Skip to content

Tunis WSF 2015: Viable Systemic Alternatives in the Making

[Marko Ulvila] The World Social Forum in Tunis brought together in March thousands of organisations and tens of thousands of participants from more than a hundred countries to share and energize each other on the way to another world. My interest this time was on how the discussions for a coherent and viable alternative to the dominant and destructive world system are building up.

I started my programme with a session on ecological democracy, where prominent Indian ecological economist and philosopher Aseem Srivastva presented a comprehensive case for swaraaj building on Gandhian tradition. He explained how swaraaj does not really lend itself to an English translation and it is best to use the original vernacular concept also in international discussions. The notions of swa (self) and raaj (rule) combined refer to a system where self is sovereign in a context of a community, not individualistically. Thus swaraaj would be very different from the modern notion of democracy that has in fact become a corpocracy where people are bypassed by corporate power. An ecological, green (harit) swaraaj would mean a largely self sufficient region where cooperation and indigenous knowledge would flower, technology would be serve people and humanise the scale and speed of production and agriculture would be a central concern.

A session on systemic alternatives gave excellent accounts of various streams of thinking in one go. Genevieve Azam presented the case for degrowth as a systemic alternative most suited to the global North, not globally. Given the massive overconsumption among to high-income countries and income-groups the need to reduce (or degrow) the use of natural resources and related pollution is obvious. Christoph Aguiton continued explaining how the idea of commons has been recently revived after the clear dead-end of systems overly dominated either by the state or the market. It provides a perspective and practice where the power of communities together with care for the commons is the driving force. Boaventura de Sousa Santos argued that the alternative needs to deal with all elements of the dominating system, ie. capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. This requires a lot of inter-cultural translations since realities on the ground are very diverse. Also the nature of power needs to be addressed and resources built not only to take power but also change the power. Mary Louise Malig gave examples how community struggles for land and forest rights are concrete cases where the systemic pressures are resisted and viable livelihoods protected.  Pablo Salon concluded by emphasising the need to move out of anthropocentric world view and engage in defending the rights of the Mother Earth.

Third important session on the alternative vision that I attended was on comprehensive democracy where Indian senior movement personality Vijay Pratap presented a case for much wider and deeper understanding of our times in order to create the desired changes. He emphasised the destructive nature of the present system where the corporations rule and extract profits for few at the expense of the marginalised majorities and the nature. Understanding the depth of the present crisis is a starting point for imaging and working out an alternative that would have democracy in all its dimensions at the core. While there is debate on economic and social democracy, broader issues such aknowledge democracy needs much more attention. This is vital, since indigenous knowledge systems are much better in sync with local environments and it would be important to map out globally the livelihood patterns and knowledge systems of communities that use little fossil energy on none at all.

Besides working out the alternative vision it is necessary also work out ways that would take us to the another world. The most promising stream of events I attended in the WSF on getting the alternatives to flower was organised by the campaign to dismantling corporate power and to put people and planet before profits. The international campaign by more than 100 movements and organisations addresses the undemocratic political power of corporations by uniting local struggles against trans-national corporations with joint initiatives on global level. A key one of those is the proposal to establish an UN human rights treaty to control the corporations and end the impunity they now have for crimes against communities and nature. The sessions included mapping of local struggles and developing force for the UN treaty.

Another important attempt in getting the alternatives to flower was a on open discussion to prepare a strategy seminar later this year in Greece on movement strategies. The session was initiated by some of the central personalities in the WSF process such as Rafaela Bollini, Moema Mirinda, Teivo Teivainen and Chico Whitteker. The perspective of the debate was that during the fourteen years the WSF has not managed to make a difference in the global neo-liberal hegemony although in many countries progressive governments have been elected during this time. There is need for better understanding of the neo-liberal hegemony and ways for the movements to challenge and overcome it.

In that session I noted that though the financial crisis of 2008 discredited neo-liberal ideology to an extend, its practices have subsequently been more strictly enforced for example in the EU with the Comission now exercising budget powers at the detriment of elected parliaments. I noted further, that it is quite easy to find convergence on the critical analysis of the dominant system but much harder to work out a common alternative. There is need to understand differences in thinking in central issues such as growth (green growth or degrowth), technology (problem or a solution), optimal level of governance (global or local) and approach (board of single issue).

As before, the Assembly of Social Movements towards the end of the Forum was a central space for convergence especially among the popular movements. There also the language was more pointed, for example stating in the declaration that “we reaffirm our commitment to join forces to forge a common strategy to guide our struggles against capitalism”. Key topics emphasised by the Assembly were economic democracy, climate justice and food sovereignty, ending violence against women and peace. Also the importance of free media and rights to civic action were emphasised. “Long live the people’s struggle! Peoples, united, never shall be defeated!”

To conclude, the decisions at the International Council after the WSF pave now way for continuing common search for viable systemic alternatives within the social forum process. Later this there will be a dedicated seminar on common strategies in Greece. Next year in January Porto Alegre will again host a thematic social forum parallel with the World Economic Forum in Davos where the common alternative strategy is likely to feature more than before. And the next World Social Forum in August 2016 in Montreal/Quebec, Canada will hopefully be a place for further convergence. In Finland, the next landmarks are the Finnish Social Forum 25-26 April in Helsinki and the Tampere Social Forum 14 May.

Selected links:

Systemic Alternatives
Stop Corporate Impunity
Declaration of the Assembly of Social Movements – World Social Forum 2015

Marko Ulvila, 2.4.2015
Chairperson of Siemenpuu Foundation