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A Week at the World Social Forum— Where are the Co-op Activists?
By Isaac Ashton, SOMOS (Student Organized Movement for Ownership Solutions)


We live in extreme times. We see in our world today extreme polarizations of rich and poor, educated and uneducated, powerful and powerless. And while those of us in the richest country on earth seem to be in the most fear and despair, the people of some of the poorest countries in the world have a cause for the opposite extreme of celebration and hope. The reason is the World Social Forum. The WSF was created a few years back as a conference to represent the concerns and interests of the people of the developing world and has since grown into the largest and most inclusive international meeting of grassroots activists and community members in the world today. It was made as a response to the yearly meeting of the World Economic Forum, a highly publicized conference tucked far away in the mountains of Switzerland, which attracts the wealthiest businessmen and most powerful politicians in the world. While the men from the WEF continued on believing they could plot the fate of the world without the input from the rest of the 99% of the global population, the grassroots movement of activists that brought the WSF together thought differently. The fourth WSF was just held in India a few weeks ago attracting over 100,000 people from all over the world representing thousands of social movements. There were over 1200 workshops and discussions over the five day period, beginning and ending with stirring speeches and artistic performances. Inspiring banners draped the entire camp ground, and through the whole week bands played and people sang and marched through the streets. It was amazing to see the rainbow of cultures united together under a single banner—“ Another World is Possible.”

This was my second time at the WSF representing groups called SOMOS and Self-Management International Interchange, both youth organizations working to promote greater grassroots participation in the economy through worker cooperatives and other forms of democratic businesses. My main reason for going to the last two WSFs was to give a workshop called “Worker Cooperatives and Economic Justice” aimed at inspiring young activists in the potential of cooperative movements as a tool to fight neo-liberalism and simultaneously alleviate poverty. The workshop went great. After a modest attempt at advertising, about 20 people came and afterward we were all enthusiastic to work together across the seas on common projects. I left excited but also a little concerned. One of the main uniting causes of the WSF is to seek alternatives to neo-liberalism which people from all over the developing world rightly see as a threat to their future prosperity and sovereignty. But out of more then one thousand workshops the one I gave was the only one I found which addressed the idea of taking the economy in our own hands through control and ownership of business. Most of the others dealt with the problems of capitalism, empowering unions, using boycott campaigns, empowering political parties, or promoting the fair-trade movement. These are all important, no doubt, but there seems to have been a collective blindness, as in many of the progressive movements, which only sees putting pressure on the current system to improve it rather then seeking alternatives, or, if alternatives are presented, only ones which are too far away or impractical to implement in our current climate. At the WSF, activists had the choice between improving or resisting capitalism or fighting for socialism, yet there seemed to be an appetite for something else, an answer not present. To me that answer has been the movement for worker cooperatives and democratic businesses.

I saw those few who came to my workshop become energized by the idea, but I can only wistfully imagine the potential flood of interest there would have been with more publicity and more hands involved. I think many people realize at some level that unless we build an alternative and democratic economy, few of our social justice movements will be able to succeed in the long run. The number one problem with the cooperative movement, from the perspective of one recently introduced, is lack of publicity. In my experience, it's been a long uphill battle to uncover information and meet people involved in the world's current cooperative movements. If others have to go through that, then the movement will never work. We need to spread this concept and make information easier to come by at the grass roots level and as wide as possible and the WSF, which gathers NGOs, activists, students, and community members, could be one of the most efficient, productive and powerful ways of spreading this idea to all corners of the globe.

I have a vision for the next WSF, which will be held in Porto Alegre again in January of 2005, where we have constant information stalls, banners, tables and flyers everywhere promoting and informing about cooperatives and democratic businesses. I can imagine an abundance of workshops and discussions about democratic businesses for activists, for youth, for unions, for unemployed, for women, for indigenous people. Workshops about starting up co-ops, about finding loans, about investing, about tying them with other movements like fair trade, about inter-cooperation between cooperatives, of strategies for large scale expansion and long term visions of a cooperative based economy. The list of workshops could be endless. The positive contribution this could have for all of our causes could be tremendous.

Unfortunately, I have gotten the impression from visiting some of the large cooperative organizations that many are very inward thinking and too preoccupied for social ideals. It seems to me this initiative may have to rely on the efforts of more local groups and organizations. I and others from SOMOS plan to be at the next WSF and work towards this goal, at least for the youth sector, and in the meanwhile I think everyone interested should come together and make a planning committee. If you are interested in working together, our SOMOS email is cooperativeresearch@hotmail.com.

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