Sunday, April 26, 2015

Can the World Social Forum Process help strength democracy movements?

Jason pramas (left) and Suren Moodliar (right)

While writing this summary, there was a large scale upheaval in Baltimore, MD. And the city just enlisted National Guard and curfew to ‘fight’ riots and looting. This is not the America (yes I mean the United States of) I imagined when I traveled all the way from Taiwan with the so-called American Dream to this great nation, for the doctoral degree that I believed will one day provide me a better life. This is not the America that the Founding Fathers of this nation envisioned. Or maybe they did envision this kind of society, a utopia of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%. Then aren’t we (the 99%) all doomed?

Just like the Lead Organizer of Boston Social Forum Jason Pramas mentioned at the beginning of his talk to CafePhilo@Boston participants, “United States is viewed, from outside, a rich and wonderful country. This is not true. United States has a long history of racism….” Born in 1966 to a Greek-origin Boston working class family, Jason has involved in numerous labor activities since he was a teenager. He saw the change of ideologies and policies of the nation during 60s and 70s, which culminated during the reign of Ronald Reagan and (on the other side of Atlantic) of Margaret Thatcher. By embracing neoliberalism, which revolved around laissez-faire economy, deregulation of monetary system, free-trade, and globalization, the living condition of US labor deteriorated, as well as their children’s education opportunities. Jason later on participated in several campaigns to fight for labor rights, and to speak up for immigrant workers as well as contingent workers. These and other events (for instance the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and the 2001 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil) led to the inception of Boston Social Forum (BSF), an Agora-like event open to public for discussions and to envision the future of society, which was held at UMass Boston in July 2004. More than 5000 people participated the event, with 550 different programs, over 3 days.(Boston Social Forum:

Suren Moodliar, who was the Program Coordinator during the BSF, later explained that a major purpose of Boston Social Forum was to connect people and communities in order to share ideas freely, and to create an open space such that right matches can be made. It was neither a coalition nor an alliance of parties. It was the attempt to construct the space. This also made people to think about the nature of capitalism, since the developmental dynamic capitalism is to transition commonly-held spaces to privately-owned properties, which led to the ultimate reduction of public space. For example, if everything is kept in private, there can be no shared awareness of social problems. For instance as long as an individual treats their own unemployment as a private matter, then public social movement may not emerge to address this problem. And due to the violent history of this nation and its oppression to certain social groups, BSF was also doing its best to reach out to people-of-color and immigrant communities. Despite the fact that their main funding came from donations, they still managed to raise 0.25 million for the event. This approach is entirely different from the methodology of some NGOs and philanthropists, which in the end is not tackling the real problems.

Although it seems to me that these activities, including BSF, other social forums took place in US, and more recently the Occupy movements, barely change the course of this country, I think there's still hope as long as people continue to participate in discussions (especially the ones that people can talk to each other face to face). As told by Suren in response to one of audience's question, “In 1985, demonstrations in South Africa always led to police killing protestors. And the burial of those people will lead to greater protests and yet more police violence. This seemed to be an endless negative cycle. But the situation was changed after 5 years (Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison and the negotiation to end Apartheid started). The irregularity will come, so we’re expecting the change will come in the future.” So, maybe we're not doomed and the social forums are the birth place of new (and perhaps real) democracy. To conclude, let me quote a line from David Graeber's The Democracy Project: “The real origin of the democratic spirit - and most likely, many democratic institutions - lies precisely in those spaces of improvisation just outside the control of governments and organized churches.

在撰寫這篇文字記錄的同時,馬里蘭州的巴爾地摩正經歷一場大規模暴動;該市剛宣布實施宵禁,並招來國民兵以鎮壓動亂及偷竊等犯罪行為。這和我想像中的美國差異甚遠;這完全不是我當年那個心目中,充滿「美國夢」和工作機會的自由大陸。這應該也不是那個美國開國先父們 (Founding Fathers) 想像中的美國大陸;又或許這的確是他們想建立的社會-一個由上層百分之一的人們所統治、所擁有、所追求的烏托邦;如果這個國家的核心價值真的是這樣,那我們 (或至少美國人民) 的未來還有救嗎?

如同波士頓社會論壇 (Boston Social Forum,以下簡稱 BSF) 的主要組織人Jason Pramas 在演講的開頭指出:「從外面來看,美國是一個富強而美好的國家。這並不是真相。美國的種族歧視有很長的歷史」。1966年生於一個希臘移民兼藍領階級家庭,Jason從青少年時期就積極參與各種勞工運動。他見證了美國在 60  70 年代意識型態及政策的轉變,在雷根和柴契爾 (英國) 當權的時候來到了新自由主義的全盛時期:自由放任的經濟體制、貨幣系統的去管制、自由貿易、以及全球化,都造成本土勞工生活品質的惡化,以及勞工子女的受教機會下降。Jason 之後參與了許多爭取勞工權益的抗爭運動,並為外籍勞工與約聘工作者發聲。這些經驗以及其他發生在世界各地的社會運動,例如 1999 年西雅圖 WTO 的抗議行動和 2001 年於巴西 Porto Alegre 舉辦的第一場世界社會論壇 (World Social Forum),都成為舉辦 BSF 的契機。BSF  2004 年七月在 UMass Boston 舉行,是一個公開的論壇式活動,人人都有機會發表、討論各種關於未來社會的可能性;超過五千人參與了這場有五百五十個不同活動、超過三天的公共論壇。

Suren MoodliarBSF的活動協調人,接著解釋了BSF的主要任務是在聯繫不同的人與社群,使他們能夠自由地交換意見,並且開創新的公共空間,讓更多連結能夠被建立。這有別於派系間的整合與結盟,而是企圖去建立那個公共空間的過程。這樣的過程也會讓人們去思考資本主義所帶來的影響:資本主義的動態發展是個消弭公共空間、將之轉換成私有財產的過程。舉例來說,如果所有的事務都只能被放在私領域,大眾對於社會問題就不會有共識 (例如失業問題)。再加上這個國家本身充滿暴力的歷史,以及國家對特定族群的壓迫,BSF 也盡可能地去接觸有色族群及移民社群。最後,雖然 BSF 的主要資金來源仰賴捐款,他們仍為這活動募得了 25 萬美元;這樣的做法也有別於一些非政府組織及慈善企業家,並未把錢花在解決真正的問題上。

雖然我感覺這些社會運動,包含 BSF、其他社會論壇、以及幾年前的佔領華爾街運動,尚未對這個國家的政策方向造成太多影響;但如果這樣公共論壇式的討論能夠在各地持續下去,我想社會還是有機會改變。Suren 在回答其中一位聽眾的問題時提到:「1985年時,在南非的示威遊行總會導致警察槍殺抗議者,而埋葬這些屍體的場合又會導致更嚴重的抗議活動,這看起來就像個血腥的輪迴。但五年後情況居然有了重大的轉變 (曼德拉獲釋、廢除種族隔離政策的談判開始)。不尋常的事總會發生,所以我們得期待未來會發生轉變。」所以,或許我們還有救,而各種社會論壇就是新民主的誕生地。最後,我想引用 David Graeber  The Democracy Project 裡的一段話:『民主精神的真正起源,以及許多民主體制的建立,都恰好落在那些政府及教堂控制以外的即興空間。

Reference 參考資料:
Boston Social Forum 波士頓社會論壇:
Encuentro 5:

Note by Chi-Feng Pai

Photo: Chia-Chun Chung


[Outline of the presentations provided by Suren]

-          Economic Insecurity is Now the Norm in the United States
o   This contrasts with the 1960s when steady jobs with benefits and retirement pensions, etc. and public education were strong and available to the majority of the working class and appeared to move in the right direction for people of color too with the Great Society programs
o   Now we have the right of contingent employment—temp, day labor, partime, contracted, outsourcing—and neo-liberalism which is more than a set of ideas, it is a set of policies and practices
o   Organizations emerged to fight neo-liberalism and its expression in employment, contingent work
o   These organizations are different from traditional trade unions and parties but do focus specifically on employment issues
-          By the time of the Boston Social Forum, these Organizations Are in Crisis
o   Funding is running out (due to several sources, including economic downturn)
o   Organizations tend to be narrowly focused on one or other part of the problem
o   Need to escape the traditional non-profit mindset to achieve mission
-          Social Forum offered a model to experiment with and to get groups out of their silos
o   Open space (Agora)
o   Spontaneous collaborations
o   Assert and demand that there is an alternative to capitalism and its neo-liberal phase

-          The Boston Social Forum recognized that the Open Space model had its limits
o   Needed to address the original sins of America – invasion of Native American land and genocide of its people together with the construction of a White Republic based on African labor power
o   Deliberate outreach to communities via organizations from the communities that were involved in the social forum process
o   Achieved that goal but could not produce an integration of movements and races at the social forum
-          US Social Forum happens three years later with a 10x larger budget
o   Successful at engaging people of color, indigenous people, GLBTQI communities, and people with disabilities
o   Focused on involving organizations that organized about working class people of color
o   Much more deliberate focus on the realities of inequalities within the US
-          World Social Forum process
o   Draws lines between Global North and South by occurring opposite the World Economic Forum
o   Becomes a platform through which “untouchability” on a global scale can be addressed; similarly involving indigenous people
o   Now influenced by the Arab Spring
o   Next iteration takes place in Montreal in 2016

Additional points emerging during the discussion:
-          The left is about more than protest; it builds alternatives including cooperatives, new forms of wealth, credit unions, sustainable agriculture, etc.
-          Derive optimism from the fact that people with extreme challenges are fighting and resisting and sometimes winning small victories – e.g.
o   Native Americans or First Nations in Canada stopping hydrofracking
o   Movement for equality involving gay marriage
o   Gender equality and role of mass entertainment
-          “Revolution comes like a thief in the night” – unexpectedly!
-          Massive wealth inequality does not mean we are permanently deprived of the resources to make social change
o   Foundations are not our allies especially ones like the Gates Foundation which tend to donate in ways that perpetuate corporate rule
o   Social change occurs when people utilize the resources around them, especially those that cannot be measured in monetary terms
§  E.g. consciousness raising groups than formed the basis for the women’s liberation movement and that ultimately changed western civilization
§  Not even the wealthiest foundations could afford to pay people to conduct the necessary conversations that made up consciousness raising
§  Social change movements always involve the almost spontaneous release of resources on a scale that surpasses anything foundations can measure.

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