But What Kind, and Shaped by Whom?
During the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting and related demonstrations in New York from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, the Village Voice put its finger to the shifting political winds. That week’s cover headline read, “Passing the Torch: Anarchists Pick Up Where Progressives Left Off,” and the corresponding image depicted a middle-aged white male running in a business suit while handing off a Molotov cocktail to the young white male in “anarchistic” attire sprinting along behind him. While this front page could be critiqued for its damaging stereotype ”that all anarchists are youthful, violent Caucasian guys” the article inside sympathetically acknowledged that “the anarchist fringe is fast becoming the movement’s center.” Anarchists are indeed outstripping progressives because they offer a form of contestation and transformation that speaks to the times — a form in explicit opposition to the world’s powerful elites, but one that also acts as a thorn in the side of many social justice activists.
This is especially apparent when comparing the WEF to its critics: the simultaneous gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil of the World Social Forum (WSF) and the anti-capitalist convergence on NYC’s streets.
The WSF maintains in its slogan that “another world is possible.” It is in fact not only possible but certainly probable, given that the process known as globalization, among numerous other remappings, is fundamentally reconfiguring power relations. And far from settled, the ability to (re)shape the world is being both openly and surreptitiously fought over by nation-states as well as transnational corporations, nonprofit organizations as well as the millions ravaged by the globalizing process, and many others. Some potential worlds could, of course, be more dystopian than today’s — say, those asserted to be the divine word of a god or prophet by fundamentalists of all creeds. Yet even the more humane visions, like that of the WSF’s, beg the questions, Whose world will it ultimately be? Who will make social, economic, political, and cultural decisions, and how? While there are multiple answers, they all emanate from one of two distinct poles of governance: centralist vs. decentralist, or to put it more starkly, authoritarian vs. anti-authoritarian.
Of all the new authoritarian models, the WEF’s can be said to be the most avant-garde. The WEF is ahead of its day in forging an organizational culture and structure capable of stylish world dominance in the age of globalization. It is certainly not alone in its quest to “further economic growth and social progress” for a limited few — social progress being measured by economic growth. Institutions from the World Bank to the European Union to the U.S. government share the same pursuit. What sets the WEF apart is its innovative means, potentially making it all the more dangerous. To borrow its own language, the WEF’s membership meets in “a unique club atmosphere,” always luxurious, “to shape the global agenda,” “to mold solutions,” with the aim of controlling sociopolitico-economic processes to its own advantage.
Such maneuverings have been militantly challenged at the WEF’s past couple annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland. Part of the alleged reason the WEF ventured from its secluded retreat for the first time was to avoid this mounting resistance. The social costs, especially for the Swiss authorities, had gotten too high. WEF leaders also likely hoped to discredit such opposition altogether by meeting in New York City so soon after Sept. 11. They could claim to be both mourning the dead and doing their bit to rebuild NYC by convening at the opulent Waldorf-Astoria hotel. In contrast, so the WEF probably assumed, the protesters would be seen as funeral crashers, dishonoring the dead by running wildly through the streets of a still- grieving city without regard for property or propriety. Resistance would be irrevocably tainted, thereby allowing institutions like the WEF to go about the lofty mission of governing capitalist society without any pesky interference from “anti-globalist marginals,” to cite one WEF member.
To extend these speculations further, though, the best reason for trooping to Manhattan was to highlight the growing global influence of this relatively small, young organization. As 9-11 and the subsequent anthrax scare revealed, fixed and visible centers of power can be targeted and attacked. The physical homes of those institutions that have played such a large role in determining the postwar world economy (like the New York Stock Exchange) and geopolitics (like D.C.’s Capitol building) are at risk of being shutdown. The U.S. government, complacent with overconfidence in its own preeminence, still has the might to lash out violently at home and abroad, yet like all bloated empires, it tries to preserve its authority in the same tired ways, even as its leaner adversaries dream up new strategies to assume the mantle of global power broker. It could thus be argued that the WEF came to NYC precisely because Sept. 11 exposed America-the-superpower’s vulnerability, thereby allowing the WEF to flaunt itself as heir to institutions like Wall Street and nation-states. Or at least hold itself up as a potentially more resilient form of domination ”flexible, savvy, and placeless.
The WEF boasts of being a trendsetter, and indeed it is. Started as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in 1971, it brings together the best and brightest of the global power elites: 1,000 business leaders, 250 political leaders, 250 academic leaders, 250 media leaders, along with a sprinkling of labor, social justice, and entertainment leaders. They are leaders not because an electorate or the public says so but by virtue of their wealth, influence, and power, and their farsightedness in being able to maintain all three. This ensures that those most adept at foreseeing where the globalizing world might go, and hence most able to engage in steering its course, will constitute the WEF’s fluid and, if needed, easily rearranged membership (witness the summary disinvitation of Enron’s Ken Lay). These privileged few are bound to neither space nor place, geography nor nation-state. They are accountable only to themselves, and when it serves their self-interests, each other. In the WEF’s own words, this NGO “is tied to no political, partisan or national interests” ”although “beholden to” would be more descriptive. It is as transnational and elastic as the form of capitalism it promotes. And in its extremely exclusive, private global clubhouse, glamorous hobnobbing among WEF members legislates real-world economic and social policy.
Take just one iconic participant: Bill Gates. Money can’t be his only goal; for eight years, he’s been the world’s richest individual. More pointedly, having achieved the near-monopolistic power to determine how humanity communicates electronically, Gates has now taken a philanthropic turn. He is busily deciding health care policies for whole countries and even continents by funding his version of wellness. This grand gesture includes creating mass dependency on a healthy dose of his corporate buddies’ designer pharmaceuticals, particularly after Bill’s donations run out. Even if he had only benevolent motivations, can one person know what’s best for billions of peoples’ bodies? As radical feminists have long contended, control over one’s body relates to self-determination and social freedom as well as health.
The “representative” democracy of many nation-states almost begins to look good by comparison, at least as a way to keep the WEF in check. But these same allegedly democratic countries, along with a host of blatantly undemocratic ones, are partners in and frequently under the sway of the WEF itself. Even at the tender age of three, the WEF could already claim in 1973 to have “grown from humble beginnings” to be “the leading interface for global business/government interaction.” Now in its yuppie prime, this NGO has developed its muscle by integrating countries ”from those in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, to Eastern and Central Europe, Asia, and even North America ”into its institutional frame, often well ahead of the so-called international community. As the “premiere gathering of world leaders in business, government, and civil society,” an autonomous supranational body such as the WEF looks to limit the power of nation-states, not vice versa, and increasingly has the clout to do so. This is the hazy yet ever-sharper organizational outline for a potential form of one-world, nongovernmental governance, where a handful of individuals judge right and wrong by the bottom line of buy-sell relationships, unimpeded by constituents, much less ethical considerations, cultural constraints, or even anti-capitalist convergences.
In this context, the WSF is held up as a promising candidate to stand against the WEF and campaign for a better world. Pulled together by eight NGOs as the socially oriented counterweight to the WEF, the WSF first convened last year in Porto Alegre during the WEF’s Davos session. This year, the Brazilian meeting again purposefully coincided with the WEF’s. As a “forum for debate” for all who seek an “alternative to [the] neoliberal model,” the WSF “brings together and interlinks . . . organizations and movements of civil society from all the countries of the world” along with “those in positions of political responsibility, mandated by their peoples, who decide to enter into the commitments resulting from those debates.” Certainly, the WSF and those who participate in this alternate forum place “special value on all that society is building to centre economic activity and political action on meeting the needs of people and respecting nature,” to again cite the WSF. And much-needed social justice work has and will come out of the WSF’s relatively (in comparison to other global gatherings) open meetings.
But wittingly or not, in trying to parallel the WEF’s meetings as its alternative, the WSF ends up mimicking its hierarchical structure: a supranational, nongovernmental body that seeks to shape the global agenda, with no accountability to and far removed from those whose daily lives are affected. Like the WEF, the WSF offers an informal, fluid, and centralized networking environment for the globally influential ”in this case, those in the “nonprofit” and “movement” sectors. Such influence on the world stage, as the WEF wells knows, can soon translate into a power that rivals or exceeds that of nation-states.
Once the WSF’s annual meeting is seen as the premiere gathering of socially concerned leaders, which in two short years is already becoming apparent, its statements will carry extraordinary political weight and its “debates” will soon map out public policy. Big, bureaucratic NGOs will continue to flock to the WSF in ever- greater numbers; and unlike activists and community-based organizations operating on a shoestring, they will be able to attend meetings annually and serve as members of the organizing council in between. These NGOs, then, will largely set the themes and strategies discussed at the WSF, limiting from the start the concerns of grassroots groups and radical movements. Moreover, these NGOs have the financial and organizational resources to, at a minimum, lobby governments and corporations ”who are often involved with or monetarily supportive of these NGOs ”to implement their notions of social change, thereby assuring that any “change” accords nicely with the status quo. Or a la Gates, the NGOs can attempt to directly implement the ideas they themselves have developed at the WSF’s annual gathering through global social service projects. Since these NGOs have their own agendas, such projects will always carry political, social, and/or cultural price tags. This might not be a problem were it not for the fact that as private, nongovernmental bodies, NGOs don’t have to worry about participatory processes, accountability, or transparency. So much for representative democracy, much less community control or even public scrutiny.
As the WSF gains in global influence it will even be courted, as it already was this year, by the very entity it set out to challenge, the WEF, which is perhaps able to recognize a kindred spirit well before the rest of us. This may have something to do with the WSF’s mission itself, in that it neatly inverts that of the WEF’s. Whereas the WEF views everything through an economic lens, and is thus concerned with social issues insofar as they hinder economic growth, the WSF views everything through a social lens, and is thus concerned with economic issues insofar as they hinder social justice. The WEF, for instance, troubles itself over a lack of water, education, or transport in countries because these basic necessities serve as vital infrastructure for economic expansion. (Besides, the utterly destitute don’t make particularly robust markets and can even get unruly.) Conversely, the WSF strives to reduce economic exploitation because it limits peoples’ access to essentials like jobs, food, or housing. Socioeconomics, or more precisely capitalism, can therefore be utilized for opposite ends: in the WEF’s eyes, it is good for business; in the WSF’s, it can instead help bring about social justice. The WSF displays the best of aims: to meet human needs in a just manner. But because it accepts only those possibilities obtainable within a capitalist society (say, higher wages) rather than those that may be generated by but also dismantle present-day social relations (like the end of the wage system altogether), the other world that is possible is already circumscribed, already damaged.
If unaccountable, free-floating supranational bodies like the WEF and WSF prove themselves better able to determine “public” policy than so-called public servants elected in democratic republics, participation becomes even more meaningless (leading some to the regressive demand to strengthen nation-states). An influential few will have set themselves up as untouchable “leaders” more capable of knowing what’s good for humanity than the vast majority of the world’s peoples, who will be completely shut out of shaping the societies they want to live in. Indeed, eerily similar to the WEF ™s notion of a “corporate citizenship” voting on the allegedly better society, the WSF proposes a “planetary citizenship.” Who, pray tell, would govern this global citizenry?
Lost in the WSF ™s mission to bring about social justice, no matter how noble, is the very notion of freedom itself, of self-determination and self-governance, without which there can be no social justice. Surely the possible world of the WSF would be far preferable to the WEF’s. Yet in attempting to oppose the WEF, the WSF only succeeds in offering a kinder, gentler version of top-down decision making, and hence offers no real alternative at all.
Which brings us back to the anti-authoritarian “keepers of the flame” explored in the Voice article mentioned above, where writer Esther Kaplan observes that anarchists don’t oppose “the WEF just because their policies exploit the poor, but because their power is illegitimate. [Anarchists] envision an egalitarian society without nation states, where wealth and power have been redistributed, and they take great pains to model their institutions in this vein.” David Graeber echoes this in his recent In These Times piece: the anti-capitalist convergence during the WEF meeting held out “new forms of radically decentralized direct democracy [as] its ideology. If nothing else, the ‘bad’ protesters have managed to prove that they can do anything the (hierarchical) NGOs or unions can, probably much better.”
As NGOs and social justice activists bailed out of the WEF demonstrations from fear in the post “Sept. 11 climate and/or the desire to be part of the more high-profile, safe WSF in Brazil, a variety of anti-authoritarians were handed the reigns of the U.S. direct action movement (re)birthed in Seattle. They became the main organizers and spokespeople for the pivotal NYC convergence. Thus, even the mainstream media were forced to cover anarchist beliefs and visions ”which, of course, have been there all along ”if they wanted to report on the convergence at all. So despite the usual demonizations in the corporate press (as in the case of another Voice article, titled “Law of the Fist,” that basically labeled anarchists “Al Qaeda-like”), it became a fairly universal assertion that anarchism was openly opposed to capitalism and just as openly for direct democracy. This was especially so among the participants themselves. While for anti-authoritarians direct democracy can include everything from collectives and affinity groups to worker and/or neighborhood councils, acting in networks or confederations that keep power at the grass roots, most concur that self-governance must be part and parcel of present as well as future forms of social organization. Nowhere at the North American convergences of the past few years has this been more palpable, more public.
Instead of signaling the death knell for resistance and reconstruction, New York’s demonstration may just have “normalized” anti-authoritarians’ notions of social and political contestation, whether one is an anarchist or not. The use of substantively participatory decision-making processes before and during the WEF convergence, while not perfect, were nonetheless able to settle on street tactics that were sensitive to the feelings generated by Sept. 11, especially in NYC, and hence thoughtfully somber and restrained. Though comparatively dull for the marchers, not to mention the media and police, this explicitly anti-capitalist event not only reasserted that resistance is permissible again after 9-11′s tragedy but that it is increasingly necessary and courageous in light of new, rapidly consolidating forms of global authoritarianism. More important, it helped to vindicate and validate liberatory alternatives.
Such alternatives have of late flickered momentarily though brightly at anti-capitalist convergences and in localized anarchist projects, but also in everything from the spontaneous gatherings of diverse New Yorkers in Union Square right after Sept. 11 to the banging of pots and pans during protests in Argentina by the middle class.
This article was shortened from the original, which can be read at www.social-ecology.org/learn/library/milstein/wsf.html. Cindy is a faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology (www.social-ecology.org), a board member for the Institute for Anarchist Studies (flag.blackened.net/ias), and a columnist for Arsenal: A Magazine of Anarchist Strategy & Culture (www.azone.org/ arsenalmag). She can be reached at email@example.com.