Infochange India

Governance

Thu18Sep2014

You are here: Home | Governance | Features | The activistocracy

The activistocracy

Another world is certainly possible, but is another World Social Forum, wonders Achal Prabhala, recalling the crucial debates at the plenaries between crypto-autonomists and anarcho-syndicalists or whatever, while the masses slept in the back rows and indigenous people sang and shouted “Down Down World Bank!” every time a camera crew passed by

At WSF 2009
At WSF 2009

One day in January 2004, a group of excited schoolchildren from Mumbai entered a room at the WSF – the World Social Forum. The sign outside said ‘Rainbow Planet’ and their teacher vaguely hoped that it promised crayons, colouring books and world peace. Instead, this group of toddlers found themselves confronted by the love that once dared not speak its name; whereupon the teacher blushed and fled, dragging her curious wards with her. 

It was a welcome jolt of levity in an otherwise excruciating exercise. Back then, as Mumbai girded its loins for WSF, I was agog with excitement. It was my very first, and I had been looking forward to it for months. It was also the only WSF I could afford to attend, being as it was in my own backyard. I came, I saw, I wanted to be conquered. But all I got was a lungful of dust. 

When my sister and I arrived at the WSF, we had no idea that it would be spread over 65 acres of land, or that there would be 100,000 others of our kind. We asked if wheelchairs were available (my sister is physically disabled). After some hours of hanging around, it became apparent that they were not. My cousin found us seats in a van. We cut a swathe through the common people trudging to the main stage, discovering to our horror that we were in an ambulance equipped with a wailing siren and rotating lights. 

It deposited us in the VIP section – a small patch of grass right in front of the stage, cordoned off by tight security, presumably, for the activistocracy to mingle uninhibitedly. And they did. Arundhati Roy had a flower in her hair. The folks who made up Junoon rolled in, all black jeans, long hair and lit cigarettes, every bit the Pakistani Sufi-rock band of the moment. The show got on its way. 

Junoon’s performance was received ecstatically; their throaty rendition of ‘Sayonee’ was just the thing to connect 100,000 individuals itching for love and revolution. Culturally speaking, it was all downhill after that. There were lurid exhibitions of ancient culture, in line with that famous rule of international activism: any act of resistance must involve ethnic people singing and clapping and swaying their hips. 

Once the WSF meetings formally began, however, I was grateful for any hipswaying that could tear me away from crucial debates between crypto-autonomists and anarcho-syndicalists or whatever – especially when it was from sexuality activists like the folks at Rainbow Planet. These folks took their fun seriously, thank God, disregarding the quaint ‘days of war/ nights of love’ protocol on offer. If there was a useful merging of the old left and the new left, it was primarily because of them. 

And if there were useful conversations, it was not necessarily by design. Some of the best outcomes of the WSF had their start in shared coffees and casual conversations; in fact, this was exactly the case with a since celebrated dispute between the Swiss multinational Novartis and the Indian government. South Korean activists suggested to their Indian counterparts that there was a basis to mount a challenge on Gleevec, a patented cancer drug. (The case that ensued from the challenge, which was heard through the year 2007, would guarantee the availability of affordable medicines in India and the world over). But the organisers of the WSF would say that such chance encounters and unforeseeable outcomes are precisely the point of it all, and one has to give them that. The WSF is indeed design by non-design, and often, it even works. 

These were the good bits. 

At the plenary sessions, a mixture of bedlam and boredom prevailed. I’m not saying that it wasn’t sweet of Mary, Trevor, Joe, Gilberto and Mustafa to trek all the way to Mumbai; I just wish I could have heard what they had to say. In the front rows, respectable activists and dilettantes strained their ears to hear about ethical globalisation, post-apartheid Soweto, bad IMF, good Brazil and the situation in Palestine. All we got was ambient clutter and a few muffled squeaks. 

I missed hearing Leila Khaled, the Palestinian activist and celebrity hijacker. Friends had been immensely moved by her talk, so I read her up, first in a weirdly reverential interview for a trade magazine called Aviation Security International, and then on the BBC. While she came across as extremely warm, I did wonder about her outrage at being coshed, back then in 1970, and waking up to find her companion dead (“I was furious, shouting and crying”) – given that they had been overpowered, after all, while trying to hijack a plane

In the back rows, exclusively populated by the Indian proletariat, people wondered when the Tamil and Hindi translation they had been promised was going to start. When it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen, and that no one could hear anything anyway, they stretched out and sensibly fanned themselves to sleep. 

It was a good thing that the masses got some rest. There was so much for them to do. 

Every time a camera crew came by, the masses had to march and shout “Down down World Bank!” or, alternatively, “Down down Coca-Cola!” University-educated researchers analysed the plight of oppressed people at panels; oppressed people themselves provided something that was quaintly billed as ‘testimonial’. Meanwhile, fearless leaders were interviewed by equally fearless journalists in the air-conditioned media centre, which doubled up as a VIP clubhouse and offered e-mail access, gratis, to the chosen. 

On the positive side, one of the nicest things about WSF Mumbai was that it was not MR – Mumbai Resistance – a sideshow that had fallen down across the road. The brainchild of some twisted little Stalinists, MR’s beef with the WSF was that it had been tricked into believing that class was not the only valid unit of social analysis, thereby inviting the revolution to be led astray by feminists, queer people, black people, caste warriors and what have you. MR broadcast its every indignant wheeze in a quasi-academic mouthpiece which had concluded, in an earlier scholarly investigation, that abstract art was a CIA plot to distract the masses. 

Another nice thing about the WSF is that there is no Plan. And the funniest thing about there being no Plan is that it endlessly consternates the nice Washingtonians and their tropical satellites who constitute the internal critique. No liberal, especially one who is actually at the WSF, wants to be publicly against it. (The most curious thing about the WSF might be that Nobel prize-wining economists are its most curious participants). They try to look like they’re listening, all the while sighing inwardly, and one ends up feeling quite sorry for them. 

But I digress. Who is the ideal WSF participant? She is a woman born and raised in an obscure rural part of any third world country, subjected to crushing poverty which forces her to migrate to the city. She gets a job on the shop floor, sewing buttons by day, decoding bootleg translations of Gramsci by night. Thus emboldened, she realises that power is simultaneously diffused and concentrated in Empire (the title of Hardt & Negri’s first bestselling book). Persevering on, and having left the shop floor to ‘organise’ she finds out that the answer to everything is Multitude (the title of their second bestselling book). Then, if she is both truly deserving and truly with-it, she lands a proper job with a proper international NGO, corresponds with Susan George on email and confers with SubcomandanteMarcos in remote mountain hideaways. Finally, to crown her ascent to the ne plus ultra of activism, she uses her official credit card to pre-order the next Hardt & Negri manual on Amazon.com. 

Two years after WSF Mumbai, I bumped into an altogether different kind of WSF participant in Orange Farm, on the outer fringes of Johannesburg. I was at a celebration for International Women’s Day and George had been temporarily employed by the organisers. He fondly recalled his trip to Mumbai, a week’s stay at The President, a five-star deluxe hotel in the smartest part of town, and scratched his head over the alleged rape of a South African activist by a South African judge – a less than ideal fluid exchange that had dominated headlines in India at the time (the charge was subsequently withdrawn). 

George was the kind of person who was grateful for any employment that came his way. He lived in a tin shack in a particularly desperate part of Orange Farm, and had been trying to get a regular job for years. I mentally tallied the cost of his WSF jaunt – about US$3000. I wondered how many meals, taxi-rides or medicines that kind of money would buy. And lest this question be too charged with plain old historical materialism, here’s another: would George have had any say in how that money was spent on him? 

Perversely, I was reminded of a sentence I’d been hearing a lot lately. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” For a brief while this was the official motto of the Multitude, a message to its minions and minders alike; Muhammad Ali to the organised, Spinoza to the organiser. Certainly, it is the definitive WSF sound byte – a rousing combination of depth and clarity with an interpretive sweep to boot. Right at that moment though, as I stood confronted by George and the vast multiplicity of his situation, it sounded ridiculous. 

Sure, I realise that instigating global revolution is a thankless career, and I won’t pretend I have a clue as to how to go about it myself. Some of my best friends attend the WSF, and I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to some sex and tourism with their development. I just don’t think that we should confuse the WSF for something that it isn’t. 

There have been many WSFs since that time in Mumbai. A round of ‘polycentric’ meetings in 2006 that left participants somewhat confused, and the real thing in Nairobi in 2007, where the rampant class bias left everyone thoroughly disgusted. Last year was dedicated to ‘autonomous global actions’ (ie nothing very much, really) and this year the WSF returned home to Brazil. Incredibly, the movement shows no signs of backing down. 

Soon enough, itinerant interventionists will confer in some salubrious location and declare that “another world is possible” – again. But as they wonder why their masses are not fully down with the floating and stinging programme, perhaps they’ll engage more equally with the loves and lives of the humans whose interests they so tenderly protect. And when that happens, if that happens, regardless of the outcome, at least one thing will be clear: another WSF is impossible. 

(Achal Prabhala is a researcher and writer based in Bangalore. A version of this essay appeared in the East African, Nairobi, in January 2007.)

Infochange News & Features, June 2009