Occupy, the World Social Forum and the Commons… social movements learning from each other

Western Sahara Independence protesters hold a silent march during the World Social Forum, Senegal, Feb 2011 (as protests rocked Egypt in the north)

The World Social Forum has been around since 2001, and with their rallying call “Another World is Possible”, they share much in common with the system critiques emerging out of the Occupy and Commons Movements. When Occupy burst forth in the U.S. this past Fall, hot on the heels of the Arab Spring and uprisings in Spain, Greece and elsewhere, many around the world asked, “What took you so long?!”

National Social Forum initiatives have also been thriving in other parts of the world since 2001, but the first U.S. Social Forum did not happen until 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia.  And, even-though Indiana University Professor Elinor Ostrom was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics, in part for her studies of what makes commons management successful, few people in the U.S. know who she is or what the Commons Movement stands for.

Even the word “social” makes many U.S. conservatives wary, signaling a challenge to the edifice of private/ corporate property rights.  The Social Forums get little to no play in U.S. mainstream media outlets.  So, it’s also not surprising that the commons movement in the U.S. has been slow to gain understanding and support.  We in the U.S. are so steeped in the Capitalist mind-set for creating ways to make money off anything and everything, that the commons concepts of sharing and free-culture and local control by the community can be considered old-school.

Walking in one of our parks this winter and I overheard a father and son’s conversation that illustrates our capitalist indoctrination to a tee.  This young boy was bouncing on a large grapevine, asking his father to push him back and forth, and I overheard the father say, “imagine if you could patent something like this and figure out how to develop a ride that could make money….”  The boy looked up with a “huh?”

An interview with two USSF organizers regarding the Occupy Movement can be found MORE.  Interestingly, many of their critiques and ideas, along with their call for exchanging information, tactics and models to increase collaboration and agility, were shared in mid-February at the Occupy Wall Street Commons Forum held in Brooklyn, NYC.

Holding the Commons as sacred throughout the world (drawing of The 13 Indigenous Grandmothers)

One very clear critic at the OWS Commons Forum asked why there were not more indigenous voices present?  It was clear to this individual that indigenous peoples have been holding the commons sacred all along and have much to teach, especially for those steeped in the Euro-centric mind-set.  There was wide agreement for this statement, and the recognition that indigenous and minority leadership is needed across the Commons and the US Occupy Movements.

Addressing the USSF organizers’ critique, that Occupy must take the time to develop clearer understanding of the principles and values of some of the most oppressed groups in the 99%, we can praise the OWS Commons Forum in NY for doing just that.  Many voices of the Occupy and Commons movement were heard.

Some of the most powerful impacts of this Forum came from hearing women and children talk about reclaiming birthing and nursing from the industrial medical profession as a valuable community-binding commons; the GLBTQ community spoke about the need for empowering the most marginalized and oppressed as a way to break out of age-old patterns of colonialism; and the stories of imperialist-capitalist impacts on subsistence peoples was a reality check of major proportions, especially in considering ways to support subsistence commons management outside of the debt-based economy.

For more details on the OWS Commons Forum, see these related posts here (video, Silvia Federici) and here (blog, David Bollier).


A brief Occupy perspective and critique on the World Social Forum via Truthout reported on two Wall Street Occupiers visiting Porto Alegre, Brazil, in late January.  They went to meet with dissidents from around the world at the Thematic Social Forum. Global youth and democratic movements were mobilizing, not for the upcoming June UN conference, but for the “People’s Summit of Rio +20″ event, which is set to happen several days earlier. The team from OWS noticed a split between the institutional affiliations that come with the World Social Forum process and the social movement on the ground. They reported that “The NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and labor and government-run projects [staples of the World Social Forum] were all in the Legislative Assembly building, but the social movement folks basically didn’t attend. Instead, they were at the youth camp in an occupied building, Utopia E Luta.”

 In addition to challenging globalization the OWS team said “we also have to challenge the Social Forum process.” Utopia E Luta and its international counterparts have to become the dominant politics of the anti-globalization left. “NGOs need to stop dropping people in a certain neighborhood and having them canvass for two months. That’s why we’re not building movements. We’re too busy building campaigns. We have to have many more forums and interactive spaces.”  See the full article here.  


At the same time the OWS Team was in Porto Alegre, supporters of the commons movement were at the Thematic Social Forum, prepping for the People’s Summit of Rio+20. David Bollier, international commons researcher and author, provides an introduction to their planning efforts: “One significant thing that came out of these meetings was a sense that the commons will have an important role to play in sketching a new vision of governance and pro-active strategies. There is a realization that it is no longer enough to denounce globalization or rail against capitalism. Realistic alternatives must be set forth. For many, it would appear that the commons can provide a useful framework and vocabulary for starting a very different conversation – one that at once addresses politics, economics, culture and our individual aspirations and energies.”

The text below was produced by one of the 17 working groups at the Thematic Social Forum, Commoners from Brazil, Germany, France, India, Argentina and Bolivia took part in producing this “open document,” which will evolve in coming weeks and months. The entirety of this first draft can be read here, and further input will be gathered for a more general and comprehensive document that will be prepared for Rio+20 by the Thematic Social Forum.  Highlights from this first text include the following:

Challenges of the current context: the dangerous conspiracy between state and market

…Both state and market share the same ideological commitment to progress and competition. Both are committed to a model of development and economic growth that destroys the planet and the richness of the commons. Both dismantle our culture and livelihoods in order to convert us into consumers of goods.

These threats to what is common to us are achieved through diverse mechanisms:

  • Legal: through agreements on free trade and investment protections and intellectual property, and international bodies like the WTO and the WIPO;
  • Economic: through private appropriation of territories (land-grabbing);
  • Technological: through genetically modified organisms (GMOs), restrictive systems of access to culture (DRM), geoengineering, etc…

The concept of the commons and the convergence of the social movements

… It requires everyone to listen to what each social movement understands to be a commons. It is necessary to know more about the specific practices of commoning, whether they be embodied in indigenous and peasant communities, local seed banks, non-market-based initiatives of urban housing, or communities of developers of digital culture and software….

Resistance and construction: commons, commoning

…On each continent movements like Occupy, the Indignados and others are arising that do not simply resist, but actively search for alternatives. All over the world people are cooperating via the Internet to create shared works and tools –Wikipedia and free software are the most visible examples– and new forms of social mobilization. Each can be thought of and connected to each other by a larger vision of the commons…

Contradictions, concerns and challenges

During this process of building a Commons Sector (…or we might say here—building a global social movement), the challenges are manifold. On one side, there is no clear consensus for many things. On the other side, many nuances of the commons paradigm have not yet been explored – and further exploration is necessarily going to be part of the ongoing social construction of the commons framework.

Teatro-Valle, Rome, site for a recent European Commons Forum held just weeks after Porto Alegre

…One of the most recurrent is the tension between the local, the regional and the global. It is impossible to think of commoning without thinking about a social subject, a “community.” It is therefore easiest to think about the commons paradigm at a local level. But thinking about the commons at a global level is a great challenge, and even impossible to escape because there is only one earth, and we have not only the right but the responsibility to share it…


Listening to criticism, while celebrating our diversity as a means of adaptation for the myriad challenges and scales we are attempting to encompass, could be a directive we hold as we wrestle with how to organize effectively.  Can we choose to honor the many perspectives, increase cooperation, reduce competition?  After all, one of the most essential commons design principlesMatch rules governing use of commons to local needs and conditions, can be adapted to state: communities of shared interest (ie. the social movements) must develop those governance processes which match rules for commoning (interactions undertaken to make or protect each movement’s local commons) with recognized needs and conditions of stakeholders (movement participants). In this way, the local can become the global.

The Porto Alegre OWS team wants to try: ”The World Social Forum process can be much stronger with the social movements having a strong hand. The NGO stuff, the union stuff, is necessary, but it has to stop being old people talking down to the movement.” The OWS ambassadors plan a next stop, Egypt, to speak with organizers from Tahrir Square.

Tags: Commons, Occupy, Social, USSF, WSF, co-learning, convergence, cooperation, movements, people, More…

Tags: co-learning, , critique, , senegal, social movements, world social forum, WSF

Categories: Brazil, Commons, Direct Democracy, Europe, Social Innovation, Spain, Thinking Together


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