January 15, 2004
World Social Forum

Wow, there's no North American mainstream coverage to speak of at the World Social Forum, which starts today. For those who hadn't heard, 80,000 people are expected to gather in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, to discuss ways to build social movements and more just ways of organizing society. Communists, anarchists, environmentalists, farmers, unionists, architects, fair trade advocates, and everyone else will hold hundreds of sessions discussing and sharing experiences, stories, techniques and skills.

I wish I was there.

In France, Le Monde has three good stories about the Forum (1, 2, 3), but they're in French.

One of the most interesting things about the forum this year is that it's set in India, which is in Asia. People in the west know very little about Asia, because the news coverage is about economics, a big disaster, or some war.

Le Monde picked up on this, titling their main article "A Leap Into the Unknown". A leap, that is, for all the European activists who are going to Mumbai. Who knows, for example, that All India Democratic Women, a women's rights group, has seven million members. Le Monde cites several other groups that have similar memberships bases.

This is interesting first of all because we seldom hear about Asian social movements in the west. The closest thing to mainstream coverage is the coverage of Falun Dafa, and its various problems with the Chinese government. As far as we know, the one billion people in India are helpless masses, participating from time to time in politics in the same status quo way that, say, most Americans do.

I can imagine that for each name on a map, there are hundreds of people (or thousands, or millions) working to improve things on a structural level. But it's something altogether different to see them in person, on their terms, in their place. (Or in my case, to read interviews with them online, and look at photos taken by people who are there.)

The other interesting thing is scale. Hearing about a country with a population of 1 billion, it's easy to imagine them as some homogenous mass, if only because understanding them each individually, or even in groups of 200,000, is a mental strain. Experiencing this anonymous mass as a series of individuals, with singular beliefs, practices, and experiences must be mind-blowing on some level.

That's not to say that the same thing doesn't happen while walking down the street in, say, New York. Living in NYC for a month one summer, I quickly developed mental mechanisms to block out having to deal with the shear magnitude of humanity around me.

The difference is that New York is here, a 13 hour car ride or a push of a TV power button away, constantly demanding to be reckoned with.

So long after the influx of thousands of westerners into Mumbai ceases to be mind-blowing, it will be important.

I personally look forward to the social connections that will be established between western activists and various movements in Asia (many countries are sending delegations to the Forum). At the very least, this will allow me--principally through the Dominion--to establish the connections to allow people in Asia to represent themselves to Canada without the intermediary of wire services or the rare correspondent who is not writing for the travel section.

posted by dru in activism