The World Social Forum at the beginning of the twenty-ﬁrst century
The World Social Forum (WSF) has appeared at a historical moment when numerous struggles over human futures on the planet are teetering in the balance. Since 2001, we have witnessed the astonishing power and force of the antiglobalization movement, and its stunning ideological defeat of free trade and indeed of neoliberalism. Even as many skirmishes continue, the International Financial Institutions (theWorld Bank, the InternationalMonetary Fund – IMF, the World Trade Organization – WTO) have been thoroughly discredited (Bello 2008), as have the policies of the Bush administration, its Project for a New American Century, and its permanent wars against terrorism and for oil. This is signiﬁcant when one recalls the ideological context at the time of the founding of the WSF as one of radical and widespread denial of alternatives to neoliberalism (Santos 2006b). However, this defeat has taken place in the midst of the continued chaos and violence of an unravelling unipolar world order, potentially catastrophic climate change, and multiple crises of the present: economic, ecological, and civilizational. In the current period, as one of profound crisis in the history of Western
modernity, Boaventura de Sousa Santos has argued that the World Social Forum is an expression and a harbinger of the latent possibilities of such a transition (2008: 252). Even if the WSF were to decline and disappear, it will continue to be a reference point for twenty-ﬁrst-century radicalism, as the uprisings of 1848 or 1968 have been for the generations that followed (Gilbert 2008: 93). The ‘edges’ of global justice in the title allude to this condition of profound
transition and the accompanying uncertainty, where one senses that ways of life and modes of thought which, only a short time ago seemed relatively stable and enduring, are crumbling at the edges, and where the rate of erosion is set to increase exponentially. A historical epoch is coming to an end and we don’t know what will replace it. TheWSF has been thrownup by the social forces unleashed in this conjuncture
as a laboratory of practices for other possible worlds. As such, it is a carrier both of myriad future possibilities and myriad contradictions of the present.
As a site, it is at a leading edge of the transition, where other possible futures are being imagined and constructed. But as a creature of the transition, the WSF is also ﬁrmly rooted in the order that is passing. As such, it is a site where one can sense we have reached the outer edges, the stretched limits, of the modern world’s utopias. The WSF is simultaneously among the ﬁnest expressions of the emancipatory traditions of Western modernity and a site for the reproduction of their contradictions, hierarchies, and exclusions. The World Social Forum is producing ‘others’ who are consigned to its edges, its margins. These particular edges are privileged sites to interrogate the emancipatory traditions of modernity and to see how they are being challenged, remade, maybe even replaced, through the appearance and agency of new others. The WSF is a site for this tumultuous, conﬂictual, and ambivalent process. This is the subject of this book. The overarching thesis of this book is that the World Social Forum is a
product and an expression of the emancipatory traditions of Western modernity. It is a site for the contentious interplay of liberalisms, socialisms, anarchisms, and feminisms under historically new conditions of global network society, aggressive neoliberal capitalist expansion, and neo-imperialist violence in the name of anti-terrorism. With the appearance of the World Social Forum, we see a new modality of the political that breaks in signiﬁcant ways with modern rationalities on the left and is transformative for its participating movements. Enabled by these breaks, subaltern social forces are impressing themselves
on the terrain of the global justice movements through the World Social Forum process. The appearance of these subaltern movements and their place-based worlds on the global stage is itself a harbinger of the transitions underway and poses deep challenges to the presumptions underpinning modernist emancipatory traditions. Their partial and contradictory incorporation in the WSF reveals the thoroughly modernist character of the global justice project as one interpolated with coloniality, and which demands that its subjects express themselves in the form and grammar of modern politics in order to be rendered legible to ‘global civil society’.1 To the extent that the encounter with both lived subalternity and cosmological diﬀerence is allowed to disrupt and remake the World Social Forum, it will continue to be at the leading edges of the reinvention of global justice; but at the moment, this is an open question.