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Those Who Want To Build, Those Who Want To Fight: The World Social Forum with a North African Twist

[Logo of the 2015 World Social Forum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.] [Logo of the 2015 World Social Forum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Holding the World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunisia, for the second time, is doubly significant. It is right on target, since Tunisians have toppled a neoliberal dictator. It is also a painful reminder of capitalism’s power, as Tunisian neoliberalism (along with the dictator’s entourage) is still intact. Not only are the main contours of Ben Ali’s policies still in place, his top bureaucrats are in command. Moreover, they have come back through elections. Voters replaced them for a secular liberal-Islamic coalition, partially due to worries regarding increasing conservatism and a deteriorating security situation. That coalition was also deeply neoliberal. In short, Tunisians got rid of a neoliberal tyrant so that they could choose between his neoliberal companions and their more conservative mirror images.

“What alternative did they have?” you may ask. That is the question. There are two, interconnected faces of the malaise. The first is political. The Popular Front and its constituent parties and movements, which were quite active during the revolution, could not amass the legitimacy to compete with the two main contenders (the old regime forces and the Islamists). Even though there were hopeful moments, one election after another frustrated the Front’s hopes. The other face of the malaise is economic. Even if the anti-neoliberal Front were able to come to power, would it be able to implement a working, efficient, alternative economic policy? The answer is far from clear. That uncertainty is among the reasons why it never came close to replacing the neoliberal twins (authoritarian secularists and liberalized Islamists). But more broadly, the Tunisian situation again demonstrates that a brave new world does not fall from the sky, even when neoliberalism miserably fails.

The Wide, but Bridgeable, Gap

The World Social Forum is one of the venues in which organizations, activists, and ordinary people dissatisfied with neoliberalism come together to exchange ideas, build networks, and discuss techniques. Settings like this one are indispensable to concretize paths out of disasters fostered by neoliberalization.

This year, seventy thousand people participated in the WSF. There were around a thousand panels. The WSF’s charter clearly states that the participating groups and movements are anti-neoliberal. The reality on the ground, however, is a little more complex—a complexity that is not necessarily, but could become a weakness.

Over the last twelve years, many things have been said about the WSF, and I do not want to repeat all of those (celebratory and critical) points here. Rather, I will focus on one slice of this complex reality: the 2015 WSF debates around building alternative economies in North Africa, and more specifically Tunisia. My comments are based on the ten panels I attended on this and related issues (five more panels on the topic were canceled and there were overlapping panels of interest I could not attend).

What was most striking about the panels organized under the broad title “The Economy and Alternatives Square” was the wide (but not unbridgeable) gap between those who wanted to fight and those who wanted to build. Especially among WSF organizers, it was taken for granted that transnational capital is the name of the evil and it has to be fought until the very end. “No negotiations,” many said. The panels they presented (and their audience too) were informed by political economy and Marxist vocabulary. The speakers were mostly European, North American, and South American (though some participants from India seemed to be on the same page too).

Yet when it came to North African speakers, the tone was often much more cautious. Their presentations were mostly about how to build economic alternatives on the ground. Some put the emphasis on negotiating with companies and governments to make them more accountable. I did not have a chance to attend the more politically oriented panels on citizenship, migration, youth, transitional justice, etc. It is quite likely that the North African tone was much more revolutionary on these panels. Yet, when it came to the economy, many seemed to find it out of place to reject the global structure out of hand. As one Tunisian professor told me after a panel, we could agree on broad anti-neoliberal principles (a British speaker had just listed these as common ownership, popular sovereignty, and social production), but Tunisia faces immediate problems such as sluggish growth, inflation, and corruption at the moment. Who would want big business to pack up and leave right now?

Other North African speakers (from Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco) similarly pointed to the possibility of capital flight (for example when I posed, at another panel, the question of why the revolutionary energy of 2011-2013 was not directly targeted at the transnationals, the harm of which they had elegantly described throughout their panel). These are legitimate concerns. Those who want to fight capitalism cannot win these activists over without laying out a concrete plan of what Tunisians (and others) will do if capital leaves them in the middle of the road (or chooses to punish them through other means, as it is in the course of doing in Greece).

But this plan cannot be a list of abstract ideas. People have to see, even partially experience, the alternatives before switching paths. Such an experience occasionally occurs during revolutions, but there is a lot that can be done in less revolutionary times too. We certainly cannot accomplish the task of building an alternative economy under the current conditions, but we can begin.


One possible starting point for building an alternative economy is through cooperatives. The idea has a long history. One of the important turning points in that history is the debate between Marx and some of the socialists of his time. Marxist polemics (and ultimately Stalin’s fateful turn to collectivization) were among the factors that buried hopes of building an alternative world through these organizations. Tito’s Yugoslavia, however, revived the practice and made it the cornerstone of a self-governing socialism. Yugoslavian cooperatives directly influenced the early Tunisian republic. Several of (the republican founder) Bourguiba’s ministers were from the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), a trade union that had an active role in furthering the cooperative movement. The centrality of a trade union within the old regime is unique to Tunisia in the region. However, after 1969 the regime took a market-friendly turn. Cooperatives stopped playing a major role in the economy (though the UGTT retained its centrality).

Today, cooperatives have a hard time flourishing because of legal barriers and credit shortages. A few networks and organizations are working on spreading the practice in the countryside, but new generations of Tunisian peasants are unaware of the possibilities. The UGTT is negotiating with the regime to open up more space for cooperatives, while other organizations and networks (some of them affiliated with the Popular Front) are putting more emphasis on autonomy. They point out that the major problem with the cooperatives of the 1960s was the lack of free adhesion of the peasants to these institutions.

Cooperatives are much more widespread and institutionalized in nearby Morocco. Yet these are not necessarily alternatives against capitalism. They work in conjunction with the current Moroccan regime and hence are compatible with neoliberal capitalism. Still, their experiences can provide important clues for those organizing cooperatives elsewhere in the region (and they are indeed collaborating with cooperative movements of different colors outside of Morocco). Scholars, not only activists, have been debating for a long time whether rural cooperatives are a form of peasant self-organization or, rather, extensions of the state (and/or market capitalism). Today, as autonomy becomes the catchword, there is more opportunity to push for self-organization-based cooperatives in the countryside.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              The NGO Universe

But what about the towns and cities? Here is where the NGOs come in. In urban Tunisia, there is very little cooperative organization, and it is mostly restricted to the artisanal sector. There also seems to be, unfortunately, a generational divide. The youth concentrates on NGO work (the mean age at the cooperative panels was rather high). As in much of the rest of the world, NGOs talk of themselves as a “third” sector. Some Tunisian NGOs gather around the trope of a “collaborative economy.” They provide free or cheap transportation, food, education, and access to other goods (including musical instruments). Yet other North African NGOs negotiate with international institutions and governments to limit the damage of neoliberalization. Their activities include, for example, procuring compensation for transnational capital’s environmental damage to local communities. Nevertheless, these NGO activists are aware that their partial victories (for instance, legislation regulating free trade) usually lead to capital flight.

How do these organizations fit into the general framework of the WSF? When I asked whether their activities constitute alternatives to capitalism, some were truly disturbed. They underlined that transnational companies and (neoliberal) governments were their “partners,” not enemies. Some organizations, however, were internally divided on this topic. Some members of a collaborative economy NGO (which gratuitously incorporated neoliberal discourse through an emphasis on governance, mutual trust, management, etc.) expressed the worry that their work might be helping capitalism survive. Others in the same organization, however, objected that it should not be their concern whether the (neoliberal) regime falls or not (isqat an-nizam was the shared slogan of the 2011-2013 Arab uprisings). It would fall when the time came. Their work, moreover, would undermine capitalism not by fighting it, but making it unnecessary, one of the representatives argued.

Such collaborative efforts are indeed important. It is also true that one dimension of our work should be rendering bosses unnecessary. Yet we also need to be aware of the limits of this kind of work (every effort has its limits). We can recall here one of Marx’s points against cooperative-based socialism (not to bury “utopianism” once again, but to be aware of its limits): the problem of scale. Marx’s anti-utopian criticism can be easily applied to NGOs: how can the uncoordinated collaborative work of a few people here and there undermine the power of giant companies, which are today much bigger than in Marx’s time? To look at the same issue from another angle: in a world where a small percent of the global population controls an immense part of the whole world’s wealth, any effort that will put their privileges in question risks being marginalized, repressed, or incorporated. Building alternatives to the world they have built needs to go hand in hand with efforts to redistribute their wealth. I cannot imagine that happening without a fight. And I cannot imagine the big fish leaving us alone if we don’t spread out the wealth they have monopolized.

The limits of both negotiation and building small-scale alternatives, in short, are much starker in the era of globalization. Statism is an easy, but misleading, response to these limits.


In one exceptional panel, the calls to fight against capitalism and to build alternatives to it were combined. The generational divide that marked other North African presentations was not there either. People of all ages, men and women, quite energetically participated, not only through questions, but often by intervening (kindly or rudely) in the presentation. Loud, messy, angry, not always efficient, but extremely informative and clear-cut—this was one of my favorite panels. It would have been even better if the sole male speaker had been accompanied by a female speaker as assertive and well-informed (most other panels exhibited more gender balance). The presenter was a professor affiliated with the Popular Front. He frequently switched back and forth between French and Arabic (without always waiting for the consecutive translation), despite loud protests from the Francophone audience. In his long speech, he first provided a detailed picture of the Tunisian political economy and then offered a statist way out. “The state needs to be the motor of development,” he asserted. It should directly invest in the productive sectors, especially industry and technology, which have been forsaken by the market-oriented developmental model of the past four decades. It should protect agriculture. Energy, transportation, and mines should be state property. All resources should be nationalized.

The cross-generational and cross-cultural energy in this room was both promising and frustrating. It demonstrated the presence of a feisty spirit ready to confront transnational capital and shoulder the burden of replacing it with a concrete alternative. But it was disappointing in that the alleged alternative was not really one. I asked: “Why should the state be the motor of development?” We have seen in the past that statism can be as oppressive and inegalitarian as capitalism. Why put all our eggs in one basket again? In response, the speaker modified his sentence by saying “the state should be one motor of development among others.” This is a nice answer, but in practice, it is very likely that the state will be the motor if capitalism is toppled, especially given the political energy in this room and the lack of political commitment in other discussions that focused on alternatives (The NGO panels were quite energetic, but lacked a political bite). Our way out of this impasse passes through a politicization of the “third sector.” The state can become a non-oppressive motor of development only if its activities are subordinated to a self-organizing society.

An Alternative Economy or Barbarism

Our earth faces an imminent danger. In a few decades, our sources of nourishment and energy will be depleted. If we do not create an alternative path, food and water riots, civil and international wars over basic necessities, and similar events will be the order of the day. Even free market capitalism cannot survive such unfavorable conditions. In that sense, a badge I saw at the WSF summed up the situation pretty neatly: “Another world is inevitable.” If we do not build a more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world soon, savagery (rather than neoliberalism) will be the victor. The rise of ISIS after decades of free ride(s) for business is only one harbinger of the coming world. Freedom through the market will no longer be possible in the foreseeable future. Either humanity creates another way to experience freedom, or we plunge head on into ecological dictatorships, statisms, warlord states, and walled, fearful city-states.

The creation of that path can be debated at forums and assemblies, but can only be realized through testing, living, and experiencing alternative models of production and exchange. The work of “those who want to build” is essential. But without massive upheavals, their work is bound to remain a whisper. As long as we depend on the state or on capital to produce at a mass scale, these small experiments will remain marginal, or worse, will get incorporated into market or state mechanisms. The NGO activists might be uninterested in anti-capitalism, but only at their own peril (at their own peril as NGO activists—certainly, there will always be more lucrative careers in a neoliberalized NGO universe). For the survival and generalization of the principles that many (if not all) NGOs hold dear (sharing, reciprocity, equity), we need a new economy at both the regional and global levels. This is impossible without fighting transnational capital (and national big business), which would be the big loser(s) of such a transition, and would therefore deploy all possible resources to block it.

The WSF has been around for more than a decade, and so has public criticism that lays bare the ills of neoliberalism. If most (even relatively more non-neoliberal) NGOs can still flirt with neoliberal techniques and discourse, this shows propaganda and direct action are not enough. Anti-capitalists too have to engage new venues to win these fence-sitters over. Today, many NGOs have an array of practices and discourses that could go well with both neoliberalism and an alternative economy. They will be decisively won over, not through words or demonstrations, but through the creation of new social economy techniques and practices that more clearly break away with the neoliberal mantra. Cooperatives that self-identify as post-capitalist might be one of the keys. If coordinated with the work of such cooperatives, NGOs could also move in a more non-capitalist direction. But this is easier said than done. And of course, even such relatively more anti-capitalist organizations will always walk on slippery ground, always facing the danger of incorporation into the market or the state. What can keep them on a non-capitalist path?

Here we come full circle to our starting point. Revolutionary mobilization is necessary not only to sweep away the meanest enemies of alternative economies, but also to keep alternative organizations free from marketization and bureaucratization. Revolution is no silver bullet. Some exceptional revolutions can create new forms of economic organization, but even those organizations cannot survive as alternatives without ongoing, autonomous, alternative work. We therefore need revolutions not in order to resolve all of our problems, but to remove the most merciless impediments to the alternative economy and to keep the alternative economic organizations in line with their higher ideals.

The WSF has, over the years, clearly communicated the message that the source of the problem is neoliberal capitalism. What needs to be done next, globally, is getting out the message regarding what counter-globalization activists are for, not just what they are against. What will replace capital and the market as the organizations and principles guiding production and exchange? Organizations based on the free association of workers, peasants, and professionals as a replacement for capital; reciprocity and the Commons as a replacement for the market—these can be our beginning points. Taking fears regarding capital flight and other forms of market punishment seriously, we need to convince the fence-sitters (even before the broader masses) that we don’t need big business; we can do it ourselves. Still, these vague principles mean nothing if we do not live them, embody them, and put them into practice as of today.

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