World Social Forum & the Trap of 'Civil Society'

Derrick O'Keefe sankara83 at
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 
Civil Society

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 
Social Forum.

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!

Militant greetings,

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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