Within civil society: alliances, fissures and the politics of consensus building

In the North, civil society has concentrated on climate change more exclusively as an environmental issue by environmental NGOs and researchers and has focussed on scientific and technical solutions such as emissions controls and carbon credits. In the South, however, climate change emerged primarily as a sustainable development issue, whose solutions are seen as inseparable from larger issues of poverty, trade and globalisation. (Pettit 2004: 102)

The ways in which civil society groups have sought to engage and work with one another have changed over the course of the international community’s response to the threat of climate change. Early episodes of conflict and misunderstanding, often resulting from insensitivities borne of inequities between groups, partly though not exclusively along North-South lines, have given way to more inclusive decision-making and organisational arrangements characterised by the CAN network. As noted above, structural inequalities such as the under-representation of Southern groups at international meetings, which means that their voices are effectively screened out of global debates by resource barriers, as well as institutional structures which privilege organised inputs from civil society, continue to be important (see Box 3.5). Many of the conflicts over policy agendas and preferences transgress these divides, however, and are explored in more detail below.

The utopia of the WSF is a radically democratic utopia. This utopian design, grounded on the denial of the present rather than the definition of the future, focused on the processes of intercourse among the movements rather than providing an assessment of the movements’ political content, is the major cohesive force of the WSF. It helps to maximize what unites and to minimize what divides, to celebrate intercourse rather than to dispute power, to be a strong presence rather than an agenda. This utopian design, which is also an ethical design, privileges the ethical discourse, quite evident in the WSF’s Charter of Principles, aimed at gathering consensus beyond the ideological and political cleavages among the movements and organisations that compose it. The movements and organisations put between brackets the cleavages that divide them, as much as is necessary to affirm the possibility of a counter-hegemonic globalisation.

Like a square, the Forum is an open space, as specified in the Charter of Principles. But unlike a public square it is not a neutral space. The Forum opens up from time to time in different parts of the world with one key objective: to allow as many people, organisations and movements as possible that oppose neo-liberalism to get together freely, listen to each other, to learn from the experiences and struggles of others, to discuss proposals for action and to become linked to new networks and organisations that aim to challenge the present process of globalisation dominated by large international corporations and financial interests. Thus, it is a space created to serve the common aim of all those who converge on the Forum, and it functions horizontally like a public square, without leaders or pyramids of power. All those who come to the Forum accept this, and participants are therefore required to agree to abide by the Charter of Principles.

The Forum’s Charter of Principles

Immediately following the success of the first Forum, its organisers drafted a Charter of Principles (WSF 2001; see also Box 6.1), explicitly adopting horizontal relationships. Believing that these relationships were the key to the success of the first Forum, the organisers wanted to ensure that such experimentation would continue and be extended to other events held at the world or the regional level. The Charter embodies a set of guidelines completely at variance with current political practices, such as not drawing up final documents at the forums, guaranteeing that participants would be completely at liberty to organise their own activities at these events, pledging that the organisers would not direct such activities or any collaboration among them, and not designating spokespeople or representatives of the Forum.

The argument is that such horizontal relations, with actors organised into networks, are actually much more efficient than vertical and pyramidal relations, as they make it possible to build a collective power, sharing responsibility and therefore becoming stronger. Networks function on the logic that action is taken not because someone issues an order or directive but because people believe it is necessary and take it upon themselves as active subjects. In any case, in pyramidal organisations directives do not always filter down, and managers do not always know what is happening among those they manage, which tends to set up a barrier between them. In addition, as power is concentrated at different levels within the pyramid, struggles emerge for control of that power which, instead of uniting those involved, divide and so weaken them.