Is the WSF being co-opted?

March 3, 2010

Olivier Bonford and Eric Toussaint are leading voices of the global justice movement, and members of the International Council of the World Social Forum (WSF) and the Committee for the Abolition of the Third World Debt (CADTM). Earlier this year, they participated in international events and meetings in Brazil about the future of the WSF.

In an interview with Marga Tojo Gonzales, they talked about some of the debates in the movement as the World Social Forum nears the end of its first decade.

TEN YEARS after the first use of the catchphrase "Another world is possible," a majority of humankind still lives in subhuman conditions, and with the international financial crisis, the situation has become even worse. Does this mean that the alternative-globalization movement has failed?

Olivier: When the question is asked in these terms, we have to acknowledge that the WSF and the alternative-globalization movement in general have failed to genuinely change the course of the world. At the origin of these World Social Forums, we find the objective of changing society into something better, with more social justice, less inequalities, where the fundamental human needs of all citizens are met.

But in fact, the question should be asked differently. We have to establish whether the WSF and the alternative-globalization movement played a positive part in the construction of a power relationship more favorable to the exploited and oppressed. The answer is then rather positive.

But there is nothing miraculous about the WSF. It is still a dynamic process, with its weaknesses and contradictions. It is also quite "young": The WSF is only 10, and the alternative-globalization movement is hardly older, which is very short compared to the forces they fight against--namely those of an international capitalist oligarchy and transnational companies served by such powerful instruments as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)...

A meeting of the World Social Forum 2009 in Belém, Brazil
A meeting of the World Social Forum 2009 in Belém, Brazil

AFTER TEN years, what do you see as the main asset of the movement?

Eric: The WSF has played a major part at two levels. First, in de-legitimizing neoliberalism as the one and only possible model for humankind. Obviously, the battle of ideas is not over and the logic of fatalism is still at work in many minds, but the alternative-globalization movement has been able to demonstrate the necessity and possibility of a global alternative. It has exposed the vanity of fashionable claims such as the "end of history" (Francis Fukuyama) or Margaret Thatcher's famous "TINA" ("There is no alternative").

The WSF's other important asset is that it has allowed, on the one hand, the construction and strengthening of international networks, and, on the other hand, interconnection between these various networks. In the context of our struggle against global capitalism, this is essential.

Indeed, faced with strategies and power relations that lead to isolation and/or competition among countries and peoples, it is essential to go beyond the national context and propose global alternatives that weave threads of solidarity, but also--and perhaps more importantly still--coordinate international mobilization and strategies for action.

In the first years of the WSF, there was obviously an interesting dynamic at work among the various forums, between them and the social movements, as well as ongoing international campaigns on issues such as the debt, the WTO, militarism, the environment, women's rights, etc. and the organization of large-scale mobilizations on the occasion of World Bank, IMF, WTO, Group of Eight (G8) and NATO meetings, or the overwhelming global mobilization against the planned invasion of Iraq in February 2003.

IT IS thus no longer quite the case today? Are you among those who consider that the World Social Forum is running out of steam?

Olivier: The Forum has clearly lost some of its vitality and usefulness, and part of its legitimacy (especially with the WSF in Nairobi in January 2007). [1]

There are various reasons for this: the WSF's institutionalization, the stronger influence of some large NGOs with significant financial resources, the propensity of some delegates for four- or five-star hotels, the inability to really merge events (over 1,500 events in five days at the latest WSF in Belém), the collection of funds from mixed or private companies (Petrobras, the large Brazilian oil company with 61 percent private capital, the Ford Foundation, the CELTEL trans-national company in Africa...).

Political developments over these last years have also had a deep influence. We have to remember that since 2003, the two countries where the Forum was most deeply rooted at the beginning, namely Brazil and Italy, have each been subjected to a government experience that has had a deep influence on the WSF--Lula's presidency in Brazil and the Prodi government in Italy.[2]

Significant forces that had initiated the WSF supported, and in some cases still support, those governments, which have implemented social-liberal or downright neo-liberal policies.

We also have to recognize that the WSF and the alternative-globalization movement have failed to achieve global "victories." Fortunately, on the Latin American continent, the struggle against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, directed from Washington, D.C.), which triumphed in 2005, is partly to its credit.

But on the global stage, while capitalism is facing a major crisis, we can't even get a tax adopted on financial transactions to curb speculation. Imperialist war adventures are more belligerent than ever. Putschists are still in power in Honduras. The Copenhagen climate summit was a patent failure for the superpowers.

The very fact that on an international level the movement has been unable to achieve any victory has resulted in many who were expecting prompt and tangible results feeling discouraged. In this respect, we can say that the WSF is running out of steam, in the sense that it needs air or fuel to get into higher gear.

Eric: It has to be added that a majority of the WSF leadership refused to move towards a movement determined to call for mobilization on a common platform. And without the concerted determination to mobilize on an international level, without the determination to establish common goals, it is difficult to move on.

Inevitably, the WSF looks more and more like some huge market for ideas (and proposals) that has not resulted in a convergence of objectives to struggle for. We do need an international instrument to set up priorities in terms of demands and objectives, a common schedule of actions, a common strategy. If the Forum cannot fulfill this function, we will have to build another instrument, without turning away from the Forum.

I think it serves a purpose. But since part of the WSF does not want it turned into an instrument of mobilization, we had better build another instrument with the individuals and organizations that are convinced this is what we need. This will not prevent us from still being active in the Forum. I am saying this to avoid a scission and endless debate that would lead to a sterile standstill.

WHAT NEW instrument are you referring to?

Eric: A proposal was made which, in point of fact, has had relatively little repercussion. I'm talking about Hugo Chávez's call at the end of November 2009 for the creation of a Fifth International composed of social movements and left-wing parties.[3]

I think it's very interesting in principle. There could be a new perspective if there were reflection and dialogue between parties and social movements: a Fifth International as an instrument of convergence for action and for the creation of an alternative model.[4]

But in my opinion, it would not be an organization like the previous Internationals were--or still are, since the Fourth International still exists--that is to say, party organizations with a fairly high level of centralization.

In my view, the Fifth International should not be highly centralized, and it should not require the self-dissolution of international networks or of an organization like the Fourth International. They could join the Fifth International and still keep their own specifics, but their membership would demonstrate that all the networks or major movements are determined to go further than the present ad hoc coalitions on climate or social justice, food sovereignty, the debt, etc.

We have common causes among many networks, and that's a positive thing. But if we could successfully form a permanent front, it would be better still. The term "front" is a key word in defining the Fifth International.

For me, the Fifth International would be, in the present situation, a permanent front of parties, social movements and international networks. The term "front" clearly implies that each would keep its identity, but would give priority to what unites us in order to achieve objectives and take the struggle forward.

Recent months have once again shown the need to increase our capacity to mobilize, because international mobilization against the coup d'état in Honduras was totally inadequate. This is a matter of serious concern, because with the United States supporting the coup by validating the elections that followed [5], putschist forces the world over are once again thinking that a putsch is a reasonable option.

In Paraguay, for example, discussion among the putschists is all about "when" and "how." They are convinced that a coup d'état should be staged from the National Congress against President Fernando Lugo. This goes to show that mobilization in the case of Honduras was not enough. Nor was it enough in the case of Copenhagen, and now Haiti. Response to the U.S. intervention in Haiti is totally insufficient.

WHAT DO you think of the recent development in the WSF, and more particularly, what is your analysis of the forums held in Porto Alegre and Salvador de Bahia in Brazil at the beginning of this year?

Olivier: The more positive side of what has happened at Porto Alegre in January 2010 was undoubtedly the launching of an international campaign against military bases on the Latin American continent. This campaign--Latin America and the Caribbean: a region of peace, no to foreign military bases--supported by major organizations [6], shows that the WSF as open space can still lead to mobilizing campaigns.

Another positive point: Lots of organizations were brought together in actions that prepare for a mobilization around the Peoples' World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, to be held at Cochabamba from April 19-22, 2010.

Unfortunately, the negative elements weren't wanting, either in Porto Alegre or in Salvador de Bahia. We have to underline the weak attendance of social movements (notably indigenous organizations that had had such a positive influence on the Belèm WSF in January 2009), and consequently, the debates were largely dominated by large non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which do not wish to question the underlying logic of the capitalist system.

Next, even though this is nothing new, these two forums were financed by transnational companies such as Petrobras. Petrobras is a mixed oil and gas company active in Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil, where it causes major environmental damage.

If we recall that Article 4 of the Porto Alegre Charter of Principles, the alternatives proposed at the World Social Forum, stands in opposition to a process of globalization commanded by the large multinational corporations, and by the governments and international institutions at the service of those corporations interests, we immediately understand that there is a problem.

All the more so, as these forums are marked by the imposing presence of the Lula government, both in its financial support, which is not anything new either, and in the programming of events. In all events I attended, there was one representative of the Brazilian government, who, as can be expected, stressed the positive results of the Lula government. There is thus a real danger of the social forum turning into an instrument of legitimization for a government with social liberal policies.

WITH RESPECT to the issue of the nature of the Brazilian government, some media described a keen debate between you, Eric Toussaint, and Socorro Gomez, the representative of Cebrapaz and a member of PcdoB [the Communist Party of Brazil]. During a debate on the new world order, you said that Brazil was a peripheral imperialist power. A member of the audience, who was also a member of PcdoB, charged you with playing into the hands of U.S. imperialism. What can you say about this?

Eric: Brazil has a specific position: with a national economy that amounts to half of South America's gross domestic product, it can indeed be considered a peripheral imperialist power that is able to decide on a political course without asking for Washington's consent.

We can apply the term imperialism to a country like Brazil for a number of reasons: the foreign investments of its transnational companies (Petrobras, Vale Rio Doce, Odebrecht) [7] mean that it has significant economic weight and can influence the political decisions of foreign governments (this is the case in Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador, despite the fact that these countries' respective governments are trying to retrieve some sovereignty over their economies, which leads to tensions with Brasilia).

These companies exploit resources and workers in the countries where they invest as much as they can; the Brazilian government's foreign policy largely serves the interests of Brazilian transnational corporations (TNCs); Brazil is gradually acquiring a military force capable of permanently intervening abroad (Brazil is in charge of the Minustah in Haiti).[8]

But we have to add the attribute "peripheral" to the noun "imperialism" to the extent that Brazil's is not a dominant imperialism comparable to that of the U.S., of the major countries in the European Union (or indeed to the European Union as such), or of Japan.

Brazil belongs to the same category as Russia, India and China, with whom they make up the "BRIC," an acronym that was invented some 15 years ago to refer to the main peripheral powers capable of developing a political and economic influence that dominant economic powers cannot ignore.

We must further specify that Brazil comes last in this foursome through its economic size and through the fact that it has no access to nuclear weapons. In this respect, it can be compared to South Africa.

Brazil and the U.S. have divergent interests in several respects: the economic interests of the Brazilian bourgeoisie in the areas of farming and manufacturing cannot be content with U.S. protectionism; the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet [9] and the U.S. military bases in Columbia and Peru are resented by Brasilia, as a sign of Washington's renewed determination to control South America and more particularly the strategic zone of Amazonia. The recent deployment of over 15,000 U.S. soldiers in Haiti, where Brazil runs the Minustah, has also annoyed the Brazilian government.

On the other hand, Washington, too, is annoyed by Lula's continued good relations with Cuba and Venezuela, its two main bugbears in the Western hemisphere.

The definition of Brazil as a peripheral imperialist power is not dependent on which political party--whether right wing or left wing--is in power. The word imperialism may seem excessive because it is associated with an aggressive military policy. But this is a narrow perception of imperialism. Did the loss of military power in Germany and Japan (and the loss of its colonies in the former's case) erase their imperialist nature after the Second World War?

The main forerunner in using the term sub-imperialism about Brazil is the Brazilian economist Ruy Mauro Marini, one of the fathers of the school of dependence.[10] He wrote, "We can consider Brazil to be the best current manifestation of sub-imperialism."

To answer those who contested such a term, he formulated arguments that have become even more relevant:

Doesn't the Brazilian expansionist policy in Latin America and Africa correspond, beyond the quest for new markets, to an attempt to gain control over sources of raw materials--such as ores and gas in Bolivia, oil in Ecuador and in the former Portuguese colonies of Africa, the hydroelectric potential in Paraguay--and, more cogently still, to prevent potential competitors such as Argentina from having access to such resources?...Doesn't the export of Brazilian capital, mainly via the state as exemplified by Petrobras, stand out as a particular case of capital export in the context of what a dependent country like Brazil is able to do?

Brazil also exports capital through the constant increase of foreign public loans and through capital associated to finance groups which operate in Paraguay, Bolivia and the former Portuguese colonies in Africa, to mention just a few instances.

He added an argument that has become stronger since he formulated it: "[I]t would be good to keep in mind the accelerated process of monopolization (via concentration and centralization of capital) that has occurred in Brazil over these past years, as well as the extraordinary development of financial capital, mainly from 1968 onward."

As a conclusion, he asserted that for the revolutionary left, it is essential to be aware of what sub-imperialism means: "To conclude this foreword we should repeat how important the study of sub-imperialism is for the development of the Latin American revolutionary movement."

During the debate at Porto Alegre on the new world order, I explained that, of course, the United States is the dominant imperial power and the most aggressive. Brazil is certainly not in the same league. I also severely criticized the European Union for its imperialism.

Nevertheless, Brazil is definitely an imperialist power with the characteristics of a peripheral power. I prefer the term "peripheral imperialism" to "sub-imperialism" because, since Ruy Mauro Marini first noted the phenomenon 30 years ago, Brazil has gained in autonomy with regard to the United States.

In fact, during the conference I was criticized by members of the PCdoB, whose party supports Lula. Indeed while staying in Brazil, we have clearly felt an intolerant attitude on the part of Lula's partisans. They are not prepared to hear the government criticized.

Let me add that of the other panelists taking part in the debate on the new world order, Patrick Bond of South Africa gave me clear support in my characterization of Brazil as practicing peripheral imperialism. He explained that South Africa was in the same situation as Brazil, and that the BRIC countries were not a viable alternative.

THE WSF is financed by transnational corporations that want to be seen as "greener" or more humane, and it is courted by political groups that want to use it as a campaign tool Some think it has been completely co-opted by the system and is therefore unlikely to do much good now. How do you feel about that?

Olivier: It is perfectly possible that the WSF could be gradually "absorbed" by the capitalist system. That would hardly be surprising. The capitalist system has long since proved capable of adapting and appropriating the ideas behind attempts to resist it.

Like the NGOs, social movements and individuals that make it up, the WSF is constantly under threat of being co-opted. However, as a radical network, we at the CADTM believe that the WSF still has a role to play as a place for discussing alternative ways of ensuring authentic human development, based on social justice and respect for nature.

The WSF must also strengthen convergence between all the movements that want to join in collective action. The movements will find their common ground during the Forum's activities. Indeed, the CADTM will continue to take an active part in the worldwide Assembly of Social Movements that emerged from Porto Alegre in January 2001 at the first WSF.

COULD YOU remind us what exactly the Assembly of Social Movements is? In fact, just before the Forum in Porto Alegre, you took part in an international seminar in Sao Paulo on the social movements. What was the outcome?

Olivier: The Assembly of Social Movements (ASM) developed within the framework of the World Social Forum. Its main interest was as an open space for working out a common agenda of mobilizations.

It is composed of miscellaneous social movements and networks such as Via Campesina, the World Women's March, the CADTM, Jubilee South, No Vox, trade union organizations, the Social Continental Alliance of the Americas, COMPA, ATTAC, etc., which all have specific regional or national objectives, but want to get together to fight capitalism in its neoliberal, imperialist and military phase, against racism and patriarchy.

From January 21-23, 2010, in São Paulo, different social movements that have been participating in the ASM, some for a long time, some for less, held a seminar to examine the new international conjuncture, and also, more importantly, to see how the various forces present could be organized and better coordinated so as to strengthen struggles around the world.

Debates about the conjuncture emphasized the gravity and the multidimensional nature of the systemic crisis we are faced with at the moment mainly because of the militarization and the criminalization of social movements.

When it comes to a strategy for action, the most important decision was undoubtedly to work towards organizing the next seminar of the Assembly for Social Movements in Africa, a few months before the 2011 WSF, which is to be held in Dakar in January 2011.

There are two reasons for this. The first is to reinforce communication on the African continent, while keeping a worldwide perspective, since it will be an international meeting with the presence of African, Asian, American and European social movements. The second is to dynamize mobilization for the next World Social Forum and make sure that it will have a positive, concrete impact for the social movements and African struggles.


1. For more info on the Nairobi WSF outcome, see (no English version) and

2. Prodi, former president of the European Commission, was at the head of a government (including Social-Democrats and the Communist Refoundation Party, close to which many leaders of the Italian Social forum) that implemented social liberal policies and maintained an Italian military presence in Afghanistan. This led to the electoral collapse of left-wing parties in Italy.

3. "The international encounter of Left-wing political parties held in Caracas on November 19, 20 and 21, 2009, after having taken note of the proposal made by Commander Hugo Chávez Frías to summon the 5th Socialist International as the space where the socialist-oriented parties, movements and trends of thought are able to gather to propose a common strategy for the struggle against imperialism, changing capitalism for socialism and economic integration within the framework of solidarity" in "Commitment of Caracas".

4. An international appeal has been launched on that question: "Proposal for a Participatory Socialist International" by ZNet.

5. See Eric Toussaint, "The U.S. and its unruly Latin American 'backyard.'"

6. To read the declaration and see the signed on organizations signatories, visit

7. According to a 2007 Columbia Law School survey, the five main Brazilian TNCs in terms of assets abroad in 2006 are Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, Petrobras SA, Gerdau SA, EMBRAER and Votorantim Participacoes SA.

The survey brings out the fact that in 2006 thanks to its TNCs, Brazil is the second investor among developing countries in terms of direct foreign investment flows. Moreover, the 20 main Brazilian TNCs own assets abroad for a value of $56 billion, which amounts to more than half the country's IDE stock abroad.

Those top 20 businesses produce and sell goods and services for about $30 billion and have some 77,000 employees. About half of them focus on their own region, Latin America.

8. Since 2004 MINUSTAH (UN Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti) under Brazilian military command has occupied Haiti. Most Haitian left-wing social movements demand the withdrawal of this military force which before the earthquake consisted of just over 7,000 soldiers, 1,282 of whom are Brazilian.

9. Created in 1943 in order to protect ships in the South Atlantic ocean, this structure was abolished in 1950, but officially revived on July 1, 2008

10. Ruy Mauro Marini, Subdesarrollo y revolución, Siglo XXI Editores, México, (fifth edition) 1974, chapter 1, p. 1-25. Most of his writings are available online at

First published at the Web site of the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt. Translated by Vicki Briault and Christine Pagnoulle.

Further Reading

From the archives