U.S. vs. Them

World Social Forum takes aim at empire

Jeff Conant

More than 100,000 people from all continents gathered mid-January at the World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai, India. Their purpose was to debate and build alternatives to the neoliberal policies and corporate globalization that have left millions marginalized, landless and destitute.

This was a challenging site from which to pronounce the forum’s slogan, Another World is Possible”: Among Mumbai’s 18 million people are some of the world’s most poor. 

But within the filthy industrial complex at the far northern reaches of Mumbai, another world was manifest. On one of the thoroughfares crowded with signs demanding debt cancellation and nuclear disarmament, a Brazilian politician stopped to speak with a French slow-food activist. Next to them, a Swedish health rights advocate in a Chinese Communist Party hat strategized with a doctor from Tanzania.

Demands for peace held together this year’s gathering, something of a change from the first WSF in 2001 that focused almost solely against the neoliberal policies fostered by the World Bank, IMF and WTO. If this year’s gathering promises any single result, it is the fusing of these causes. As Arundhati Roy told the crowd, There is not a country in the world now that is not caught in the crosshairs of the American cruise missile or the I.M.F. checkbook .”

The first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — an annual gathering where CEOs, academics and political leaders chart the global economic agenda in closed rooms high in the Swiss Alps.

Mumbai was in many respects a perfect site for this year’s gathering. The city is both a wealthy spectacle and home to millions of the world’s poorest people, many of whom were displaced from their rural homes by large development projects, such as the infamous dams along the Narmada River, general agricultural crisis or lack of opportunity. Development analyst Devinder Sharma estimates that by 2010 Mumbai will be 80 percent slums.

In a speech to health rights activists, Walden Bello — another luminary in the struggle against global economic apartheid — made it clear that the number one problem facing the world’s poor today is Washington D.C.” Throughout the winding paths and exhibition halls of the WSF grounds, placards reading Dump Bush,” End U.S. Aggression,” and Down with American Empire” echoed the message.

But the nature of WSF is nonviolent and transformative, and, despite all the history every delegate brings, few remain unchanged during the five-day event. On the last day of the WSF, an Italian woman promoting a campaign to Defeat Bush” rushed into the media center and informed all present that the campaign was changing its message. 

We are too negative,” she says. We need a positive message, one that Americans too can agree with. We have decided to change our slogan to A Better America is Possible.’”

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