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And here, to round out today's update, is a piece regarding the recent
WSF in Mumbai India...
Mumbai, WSF, and Our Futures
WSF 4 in Mumbai was a quite different experience than prior Porto Alegre
WSFs. In many respects it was better organized. Women were far more
visible, empowered, and empowering - often providing the most important
as well as the best presented material. The attendee composition altered
dramatically from being overwhelmingly South American with a significant
U.S. and European presence, to being overwhelmingly Asian with a
significant African and some U.S. and European presence.
Whereas the city of Porto Alegre was a well off, small,
left-administered welcoming host in a left-administered welcoming
Brazilian state -- Mumbai was the indifferent massive financial center
of an indifferent right-leaning India. The pervasive poverty of Mumbai's
streets exceeded anything I had seen before. The mammoth Mumbai bustle
transcended other bustle I'd seen, as well. It feels misleading to use
the same term "diversity," to describe what was present in Mumbai and to
also describe Western cultural variety. Diversity in India, and
apparently in Asia more broadly, is truly diverse.
My knowledge of India is less than minuscule. I went there to learn and
I am not even sure I managed to do that. But two aspects particularly
The slums are enormous and horrendously poor. Everyone knows that, and
we also broadly understand poverty's imperial and corporate and caste
sources. Seeing the hunger is different than just "knowing it," but even
beyond that, what struck me is that despite the evident magnitude of
suffering, the usual tension, anger, and rage that characterize slums in
the U.S. seemed absent.
Something in India leads those stretching their hands up from the
gutters for a pittance to feed a family, or those working the corridors
of five star hotels (that are barely as ritzy as small Holiday Inns in
the U.S.), or those sitting outside shanties watching the relatively
well off stroll past, to not exude hostility and anger and even
knife-edge violence. I was told that theft from tourists is minimal and
my meager experience around the city suggested the claim was true. The
slums aren't policed that I could see and even at the interfaces between
destitute and wealthy, the police presence seemed less numerous and less
fearsome than in the U.S.
Supposing that I was seeing even reasonably clearly, I would imagine the
cause of the relative quiescence is religion, and in particular the
caste system. On the one hand, I felt like this relative peacefulness
probably made life at the bottom in India far less horrible than if
everyone also constantly feared passers-by on every street, and if many
suffered drug addicted or incarcerated or murdered relatives, as in many
regions of the U.S. On the other hand, I felt like an age-old question -
"why don't hungry people steal?" - was even more relevant here in India,
with its hundreds of millions of desperately poor, than it is relevant,
say, in the U.S., with thirty million below the poverty line.
At last year's WSF, Arundhati Roy worried that to have the events in
India would enable India's fundamentalist Hindu elites to put a pretty
face on the society, aiding their attempts to rise to horrific
domination. After WSF 4, I haven't heard any comment on this
possibility. But I fear that Roy may have been right.
Roy herself, and a few others from India, and some folks from outside as
well, quite courageously conveyed to the WSF attendees, as best they
could in the time allotted, a picture of Hindu fundamentalism engorging
its appetites with little restraint. They weren't tossing around
epithets like "fascist" and "fundamentalist" lightly, as many in the
U.S. do when referring to Bush. They knew what the words imply, and they
used them knowingly, describing the thugs seeking to rise to ultimate
power as willing, able, and already quite practiced at ripping the
innards out of people - mostly Muslims -- for street sport as well as
They described still localized but rising Nazi German violence levels,
though without the concentration camps, as yet. The young child who
watched in the streets of Gujarat as his Hindu school teacher killed his
Muslim father. The mass rapes, the murders, the body limbs torn off and
body organs mutilated, the slow but steady escalation toward the hell
that is real fascism, was the image I got from speakers who I very much
At the same time, however, I could not myself feel anything like this in
the streets of Mumbai or Pune, a nearby city we also visited. There was
nothing in the behavior or the words of the potential victims or of the
potential purveyors who I encountered that gave away feelings that they
were afraid that they would soon be victim or victimizer in a burgeoning
massacre. And so this was the second big aspect of India I could not
People I met were not thinking of leaving the country, or of security in
any sense. And on the streets, people were not displaying the macho
brown shirt style or the savvy fear that you might anticipate in a
run-up toward fascism. Yet, even against my own senses, I believed Roy
and others who described what they thought was coming. I suspect that
the massive celebrations of diversity and hope within the Mumbai WSF
events left very few people going home to the West wondering, as I was,
if they would soon be opening their homes to people fleeing an India
that had gone berserk.
But what of the WSF itself?
The fact that it was teeming with attendees and speakers, becoming a
kind of progressive self-contained universe, was nothing new. That many
more people were marching and celebrating outside speakers' venues than
were attending the speaking events themselves was new, however. It
apparently owed in part to poor translation facilities. If you came from
parts of India that didn't leave you fluent in English or Hindi, you
were at a loss to understand many talks being given. But I suspect
people not attending talks had another reason as well. As with other
WSFs most of the presentations were about how bad globalization,
capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and caste relations, not to mention
Hindu fundamentalism, are. The people parading all day outside the talks
knew all this without having to hear it. Does it really make any sense
to get up on a stage and talk about the ills of poverty and of indignity
in a city like this - where walking five minutes in any direction
outside the gates of our event offers incontrovertible evidence of the
claims -- evidence so powerful, so humbling, so sickening, and so
overwhelming, that no speaker could possibly expand on its message?
That said, this WSF marked a continuing evolution of the forum process
in desirable directions. The slogan "another world is possible" has now
become so central and ubiquitous that it begins to grate a bit in its
constant repetition. But, on the plus side, the constant repetition is
provoking further elaboration. People are taking the slogan beyond
assertion to description. The WSF has been propelling a mood receptive
to vision and is now getting serious about pursuing vision directly. To
not only assert another world's possibility, but to also describe its
main features will be very much to the good. And the same is true for
the WSF's continuing impetus toward causing diverse and even mutually
hostile elements to civilly attend to each others words. This too is
Two central tensions of the WSF still exist, however. First, the WSF has
been a venue for information exchange. When you do that over and over,
with the information remaining mostly familiar...you start to atrophy.
Taking the event to a new continent means reaching new audiences so that
old substance is rejuvenated by reaching new listeners. But many people
want more than that. They feel that with a burgeoning momentum of
connections and commitments spanning the world, there ought to be a
program that the WSF adopts, furthers, and wins. What about the WSF
programmatically addressing war, say - or corporate globalization, or
the trends in India, for that matter, or even something narrower such as
boycotting particular firms engaged in especially horrible practice.
The response from what I think is probably a large majority of WSF
organizers is that the WSF and the forum process more broadly isn't
about itself becoming a new programmatic organization, or even about
itself congealing a movement of movements, but is about creating a
mechanism for all those who themselves might wish to do those things to
interact with one another and learn from one another and create ties and
then act as they deem desirable.
The WSF achieves that necessary and desirable communicative goal, its
defenders say, so why risk ruining it? The venue is so wide in its
participants that it is folly to think they could all work together as a
united organization with a single shared program. Social democrats,
Leninists, anarchists, feminists, and all kinds of local groups can't be
welded into united activism just by decreeing the WSF to be a new
International. Rather, with the WSF as a communicative venue, its
defenders say, we have a local, regional, national, continental, and
world vehicle to assist those who want to construct viable and worthy
cross-border alliances and movements of movements. Let the participants
get on with those tasks, but let them construct their new mechanisms
beyond the WSF, by all means.
I think this formulation is reasonable. The forum process shouldn't try
to become what it is too broad to sensibly attain and it should persist
in what it does well. Yet, the fact remains, the glue that has held the
forum process together and the innovation that has given it momentum,
are beginning to lose their gloss. Something needs to be upgraded or
renovated or added to provide new momentum, even while carefully
avoiding risking what is still working well.
What about this as a possibility? The Social Forum process, at every
level, is about information exchange. One big improvement would be if
the information exchanged, especially that which is highlighted and
emphasized in the most major and best promoted sessions, swung more
toward issues of vision, strategy, and practical lessons from what
people are doing, and away from descriptions of oppression and analyses
of oppression's all too familiar systemic roots. But even this
reorienting of focus, as positive as it would be, would still leave us
with a gigantic apparatus being used only to talk, dance, sing, and
otherwise experience one another's views and styles, and to do so only
for a few days each year. Can't the WSF apparatus do something that is
more sustained, without pulling apart inwardly?
Well, if the purpose of the WSF is to debate, assess, and help people
utilize information - why can't the forum movement try to facilitate
worthy and inspiring information flow all the time, and not only during
the events? Why can't it put its weight behind aggressively supporting
alternative media, on the one hand - and behind aggressively assaulting
mainstream media, on the other hand?
No one related to the WSF process, I think, would balk at either of
these agenda items as being somehow contrary to their local beliefs or
priorities. It so, then why can't the WSF help organize into existence
an international movement working on behalf of enlarging alternative
media on the one hand, and of coercing better content from mainstream
media on the other hand?
In this sense the WSF could undertake to help build a new international
activist offensive on a scale like that of the anti-corporate
globalization movement, but now with targets all over every country,
including mainstream TV, radio, and print media outlets worldwide. The
effort would have an activist, "raise the social costs until you meet
our demands" component. And the effort would have "a positive build a
better world" in our own media component, as well.
The only ideology this media movement would need is that truth in media
is better than lies in media and that media concern for the well being
of billions is better than media concern for the well being of thousands
and that media in the hands of the people is better than media in the
hands of corporate behemoths. And this ideology could be adopted without
violating or even transcending the WSF's current definition - which is
to facilitate honest, respectful, progressive, information exchange. A
WSF media focus might provide excitement and momentum sufficient to
rejuvenate and galvanize the forum process, as well as providing an
immensely valuable contribution to movements worldwide.
The second major tension dogging the WSF has revolved around internally
living up to its own values. We want transparency, democracy,
participation, even participatory democracy in the world around us. But
these qualities don't exist regarding the WSF's own operations and that
creates an abiding tension, not to mention ensuring that the developing
structure has embedded at its core failed techniques which will, in
time, fail again. What can we do?
This is a very nearly intractable problem, as the defenders of what has
been done until now implicitly claim. The fact is, we don't have massive
movements in country after country that are themselves participatory and
accountable, so how can we possibly generate something international
that is way better on these counts? It is a fair question. And what has
been done to date, when one remembers this context and question, though
far from optimal hasn't been as horrendous as it could have been.
My own inclination, nonetheless, is to feel that having an international
decision making council composed of people who are largely unaccountable
and even unknown to anyone outside the convened room, and above which
council there operate even smaller groups with still more power and
still less transparency and accountability - however, understandable, is
not a recipe for lasting and even accelerating success. But would
reforming this international council apparatus by requiring that
everyone involved be openly known, and be accountable to large
constituencies, and operate with final say instead of being subordinate
to still smaller and even less accountable groups - solve the problem?
It would help a lot, that's true. But is it a possible goal in our
current international situation? Are there are a sufficient and diverse
enough array of constituency-based progressive organizations to produce
recallable, accountable representatives to such an international
council? More, even if it could be done, would it be enough?
As another possibility to consider - perhaps in parallel - what if we
the Social Forum process began to see itself as the fledgling
infrastructure of an experiment not only in international communication,
but also in participatory democracy? Can we envision social forums
forming locally in cities and villages all over the planet? I am told
there are a hundred in Italy. Imagine that density of per capita local
forums, and even four or five times that level world wide.
Could this wide spectrum of local forums become a layer from which are
chosen bodies of, say, from 100 to perhaps 1000 recallable
representatives, for each country, who would be the accountable,
recallable, decision body for that country's Social Forum? And could the
country-wide forums then choose, even if by imperfect means, accountable
and recallable decision bodies for regional events? And so on. It isn't
hard to imagine all kinds of interesting options...once the broad idea
of having the social forum structure be generated bottom up from local
forums, rather than hanging top down from a yearly central forum.
I suspect that many other problems of the forums - such as having the
same speakers repeatedly, overemphasizing analyses of ills and
underemphasizing reports and lessons of activism and ideas for vision
and strategy, unbalanced gender and geographic representation, and
financial difficulties for attendees made bitter by bonuses for the
notables, might evaporate were this kind of dynamism and exemplary
participation developed. I also suspect many new innovations and
exciting elaborations would percolate upward from the people who daily
engage in the activities that make the forum possible. This would all be
hard to do, of course. But at some point, don't we have to move from
talking about people having a real say to people in fact having a real
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