Last night I attended a lecture by Dr. Jackie Smith of the Sociology Department at the University of Notre Dame and the University’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. The topic was “Global Democracy and the World Social Forums”. It was part of the series of lectures in “International Education Week”— sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Education and U.S. Dept. of State.
I saw it on my local Meetup events listing. Not knowing what a World Social Forum was and it was open to the public, I thought I’d take a look.
The first bullet point in the PowerPoint presentation was “Globalism is Inevitable”. There was muttered agreement in the room. In attendance were 15 students and one disheveled guy in his forties (me). Her lecture explained that much of the social ills in the world today are the result of decades of neo-liberal economic policies. This got interesting, because I’ve thought most of our prosperity came from less government interference in the lives of its citizens and that money was good. I watched this presentation with my libertarian goggles on.
Some of the other bullet points explained what Globalism does:
- Globalism opens free markets
- Globalism reduces the role of government
- Globalism expands privatization
So far, so good.
The criticism of Globalism is that it’s run by the elites, instead of the ordinary people. Unchecked Globalism is linked to specific growing inequalities. The 400:1 ratio of pay in corporations is seen as bad. The free market becomes a substitute democratic governance. The open borders policy under neo-liberal Globalism is the free movement of goods and services, but not people. The free market is unable solve such things as health issues. She pined for the days of more regulation and government involvement, which was the trend before the Reagan-Thatcher era.
Dr. Smith believes that the World Social Forum is one way to begin to correct this trend.
The World Social Forum was created as a response to the World Economic Forum, which began Switzerland in the early 1970s. Dr. Smith observed that those who tended to rise to higher levels in government were “technical experts” such as economists, instead of representatives of ordinary people, like lawyers. This hit me as strange, since most politicians in our government had law degrees more so than economic degrees. But I was there to listen.
In the late 1990s, there was a growing discontent with the neo-liberal model and against development policies of the World Bank, for instance. Economic development was favored for international trade over meeting the needs of domestic markets.
A visible example of this discontent was the 1999 protests in Seattle at the meeting of the World Trade Organization.
Although she acknowledged there was some vandalism, it was unfortunate and relatively minor for such a large crowd. It was mostly a peaceful protest. The media missed the message, and focused too much on the violence.
Another example in the slide presentation was of a gate around a meeting place for NAFTA. Instead of caging in the protesters in a “free speech zone” as some politicians practice today, this gathering surrounded itself in 12-foot-high fences.
The first World Social Forum took place in 2001 at Porto Alegre, Brazil. The organizers expected 4,000, but 15,000 people showed up. In addition to the local Brazilian activists, it was attended by a ATTAC, a French-based citizen lobby for the taxation of international currency transactions for social benefits. Apparently this tax would be used to stabilize currency, and for the consideration of social justice, instead of just for corporate profit.
The WSF is held each year. Since then it’s grown in size to up to 150,000 attendees. It’s also been held in Kenya and Pakistan. Due its size, it’s now being held in several countries at the same time.
One comment Dr. Smith made at this point, which I found amusing, regarded travel to the Kenya conference. It took a long time for African attendees to travel to Kenya, because they had to change planes in Europe. There were few direct flights between African nations. And this had to do with money (her emphasis). I had to think about that one. Last time I checked, point-to-point chartered flights in the U.S. started at $20,000. There are many flights in this country with delays, but regual service for under $300. I’ve had a 12-hour layover in each of my travels to South Africa through Heathrow. And that was a $5,000 ticket in business class. Oh, well.
The World Social Forum is now expanding to a series of Local Forums. However the United States is far underrepresented. While the WSF is virtually unknown in the U.S., it is part of the daily conversion in places such as Austria. The forums will foster networking, sharing experiences, developing analyses, and planning actions.
Dr. Smith gave several examples of collectivist actions which benefitted local people. For instance, the folks in Ithaca, NY created their own local currency to buy goods made in their own community. National currencies tend to deplete jobs in a community that are less profitable for a given industry. One example was a farmer who grew heirloom vegetables, those you can’t find in most supermarkets. By having the local community invest in its farmers as a co-op, everyone would share in the bounty or shortages from the harvest.
She wrapped up the presentation with a call to action. She noted that corporate-run newspapers are having a hard time competing with distributed media outlets on the internet. You’re looking at one!
There were many opportunities for participation. These were some of the website that had more information:
The next day I wrote Dr. Smith an email thanking her for letting the community know about the World Social Forum.
Although I disagreed with many of the solutions discussed, I recognize that there is a lot of frustration with the way things are. I found it valuable listening to another point of view.
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