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Observations from the World Social Forum in Brazil: The Life and Death of Liberal Democratic Capitalism PDF Print E-mail
Written by Aaron Schneider   
Monday, 06 February 2012 11:07

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I have just finished my second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 9 years after I attended my first. 2003 was a year marked by the inauguration of Lula, a union-leader turned politician who led the Workers´ Party to multiple electoral victories; this year’s social forum has been marked by Tunisa, Tahrir Square, the Spanish Indignant movement of unemployed youth (Indignados in Spanish), and the Occupy movement that took Wall Street and many US cities, like my home of New Orleans. My observation and summation of these processes focuses on the demise, and temporary survival, of liberal, democratic capitalism.

The end of the paradigm of liberal, democratic capitalism was a recurring theme at this year’s forum, as it was in all the popular movements that emerged over the last year. Like all paradigms described by Thomas Kuhn, liberal, democratic capitalism includes a few core assumptions that hold together a broader array of theories and testable hypotheses. Over time, sporadic events and observations seem to defy these hypotheses, but the paradigm does not collapse until those anomalies multiply and people can articulate a new paradigm that responds to the anomalies and fit our understanding of the world and our understanding of ourselves better than the last paradigm. The past year, in my opinion, has multiplied the observations that defy the predictions of liberal, democratic capitalism, but we are still working towards a different paradigm.

The core assumptions that hold liberal, democratic capitalism together are notions of individual rights, democratic election of leaders, and a capitalist free market. These assumptions carry a variety of implications for the operation of state, society, and market, and there have always been sporadic anomalies to bend the boundaries of the paradigm but do not break it. Class action suits in which a group of people claim violations of their individual rights fit uncomfortably with liberal individualism. Mechanisms of direct democracy, such as deliberative caucuses and direct referendum, extend the scope of electoral democracy. Corporatist and welfare state institutions soften the edges on the capitalist free market.

Yet, these adaptations, and others, have become increasingly inadequate as people find their occasional elections ineffective, capitalism in extended crisis; and, individual rights unsatisfied. As Greece and Italy found out, democratically elected leaders have little protection if markets decide they need to be replaced by unelected bureaucrats, preferably with financial sector experience. Nor do democratically elected countries feel any apparent compunction depending on an authoritarian government, China, as the engine of world growth. As we are all finding out, there is a contradiction between the capitalist requirement of growth and sustainable management of finite natural resources. Our unsustainable practices increasingly require imperial invasion and alliances with authoritarian regimes to ensure a steady flow, even as the environment continues to deteriorate. Finally, the sanctity of individual rights has proven inadequate, as women, indigenous, racial minorities, LGBT, poor people, and other classes of people find they are systematically oppressed and excluded.

The great sense of malaise with the current paradigm orients the World Social Forum and all similarly open, plural, and experimental arenas. They commit themselves to horizontal organization and deliberative discussion, shying away from concrete pronouncements or demands. Demands and pronouncements fit within existing practices, answered with a new policy or a new politician, but that is not what these movements seek. They seek a new paradigm, and they use deliberative, participative, and explicitly leaderless processes to emphasize the break from the old paradigm and the need to search broadly for the new.

We are not yet there. Although Latin America is now the only place in the world to talk of anti-capitalist struggle and 21st century socialism, Left parties that win election remain dependent on extractivist models of resource exploitation. While the Occupy Movement rightly pointed out that 1% of the world controls our governments and our economies, the movement has not yet come to terms with the fact that only 1% of the world, or thereabouts, occupies public spaces like Zuccotti Park, Tahrir Square, and the World Social Forum. Where are the other 98%?

Brazil is a good example of how this difficulty plays out. This year´s social forum is in Porto Alegre for the first time in 9 years for a reason – the Workers´ Party may have controlled national power since 2003, but it lost the mayor of this city in 2004, an office it had controlled since 1989. In 2011, the Workers´ Party returned to the governor office in the state of which Porto Alegre is the capital, and this meant the party could once again dedicate resources and use the platform of Porto Alegre to ally itself with the participatory and horizontal movements that make up the forum. Many Workers’ Party politicians participated, and unlike most politicians, many of them are experienced veterans of social movements, democratization struggles, and worker mobilization. Still, their partisan connection to the World Social Forum is strongest, and makes most sense, only when they also govern the sites in which the movement and public acts of the World Social Forum come together. A better combination of party, movement, and public acts will be necessary if we are to include the other 98% in the articulation of a new paradigm.

Still, the World Social Forum and other public opportunities for deliberation are important because they help us move forward. Presenters like Bernard Cassen suggested that the seemingly unconnected parts of the world rocked simultaneously by crises of finance, environment, and democracy indicate that we cannot resolve any one problem with a partial solution, but rather must address them all. Leonardo Boff noted innovations that deepen our concept of individual rights, such as when Bolivia and Ecuador included the earth as an entity with legally protected rights. Boaventura dos Santos called for a concept of democracy with a diversity of forms, including electoral democracy, but also participatory democracy, direct democracy, and culturally-appropriate consensual decision-making, such as occurs in small town meetings. These contributions are not important because they imply a policy change or partisan agenda; they are important because they offer a new set of core assumptions about the way we organize rights, democracy, and the economy. They move us towards a new paradigm. I hope we get there before it is too late.

Aaron Schneider is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University. He can be reached with comments, critiques, and suggestions at

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