science and Democracy.
Each of these initiatives fertilises world civil politics in its own way, and holding their meetings at the same time as the World Social Forum surely both makes financial and logistical sense for them so that their members can take part in both gatherings and also because the world meetings of the WSF then in turn become opportunities for exchange and cross-fertilisation between these various and otherwise seemingly independent initiatives.
But while all of this is undoubtedly important, it is necessary to also see and to underline that that these are not totally ‘independent’ initiatives. Rather, they are deeply complementary – where all of these processes have come from within civil society, and never from incivil society (with the partial exception of the Feminist Dialogues, because of the historical and structural relation of women in society). The organisation of these complementary initiatives has therefore both deepened the civil foundations and roots of the WSF and contributed to the widening and deepening of the global coalescence of civil society mentioned earlier in this essay (including the legitimisation and strengthening of funding organisations and of funding), and in general the ascendance of civil society and of civil organisations rather than of popular organisations and movements.  And where significantly, this has happened not only at the formal and super-structural level – with, say, members of may of these various initiatives being also represented on the International Council of the WSF in one way or another, or where member or participant organisations in these initiatives organise events during the WSF – but also in the random and nonlinear interaction between individuals that takes place in such gatherings, where powerful open-ended synergies take place.
There are of course some exceptions to this rule, such as the successful attempt by La Via Campesina to use the WSF to build a Food Sovereignty campaign, but these are few and far between.  Feminists, for instance, remain sharply critical of how ‘the WSF’ continues to be patriarchal in its culture, despite their enormous contributions to the WSF process throughout, and how little it has integrated lessons from the feminist movement into its praxis. 
On the other hand, we are clearly at a stage in history where the incivil in society around the world – indigenous peoples, Dalits, fisherfolk, others – are organising themselves and interlinking, regionally and globally. The questions that surely have to be faced are: Does incivil society actually prefer to stay away from the WSF? And the WSF from the worlds and struggles of the incivil?
As is well known perhaps, the scale of the WSF process has also grown dramatically over the years. Starting from an estimated 15,000 participants at the first WSF in 2001, by 2004 and 2005 the world meetings – in Mumbai and then in Porto Alegre – attracted 150,000 people each time, and well over 100,000 even in 2009, in Belém. While this is certainly an indication of the extent to which the WSF interests and excites people, perhaps more important than numbers however, is the fact this participation has been dominantly middle class, coming from dominant sections of civil society within national societies, whether in Brazil, Europe, or Africa. This is only all the more the case if we also take into account the online, expanded WSF.
The Mumbai Forum, and since then even more emphatically the US Social Forum, have so far been the exceptions to this pattern, and therefore seem to offer important lessons for the WSF process. It is surely not a coincidence that even if the disused industrial site chosen for the Mumbai Forum had walls around it, they were crumbling, and that neither this Forum nor the USSF events had armed guards in place.
Over the years, the ‘world’ meetings of the WSF process have also come to be accompanied by a proliferation of social fora at regional, continental, national, and local levels – ranging from the European Fora every year since 2002 till 2010, the Asian Social Forum in 2003, and the Forum of the Americas every two years from 2004 to, for instance, the Québec Social Forum in 2007 and the US Social Forum in 2007 and then 2010, as well as thematic fora such as in Colombia in 2003 on Drugs and Militarisation.
These more focussed events – perhaps precisely because they were more focused – have also made their own very significant contributions to the ‘world’ social forum process and to movement at national, regional, and world levels. The Forum of the Americas, for instance, has been a key platform that the indigenous peoples of the Americas have used to converge and to advance their struggles more generally, and is understood to have contributed to their multiple very significant contributions in the region over the past many years, including to regime change in several countries in Abya Yala and to the historic Cochabamba Conference on the Rights of Mother Earth in 2009, in Bolivia.  And where the Social Forum process in the USA has played – and promises to continue to play – a key role in the coming together of the incivil and of the left in the US; by turning the idea of open space on its head and intentionally privileging grassroots movements and communities (and by excluding big ngos and big movement organisations from the leadership), and by intensively engaging in a praxis of action and reflection. Again, there are surely so many lessons that the world process can learn from these experiences that are taking place within the body of the WSF.
Lending a very different dynamic to the WSF, the organisation of social fora has also – over the years – generated a range of affiliated, oppositional, and/or autonomous zones and spaces around the Forum, both civil and incivil. This has ranged from Mumbai Resistance in 2004 to the autonomous zones that have especially characterised the European Social Fora but that also took shape at the polycentric forum held in Caracas in 2006, and then in 2013 as the ‘Occupy the WSF’ action in Tunis.  In my understanding, this phenomenon of oppositional alternatives, in its various forms – even though often superficially appearing to be a challenge to the Forum – is actually a meeting between the WSF and the world around it (and, as I have tried to say, is an encounter with social reality). It should therefore be seen as an integral part not of the WSF itself but of the dynamics of the culture of open space that the WSF attempts to practice, and that in this sense, these actions have only enriched and strengthened the WSF.
In these terms however, it is again significant that these sometimes somewhat incivil oppositional and/or alternative fora and practices have remained essentially local and sporadic manifestations. Unlike the complementary civil processes mentioned above, which seem to have only thrived and grown as a result of their juxtaposition to and synergy with the WSF, the oppositional processes have not – to my knowledge – yet coalesced to form an alternative or a challenge either at the regional or the global level, either to the WSF or to the structural injustices that they too were against.
Finally, and cutting across much of the above, I believe that there now several forces that are breaking through the WSF fabric as it exists, and that have influenced and/or are influencing not only ‘the WSF’ but also social movement more widely. Just to enumerate a few, these include the impact of the massive presence of the incivil at the Mumbai Forum, as already mentioned, that – as suggested above – widely sent out messages.  Second, the extraordinarily persistent efforts of feminists to bring colour, literally and figuratively, into the Forum. Third, the insurgent creation of the US Social Forum which, as already mentioned, has definitively and insouciantly turned the rules of the WSF upside down, but which the founders of the Forum have so far not dared to question. Fourth, the articulation of Axis 12 for the Dakar Forum, which specifically identified and challenged European modernity as a key issue in the civilisational crisis that it argued we today face – and therefore, to the extent that the WSF itself is largely a product of this modernity, therefore also implicitly challenging the heart and soul of the WSF itself. And fifth, the Occupy the WSF actions at the Tunis Forum. Each of these initiatives – and others as well – is a force that has pierced and cut across the WSF in their different ways, creating its own cracks, and breaking through it.
But on the other hand, even as I say this, it is useful also to recognise that the WSF has also equally been pierced and cut across by the forces of civil society, such as the coalescence of civil organisations that it facilitates and especially at the level of its International Council and organising committees; by the interplay between the WSF and funding organisations, as already mentioned; and by the evident alliance with ‘the university’; and that these are equally fashioning the actually existing WSF.
Some questions
This has been a somewhat sweeping summarisation of some of the main features of the WSF experience over its first thirteen years, 2000-2013, in terms of the dialectic of civility which I suggest has played a major role in the formation, evolution, and politics of the WSF as a historical process.  I would like to draw out a few issues, in conclusion.
First, and while in formal terms the WSF was conceived and configured – by civil society intellectuals and campaignists – as an instrument of contemporary counter-hegemonic politics, which implicitly includes social transformation, and while it has become fairly prominent in these terms, I suggest that this is not necessarily the same as being an arena or vehicle for social transformation, and that the two should not be automatically equated.  I believe that this is the case because the WSF is a creature of a somewhat middle-of-the-road civil politics that both structurally / culturally and strategically privileges deliberation over action, in large part because action usually threatens to be incivil. I understand this to be at the root of the tendency in the WSF to marginalise movement, and indeed to draw energy away from movement.
Instead, and second, I suggest that the greater and more central historical significance of the WSF is that it has been a very major, and very successful, initiative of progressive sections of civil societies from across much of the world, North and South, in terms of the longer-term politics and objectives of civil society: Of, at the minimum, attempting to gain leadership and hegemony over what it terms counter-hegemony, and beyond this, increasing its influence on social and political matters in society at large, including over incivil society.
And third, and to answer my own question in the title of this essay about learning by doing, I suggest that the WSF has indeed been an initiative that has been learning, evolving, and gaining strength as it has gone along – which in principle is always good – but that other than in the case of exceptions such as the US Social Forum, these lessons have so far been not so much about building social power but about building the power of civil society.
For me, coming to this conclusion means that I have to revisit and revise my earlier – and now, I feel, somewhat uncritical – arguments about the organic and unfolding nature of emergence, in terms of what role structural forces play in such processes.
In terms of where the WSF today stands, I think that the questions we therefore have to ask include the following: ‘Learning from doing, yes – but to what ends?’. Is the design of the WSF, and the political character of its leadership, such that these tendencies are inevitable, or does the WSF as an idea have the potential to break out of the mould it was created in?  And if so, what changes are necessary in the WSF process to more definitively make it a more direct contributor to social transformation, and what are the lessons we can draw for this from the exceptions in the WSF process and from the forces that are today breaking through it?
– Jai Sen, with a background in activism, is a researcher, writer, book editor, and list administrator on social movement. Based in New Delhi and Ottawa, he is associated with and
This article, originally prepared for ALAI, is loosely based on a section in an earlier piece of my writing, Section II of an essay in a recent book (Jai Sen, 2012c – ‘Towards Understanding the World Social Forum: Three Proposals’, in Jai Sen and Peter Waterman, eds, 2012 – World Social Forum: Critical Explorations. Volume 3 in the Challenging Empires series. New Delhi: OpenWord.) I here however revisit and substantially revise the ideas that I presented and discussed there, and would like to warmly thank ALAI for the invitation to write for them, and by so doing, giving me the opportunity to do this.
A shorter version in Spanish of this article appears in América Latina en Movimiento, No. 484, April 2013, ALAI: “Foro Social Mundial: ¿Momento de replanteamientos?”.

[1] For those interested, I have made and developed this argument over some years, in different essays: Jai Sen, March 2006 – ‘Understanding the World Social Forum: The WSF as an Emergent Learning Process – Notes on the Dynamics of Change’, in Mainstream (New Delhi), March 25 2006, pp 9-24. Available at; Jai Sen, January 2007 – ‘The World Social Forum as an emergent learning process’, in Futures vol 39 (2007), pp 505-522. Available through subscription @; and in the essay referred to above, Jai Sen, 2012c – ‘Towards Understanding the World Social Forum: Three Proposals’.
[3] From Clause 5 in the WSF’s Charter of Principles. (World Social Forum Organising Committee and World Social Forum International Council, June 2001 – ‘World Social Forum Charter of Principles’, dt June 10 2001. Revised and approved version of original April 2001 Charter. Available at
[4]Janet Conway, 2012 – Edges of Global Justice: The World Social Forum and its ‘Others’ (London and New York: Routledge), pp 1 and 2.
[5] Conway 2012, p 18.
[6]CUT Brasil National Executive Committee, nd, c.March 2013 – ‘Em Defesa De Um Fórum Social Mundial Autônomo, Plural E Representativo!’ [‘In Defense Of An Autonomous, Diverse And Representative World Social Forum!’, in Portuguese]. Flier for circulation at the Tunis Forum. CUT was one of the founding organisations of the WSF, and along with the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra; ‘Landless Workers’ Movement’), represented mass movements in the founding of the WSF. Its flier makes clear its opposition to how the social and political character of the WSF has been changed since then. The preparation and circulation of a flier such as this – by one of the founders – is, as far as I know, unprecedented in the history of the WSF.



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