The Role of the Writer at the World Social Forum

A presentation at the World Social Forum 2007 (Jan. 20-25), Nairobi, Kenya

by Thomas Ponniah


Gramsci once wrote that everyone is an intellectual however a few have the role of being intellectuals. To reformulate Gramsci in terms of the dynamics at the World Social Forum (WSF) one could say that all political activists have the impulse to write but for some of us writing is our primary contribution. Writing is one mode of activism though not necessarily the least or most important. What then is the role of a writer in the contemporary search for global justice? Or to put it another way, what do movements at the World Social Forum need from its writers?

Back in 2001, as an activist and as a doctoral student, it seemed obvious to me that the activists at the WSF needed a picture of the variety of alternatives to globalization that were being expressed around the world. So I contacted the Forum’s Secretariat and suggested to them that I would come to Brazil, volunteer to work with them, and put together a book of the proposals presented at the WSF. Clearly, the Forum’s goals, to create a space where activists could come together, educate each other, and propose alternatives to contemporary globalization, necessitated a compilation of the proposals.

Before I went, one question that concerned me was whether a book of alternatives should highlight the writing of well-known theorists or should it highlight what social movements themselves were saying. There were obvious reasons for focusing on theorists: the Forum brought together some of the greatest minds in the world. Their analysis of the global situation was one that I had learned from over the years. They were the minds that had first inspired me to become a political activist. However as a critical writer, what struck me was that academic literature tended to frame social movements as objects of intellectual research. Scholars often described activists as instruments of broader social processes. I did not want to replicate this traditional hierarchy of the philosophers being the mind of the emancipation and the activists being its vehicle. I saw, and continue to see, social movements as subjects, as producers of society and therefore of knowledge. I decided that the book would focus on the proposals made by movements at the Forum.


I worked with the Secretariat for five months and then in collaboration with William Fisher edited the first book of proposals from the WSF, titled, Another World is Possible: popular alternatives to globalization at the World Social Forum. The book contains proposals as well as summaries of the discussions that took place at the second World Social Forum. It provides the reader with an overview of what global justice activists were proposing and continue to propose. As well as compiling the alternatives, Bill and I also searched for overlapping threads amongst the proposals: the reader always needs a map to navigate through the plethora. We suggested, and I continue to argue, that what unifies the movements is that they are all searching for new radical forms of democracy. By radical democracy I mean that social movements propose that every sector of society: economic production, ecological sustainability, cultural articulation and political governance, should be determined by direct public decision-making. Democracy should be participatory and even self-organized. The movements’ recurring criticism of corporations and governments focuses on the system’s vertical forms of decision-making. For example when activists criticize institutions such as the International Monetary Fund for the poverty that they have perpetuated, the movements’ solutions are not simply focused on alleviating indigence but more significantly on democratizing the process of eliminating immiseration. Those who are affected by poverty should be at the decision-making table determining how to end poverty. This new emphasis on radically democratizing decision-making is the thread that weaves through all of the movements’ proposals. We wrote this back in 2002 and it has become clearer over the years that the call for new forms of democracy is the common substance that informs the diversity of our global justice movements.

As mentioned it seemed obvious then that movements needed a picture of the variety of alternatives to globalization. We continue to need these frameworks. Along with mine, there are numerous books that have addressed the question of alternatives, such as Heikki Patomaki and Teivo Teivainen’s A Possible World (Zed 2004), Michael Albert’s Parecon (Verso 2003) as well as Jai Sen, Madhuresh Kumar, Patrick Bond and Peter Waterman’s, fine recent compilation of articles reflecting on the Bamako Appeal[1]. Along with foregrounding alternatives, activist writers need to also contribute additional forms of knowledge.


At this stage, we activists need an overview of the strategies that are being used around the world to implement alternatives. The central question that social movements at the Forum have confronted since 2003 is “what are the strategies we need to employ in order to achieve a new society?”. There are a number of fine writers working on this, for example, Erik Olin Wright’s “Real Utopias” project in which he compiles rigorous research on how alternatives such as those found in Porto Alegre are being implemented, or Greg Wilpert’s new book explaining the Bolivarian process in Venezuela[2]. We need many more writers working on this project of compiling, evaluating and refining strategies for implementing our visions.


Next, activists, need an explanation of how the global system dominates us. We cannot formulate strategies without a clear picture of the challenge that we face. In 2001, pre-911, the dominant theme of many activists- writers, such as Naomi Klein, was that the key enemy was the transnational corporation[3]. Corporations ruled the world. The multinationals were the essence of imperial globalization. So it was no surprise that the World Social Forum first articulated itself as a space that was essentially against neoliberalism. Since then, of course the problem has mutated. US hegemony has come to be perceived as the central challenge faced by activists around the world. As historical reality has evolved, our perception of our adversary has evolved with it. So for example, Judith Blau of Sociologists Without Borders is now working on a great project focused on the belligerence of the US state. This is exactly what committed writers today should focus on. Within the last ten years we have had a major shift in how we evaluate the problem: from neoliberalism to American imperialism. Undoubtedly over the next decade, we will need to re-evaluate the problem. Writers must continue to analyze the evolving nature of domination.

What is becoming clearer is that we are moving towards a new, multipolar world. Since 1989 we have lived within a unipolar system dominated by US hegemony. That is changing, the rise of countries such as China, Russia, and Iran prefigure the outline of a new, future order. On my flight back from Nairobi, I read that the dominant theme of the WSF’s evil twin, the World Economic Forum, was “the shifting power equation”: the political-economic elite have recognized that American rule is in decline[4]. The emergent multipolarity is going to introduce unexpected challenges for activists at the Forum. Writers need to examine the dangers arising from the new pluralism. It is unfortunately not the pluralism, the multipolarity, that many of us have hoped for. Instead, we are seeing the rise of new powers that will not only hinder US imperialism but also, from the other side, hinder us. Neither the old king nor the new ones are great lovers of radical democracy. We need to research the future ways in which Empire will reconstitute itself.

In sum, writers can advance global justice in a number of ways. We need to continue to publicize the alternatives that movements around the world are proposing. We should research the strategies that activists are using to implement their visions. Perhaps most importantly, we must dissect the forms of domination emerging on the horizon. Writers have always had a significant role to play in social struggle. The mobilizations articulating themselves at the World Social Forum constitute the most important political process in the world. It is crucial that activist-writers contribute our particular skills to our movements’ most pressing needs.


Thomas Ponniah is a member of Sociologists Without Borders, the WSF Boston Organizing Committee, and a member of the Network Institute for Global Democratization - one of the founding organizations of the International Council of the World Social Forum.


[2] Fung, Archon and Erik Olin Wright. Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance. Verso 2003.
Wilpert, Greg. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. Verso 2006.
[3] Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking on the Brand Name Bullies. Vintage 2000.
[4] Gardels, Nathan. “America no longer owns globalization”. Thursday, January 25, 2007.