World Social Forum & the Trap of 'Civil Society'
sankara83 at hotmail.com
Sat Feb 2 03:05:28 MST 2002
An excellent critique of the World Social Forum in Brazil below. I hope
this is new material for some. I sure am sick of hearing about the glorious
"participatory budget" in Porto Alegre.
When Naomi Klein spoke in Vancouver she laughed off a question from a young
woman about rebuilding the social democratic NDP. Instead, Klein
recommended "taking the cities first", like in Porto Alegre. What kind of a
party, or organization (if any) was needed to take the cities of Canada,
Naomi left us on our own to discover.
It seems like in some circles Porto Alegre is becoming like the "Russia,
1917" of various vanguard groups. Personally, some of my favorite
references for the possibilities of "another world" include Havana, 1959,
Nicaragua, 1979 and Ouagadougou 1983 when Thomas Sankara said "we wish to be
the heirs of all the revolutions of the world...".
Open Letter to the Trade Unionists and Activists Participating in the World
Social Forum 2002 in Porto Alegre, Brazil:
Is it possible to put a human face on globalization and war?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We, the undersigned Brazilian trade unionists, want to open a dialogue with
you. We are living through a terrible situation the world over. The U.S.
government, under the cover of the United Nations, is using the heinous
terrorist attacks of September 11 to intensify a political agenda of
"full-scale, protracted war" -- as Bush himself has stated. It is a war that
started with the bombing of Afghanistan and is far from over.
In neighboring Argentina, the people -- after years of governments that had
submitted to the dictates of the IMF and applied the politics of
privatization, destruction of workers' rights, and bleeding the nation to
pay back the foreign debt -- took to the streets and threw out the
"center-left" government of Fernando De la Rua. They made it clear they
wanted an end to policies that had plunged millions of Argentineans into
misery and hunger -- all in the name of "modernization," the "exigencies of
globalization," the "criteria" of the Mercosul regional "free trade" pact,
and the preparation of the country for the FTAA!
In this new situation, the "powers that dominate the world" -- that is, the
multinationals; the financial speculators; the international financial
institutions such as the WTO, World Bank and IMF; and all the governments in
their service -- have declared an economic and political war against the
workers, against their organizations, and against the peoples. Their aim is
to use the tragic events of September 11th to roll back all the rights and
conquests wrested through bitter struggle by working and oppressed peoples.
Their aim is to destroy any and all barriers to their plunder of natural
resources and their unbridled quest for profit and exploitation.
The struggles of resistance against these scorched-earth policies cry out
for the unity of working people the world over -- from North to South and
from East to West. It requires the united struggle of oppressed and
exploited peoples to stop this offensive of war and destruction, which is
leading the world to the brink of barbarism. Only through such united
struggle in defense of the rights and gains of working people will it be
possible to chart a way forward for the future of humanity. The Trap of
The WSF has presented itself, since its inception, as a forum for "civil
society." The very concept of "civil society," which is so popular of late,
erases the borders between social classes that exist in society. How, for
example, is it possible to include in the same category of "civil society"
both the exploited and the exploiters, the bosses and workers, the
oppressors and oppressed -- not to mention the churches, NGOs, and
government and UN representatives?
The organizing committee of the WSF in Brazil includes organizations such as
the Brazilian Association of Employers for the Citizens (CIVES) and the
Brazilian Association of NGOs (ABONG). They are joined in the committee by
other entities, which, to be sure, are connected to the struggles of the
exploited and oppressed -- such as the CUT [Unified Workers Federation] and
the MST [Movement of Landless Peasants]. Is this organizing committee itself
not an expression of the politics of "civil society" -- that is, of the
attempt to group together in the same camp interests that are in fact
contradictory and diametrically opposed?
Let's take the example of the campaign in defense of workers' rights
contained in the Brazilian Labor Code which we in the Brazilian trade union
movement are now carrying out. The CUT has issued a call to prepare a
General Strike in March 2002 to prevent the approval of PL 4583 by Minister
Dornelles. It is clear that the CUT is determined to carry forth with this
strike call should the situation require it.
What do the so-called "progressive bosses" think of these workers' rights?
What do the NGOs -- which both practice and promote "volunteerism" and other
forms of precarious and unregulated labor -- think about these workers'
rights? Don't all the jobs "created" by the NGOs, in fact, replace jobs in
the public enterprises and services, in line with the policies implemented
by [Brazilian President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso at the behest of the IMF?
The politics of "civil society" are today officially the politics of the
World Bank. What is the content of these politics? Judge for yourself. The
World Bank's World Development Report 2000/2001 puts it this way:
"It is appropriate for financial institutions to use their means ... to
develop an open and regular dialogue with the organizations of civil
society, in particular those that represent the poor. ... Social
fragmentation can be mitigated by bringing groups together in formal and
informal forums and channelling their energies into political processes
instead of open conflict."
Could it be a coincidence that among the funding sources of the WSF one can
find the Ford Foundation -- or that the World Bank's website promotes the
Porto Alegre Forum?
What is the role of NGOs?
Hundreds, if not thousands, of NGOs will be participating in the World
Economic Forum of Davos (to be held this year in New York) as well as in the
WSF in Porto Alegre. What is the role that those who control the commanding
heights of the global economy attribute to the NGOs?
In the official Word Bank document titled "The World Bank and Civil Society"
(September 2000), one can read the following: "[M]ore than 70% of the
projects supported by the World Bank that were approved in 1999 involved
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society in some manner."
There is a popular proverb that states, "He who pays the piper calls the
tune." The World Bank, as we know, is part of the holy trinity of capitalist
globalization, alongside the IMF and the WTO. Could it be that these
institutions are "neutral" and that they do not express the interests of
global capitalism? Let us look at this one concrete example: The
International Commission of the WSF met in Dacar, the capital of Senegal, on
Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2001. ENDA-3rd World, which is an NGO that has been actively
building the WSF across Africa, hosted and organized this WSF planning
meeting. What are the politics of ENDA?
According to its own documents, ENDA believes that "to prohibit child labor
is to deprive children, as well as their families, of an important means of
subsistence." ENDA affirms that "it is necessary to take into account the
socio-economic reality and, therefore, to fight for the rights of child
This stance by ENDA is in open contradiction to the positions of the CUT and
the international labor movement -- all of which call for the abolition of
child labor and mandatory education through age 15 of all children. The
place for children is in school! But not only does ENDA advocate child
labor, it is participating directly in the privatization of the public water
system, constructing wells and cisterns and charging the users a fee for
providing the water. (source: "ENDA: Water and Urban Poverty")
What about the Tobin Tax and ATTAC?
In the name of James Tobin, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and
fervent advocate of corporate "free trade," an Association for the Taxation
of Financial Transactions and for Assistance to Citizens (ATTAC) was created
-- first in France (1998) and then on an international scale. Among its
goals is the establishment of a Tobin Tax, which would create a tax of
between 0.05 percent and 0.1 percent on international financial
transactions. The money collected would serve to create an "international
fund" to help "development and the struggle against poverty."
As is widely known, ATTAC is today one of the main founders and organizers
of the WSF of Porto Alegre. The Tobin Tax, for its part, has won the support
of people as "prominent" as the multi-billionaire and speculator George
Soros, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and others.
Now, if a tax existed to finance an international "fund" to aid the poor,
one would think that the greater the financial speculation, the better --
because such a "fund" would have more resources. This rationale is not
Be that as it may, along with the Tobin Tax, ATTAC today is dedicated to
other ventures as well. It proposes to "change the world" under the slogan
"another world is possible" through "better control over globalization." But
is it possible to change the world without questioning the fundamental
relations of production -- without challenging the private ownership of the
major means of production? Is another world possible with a minimal Tobin
Tax helping to "control globalization"?
Bernard Cassen, president of ATTAC-France and director of Le Monde
Diplomatique, a newspaper controlled by the enterprise group of the daily Le
Monde, declared at the founding congress of ATTAC-Germany (Oct, 19-21, 2001)
that, "President Bush has taken steps in the direction of ATTAC's proposals
since September 11, 2001. It is clear that we still have a long ways to go.
But it is necessary to note that ... Mr. Bush is now against tax shelters.
We register this fact. Bush has come closer to our positions concerning the
role of the state, investing US$120 billion in the economy. ... He has
embraced our position on the cancellation of the debt, though he is doing
this for his own reasons. The U.S., for example, has just cancelled
Pakistan's debt, which proves that it is possible to cancel the debt."
Bush has just launched one of the largest-scale offensives against working
people ever, including the massive bombing of Afghanistan -- and yet,
according to the president of ATTAC-France, Bush is moving closer to the
positions of ATTAC. This is very interesting.
"A world without war is possible" Under this title, a special session of the
World Social Forum will be devoted to a "world without war." According to
the proposal from the organizers, this session "seeks to bring social and/or
institutional representatives of the regions where wars are taking place
together with Nobel Peace Prize recipients in a joint effort to reflect on
the nature of wars and to identify the possibilities of elaborating peace
plans." The following "regions" will be discussed: Palestine, Kashmir, the
Basque Country, Colombia and Chiapas. Curiously, the bombing of Afghanistan
will not be part of the agenda. How is it possible for the "all-out and
protracted" war launched by Bush -- today in Afghanistan and tomorrow
possibly in Iraq or Somalia -- not to be part of the discussion under this
Palestine -- which currently faces a dramatic situation, with the State of
Israel attacking on all fronts in open war -- will be discussed, with the
objective of "elaborating a peace plan." But what is origin of the current
situation in Palestine? It is the Oslo Accords, sponsored by the United
States (under Clinton) and then legitimized by the UN as a "peace plan."
These accords created a pseudo-Palestinian "state" (the Palestinian
Authority, whose headquarters are now being bombed), which was but an
conglomeration of miniscule so-called Palestinian territories surrounded by
the State of Israel.
Speaking of "Nobel Peace Prizes," it was the Oslo Accords that garnered that
prize for Yasir Arafat and for the Israeli chief of state at that time:
Shimon Peres. As a matter of fact, the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi
Annan, has also been graced with the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps in
recognition for the role that the UN played in perpetrating the genocide in
Rwanda -- or was it for the embargo that the UN has imposed on Iraq, or
better yet for the cover provided by the UN to the NATO bombers in
"Participatory democracy" and the "participatory budget"
The World Bank has just created an international department charged with
overseeing the implementation of "participatory democracy" in 26 countries.
It has also translated, published and distributed the book "The
Participatory Budget: The Experience of Porto Alegre," written by Tarso
Genro [former mayor of Porto Alegre] and Ubirata de Souza. Is this simply
disinterested propaganda of the World Bank? Or, on the contrary, do the
"participatory democracy and "participatory budget" processes not, in fact,
embody the above-cited strategy of "channeling energies" to avoid "open
All the documents which came out of the first WSF of Porto Alegre discuss
the "model" experiences of "participatory democracy" that have existed in
the capital of Rio Grande do Sul. The Second WSF continues on the same line.
Among the list of WSF workshops there is one titled "World Participatory
Budget" (nothing more nor less!), organized by the Governor of Rio Grande do
Sul "in participation with the citizens' movements."
But how does the "participatory budget" function in reality? In the
unsuspecting voice of its coordinator in the city of Sao Paulo, it is meant
to be a "filter for popular demands"!
Only one small portion of the municipal budgets -- in the case of Porto
Alegre the sum amounts to 17% -- is earmarked for discussion and allocation
by the assemblies of representatives of popular organizations (the council
of the "participatory budget"). These assemblies define how the priorities
should be set for the disbursement of these limited funds. (The bulk of
municipal budget monies are untouchable, as they have been earmarked to pay
back the foreign debt and other expenses.) As resources are limited, there
is constant in-fighting among activist groups over how the priorities should
be set. The "participatory budget" councilors are forced to choose which
they prefer: the creation of a school or a health clinic, pavement of the
roads, or childcare centers, etc. This is how the responsibility for NOT
meeting the demands of the population is shifted ... onto the backs of the
participants in the "participatory budget" themselves!
Now, who participates in the "participatory budgets"? The answer is "civil
society." In the case of a "participatory budget" assembly in the
municipality of Camacua, a businessperson sent "his" representatives as
delegates and won close to 70% of the votes to prioritize the pavement of a
road -- to the detriment of all the other demands!
Is this, as its supporters claim, "an innovative form of democracy"? Or, on
the contrary, isn't it a trap that seeks to co-opt the popular movements and
associations into the implementation of the city government's austerity
plans, thereby making them responsible for the "choices" that inevitably do
untold harm to the other popular movements and associations?
And what conception of society lies behind this "participatory budget"? It
is that of a society without conflicts, without contradictions, based on
"consensus among equals." But is this not the inverse of democracy, which
demands the recognition that contradictory interests exist in society, as
well as the recognition of the right of the exploited and oppressed to
independent organization in the face of the state and the exploiters?
What would be, for example, the participation of a union of public service
workers in the "participatory budget"? There are no lack of voices that say
that unions "should learn to function in labor-management cooperation
committees" and therefore should enter in such "participatory" forums. It is
reasonable to expect that the union delegate would seek improvements in
wages and conditions as a priority. But the association of homeowners may
want light in their neighborhood. Instead of directing their demands for
public power and mobilizing to achieve them through collective action, they
will be played against each other in the assemblies of the "participatory
budget." Many of you have participated in such assemblies. Is what we are
saying not the complete truth?
Brothers and sisters:
We, the undersigned unionists, will participate in the Trade Union and
Popular Assembly which the CUT has called in Porto Alegre on February 1st to
discuss and prepare the General Strike next March. But we will not
participate in the panels, workshops and official sessions of the World
We will not be there because we are convinced that the defense of the
organizations that workers have created to fight against capitalist
exploitation is contradictory with the politics of "civil society" -- which
dissolve the borders of social class. It is contradictory, moreover, with
the politics of "giving a human face to globalization" -- which, as we know,
is not a phenomenon of nature, but rather the product of global capitalism.
"Globalization" by definition necessitates the destruction of our
workplaces, our jobs and our rights. Capitalist globalization has destroyed
nations, democracy, and the sovereignty of the poor. It cannot be
We, who affirm the need to defend the trade unions as instruments of working
class struggle, deny any legitimacy or authority to the NGOs to speak in the
name of the exploited and oppressed. We do not claim to be the sole
possessors of the truth. We simply want to put forward our point of view --
which is part of the democratic process. We respectfully submit these views
for the consideration of all our brothers and sisters in struggle.
You can count on us as fighters in the struggle against war and
exploitation; in defense of social and labor rights, against deregulation;
in defense of trade union independence and democracy! You can count on us in
the struggle against the FTAA, and for the withdrawal of Brazil from the
negotiations to implement it! You can count on us in the struggle against
privatization and in defense of public services! You can count on us in the
preparation of the General Strike to stop the destruction of our labor
rights and to impose a defeat on the governments of FHC -IMF!
January 2, 2002
Signatories, unions & titles:
- Julio Turra, National Executive Committee, CUT trade union federation
- Hélcia de Oliveira, Vice President, CUT-DF
- Josenildo Vieira, Executive Committee, CUT-PE
- Maurîcio Rosa, Executive Committee, CUT-SC
- Monica Giovanetti, Executive Committee, CUT-PR
- Gardenia Baima, Executive Committee, CUT-CE
- Walter Matos, Executive Committee, CUT-AM
- Marilia Penna, Executive Committee, CUT-SP
- Luiz Gomes, Executive Committee, CUT-AL
- Gilmar Gonçalves, Executive Committee, CUT-MS
- Claudio Santana, Executive Committee, CONDSEF
- Jesualdo Campos, Executive Committee, CONTEE
- Cely Taffarel, Executive Committee, ANDES-SN
- Roque Ferreira, Executive Committee, FNITST (ferroviarios)
- Jaqueline Albuquerque, Executive Committee, FENAJUFE
- Joao Batista Gomes, Executive Committee, SINDSEP (municipais SP)
- Luis Bicalho, Executive Committee, SINDSEP-DF (federais)
- Verivaldo Mota, Executive Committee, Sindicato dos Vidreiros-SP
- Nilton de Martins, Executive Committee, Sindicato dos Radialistas-SP
- Roberto Luque, Executive Committee, SINTSEF-CE (federais)
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