Social forums were born in 2001 as a dissenting aspiration against a globalizing wind that had been unleashed in the early 1990s. Wrapped in State-building and the model of liberal democracy, neoliberalism and its renewed forms of domination appeared without rivals at world level to mold a particularly homogenizing liberal order. The “end of history” and “global village” outlook represented one of the key registers in which hegemonic influence came into play: the mental and ideological field, that is, the knowledge and non-material field where the intention was to establish supremacy at the level of the competitors’ mental structure.
Similar to what happened during the East-West tensions, conflicts between the States tended to avoid direct confrontation and developed indirectly and irregularly, through modalities that were much more woven into the media and information component. The advance of interdependencies after 1990 multiplied the forms of confrontation and assigned a major role to network strategies. Since 1945, the main winner of the Second World War had been a successful case of economic warfare and social learning achieved through, on the one hand, the containment of Japan’s techno-globalism—that of the Soviet Union had collapsed under its own weight—and on the other side, by convincing European countries not to take on overly autonomist projects.
The year 2001 was another turning point in this information confrontation. While China joined the WTO and changed dramatically the trade and production balances, the use of knowledge for offensive and conflictive purposes set off along a new path. The emergence of the Internet and the information society coupled with the end of territorial empires displaced the relations of force towards the field of the intangible, as demonstrated by the first Iraq war in 1991 and the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. For the first time in the contemporary history of warfare, the number of fatalities in the Iraqi field was hidden so as not to harm Western views. The United Nations Security Council provided a theater of disinformation to mobilize opinions and legitimize the military offensive. From 2001 to date, the twenty-year war on terror has been conceived as a vast moral and information offensive intended to reaffirm an already ebbing world dominance and to cover up imperial initiatives. Twenty years later, the erratic results of the excessive mobilization of power are here for all to see: they have accelerated the transition to a multipolar order.
It is against this backdrop that the alter-globalization constellation and social forums burst in. In several regions, the one-size-fits-all domination of the neoconservative project fueled nationalist, religious or anti-imperialist positions or social struggles that had never ceased to exist during the Cold War. In 1988, the first mass mobilization against the IMF and the World Bank took place in Berlin. In 1996, the mobilization before the G7 in Lyon (France) and later, by the end of 1997, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) marked a before and an after for organized civil society. The MAI, negotiated in the shadows even for some partner governments, came to light because it had been leaked on the web that was rapidly expanding. For many, this battle was an example of an asymmetric victory of a David against a Goliath. In 1999, the WTO summit in Seattle consolidated the social awakening to globalizing proselytism, breaking into the media. In Latin America, various political projets were emerging in opposition to the Washington Consensus. This is how the alter-globalization movement took shape, drawing on mobilizing ideas, a broad social call and the networking of thousands of organizations. Alter-globalization is consubstantial to this new information era, to a new type of conflict and to the idea of counter-offensive to the homogenization of the moment. The first Porto Alegre forum in 2001 proved to be stronger in its appealing and convening power than the Davos Forum, which was organized with a different logic.
As a heterogeneous mosaic of previous workers’, democratic and cultural struggles, the social forum helped to crystallize the critical sectors of a mercantile and predatory globalization. While the movement failed to become an alternative and its organizational capacity was limited, as the Third World movement had been at the time, its greatest success was having fought a fantastic battle of meaning. It contributed to the erosion of the liberal consensus created around international institutions and the debate over biases in adjustment and development formulas. It took part in revealing the gap between global imbalances and social aspirations. It was also a connector for new forms of sectoral and territorial resistance.
On the other hand, the movement did not escape the influences exerted on the ideological field and the challenge of renewing its conceptual compass. In fact, there was much less receptivity to the content of the forum in North America, Northern Europe, a part of the global South and Asia where there was a different understanding of the issues raised and the domination modalities. Some guidelines, such as the key role of law in supranational regulation, post-nationalism, the opening of borders, North-South cooperation and balances, non-violence and anti-imperialisms, solidarity economy and socio-environmental justice, stand in contrast to a much more competitive and complex reality. In short, the content structuring the forums partially turned its back on the new global grammar that was emerging. To become a real alternative, it would have been necessary to work more thoroughly on these issues in relation to the new features designed by the powers to dominate and compete.
After twenty years of existence, resistance movements face a double dilemma. The most important has to do with content, namely incorporating programmatic elements to generate a new relationship between realities and action strategies. The link between the strategic and the operational dimensions is precisely essential; that is why the supporters of globalization continue to have an undeniable advantage. While the current bipolar world rearms itself, increasing its power and offensive ambitions, the bulk of confrontations is being channeled at the geo-economic and cognitive levels (that is, the use of knowledge for conflict). The financial crisis of 2008, and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, have provided an expedited view of this, with the intensification of the techno-commercial war and a sociocultural guerrilla warfare fought without hesitation. Both the geopolitical changes and the cracks in the previous liberal order modified many references that were central to social movements. Therefore, it is necessary to accept and even go further into the reality of systemic confrontation and its new power relations in which the world stage has already entered.
The second dilemma is at the level of the relationship between the field of information and action. Social forums and their constellation of participants have been able to build an innovative counter-offensive against the domination driven by power groups, putting interdependencies at the service of their project (globalism). That was an example of networking, bearer of mobilizing horizons, exchanges and cross-linked initiatives. It now coexists with other centers of gravity, for example the climate and territorial struggles that involve other transformation practices with many media skills. But it remains the case that the forums have fallen short of their strategic and information potential. Their relative bureaucratization did not help to provide the opening required to energize their project (the recent decision to set up an international council is seen as very positive). The reluctance to standardize a comprehensive overview in the name of the diversity of local issues weakened the common learning necessary for transformative action. Ultimately, disputing the field of reflection and narratives has not really been associated with the search for the means to put alternatives into practice or pierce the institutional armors to change the established power relations. The production of knowledge, central to modifying a relationship of domination, has been underestimated and fragmented. In short, it comes to improving the forms of coherence between the parts of a collective being that still has a fantastic mobilization energy, understanding that the field of information is a privileged space among all the others.