Fortress Florence and the Gate of Heavenly Peace

Iain Ferguson Caspar Henderson Flora Roberts
7 November 2002

Caspar Henderson writes

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Those who profited from the old will hate him, while those who will run the new are uncommitted and lukewarm".

So wrote Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the Florence's most famous sons, and the grandfather and capo di tutti in cold power politics. Machiavelli was eventually driven from his favourite city in disgrace and penury. That was in 1513. Today, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has yet not suffered a similar fate, but he has been obliged to give ground on the European Social Forum (ESF).

The ESF takes place in the Italian City of Florence this week, from 6 to 10 November. It is one of the regional precursors to the World Social Forum in Brazil next January. openDemocracy will be there at ESF, making new friends and reporting what happens in Globolog.

Flora Roberts writes

When the Forum was first announced in Italy and the venue discussed, decisions went through all the normal procedures and were ratified by all the many relevant bodies. But less than a fortnight before the starting line, Berlusconi dropped one of his typical bombshells. According to a special report he had commissioned (but not made available) Florence was going to be "devastated" (physically rather than emotionally we assume). The Forum must be cancelled, he said, or at least moved.

This sudden concern for the welfare of Florence’s beauty spots from a man who usually has no qualms at selling out Italy’s artistic heritage is easily explained. Both the mayor of Florence, and the wider region of Tuscany are part of the leftwing opposition.

If the mayor could be hounded into accepting full responsibility for the event, while the media (not always recognisable as a different entity from Berlusconi’s empire) whipped up fear and resentment in Florence, an embarrassing shambles, if not a bloodbath, might help iron out this left wing abnormality.

The spectre of the G8 summit in Genoa – which cost one young life, many injuries, arrests and vast amounts of damage – is useful in this regard, and much used. But even the most respected broadsheets seemed slow to spot a glaring difference: while the G8 was something that the hordes of 'no global' aimed to disrupt, the ESF is their gig.

The European Social Forum will be hosting conferences and workshops on such topics as Democracy, Citizenship, War and Peace, and Good Governance. The beau monde of 'no global' will all be there from Trade Unions to Amnesty International and from the Peace Foundation to Catholic aid groups - plus anti-globalisation activists like Globalise Resistance. Pace Cavalier Berlusconi, the ESF is going ahead - and we will be there to tell you all about it. Caspar Henderson writes

- China and the World: Knock, knock, knocking on the gate of heavenly peace

"We want a [form of] globalisation that: advances workers' rights and job security; supports quality universal education and health care; helps the poor, not just the rich; is open and democratic; benefits all people everywhere; and delivers true global justice and equality".

So go the demands of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and others behind the Global Unions Day of Action on 9 November. It will be a world-wide event, with actions and demonstrations from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso and from Malaysia to Mexico with the message that "globalisation must be made to work for people".

A series of one-off protests and meetings is one thing. How can it contribute to structural change in the global economy? The ICFTU (which represents 157 million workers in 225 affiliated organisations in 148 countries and territories, not including China) puts some hope in the work of the World Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalisation (WCSDG).

As things stand, there is no binding international enforcement mechanism to protect workers' rights in countries of the global South. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has not agreed a social clause, while the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has no means to enforce compliance with its conventions or four core principles (freedom of association, the elimination of child labour, forced labour and discrimination).

What else is missing in this picture? Well, for one thing, the six tonne elephant sitting right next to you: the People's Republic of China.

Abuse of human and workers' rights in China is widely documented (see, for example, China Labor Watch and the Annual Survey of Violation of Trade Union Rights Sey of Violations of Trade Union Rights -2002). In many factories, wages are very low indeed, paid late or not paid at all. According to a report by Robert J.S. Ross and Anita Chan, violence and physical abuse have become pervasive in factories owned by Taiwanese, Korean, Hong Kong and other intermediaries. These factories also record "startlingly high incidence of severed limbs and fingers".

And the Chinese elephant is only just waking up. Pardon me if your eyes glaze over at the figures, but consider the following. This year China will consume more than a quarter of world steel production and is expected to overtake the US as the world's leading destination for foreign direct investment. Add to that a virtually inexhaustible supply of labour (in addition to 150m migrant workers, around half of the 400m people currently employed in farming are thought to be surplus to requirements). The Chinese economy doubles in size about every seven years (taking a past trend of 10% growth per year since 1980).

No wonder that workers in Mexico and, forsooth, MEPs in Strasbourg (see Caroline Lucas in last week's Globolog) are worried. Chinese competition is relentless and terrifying - and the party has hardly begun.

So long as the Chinese people are not free, the likes of the World Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalisation (for all its extremely impressive line up of members ) can do little. So what could work? Robert Ross and Anita Chan think it will take some sort of South-South coalition to do really do something: "China is a key player in South-South competition, and unless other countries can convince China to form or join a Southern consensus to put a floor beneath wages, the [situation] will only worsen. Only through enforceable minimum wage standards can these countries prevent Northern corporations and intermediate suppliers from playing them off against one another".

Equally important is reform within China itself. For all its outwardly fearsomeness, the Middle Kingdom faces a highway crash style pile-up of crises, including the consequences of non-performing loans and gross misallocation of capital, deteriorating conditions and deep unrest in the countryside where 900m people live, environmental disaster, corruption out of control, and above all bad government. "To solve China's problems there needs to be a completely new social movement to change everything from the system to our way of thinking" says He Qinglian , an outspoken economist who was forced to flee to the US last year.

That new thinking can be seen among many of the new generations of Chinese who increasingly travel abroad. Who will take a bet with me on how many years before we see truly free members of Chinese civil society at an Asian Social Forum and World Social Forum?

Oriana Fallaci, a relatively prominent Italian intellectual, wrote an impassioned open letter to Florence in Il Corriere della Sera decrying the ESF.

Caspar Henderson reports: ESF day 1 - 15:15 pm, 7 november

Photos in the Italian papers show police frogman in the river Arno that runs through Florence, and marksmen armed with high velocity rifles and telescopic sights high up on buildings overlooking the main routes of access to the Duomo, the heart of the small city.

The hysteria that seems to have engulfed much of the Italian press and government stands in strong contrast to the relaxed, friendly mood of over 28,000 who have so far been officially registered as delegates to the European Social Forum.

Many people who wanted to be here have been turned away at the Italian border, including Constance Etch, of the European Co-ordination "Sans Papiers", an organisation that works with people who do not have recognised legal status within the European Union.

This afternoon, Hugo Braun of the ESF organising committee and a member of German ATAC strongly condemned the Italian authorities and other European governments for compiling blacklists of people who would not be allowed to travel to the Forum. "They are not interested in constructive dialogue with the anti-globalisation movement" he said. "We strongly condemn these anti-democractic measures". Over the next four days across around 20 venues in Florence (but centred in the huge Fortezza Da Basso), almost every conceivable shade of social, reformist environmental and revolutionary movement - and some that border on inconceivable - will be soap-boxing, debating. It's too early to say whether specific new campaign goals and co-alitions will emerge. But the mood is generally good. Expectations are high.

On Saturday 9 Nov there will be a large demonstration against a potential US attack on Iraq. Many organiser s and delegates are calling repeatedly for a wholly peaceful event. If somebody - whoever - does kick off trouble on Saturday it will surely not be on behalf of the people here at the Forum.

7.30pm - Iain Ferguson, openDemocracy’s Money & Work editor, reports : No meat in the message

It is cold, very cold in Florence. After a day, I am sad to report that the weather bites more than this vast meeting of the principled and pissed off. At the close of the first day it escapes me where the ideas will come from to unite this loose collective, and what this conference is really about.

One thing for sure it ìs a complex beast - 28,000 people have come so far, with up to six workshops, conferences and seminars happening at any one time. A logistical nightmare and one our hosts are handling, frankly rather badly. But in spite of the chaos there is encouragement particularly from the joint seminars of French, Spainish, Italian, German and British groups who have found some commonality, and too in the fiery debates about free trade and currency speculation - difficult topics expressed here with passion and frazzled clarity.

Yet for all its diversity the ESF cannot claim to be representative of Europe as a whole (where are the voices from the less developed corners?), nor is it the engine of thinking on the War, Democracy and Globalisation that it aspires to be. A keynote discussion on free trade quickly descended into the classic and dull debate about whether to reform or revolutionise capitalist institutions. The old Left divisions remain. Hold the front page? Actually, no.

The seminars on war - which dominate this event - have so far relaxed into attacks on US imperialism, the hunger of the West for oil profits and the evil Blair-Bush pact behind it all. Big cheers for every stab at Bush The Terrorist or The Imperial War Monger. At the globalisation seminars, most people are slumped, bored in their seats, the younger members toying with their translating devices until the call to "curb corporate power!" and those still present shuffle approvingly and clap desultorily.

In short, sloganeering trumps discourse. There seems little meat in this soup so far. One incident seemed to capture this first day of the ESF. Lost on my way to a seminar on child labour, I cut through the main hall in the Fortezza Da Basso, the centre of the conference, and a place with good heating. In amongst the hundreds of stalls peddling compassion and better living, I found Albino Bordineri the owner of actions. His site, a rather unspectacular collection of web links, has become one of the most visited of all after the Italian media dubbed the protestors the ‘No Globals’. Thanks to this accolade, Albino is now seeing more visitors in a day than in the previous month. "It is a phenomenon!" he cries. A charming and popular slogan has brought a surge of interest. Will it pass? Will the ESF as a whole produce a more lasting impact?

8 November, 12noon - Caspar Henderson reports

The torrent of media and ideas is in full flood today at the European Social Forum, with over sixty workshops and seminars taking place during the morning.

The Collectif National des Musulmans En France and the Centro Studi Gaylesbitransqueer happily rub shoulders under the watchful eye of Che Guevara - but no wait, that isn't Che: his face has been morphed into Osama Bin Laden's, and there's a Nike Swoosh on his beret.

A sprightly lad from Globalise Resistance UK tells us with pride that Berlusconi has declared their organisation public enemy number one, on a par with ETA (the armed Basque organisation).

But there is serious thinking going on here too, including strategy for the World Social Forum next January and how trade activists can shape the outcome of the next big WTO ministerial in Cancun, Mexico in September 2003.

8 November, 5pm - Caspar Henderson reports:

"Florence is a symbol of culture" Jose Bove (French food sovereignty activist and Asterix body-double) tells Globolog. "In a globalised world, a city of culture like Florence would never come into being. It would all be big, horrible buildings".

Monsieur Bove is not, however, advocating a return to Ducal rule enforced by Condotierri. His vision is of an alternative Europe of localised agricultural production (motto: "make cheese, not war on Siena").

And the huge subsidies that the European Union pays its farmers, now set to increase - grace a M Chirac - won't these lead to even more dumping of food on poor countries in the Global South? "There is nothing wrong with subsidies per se" he says. "They should be used to support the local".

Before we can explore the real political consequences of this "new protectionism" - not least the unusual political bedfellows it might create and/or who would be stalking horse for whom - M. Bove is whisked away. Picked over by scores of press vultures for several hours, he is clearly in need of some magic potion.

As we openDemocrats busy ourselves distributing material about the newly launched version of our site (the bookmarks are a great hit), who should pass by but Susan George, director of the Transnational Institute, and Attac leader? Ms George reads openDemocracy regularly, especially the column by Paul Rogers.

"My greatest concern here is to help our campaign against the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS)", she says. Campaigners like Ms. George believe that, if approved by the WTO, GATS would lead to the greatest extension of corporate power in a generation.

Attac is pushing hard for a Tobin Tax (a small levy on international financial transactions). Does Ms. George see this a key campaign goal? "I don't think it's the most important thing, but it could help to raise new money for development".

But the really big issue for Ms. George and the majority of people here at the Forum is the US stance towards Iraq. "We are in a new world, with a much more aggressive US. This is the biggest change in fifty years".

As Globolog signs off the press room is invaded by giant puppets and two hundred activists calling for legalisation of pot.

8 November, 7pm - Caspar Henderson reports:

Here are some figures on attendance at the European Social Forum, courtesy of the journalists at La Nuova Ecologica. There are 35,000 delegates as of Friday. The majority are Italian, but there are 2,800 from France, 1,400 from Britain, 1,500 Germans, 500 from the city of Barcelona, 900 Greeks, 540 Austrians, 50 Danes, 260 Hungarians, 20 Kurds, 70 Russians and 170 Albanians.

Those numbers don't reflect the full diversity of the summit, especially of the speakers, who come from as far as the Philippines (Walden Bello), India (Vandana Shiva), Mexico (Manuel Rocha) and the People's Republic of Richmond (Teddy Goldsmith). But it is notable that the crowds here are overwhelmingly white, and don't reflect the diversity of many European cities.

One tribe - the wirey, closed-cropped, black combat-trousers wearing fraternity - can be spotted here and there. Caspar Henderson reports: ESF, Day 3 - 9 November, 7pm

Far more people attended Saturday's peace march in the city of Florence than the 150,000 - 200,000 predicted. According to one report on RAI, the Italian Government network, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 took part. As far as Globolog knows, there was no violence at all.

By far the greater part of the marchers were Italians. Many were there with their unions (especially the giant public services union CGIL) or with various city chapters of the Italian Communist party. But there were also large numbers from other groups and none, from Florentine matrons with Labrador dogs to dreadlocked German bass-saxophone playing anarchists.

For many participants, the demonstration seems to have been almost as much about resistance to the government of Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, as to war. Musicians thumped away at classic songs from the World War Two resistance fighters such as "Ciao, Ciao, Bella" to a rapturous reception. Elsewhere in the march, the International - the old Soviet rallying song - rang out from huge PA systems mounted ontrucks festooned with Iraqi flags.

The Polizia and the Caribinierri (Italy's semi-paramilitary police) kept well out of sight as the vast crowds walked peacefully around Florence's inner ring road and towards the city stadium. Concerns about looting, or worse, were shown to be completely misplaced. The day ended in a happy and relaxed mood. This march was a victory for civility and people's right to peaceful protest.

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