Thinking the Global Locally

01 September 2004
What does it mean to 'think the global locally'? Oscar Reyes examines this question in relation to debates on social forums, as part of a debate first published in the journal 'Soundings'.
What does it mean to ‘think the global locally?’ At the most basic level, the contributors to this discussion converge on the view that the global and the local are constructed in relation to each other, which means that the form that they currently take remains open to challenge. This is by no means as obvious as it might seem – a point that is well made by drawing a contrast with neoliberal assumptions, which tend to depoliticise this relationship under the banner of ‘globalisation’. Neoliberals announce that the global is subject to a market logic that is beyond popular control and that the local should merely equip us to face the challenges that it brings: There Is No Alternative (TINA). When globalisation operates in this way the results can be profoundly disempowering. We are asked to accept that there can be no significant democratic participation in important global decisions concerning our everyday lives. This amounts to the rejection of any meaningful idea of popular sovereignty, abandoning it to the reactionary right which has its own form of ‘anti-globalisation’ discourse: reducing popular sovereignty to national boundaries, and engaging in what Katharine Ainger terms ‘a mythologising of roots or place’. This is as mistaken as it is dangerous, since it ignores the extent to which our everyday lives are never simply territorially organised, but are interrelated to other localities even in terms of the food that we eat and the clothes that we wear. To its credit, the actual ‘anti-globalisation’ movement – which is not against globalisation itself, but only the present form of corporate-driven neoliberal capitalism – has generally understood this point very well. This has led some commentators to call it a Global Justice movement, or a movement for alternative globalisation, which recognises that our ethical responsibilities do not stop at territorial boundaries and that our commitment to progressive political change should extend beyond them too. In response to the forced choice of neoliberalism or reactionary localism this movement says ‘no thanks’. It maintains that politics is an emancipatory activity that allows us to challenge and reshape the apparently objective forces that we encounter. This is why the slogan of the World Social Forum (WSF) is a performative one that poses a direct challenge to the neoliberal logic: ‘another world is possible’. One big question remains, however: how will this other world come about? The WSF does not have an answer to this question (and nor do I!) but it does offer something that is potentially more useful: a space to reflect critically on the alternatives to neoliberalism and create strategies and actions that might bring them about. In fact, the WSF is an expression of doubt in the idea that there can be a ‘one size fits all’ alternative to neoliberalism (although, sadly, someone forgot to tell this to a number of Leninist sects in the UK). It invites us to think about the world as made up of what Doreen Massey calls ‘flows and connections rather than territories’, in which complexity and diversity reign. But it also asks us to consider how these flows and connections are halted and where they ‘touch the ground’. The Global Justice movement initially responded to this challenge by focussing on the geography of neoliberalism itself. As a result, it placed its attention on international summits – meetings of intergovernmental organisations (eg. EU, WTO) and informal gatherings of the global elite (eg. G8, World Economic Forum (WEF)) which between them form a key element of an emerging system of global governance. These summits are sites at which today’s deterritorialized capitalism temporarily finds a physical location, where it can be symbolically resisted and effectively blocked. The tradition of counter-summit organising can be traced at least as far back as The Other Economic Summit in London in 1984, although its most notable success (and the immediate inspiration for the WSF) was the protests outside the WTO Ministerial in Seattle in November 1999. Yet it was apparent even then that there are major limitations to counter-summit activity, since too exclusive a focus on existing global governance institutions can hamper the development of positive agendas to replace them. For some of the participants in the Seattle protests, the creation of global networks had started with the Zapatista Encuentro (Encounter) for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism in 1996. For others, the emergence of the WSF signalled a major shift in that direction –a sign that social movements, NGOs and civil society groups can operate according to their own flows and forge connections in spaces of their own, without having to summit-hop according to the whims of political and business leaders. The creation of these Forums is therefore a way to build up ‘political capacity’. But, as Clare Joy points out, the WSF process has yet to resolve how this will be achieved at a local level – which is crucial if a more participatory and democratic politics is to emerge ‘from below’. This takes us to the heart of what it means to ‘think the global locally’, which can be seen as a response to the feeling that globalisation currently happens ‘from above’. Neoliberalism creates an unaccountable system of global governance, hollowing out existing democratic institutions (locally and nationally) by encouraging them to adopt new forms of corporate-led politics. A ‘globalisation from below’ does not answer this by advocating a return to localism, but instead seeks to encourage the emergence of a more participatory democracy. Local Social Forums (LSFs) could offer one way to actualise this rhetoric, offering what Jane Foot calls ‘social spaces for critical dialogue’ and engaging in what Katharine Ainger calls the ‘parallel building of our own legitimacy’. From the vantage point of the WSF and ESF process, LSFs could mitigate against the emergence of a ‘flying bureaucracy’ of political full-timers and NGO professionals – which is an organisational hazard at present. They could strengthen the hand of social forum activists in their relationships with local government. This could be quite important because all of the World and European Social Forums so far (with the exception of the 2004 WSF in Mumbai) have been organised in conjunction with local authorities, which they have relied upon for bureaucratic or financial support. Dependency upon the state is not a healthy situation for any civil society initiative and has been a particular problem in London, where the Greater London Authority (GLA) has attempted to centralise control of the ESF and run it almost as one of its own events. However, LSFs should not be seen as a panacea since they often reproduce some of the same problems suffered by their larger cousins. It is even easier for political parties to take over a LSF or use it as a recruiting ground. And even if that fate is avoided, such forums tend to attract the same core of committed activists as their continental and global counterparts, so the problem of preaching to the converted is not really solved. These criticisms are sometimes dismissed on the basis that LSFs are a very new phenomenon, particularly in the UK. However, we should be aware of the many cases in Italy where LSFs (which are widespread there) have run into difficulties for precisely these reasons. This is probably not the result of arbitrary pressures or Machiavellian plotting, but a limitation in the basic conception of such forums. LSFs are designed to help local campaigning initiatives work more effectively together, and in so doing they recognise an important truth that no single issue is ever single. But the political opportunities that these forums create are generally only apparent to existing activists, since it is by exposing ourselves to the frustrations of political campaigning – marching against the Iraq war only to find that parliament votes for it, or campaigning against a post office closure to find that it the product of a Europe-wide liberalisation process – that we learn the need to create strong networks across a variety of issues. As a result, LSFs are unlikely to ever become an entry point to political activism and encourage the kind of widespread participation that is hoped for from them, although this does not mean that they are entirely without merit. There is an alternative way to integrate local and global campaigning activities, however. Social Forums are already helping to establish connections between activists from a range of localities working on related issues (or encountering common opponents). Take the example of the global ‘No US Bases Campaign’, which was successfully launched at the WSF in Mumbai. Organisationally, this was the product of a new collaboration between long running local campaigns by base-affected communities. But this could not have been achieved without the facilitation (not leadership!) of organisations with experience in international networking, principally Focus on the Global South and the Transnational Institute. The WSF was an important moment in the process of bringing these different elements together, although it was not the only one – strategy conferences of the anti-war movement, as well as email communications and counter-summits all played a role too. Such examples are still quite rare, however, and the challenge that we are faced with in bringing the ESF to London is one of finding ways to create a far more participatory process. This means that the priorities for the ESF, and the basis for people’s involvement in it, cannot be decided from a committee room in London – which is the danger that much of the organising process here in the UK is currently falling into. The organisers of the Forum should be thinking of ourselves as facilitators. Of course, we have specific responsibilities to ensure that practical arrangements are made for the hosting of the Forum, the accommodation and feeding of its participants, etc. Through this daily involvement, moreover, we can gain an intricate knowledge of the ESF process itself which it is then our job to share. Beyond this, however, we should strive to empower people to make their own decisions about how they interact within the Forums many spaces. Concretely, this could take two forms. The first is that in the run up to the London ESF there needs to be a widespread and interactive consultation process where the campaigning priorities and usage of the spaces within the Forum can be established in a participatory fashion. Ideally, this should be a Europe-wide process facilitated by an effective and interactive web presence, as well as by the networks that have already established themselves in the course of the previous two ESFs. In particular, the ESF should aim to establish lateral connections across national boundaries and encourage direct contact between grassroots activists and campaigners from across Europe. The rationale behind the Forum requires precisely this, since it encourages the exchange of ideas and aggregation of political and social demands outside of the constraints of the nation state. Yet the practices of actually existing Forums have so far always fallen short: more than 70% of participants in previous WSFs and ESFs have come from the host country. In the case of the ESF, many of the practical arrangements are organised through state-based delegations, and even the choice of ‘headline’ speakers was last year created on the basis of national quotas! Secondly, it requires a shift in the way that the spaces of the Forum are arranged so that delegates can more effectively act as participants rather than consumers. This is also tied into a wider conception of what the Social Forum aspires to be. One conception of the Forum, with which I very much agree, is that it should act as a counter-hegemonic response to neoliberalism. But this means that it can’t simply repeat the phases of neoliberalism’s advance – from the Mount Pelerin society through think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute into the governments of Thatcher and Reagan and international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank. The story of neoliberalism’s rise is a reminder that ideas have consequences or, rather, that they do so when backed by well-resourced financial and state infrastructures. This faces us with an apparent problem, since these same resources are not available to us: alternatives to neoliberalism are unlikely to emerge through secret deals made in green rooms or ideas jotted down in the editorial column of The Economist. But it is a problem to which the Social Forums could provide an effective response. Neoliberal expansion was premised on the idea that individual entrepreneurship, coupled with the advice of experts and technocrats, is the way to govern and achieve change. But the epistemological underpinnings of the WSF implicitly reject that. Instead of expert think-tanks and secret deals, the Forum offers itself up as a kind of gigantic think-tank, a space of mass participation where knowledge is constructed and disseminated through collective activity. Why else should we bother trying to bring 30,000 people together? But if this is the case, then the format of the Forum also needs to be re-examined, since it is still very much dominated by ‘talking heads’ – the Global Justice movement’s own celebrities and experts, and even a few of its technocrats. What is needed, instead, is a reconceptualisation of the Forum’s pedagogical spaces to emphasise critical engagement and intrapersonal exchanges, recognising that people express their concerns and experiences in a rich variety of ways. Only then might the Social Forum become what it promises to be: ‘a free space, for free thought, where people can dream of other worlds, individually and collectively and struggle to forge ways of achieving their dreams.’ More articles by Oscar Reyes