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World Social Forum at a Crossroads:
5th International, Solidarity Economy, or Stand Pat?

by Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone


This summarizes a longer article with footnotes downloadable at and  It was written after the authors’ January 2006 tour of solidarity economy initiatives in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. - Eds.


The main location of the sixth World Social Forum (WSF) this last January was Caracas, Venezuela. Our first WSF, it felt like equal parts Woodstock, hotbed of global action, workshop of the solidarity economy, and university-for-five-days―all stirred up. The largest delegations came from Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia, but it was exhilaratingly global.


Under the utopic slogan “another world is possible,” the Forums were started by, and are still under the control of, not political parties but social movements. Hundreds of them populate the meetings, defending:  women, workers, peace, the unemployed, the indigenous, rain forests, bio-diversity, immigrants, alternative media, access to water, land and food, and―centrally―the solidarity economy. 


The “solidarity economy” is at the WSFs’ core.  An early paradigm of it was “participatory budgeting”:  neighborhood participation in allocating municipal budgets, practiced in Puerto Alegre, Brazil, and now in hundreds of cities in and beyond Brazil. Porto Alegre was chosen for the first Forum in 2001 because it demonstrated an alternative to capitalism. The solidarity economy meets needs democratically, subordinating profit to human ends, and includes: all types of coops; mutual aid and barter networks; social currencies; credit unions; fair trade; and community gardens.  Some exponents see it as a complement to capitalism, others, like us, see it as a replacement.


The solidarity economy is central not just to the WSF’s history but to its life today. National and local solidarity economies are building regional, and now global networks, at global and regional social forums.  Often animated by coops of workers who occupy unused factories or land―e.g. in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela―these networks facilitate “inter-cooperation” or cooperation among coops. As more visible WSF sessions debate theory, the global solidarity economy is being built in the basement. A third of the Caracas program was devoted to this work.    


Socialists and anarchists debate within it, but the WSF is itself non-partisan and independent of all governments, parties, and ideologies. Its charter goes so far as to limit the WSF to this forum function:  "The participants in the Forum shall not be called on to take decisions as a body, whether by votes or by acclamation or declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority of them, or that propose to be taken as establishing positions of the Forum as a body. It thus does not constitute a locus of power to be disputed by the participants in its meetings." This principle has recently become controversial as the Forum has been asked to “take decisions as a body”including by us, though we would not sacrifice its valuable independence from politics.


Three Options


If in 2001 the WSF was “the birthplace of global civil society"―namely all social groupings between the public realm of the state and the private realm of the family―what should it be when that society grows up a bit?   Many feel that a change is needed. Explaining her absence from the 2006 WSF, Arundhati Roy said “[it] has now become very NGO-ized [non-governmental organizations]…it's just become too comfortable a stage. I think it has played a very important role up to now, but now…I think we have to come up with new strategies.”


Two strategies were debated at the 2006 WSF. One was to “get political” by making the Forum “the 5th International:” forming allied political parties and taking state power.  Thus host Hugo Chavez challenged the Forum to "draw up strategies of power in an offensive to build a better world” via a socialist “front.” He explained: “We cannot allow [the WSF] to become a folkloric and touristic event…We must have diversity and autonomy, but also unity in a great anti-imperialist front.”


There were also “stand pat” defenders of the Forums’ non-partisanship. One Forum organizer, Candido Gryzbowski, warned that to act globally through political parties, as had socialist “internationals” extending from the Soviet-based international parties back to Marx, would require a divisive search for a uniform ideology. Yet Gryzbowski offered no alternative action, implying it is enough for the Forum to share information only and not act as such.


While we agreed that party-building would be divisive, we also felt the “stand pat” option confused non-partisanship with inaction.  So we propose a third option: that the Forum as such be used by its constituent social movements to act not in the political sphere, but in the economic or civil society sphere, by focusing on building regional and global solidarity economies.     


Global Action


We point out to Gryzbowski that the WSF has already taken action.  The charter’s limit of the WSF to a forum role was conspicuously violated when the November 2002 European Social Forum called, and then the January 2003 World Social Forum organized, a world-historical protest against the then-forthcoming Iraq war.  On February 15, 2003, between ten and thirty million protesters filled the streets of 800 cities on all continents.  It was the largest demonstration in history and the first truly global one.


To be sure, no “proposal for action” was “decided.” The WSF simply took action, producing a non-partisan protest.  The war was not stopped, but a global opposition to it was confirmed that endures today.  If ideological agreement is a condition for joint action, division is a risk.  But February 15 proved that the WSF as such can act effectively without such agreement. Had ideological accord been a priority, the WSF’s variety of nations, parties and ideologies would have been an obstacle;  on February 15 it was a strength. And had the WSF’s aim been mere state power, it would have lacked the vast organizing appeal of moral authority. As it was, Arundhati Roy called February 15:  “The most spectacular display of public morality the world has ever seen.”


The need for global action is pressing and the WSF could be its agent. We watch in “shock and awe” as what is in effect a global state wages a global war against humanity; innocent victims multiply daily, from poverty if not from guns.  Despair dogs us.  Even if we can see our way clear to a socialism without Stalinism, we are tempted by the comfortable cynicism of “there is no alternative.” We need less a vision of a better future than examples that prove one is possible. So the need that impelled the choice of Puerto Alegreto demonstrate the viability of an alternative to capitalismis even more pertinent today. And if the examples actually build that future, so much the better.


Revolutionary Economics


How, then, can encouraging the solidarity economy replace capitalism? Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution” may be showing the way. As it pursues a sort of 5th International strategy, it is also sponsoring a large new cooperative sector capable of proving itself more efficient and just than the surrounding capitalism (see our “Venezuela’s Cooperative Revolution,” Dollars & Sense, July/August 2006).  If such a strategy on a global scale were to prove that democratic production can better meet human needs, the expanding solidarity economy could attract massive defection from capitalism.


This has never been tried.  Were the WSF to adopt such a strategy it would first be necessary to prove that economic action at a global level is possible for ordinary people.  Thus the transformation might start with:


• A global boycott of pertinent products, organized in advance by the WSF. Multi-nationals are unmoved by political protest if everyone gets a Big Mac on the way home. Economic action, hard to organize, is directly potent.  The months-long boycott of U.S. products following start of the Iraq war might be built on. Even now, Coca-Cola often markets in the Mid-East under other brands.


• On a global “neighborhood assembly” day, neighbors might stay home to assess needs and resources. Brazilian participatory budgeting, Argentine “neighborhood assemblies,” and Venezuelan “communal councils” could provide models.  Tax breaks could help coop buy-outs and public contracts could go to newly democratized enterprises.


• A global “buy coop, boycott multi-nationals” week would radically boost the solidarity economy. National chains might be passed up for democratic enterprises; child and elder care might be got from neighborhood coops; credit unions could invest democratically.  In Mexico, Pascual sodas might replace Coke or Pepsi; in Argentina CUC shoes (a coop) might replace Adidas.  Going beyond Coop America’s “Green switch,” switching spending from the capitalist to the exploitation-free solidarity economy would prefigure a broader shift to worker control of the means of production.


On a global “economic democracy” day, workers might switch their labor from the capitalist to the democratic economy.   Instead of working to profit others, they might meet needs more directly by starting a credit union, coop, or local currency.


• A global “general strike,” initially a day, might combine buying and labor switches with a neighborhood assembly day.  The injustice of wage labor as basis of a system that pits classes, neighbors, and nations against each other would yield to direct, egalitarian relationships as framework and means for meeting needs.


Such collective consumer and worker action could ultimately shift production from patriarchal capitalism to worker-control socialism.


That economic processes should be democratic is, we submit, a non-partisan, even a non-ideological, goal on which anarchists, socialists, and other WSF constituencies already demonstrate convergence.  Active global sponsorship of economic democracy by the WSF as suchmodeled on February 15ought therefore to satisfy 5th International advocates of effective action.  At the same time “stand pat” guardians of WSF independence of parties and ideology can acknowledge that such sponsorship is no more partisan than was opposing the Iraq war.  To 5th International advocates, we say: if the point is to change the world, why take state power as privileged means to that end when today’s movements show that building the solidarity economy can directly change it? Moreover: since building the solidarity economy is a recruiting tool for Chavista “21st century socialism” it is fully compatible with later taking state power and forming a “front.”  To “stand pat” advocates, we say: since, instead of building the solidarity economy in the basement, the construction simply moves to center stage upstairs, the shift is small and preserves existing non-partisanship.


To all sides we say:  building the solidarity economy will not be easy.  Weaning ourselves from centuries-old consumer passivity will take moral fiber.  But solidarity with a global movement impelled by the World Social Forum will helpa lot.


On to Nairobi 2007


The Forum will have its first meeting in Africa in 2007. Realistically, we doubt our option will be taken up. Roberto Savio of the WSF’s “governing” International Council asks: “Is it possible to increase the WSF’s capacity for action?  The answer is essentially ‘No.’ It has not been possible to move past the idea of an ‘open space,’ which allows for the exchange of ideas and experiences and the creation and strengthening of alliances but prevents the formulation of proposals or calls for concrete action by the forum.” February 15 is of course an obvious counterexample overlooked by those Savio complains of here.


Still: On to Nairobi.  Africa has been underrepresented in the WSF and no consensus can be complete without this major part of humanity.  Our proposal’s inclusiveness suits it to the WSF as a still-growing movement.  It might gain acceptance after Nairobi.


The Caracas Forum inspired us.  Its under-appreciated powers drew us into debating its direction. We hope others will join in.  The debate is only starting, but it already belongs to all of us. 



Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone are members of the GEO collective. They are also among the co-founders of the bilingual Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where they serve as research associates, and are co-authors of many articles on Cooperative Economics and Jean-Paul Sartre.



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