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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