A Critique of the United States Social Forum

Authored by Monika Kothari: Her 2nd installment during the GELT

The USSF has a list of “principles”  at the beginning of its program that almost nobody reads. I didn’t even know that these existed until a woman in one of my workshops began quoting from it (and was met with looks of confusion). To me, this fact alone, the fact that few people read these principles or even know that they existed, inherently means that not everyone—perhaps not even a majority—agree with and adhere to them. Actually, I found that one of the clearest underlying problems of the USSF is the lack of vision, unity, and shared goals. The forum succeeded in bringing together people of diverse backgrounds, and with diverse agendas, into the same space in time…but more often than not, failed at allowing these interest groups to confront and interact with each other in a meaningful and productive way. Even with all of these thousands of socially conscious people on the same plane, it is virtually impossible to make important breakthroughs as the “artists,” “feminists,” “environmentalists,” “socialists,” and “anti-Zionist Jews” section themselves off. More than that, there is an overwhelming sense of personal isolation and aloneness, both physically and mentally. Some people withdraw from the massive crowds, while others become so tightly wrapped in the cocoons of their organizations, logos, t-shirts, causes, and identities that the human beings disappear behind all the politics. Many of us found ourselves confused, disoriented, and frustrated, and in those moments of mental exhaustion, felt incredibly alone, removed, and isolated.

The Social Forum was not always about finding “solutions,” which is a good thing, because I hate the word “solutions” and I can’t exactly pinpoint why. It sounds like such a positive word (the eradication of a “problem”), but, for some reason, there’s this hint of a patronizing connotation. Maybe it goes back to the “metaphysical” question of the social forum itself. I mean, what does holding the USSF in Detroit say about the city? And I don’t mean to represent the views of the organizers or anything…but what were their intentions? Do they mean to represent Detroit as a source of hope, or as a source of problems to be “fixed”? (Fixed is a terrible word too; I can only associate it with neutered pets.) Both interpretations might be valid, but I think that the true intent changes the flavor and tone of the USSF as a whole. What do people mean when they say they’re here to find or create solutions? I saw people pouring into Cobo Center, locking their bikes to anything that was taller than it was wide, and carrying in their breast pockets all their respective pet issues, often with little desire or will to build any kind of united front with people of different interests. (It’s kind of like high school—you know, goths sit with goths, jocks sit with jocks, nerds sit with nerds, etc.) What I mean to say is, if you’re a Palestinian rights activist, why would you have reason to go to any events aside from the sixteen Palestinian rights workshops? Even the workshops themselves, in which one is surrounded by other like-minded people that tend to agree with each other, are often huge—so huge that one feels powerless to get involved in the debate. To me, that’s unfortunate, because this sort of event should be empowering, not overwhelming. Add to that the issue of time and space restrictions (with a hundred workshops to chose from in any given time slot, followed by the stress of actually locating them), and the experience becomes even more distressing.

I don’t mean to sound like a hypocrite. I’m as much of an armchair activist as the next person, and maybe I don’t have the validity to say anything. But with the massive influx of people with their own personal agendas, claiming to represent and speak for groups of people that they often don’t know or understand, it is hard for me to avoid turning cynical. For example, in one workshop I attended, called “Art in Thought and Politics,” the debate turned towards the “gentrification” and “imperialist undertones” of the influx of artists and their “murals, gardens, and bikes” into Detroit. This accusation came from a group of mostly white, upper-middleclass, suburban “artists” from places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, who rendered themselves qualified to stuff words into the mouths of the people of Detroit. Regardless of whether or not their assertions were valid, I was annoyed, offended, and a little pissed off that a bunch of wannabe bohemians (okay, so I’m a little biased in my point of view) would use such unnecessary, high-brow, academic vernacular to speak for a city most of them had never seen before last Tuesday. Furthermore, one of the most frequent and frustrating inevitabilities of the USSF workshops was the constant stream of people trying to make their own voices heard, or push their own cause to the forefront at the cost of all others. In literally every workshop I attended, someone would stand up and throw in their own plug, directing all attendees to their websites, organizations, and often irrelevant personal tales of tragedy or heroism, detracting from the conversation.

But I don’t mean to criticize the entire USSF as useless and a waste of time, although it certainly seems like I have, so far. I just wanted to make the negativities clear, because they need to be acknowledged, but there are a lot of good things about the Social Forum too. In particular, it was amazing to witness the high degree of individuality and personal expression in the participants…I’ve never seen so many people so unafraid to be themselves. Somehow, it made me happy to be in a place where women don’t get funny looks for unshaven legs, and men can openly dress in drag without fear of condemnation. For the most part, people were just…nice. Much nicer than people are in “the real world,” and more optimistic and socially conscious too. Bike caravans and tent cities—the togetherness, communalism, and sheer hopefulness of such undertakings broke through the personal isolationism of the Social Forum, at times. And even though, needlessly to say, some attendees were misguided in their beliefs (from my perspective, anyway…which anyone should take with a grain of salt), they trust so much in their own values, and are such genuine people, and on the whole, much less cynical than I am, that it was impossible to hold it against them. I instinctively try to be the devil’s advocate, and make enemies where I should find allies, but it is impossible to argue with a group of people whose politics are its identities. And perhaps most importantly, the workshops I attended forced me to think in ways I had never thought to think before, exposed me to people the likes of which I’d never seen before, and opened me up to new ideas, even if none of them managed to radicalize me (or make me a socialist). Now, if I’d bothered to read the principles at the beginning of the USSF program, I might have a better idea of its objectives and thus better be able to gauge the forum itself, in respect to its goals. I mean, I really have to commend the organizers for pulling off such a big and important event. The opening march was the perfect beginning, if not a perfect summary, of the entire event, with different organizations mingling together, overlapping and mixing, chanting and singing, carrying giant puppets of Cesar Chavez and Ella Baker down the street towards Cobo. If anything, that is an ideal that will hopefully someday be realized within the USSF itself.

2 thoughts on “A Critique of the United States Social Forum

  1. Monika – I agree to a certain degree with your critique, although I feel there were primarily two camps at the USSF – white anarchist types and POC community groups. However, I think you mistake the forum for something else when you are looking for unity or pluralism. As a number of commentators on the USSF/WSF have noted (in particular, I’m looking at Michael Hardt), the forum creates a space for a new process of politics and political action which is not about consensus or unity, but rather about multiplicity and respect for difference. It doesn’t mean that unsettling shouldn’t or doesn’t happen in the forum’s “open space” process, but rather that the goal of the forum is not to present a unified political position.

    My own critique of the forum would be that there are still many ways in which the “open space” that the forum imagines itself to be is of course not flat, but topological…which produces certain disjuncts and privileges that are not always acknowledged. But that is another discussion.

    I also don’t really think your assessment of the general ignorance about the USSF/WSF principles is accurate, but in any case, neither of us have any data on this.

  2. Another wonderful commentary, Monika! Just one thing, though: don’t belittle your views by making statements like, “maybe I don’t have the validity to say anything”. Don’t second-guess yourself. You’re brilliant. Don’t doubt that. ;D

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