Talking Back To the Global Establishment
MUMBAI -- As the Bush administration struggles with setbacks in its global trade and Iraq agendas, the opposition World Social Forum opened festively this week with 150,000 global justice activists primarily from India and South Asia, marking a successful transition for the grassroots experiment from its original site in Brazil.
The growing legitimacy of the WSF, formed as a counter to the annual corporate-based World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland was reflected by the presence on opening night of Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi of Iran, who expressed hope that "there will be a world where globalization will not be synonymous with inequality." She was joined by former United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, who called for controls of global arms trafficking that contributes to the deaths of a half-million people annually.
The ceremonies also reflected the radical anti-war spirit that has flared among global justice activists opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. A representative of Iraq's social movements condemned the U.S. privatization of Iraq's economy, and famed Indian writer Arundhati Roy called for shutting down American and British contractors profiting from the economic takeover. Legendary Vietnamese revolutionary Nguyen Thi Binh criticized capitalist globalization on behalf of "the higher globalization of movements for peace and progress."
Cultural resistance was symbolized by the performances of Junoon, a Pakistani sufi rock band, the South African Siwele Sonke dance troupe, and the Brazilian singer and cultural minister Gilberto Gil, who was last year's honoree at the Latin Grammy Awards. Film superstar Amitabh Bachchan represented the Bollywood left.
It is mainly a spirited carnival of the marginal, with hundreds of labor, farmer, fisherpeople, women's and student organizations representing the very poor, Aadivasis (indigenous), and Dalits (untouchables). Anger churns at the fact that 300 million Indians subsist on less than a dollar a day, many surviving in roadside shantytowns just outside the forum conference grounds. Reflecting the crisis of children, 100 million Indian families live without domestic water and hundreds of thousands of children work in cottonseed production and sweatshops, the forum is featuring a special conference of 2,000 children's representatives.
Overall the forum allows in-depth grassroots review, dialogue and networking through 1,200 panels, which are often cumbersome and repetitive. The emphasis is on learning and sharing the detailed lessons of diverse struggles, which range from saving the Narmada Valley from being flooded for giant dams to expanding landless people's struggles like those mushrooming in Brazil. The forum avoids the classic left-wing pattern of fighting over correct lines or specific platforms, while allowing space for networks to discuss collaboration. For example, that is how last year's unprecedented anti-war protests were planned, involving four to five million people in over 600 cities globally.
Many panels here are focusing on the global campaign against the World Trade Organization (WTO) whose trade summit was derailed last fall in Cancun, Mexico. The WSF explicitly avoids adoption of specific programs, while leaving space for activist networks to design campaigns against the WTO or the Iraq occupation. Coincidentally this week, U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick sent a letter to 140 governments promising to breath oxygen into a stalled U.S. trade strategy.
Only last fall, Zoellick was vowing to marginalize "won't do" countries like Brazil while pursuing parallel free trade agreements with unspecified "can do" countries. But he failed in Miami to achieve a free trade zone (FTAA) pact for Latin America, fell short of his goals for a Central American agreement, and currently is delayed on bilateral agreements with Australia and Morocco. At last week's Latin American economic summit in Monterrey, Mexico, Brazil refused to sign a joint communique acknowledging the Bush Administration's January 2005 deadline for the FTAA.
Brazil has mounted the first WTO challenge to U.S. agricultural subsidies -- $19 billion annually, including $12.9 billion for cotton farmers -- as unfair to poor farmers, a case that may result in an unfavorable settlement for the Bush Administration during this election cycle, similar to the WTO's ruling against steel subsidies a few weeks ago. The weakness of the U.S. government is that it seems unable to control the WTO, a creature of its own making.
Also unexpectedly for the Bush team, WTO reform and trade issues have become a major rallying cry for nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates. While those like Richard Gephardt call for a global minimum wage, defenders of the WTO are on the defensive. At this point in the election year, the White House expected to enjoy a lucrative reconstruction of a friendly Iraq as well as successful free trade agreements guaranteeing greater investment security for large corporations. Instead a White House task force on the American image abroad has reported "shocking" levels of global hostility, and corporate futurist Francis Fukuyama is predicting that anti-Americanism will become the driving passion of global politics.
America's 'Back Office'
The issue of corporate outsourcing to India has flared up as well. Hollywood personalities and bigwigs are eyeing Bollywood for outsourcing entertainment, since movie production here is 25 percent the cost in the U.S. More generally, the liberalization of global services will have the same pay and job loss consequences already being felt in manufacturing and retail.
"As China is America's foundry, India is the back office," writes the president of India's Majesco Software in the recent book, "A Personal Guide to Outsourcing in India." According to Business Week, there may be more IT engineers in Bangalore, where top scientists earn $10,000 a year, than in the Silicon Valley. While hardly affecting the overall economic doldrums of the U.S. economy or the structural poverty of India, the rise of India as a "back office" is "terrifying for many Americans" and becoming the "latest Rorschach test on globalization," opines Business Week.
That is why the Jobs for Justice delegation, several dozen strong, is beginning dialogue with their Indian counterparts on cross-country organizing against the new tech outsourcing. Some 50,000 young Indians are employed in such "call centers" here in Mumbai, the country's traditional commercial center. Stress and physiological problems are rampant among these workers, who earn $160 per month on all-night shifts and are often forced to practice English by holding a marble under their tongues.
How can a global talk session affect so many intractable problems? Forum organizers are planning to return the event to Brazil next year, perhaps holding them biennially with regional social forums during alternate years to serve the needs of more local organizing. In the meantime, the global justice activists gathered here can be credited with bringing the WTO to the world's unfavorable attention and keeping massive pressure on many of their governments to stand up to Washington's agenda.
Indian scientist and notable environmentalist Vandana Shiva voiced a general frustration at one panel, however, complaining that the global establishment "doesn't care if 100,000 get together, it has to be more than this."
Arundhati Roy told the crowds, "It is no good just saying jeetenge, bhai jeetenge ["we will win, we will win"], it is time we did something."
Critics of the forum's open gradualism have organized a counter-event, "Mumbai Resistance: 2004," which is avowedly anti-imperialist and disturbed at the "infiltration" of the WSF by numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by American foundations.
However, forum veterans see steady growth in the organization's capacity to generate resistance. Nothing on this scale has happened since the Cold War, and perhaps nothing on a non-governmental level for the past century. Walden Bello, speaking for the coalition Our World Is Not For Sale, described the success on three levels: 1) getting developing countries to come together and say no; 2) fostering the growth of a global civil society as a new force; and 3), bringing masses of people "to nodes of elite decision-making for militant disruptive confrontations." It is the success of this resistance, say those like Bello, that has led to new complications.
For example, a decade of grassroots pressure has contributed to the emergence of the Group of 20, which includes governments like Brazil, India, China and South Africa, that opposed the U.S. agribusiness subsidies at Cancun, and the Group of 90, from smaller countries, which opposed American demands to expand the trade talks to new issues of greater corporate access to their economies. While countries like India make powerful equity arguments against the U.S. and European Union subsidies, their agriculture agenda would benefit their own nation's large agro-export industries at the expense of small farmers.
"We must not proclaim global victories while having domestic losses," argues Shiva. Referring to fights over the Narmada Dam and privatization, she said, "While we build for global fights, governments like [India's] often are implementing these policies in our homes."
Similar resistance is expressed in South Africa by "the poors" against the African National Congress over neo-liberal deregulation of water and electricity services. Even in Brazil, activists are increasingly upset by the Lula government's unexpected road building in the Amazon and concessions on genetically modified organisms. A revolution in the revolution is in the making.
"We can't just be jubilant," says Anuradha Mittal, the Indian-born director of the Oakland, Calif.-based Food First. "Yes, there has been a major shift in the balance of power. But the G-20 governments need to be more responsive to social movements on issues of food sovereignty, living wages, sustainable agriculture and the environment. Developing countries are more than exotic food baskets or dumping grounds."
If the WSF cannot succeed in its ambitions rapidly enough, the alternative may not be a self-proclaimed "shining India" of globalization, but a deepening turn to religious fundamentalism. Here in Mumbai, the strongest organization in the slums is Shiva Sena, which offers a hyper-version of Hindu nationalism and aggressive masculinity. Just over a decade ago, when Hindu extremists destroyed a Muslim mosque in Ayodhya in northern India, rioting broke out across the country -- nowhere worse than in Mumbai, where entire Muslim neighborhoods were torched and 1,217 people were killed amidst Hindu rioting and retaliatory Muslim bombings.
If it turns out that the World Social Forum's slogan -- "another world is possible" -- is unachievable, a Brazilian trade unionist told a panel yesterday, the alternative is likely to be barbarism.
Tom Hayden is a progressive activist, author and former California elected official. He is in Mumbai, India, covering the World Social Forum for AlterNet.