Are other worlds possible?

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THIS note provides the background to a series of seminars now started at the University of Delhi on the World Social Forum, the issues with which the forum is concerned, and the culture of politics that it offers. Collectively named ‘The Open Space Series’, the series is on the theme, ‘Are Other Worlds Possible? Cultures of Politics and the World Social Forum’. Organised under the aegis of The History Society, Ramjas College, the series will be spread over two terms, August-September 2003 and mid October-December 2003 in a lead up to the next world meeting of the World Social Forum scheduled to be held in Mumbai during 16-21 January 2004.1

The World Social Forum, initiated in January 2001 in Brazil as a challenge to the World Economic Forum in order to put forward another view of the world and its possibilities, is now widely seen as a significant world initiative. The motto it has coined for itself is ‘Another World is Possible!’ But, are other worlds really possible? And whether or not this is an utopian idea, what is it that the WSF is bringing to the task of building other worlds?

At one level, these are precisely the questions we want to explore. In particular, we hope to critically examine the culture of politics that the forum has formulated and posited, and that it is professedly practising towards its objectives.

The forum has declared that it is an ‘open space’ for the free exchange of ideas among those critical of and/or concerned with neo-liberal globalisation and its impacts, and about the social, economic, and political order more generally.2 This relatively undirected ‘open space’ is one where people from a wide range of streams of thought and action can meet and interact without feeling that they have to agree with the views of the organisers, or subscribe to one or another’s ideas or prescriptions. Beyond this, and consistent with the idea of an open space, any formulations and statements that emerge from the forum appear in the names of the participants and not of the WSF, which itself takes no positions or ‘leadership’ on any issues beyond what is given in its charter of principles.3

In many senses, both these propositions are different from conventional organisational culture and constitute a deep challenge to all those who take part in the process. But what is the actual experience of the forum in this area? And how do these propositions address questions of actually existing social structure and power in society, in different contexts across the world at this point in history and in transnational, ‘global’ space?

The forum itself has also developed a great deal since it began. It has moved from being a major event each January in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, timed to challenge the annual World Economic Forum held at Davos, Switzerland, to being a protest and an efflorescence and celebration across the world.

In November 2002, a European Social Forum was held in Florence, Italy, and over half a million people marched in a peace rally in protest against the prospective US-led war on Iraq. In early 2003, before the third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in late January, four regional fora were held in various parts of the world – the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad, India, the Palestine Social Forum, an African Social Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a Pan-Amazonian Social Forum in Belém, Brazil. This is aside from several thematic, national, as also city and college fora in many countries of the world.

There are also several ‘side’ or ‘peripheral’ events that take place during the forum, some planned, many unplanned. These peripheral spaces play important roles in defining its overall culture and in preserving (and elaborating) its openness. These include, for example, the Youth Forum and parallel events by civil and political entities that wish to relate to the forum but prefer to maintain some distance, as well as more formal ‘parallel’ events such as the World Parliamentary Forum, the World Forum of Mayors and Local Authorities, and the World Education Forum.

The annual world event – so far held in Porto Alegre – has also been changing. The first meeting in 2001 was predominantly a challenge to the WEF and to the paradigm of economic globalisation. It was only at its second meeting in 2002 that it moved to formulating and making a call for alternatives: ‘Another World is Possible!’

The steady growth in numbers attending the world event – from 25-30,000 people at the first to 50-60,000 at the second, to 100,000 at the third – attest to the relevance of the forum to people all over the world. But it is not numbers alone that count. This growth has also brought its own share of organisational and management problems, both at the events themselves and in the evolution of policy and strategy for the forum as an idea, sometimes tending to overwhelm it.

The third world meeting in January 2003 is widely considered to be the point at which organisers, participants and observers began to seriously talk about how to practise alternatives to economic globalisation and reflect on the extent to which the forum is practising the principles it preaches, but also – coincidentally – where serious organisational problems showed up.4

The forum is, therefore, becoming aware of its own globalisation, as regional and problem-specific forums mushroom worldwide. But are its ruling bodies, structures and processes appropriate and adequate to a phenomenon growing exponentially and spreading globally? More importantly, there is perhaps reason to think that the WSF has struck at the level of meaning. It proclaims that there is an alternative to economic, capitalist globalisation, that there are alternatives; and – crucially – to demonstrate and make manifest that people all over the world are today mobilising to define and to live those alternatives. In this way, the WSF – along with all the other forms of global civil action that are also taking place – is arguably playing a profound role in freeing peoples all over the world of the shackles of the colonisation of the mind.

But this also raises questions that the forum must ask itself: Most centrally, how can it most effectively realise the potential of the world transformative power that it is speaking to – and crucially, that it seems to be gathering? This ground is difficult enough, but there is more. During 2002-3, the International Council of the World Social Forum also made the historic decision, after prolonged debate, that the fourth world meeting of the organisation and process called ‘the World Social Forum’ will, for the first time, be held outside Brazil, in India.

The Brazilians chose India because it is, like Brazil, a large country with a more or less functioning electoral democracy and with strong and vibrant traditions of civil and political movement. It is also strategically located in Asia, the most populous continent in the world – and which had till then been very poorly represented at the forum.

To this Samir Amin, of the Third World Forum and member of the WSF International Council, later added that it was evident that Asia was the arena of the next strike of the US imperium. So it was essential for the forum to now be held there – and that if so, India was really the only choice, especially given the role it has historically played in South-South solidarity, and especially in terms of Afro-Asian politics.5

Based on this thinking, and some preliminary and informal discussions with some Indians known to them at meetings in Europe during the second half of 2001, the then-still forming International Council decided at its second meeting in November 2001 to send a delegation of members of the Brazil Organising Committee and the International Council to India to explore possibilities. A first meeting with different civil formations took place in Bangalore in mid December 2001.

There was strong disagreement regarding the possibility of holding the forum in India, however, and it was decided that another larger meeting be called to consider the possibility. This meeting, in effect the first national consultation on the WSF in India, was held in New Delhi in January 2002. It debated the question at length and concluded that the WSF meeting could and should be organised in India, but in January 2004 and not 2003 as had been previously proposed, primarily because 2003 was too close and also because the fact that there are to be general elections in India in 2004 offered a target for possibly using the forum as a vehicle for building a broader secular civil platform.

This perspective was generated within the understanding that the rampant religious nationalism we are now faced with is as dangerous as capitalist globalisation, and that the two in fact intertwine. The Delhi meeting also urged the International Council to look at the WSF more as a process than only as an event; and towards this it offered to help organise a regional social forum somewhere in South Asia in late 2002 or early 2003.6

Holding the forum in Asia and in India is therefore a major and ambitious initiative towards the globalisation of the WSF as an idea and as a culture, and will constitute a major landmark in its history. Although the fifth world meeting is expected to again be in Porto Alegre, Brazil, holding the meeting in India will set a precedent that will almost certainly be followed in later years – and indeed, whether or not it will be held elsewhere might well depend on what happens at this next meeting. So, quite aside from the challenges of the roles that the WSF can potentially play in world politics, it is a crucial testing time for the forum, in management as well as political-strategic terms.

Finally, there is the context within which all this is taking place. Over the last three years –the very years in which the WSF has taken shape – some important developments have taken place internationally. One of the more audacious acts of militancy took place on 11 September 2001 – which, as it happened, coincided with the first year of the forum. In reaction, wars have been unilaterally launched by some nations against others in declared pre-emptive defence of their self-interests, in defiance of world public opinion and opposition from a majority of nation states, brazenly bypassing the multilateral world order built up over the past century. And in the name of the ‘war on terrorism’ launched by nation states across the globe, ‘security’ and surveillance measures are being relentlessly tightened, as much against civil and political protestors as against ‘terrorists’.

The US has already moved decisively to the right; Europe seems to be moving that way; and Hindu, Islamic, Christian and Jewish fundamentalisms are rampant in different parts of the world, including in India and other parts of South Asia. Even as the economy unravels within its heartland, capitalist globalisation is riding triumphant across the world, and the shadows of imperialism and authoritarianism are increasingly evident.

It is in this context too that we need to see the WSF and the upcoming world meeting in Mumbai, and what they mean – or can potentially mean. Specifically, what is it that the forum and the upcoming world meeting can do towards addressing these issues and objectives? And more to the point, what is it that they are concretely doing in this direction; and put bluntly, how effective is the world meeting likely to be?

This is not only a historic step but also a historic opportunity and a historic juncture for civil politics and social movement at the world level and in terms of politics in India. But has the WSF, and the manner in which it is organising the world meeting in Mumbai, grasped the significance of the moment?

The recent bomb blasts in Mumbai only raise further questions and challenges for this initiative towards building another world. So far, the only response from the organisers (in India and at the international level) has been that ‘the bomb blasts will not deter us from holding the meeting’. But is this enough of a response? More to the point, is this even the kind of response that we should expect? Is the job – and potential – of the WSF only to be determined event managers?

Specifically, it is important to critically examine the vocabulary and culture of the politics of the forum, and what it in fact – and not only in theory – constitutes and represents. When it was formed, and as stated in its charter of principles, the singular position of the WSF was opposition to neoliberal globalisation, and implicitly also to a politics of violence. Over time, and especially in the world context that emerged in the period immediately following its formation, this has also come to include opposition to war and militarism. But this vocabulary has come to be dramatically expanded, now that the world meeting is being held in India, to also include opposition to caste, communalism and patriarchy.

After much debate at its recent meeting in Miami (June 2003), the International Council approved this widened vocabulary for the next world meeting. In principle, therefore, and even if all these new formulations have not yet been formally incorporated into the WSF charter of principles, the International Council has taken the first step of accepting this much-widened vocabulary as the forum’s vocabulary: for the world meeting in Mumbai will after all, be seen as ‘The World Social Forum’ speaking, not just WSF India.

On the one hand, this expansion substantially changes the forum, its constituency, and its politics. But what is significant is that during this same period, the WSF is also becoming ‘stricter’ and ‘demanding’ in terms of its politics. During this current year (2003), both WSF India and the WSF International Council have formally decided that organisations wanting to be members of its bodies have to give their written declaration of adherence to the WSF charter of principles. This stern organisational discipline is perhaps not a new idea, and is reflected in positions articulated by some of its more prominent leadership; but this is something that is only now being asserted, in its third year.

Do we perhaps not need to ask what purpose this widening vocabulary and growing conditionality serves? Does it help to persuade more people in the world of the value of opposing these empires, or is it in fact restricting – closing down – the ‘open space’ that the forum is said to be? At another level, what implications do these have for the initiative as an initiative? And beyond the taking of these positions by its leadership, just how are these developments contributing to helping the forum to effectively confront and contest these empires?

Given the highly volatile world context within which it is taking shape, the important initiatives and also positions that it itself is taking, as well as the major challenges it is facing, there is reason to think that the WSF is at a critical juncture. It would seem that the forum, as well as the thousands of organisations from across the world that are participating in and supporting it, would perhaps do well to take a step back and get a view of the larger picture of which it is only one part, one frame, one moment.

The seminar series now taking shape in Delhi is a small contribution to such a perspective. It has been undertaken in a context where the forum is as yet hardly known in India, either as an organisation or initiative or as a movement it is widely seen to be elsewhere, or in terms of the interesting culture of politics it appears to offer, the culture of ‘open space’. Despite holding the ASF in Hyderabad in January 2003, and its success, there has been little critical public examination in India of the forum, either as an idea or as a significant world institution.7

The twelve proposed seminars are organised in two interweaving streams. One stream deals with the structural issues that the World Social Forum has so far been concerned with and in many senses is organised around – economic globalisation, and militarisation and war – and also with the new issues that are being added to this vocabulary by it being held in India – religious fundamentalism and communalism, and caste, race and patriarchy. In short, the empires that confront us and attempt to bind us; the empires that the forum has decided to confront, both implicitly and explicitly.

The other stream – alternating and intertwining with the first – will deal with the relationship of the forum to such issues and to such empires, but organised not in terms of the issues but of themes that we suggest are crucial to understanding the evolving culture of politics that the forum offers: the question of old versus new politics; the increasingly contested question of the forum as space or as movement; the crucial question of the forum’s relationship to and understanding of violence; and the challenge that ‘the forum’, though commonly understood only as a world meeting that takes place each year, is – like much transnational movement – in many senses a construct in virtual space.

The series closes with two potentially stimulating sessions: one examining the question of whether socialism is really the only possible other world, and the other the possibility of whether the university as an institution can adopt the radical culture of politics that the forum in theory offers – of open space.

The invited speakers come from many different fields and persuasions, some well-known, others less so, but all with important and fresh contributions to make. Beyond this, one of the main objectives of this initiative is to involve and engage students in the idea and process of the WSF. The initiative will not be restricted to a series of seminars alone.

The series will also be punctuated by the publication of what promises to be an important book on the World Social Forum that in many senses has the same objectives and that explores broadly the same themes – but on a world scale. Co-edited by Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar and Peter Waterman, this critical collection of essays and documents on the forum – tentatively titled ‘The World Social Forum : Challenging Empires’ – is expected to be out in November 2003 and is likely to contribute strongly to the debate that this series will hopefully generate.

Jai Sen



1. This article is based on the Background Note to the seminar series authored by Mukul Mangalik and Jai Sen, with the help of Madhuresh Kumar. These three, while agreeing on the need to put together the series of seminars proposed in the Background Note, do not however necessarily agree on every word and formulation contained in it.

The stance in this article is therefore not entirely personal but rather for the most part represents a loosely shared viewpoint. For my own analysis and views on the Forum, see: Jai Sen, March-April 2002 – ‘On Building Another World [Or: ‘Are other globalisations possible?]: The World Social Forum as an instrument of global democratisation’. A paper for the NIGD (Network Institute for Global Democratisation) seminar at the World Social Forum on ‘Global Democracy? A North-South Dialogue’ held on 4 February 2002, at Amarzen, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Available at:; and: Jai Sen, August 2003 – ‘The WSF as Logo, the WSF as Religion. Take a moment to reflect on what is happening in the World Social Forum’. A discussion paper. (May 2003, revised August 2003.) Forthcoming in Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar, and Peter Waterman (eds.), – The World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. New Delhi: Viveka.

2. For a discussion of this concept of ‘open space’, see: Francisco Whitaker, nd [January 2001] – ‘World Social Forum : Origins and targets’. Typescript in English, 3 pp. Available on the World Social Forum website,; and, for a critique : Jai Sen, May 2003d – ‘The WSF as logo, the WSF as commons : Take a moment to reflect on what is happening in the World Social Forum’. A discussion note.

3. For a detailed discussion of the concept of the Forum, see Boaventura de Sousa Santos, March 2003 – ‘The World Social Forum : Toward A Counter-Hegemonic Globalization’. First draft, March 2003. Presented at the XXIV International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Dallas, USA March 27-27 2003. 35 pp.. Can be consulted at and cited from Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Forthcoming in Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar, and Peter Waterman, op cit.

4. While the WSF has itself followed a practice of encouraging reflection and assessment and of placing such documents on this website, the January 2003 world meeting perhaps marked the point when several more major papers were prepared either before or immediately after. All of these papers will now be appearing in edited forms in Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar, and Peter Waterman, op cit.

5. For an elaboration of Samir Amin’s arguments, see : Samir Amin (Third World Forum), interviewed by V Sridhar, January 2003 – ‘For struggles, global and national’, in Frontline 20(2).

6. For a more detailed discussion of this history, see Jai Sen, March-April 2002 – ‘On Building Another World’, as above, and also ‘The Long March to Another World : Reflections on the World Social Forum process in India and internationally’ (January 2003).

7. The few articles that have appeared in the more important national press include: Devaki Jain, January 2003 – ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Report on the Asian Social Forum’ Economic and Political Weekly, 11 January 2003; Sukumar Muralidharan, January 2003 – ‘Globalising Resistance’, Frontline 20( 2), 18-31 January 2003, and: Jai Sen, January 2003d – ‘The Long March to Another World’, The Hindu, 29-30 January 2003.