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WSF May Become a Self-Indulgent Exercise

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By Farooq Sulehria

In an exclusive interview with The News on Sunday in Lahore on April 2, Tariq Ali declared the World Social Forum Karachi a "modest success", but urged representation from China in future, to make the Forum truly serious.

The News on Sunday: How would you evaluate the World Social Forum Karachi?

Tariq Ali: First point: It is a very good thing that it happened. I am glad that it took place in Pakistan. It provided for the first time an opportunity for many groups engaged in struggle to get together on a national level, to meet each other, and learn about each other's struggle. That, I think, was positive. I was never in favour of the demand by some people to boycott it.

Second point: This WSF took place in a country under military dictatorship, no matter how disguised it is. The fact that it took place and that it can affect the political situation in the country is something we have to acknowledge.

Third point: The domination by the NGOs of the so-called civil society of Pakistan is, I think, an unhealthy phenomenon. Its not that some NGOs don't do good work. Most of the NGOs doing good work do it in a limited way, for example on ecological or environmental issues. Wonderful. I am glad someone is doing that. But the big problem NGOs create is that funds from Western governments are essentially used to buy up an entire layer of gifted people, who would otherwise be engaged in politics, or education, or something useful and something linked to their country. That is why I said in public and I repeat: these NGOs might be Non Governmental Organisations in Pakistan but on a global scale, they are Western Governmental Organisations. One of the conditions for getting funds is: no direct engagement in politics. I would remind you here what the former US secretary of state Collin Powell once said. Collin Powell said that NGOs in most part of the world are our fifth column. He wasn't joking. NGOs have a structure such that they atomise politics. They cannot get a full view of a country. They are not a substitute for political parties, though some people treat them like that. Western governments do not release funds for nothing. It suites them that people remain engaged in activities that are not directly political.

TNS: Do you think the WSF in Karachi, in particular, and Social Forums elsewhere, in general, would have taken place had NGOs not been involved? Also, a Pakistani newspaper has criticised you for hitting hard on NGOs while taking part in an NGO sponsored show.

Tariq Ali: Well, the only other choice was not to come. Arundhuti Roy, a dear friend of mine, decided not to come to WSF because it is dominated by NGOs. I think she is wrong. I think she should come so that we can criticise of the NGOs in their face. The NGOs must be aware what they are. And because it is an NGO show, [does it mean] we cannot criticise it? Why? The whole point [of the WSF] is to have an open space where we can air criticisms. I, therefore, am in favor of going to Social Forums. I have been invited to the European Social Forum. But ESF is directly political. It's anti-imperialist. Its theme is linked to anti-war struggle.

I think it is a good thing that the Social Forum happened in Pakistan. This country has particular problems. But it is worth noting the fact that a Social Forum held in Asia had no representation from Asia's largest country, China, no representation from Malaysia and Far East. I think it was more of a Pakistan Social Forum, which by the way is good thing. But a World Social Forum in Asia should be more representative.

TNS: What next now?

Tariq Ali: Asia is a gigantic continent but we have no possibility of a serious Forum unless we have a large representation from China and India. That means it should be held in a country not posing visa problems. That's for a start. We have to try and find a space that is unrestricted. We have to make sure that we have representation from Chinese peasant movements, labor movements, and from dissident Chinese and new left intellectuals playing an important role. It will help Asia know what is happening in a country which is the most dynamic capitalist country in the present-day world. We need to discuss this. Otherwise, the WSF may become a self-indulgent exercise. We do not want to degenerate into that. The World Social Forum has a certain use. Once it will stop having use, it will die a natural death.

TNS: The Social Forum in Asia may not be dynamic, but in Latin America and Europe it is dynamic, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist. What future do you see for it globally?

Tariq Ali: I think even in Latin America, the social forum movement is on the decline. The reason is that it has been overtaken in Latin America by the revolutionary governments of Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia. The pole of attraction in Latin America is now Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia. These three countries are roughly on the same road. This is now creating a big debate throughout Latin America. Now Latin America is polarised by a discussion on real politics. At the Social Forums, what often happens is virtual politics. That is why Latin America today is leading. I think the problem with Asia is, it is a continent over-determined by economics and money rather than politics. This has meant a depoliticisation in many of the large countries of the continent. This has to be challenged and I think Social Forums have a role to play in breaking the isolation of China. If that is the main principle of the next Forum, than some progress is possible. At WSF Karachi, there was no overt political agenda. Today we have an Empire occupying the globe. Today, the USA has military presence in 121 countries of the world. This is an obvious focus for a campaign -- to remove military bases from the Asian soil. We did not achieve such a success at Karachi WSF. But, still, I think it was a modest success. At the same time, I retain my criticism of NGOs.

TNS: The political parties are not eligible to participate (in the WSF). What do you say on this position?

Tariq Ali: I do not accept that position. I do not like that position. This position is linked to a fear of many NGOs that if they allow some of the political parties to participate in the Social Forum process, there funds might be cut. Let me be blunt. It is this fear. They are afraid that the event will become political. But political parties, whether they like it or not, are not going to disappear. The Mumbai WSF might not have taken place without the support of CPM (Communist Party of India, Marxist). Everyone knows CPM saved Mumbai's Social Forum from collapse. Officially, CPM was not allowed to participate. The CPM participated through its front organisations. So why not allow political parties that stand for social justice and are against neo-liberal agenda, to participate directly? I would be in favor of that.

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