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The European Social Forum: time to get serious

Paul Kingsnorth
20 October 2004

It was when they silenced the free-tea man that I knew something was wrong.

A friendly young man had brought a kettle, cups and a few packets of tea bags into Alexandra Palace, site of the third European Social Forum (ESF), and had set himself up in one corner of its great hall, underneath an endearingly felt-tipped sign reading “Free Tea”. He was suggesting donations for his local peace group in exchange for the drinks. An enthusiastic queue had formed.

This, I thought to myself, was the kind of small but important detail that made events like this worthwhile. This, after all, was what it was all supposed to be about: people from all across a continent sharing experiences, free space, inspiration and hot drinks in the search for a better world.

It didn’t last long. Soon, a security guard with a buzzing walkie-talkie arrived. A short conversation ensued in which the free-tea man was politely but firmly asked to cease his largesse. He was, it seemed, in direct competition with the official caterers, who were charging £1.40 a cup. Muted outrage ensued. A potential drinker started haranguing the security guard, but the free-tea man tried to defuse the situation. “It’s all right”, he said resignedly. “He’s only doing his job.”

The 2004 European Social Forum was not a success. It was not quite a failure either, and it certainly wasn’t a disaster. Nevertheless, there were deep, wide and widely-noticed problems with it, which many people commented on. The free-tea man’s experience brought just one of them home to me, but it was by no means the only one.

In this article I’ll seek to lay out honestly and starkly what, in my opinion, were the strengths and weaknesses of the London event. Whatever others think of my analysis, it’s important that everyone is able to openly debate this – because only that way will the fast-snowballing phenomenon that is the social forum movement be able to grow in the right direction, and avoid some of the mistakes of the past.

Open or closed doors?

Let’s start with the problems that the event encountered. The free-tea man’s story was indicative of a larger problem with the organisation of the whole forum – not just the way it was organised, but the principles on which it was organised.

Previous social forums have been largely open events. Entrance prices, where they existed, were kept deliberately low, spaces were provided for all to participate, free accommodation was provided and organising committees were deeply, even if often frustratingly, democratic. All this is in keeping with the overall principles of the social forum movement, dedicated to creating open, free, largely non-hierarchical and democratic spaces for serious debate about the future.

Activists and authors from five continents have debated the global justice movement and its World and European Social Forums on openDemocracy:

  • Susan Richards, “The world’s fair” (January 2003)

  • America Vera-Zevala, “A space of freedom: the Women’s World Forum” (January 2004)

  • Meenakshe Shedde, “Kodak moments at the World Social Forum” (January 2004)

  • Caspar Henderson, “The whole world is here – reports from Mumbai” (January 2004)

  • Susan George, “Another world is possible…if…” (October 2004)

  • For these and more see our Globalisation / DIY World debate

In London, unfortunately, things were rather different. It wasn’t possible to get in in the first place unless you bought a ticket for £30 (though there were concessions). If you wanted to stage an event you were expected to shell out over £200 for the privilege of doing so.

Food – most of it terrible, incidentally – was provided by commercial organisations who employed low-paid workers on long shifts. The whole event seemed commercial, centrally-organised and strangely antithetical to what much of this movement has always been about. It had, overall, more of the feel of a large trade-fair (or a Labour party conference, as one disgruntled activist put it to me, ironically) than an open and open-minded forum.

Control freaks

Much of this, in turn, stemmed from the way the event was organised. For over a year there has been serious criticism of the event’s organisers for trying to control the process themselves rather than opening it up to all-comers. When you discover that the key organisation involved was the notoriously anti-democratic Socialist Workers Party (SWP), this may not seem surprising. But in combination with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Authority (GLA), which put an estimated £400,000 towards the event, it was a potent and frustrating combination for many.

Dave Timms, press officer for the World Development Movement, was involved in the long process of organising the London ESF. He explained to me how the SWP in particular had worked from the very start to make the London forum “their event”, run to “their agenda”.

“I’ve been in plenty of meetings where at least a third of those present are SWP members, in various different guises”, he explained. “It’s always the same people, and they consistently packed meetings and voted their own people in as chairs, speakers and organisers. Often we would have meetings in the UK which would be stitched up by the SWP. Then we would take it to a European level and European activists would overturn all the decisions and complain about the lack of democracy in British activism.”

Timms is not alone. Leading NGOs in Britain and many European activist groups involved in the process of organising the 2004 ESF have made similar complaints. In June, the Italian mobilising committee for the ESF published a statement about how the SWP had behaved at a European meeting: “They … were constantly unwilling to enter into real dialogue, tried to impose their own way and were often arrogant or used blackmail, repeatedly refusing to accept decisions and titles which had already been decided hours before. The result was that many of the other delegations were exasperated and were frequently compelled to raise their voices or in turn threaten to leave.”

There is no doubt that the SWP and the GLA worked hard to ensure that the focus of the event, from the themes chosen for discussion to the people selected to speak and chair meetings, was in their hands as much as possible. The consequence was that many activists refused even to come – holding an “alternative ESF” elsewhere in London – and many who did were disappointed. So much so that 300 people invaded a speaker meeting on the Saturday night at which Ken Livingstone had been due to speak to protest about the “undemocratic” nature of the forum.

Nick Dearden from War on Want, who has been involved in social forum organising for years, told me that this one had been the worst yet. “It has sown real bitterness”, he told me. “The SWP have literally pissed off the whole movement in Europe. Even their former European allies won’t work with them again. I think this event has actually set things backwards.” Whether Dearden is right or not in his pessimistic analysis, it has certainly not engendered the kind of atmosphere that social forums are supposed to about creating.

Going with the flow

In 2003, Susan Richards wrote on openDemocracy about the hard left’s attempts to seize the agenda at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Such attempts, she wrote, misunderstood the nature of social forums: they are not “events” to be controlled from the top, but happenings, which gain their strength from below. She was right about that: in London, again, the hard left showed that they had no idea what this was really supposed to be about, and that they weren’t particularly interested.

The danger, though, is that their attempts to grab this movement for themselves could drive away precisely those people who made the movement happen in the first place, and leave a hollowed-out shell of empty leftist rhetoric in its place. It would hardly be the first time.

This organisational problem is partly, though by no means wholly, responsible for another. Many people commented on how many of the speaker meetings and plenary sessions had a “samey” feel to them. One attendee told me, glumly, that it seemed as if every panel was made up of “two boring trade unionists and a Trot.” This was an exaggeration, but one which summed up, somehow, the atmosphere of a forum the main events of which, at least, seemed coloured by the dead hand of the old left.

But there is a wider issue. This is not something that this forum, or even European social forums in general can be blamed for, but it is a problem encountered wherever radicals get together.

The problem is twofold. First, there is simply too much focus on what’s wrong, and not enough on what we can do about it – and how. We all know global capitalism stinks. We also know that war is a nasty thing, American foreign policy is bad, racism isn’t nice and oil companies are unethical. Why, then, do we need speaker after speaker standing up and telling us so? Why do we need to spend any of these three precious days repeating truisms and patting ourselves on the back for agreeing with each other about how bad things are? Five years ago this was useful. Now it’s unnecessary.

This leads neatly onto the second aspect of the problem: why do so many people here agree on so much? It might seem a strange thing to ask of a forum in which Trots, anarchists and NGO moderates were often at each others’ throats, but it is a valid one.

Take, for example, a debate entitled “Hijab: a woman’s right to choose”, which focused on the French law banning religious insignia in schools. There were seven members of the panel for this event, and every one of them were in agreement. The French law was “racist” and “Islamophobic”, part of a giant worldwide conspiracy against Muslims by the racist west. Every speaker referred to the law as a “headscarf ban”, omitting to mention that it forbids all blatant religious insignia, including skullcaps (why no panel of angry Jews complaining about this?) Some audience members felt short-changed, and rightly so. What kind of “debate” features no opposing views? And what kind of “progressive” movement promotes the case for religious exceptionalism and hardly mentions the case for secularism, long a key principle of the left?

Time after time, a “line” was pushed by panels of people with virtually identical views on subjects as diverse as Israel (“apartheid state”), George Bush (a “fascist”), Iraq (“imperialist war”), immigration controls (“racist”). We have to ask, surely, not only why so few dared to challenge the consensus, but why there was a consensus at all – at least one presented so aggressively and often unthinkingly. And come to that, how can anyone over the age of 16 chant the slogan “one solution: revolution” with a straight face at an event which is supposed to be about serious analysis of what we can actually do?

I’m not sure I know the answers. I know there’ll always be a fair smattering of unthinking raving at any event dedicated to radical politics. But I know, too, that my patience is wearing thin with it, and that I’m not the only one. Would I, I asked myself several times over the weekend, bring a non-political or uncommitted friend here and try and convert them? No. Why not? Because I’d be too embarrassed at much of the paper-selling, flag-waving, chanting, unthinking grandstanding that was on display in far too many parts of the forum. This movement needs to move on to serious thought and action pretty fast: events like this should be showing the way. Overall, this one didn’t.

From exchange to solutions

But they can. So before I, or anyone reading this, gets too depressed about it all, let’s look at what did work about the London event, and about the social forum model in general and at what might be improved in future.

First, it’s always worth reiterating an obvious but overlooked point: it is a wonder that events like this happen at all. The social forum movement began life at Porto Alegre just four years ago. It was a single, tentative event. Nobody knew what would come of it. What has come of it is a mass explosion of forums, all over the world, from international to city level and everything in-between. Every event is – or at least is supposed to be – a positive, forward-looking occasion. Social forums are not about protest – they are about change and how to achieve it. In less than five years, they have become a global phenomenon, and one which testifies better than anything else to a real and growing appetite for significant change amongst many of the world’s people.

Making this forum happen, then, was a hell of an achievement in itself. And despite the far-from-perfect way it was organised, it was still an occasion on which a huge diversity of people from across Europe and further afield could get together, talk, debate and, perhaps most importantly, plan how to work together in the future.

Which leads onto the second positive aspect of the event: its diversity. No matter how hard the SWP tried, they couldn’t limit the forum to Trots alone, and a huge variety of people and causes were there. An estimated 25,000 people attended, and many would have had the chance to hear about things they had never encountered before. The ongoing oppression of the people of Iran by its Islamist regime, for example: a number of Iranian exiles were at the forum with a disturbing display of the brutality of the mullahs. A similar stall highlighted the reality of life in Burma, while trade unionists from Colombia spoke about the repression of their fellows by the military regime and called for solidarity.

Then there was the “assembly of the social movements”, a large and growing part of all social forums, in which grassroots groups from across Europe gathered to discuss pooling resources and campaigning on common topics for 2005. Where else could such a meeting be held?

There were, too, solutions on show. Not as many as there should have been, and they were not given the attention they deserved; but they were there. Panels suggested what to do about climate change and ecological debt. Stands promoted renewable energy solutions. Economists promoted schemes to radically reform the global economy. Farmers promoted food sovereignty as a political tool, and municipal leaders from across Europe showcased the participatory budgets – an idea whose time is coming – that they have put into practice in recent years. If you knew where to go, you could find plenty to inspire you.

But it wasn’t enough. The next European Social Forum, to be held in Greece in 2006, will have to work better. A question needs to be asked: do we want these events to be a serious display of alternatives to the current order? Do we want real, hard, difficult discussions about what to do and how to do it, together, with all the hard work, serious thinking, strategic disagreements and political battling that this involves? Or do we, instead, want a back-slapping display of our angry opposition to all the Bad Things in the world, after which we all hold a big march and then go home and do what we were doing before? The former path might lead to something big. The latter could lead to extinction for this movement.

Two sides of the left

The veteran activist Susan George put this starkly to the audience in one of the Forum’s best events – and one which summed up, for me, both the strengths and weaknesses of the whole weekend. It was a debate entitled “Life After Capitalism”, and she was on the panel.

She preceded her suggested solutions with a warning: “There is a serious possibility that this unstable global economy could actually collapse. We could then be faced with a Weimar-type situation. We could experience war, dictatorship, instability and military takeover. Remember that life after capitalism could be worse than what we have now. This movement has got to get serious in thinking about how we could avoid this outcome. We have got to take capitalism as seriously as it takes itself, because it is relentless.”

Susan George talked in depth to openDemocracy’s Caspar Henderson just ahead of the ESF; see “Another world is possible, if…”

George then followed up her warning with a number of positive suggestions, which seemed to enthuse the audience. They included a crash programme to tackle climate change; an international clearing union to make third-world debt impossible in future; legislation to allow corporations to be closed down or “re-chartered” for transgressing; the creation of global public companies to provide obvious public goods, like software and pharmaceuticals, which the market is failing to distribute fairly; and the creation of an acceptable “inequality ratio” to ensure that concern about people falling below the poverty line should go hand-in-hand with concern about those above an acceptable wealth line.

All this was intriguing, and potentially inspiring stuff. Then George sat down, and another George – George Galloway MP, leader of the Respect coalition, stood up to speak. The contrast was remarkable and telling. Where Susan George’s talk had been a thoughtful dissection of the weaknesses of our own movement, and a serious attempt at structural solutions to some of the world’s major problems, George Galloway’s contribution was a speaker-shaking rant about the wonders of Castro’s Cuba. He roared, he ranted, he bellowed, he accused and he showed, better than anything else, exactly how not to take things forward.

The difference was stark, and it was one which contained within it a telling lesson about the whole event. For this social forum was a showcase for the dual nature of this movement. On one side there is the old left, barren of ideas, wilting in numbers and influence and drawing all its lessons from the past. In the absence of mass support it is forced to turn to underhand tactics to maintain its influence.

On the other side there is a still-new, still-young movement of people – a new generation – who can see that the solutions to the problems of today’s world will have to be new, novel and above all, democratic. Neither Castro nor Marx nor George Galloway is going to save us. Honest debate, serious analysis, damned hard work and a determination to stand up to power just might.

The trouble is, there is no guarantee that we will succeed. Susan George, again, put it well. “I’m 70 now”, she explained to the audience, “and I’ve seen an earlier radical movement grow up then die. There’s no guarantee it won’t happen again. The road from here to Life After Capitalism is going to be a very long and hard one. Let’s not make it any harder than necessary.”

It is, indeed, time to get serious.

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