A Different World, But Which One?

The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre arose as an alternative to the World Economic Forum in Davos. If Davos had become a symbol of the free market and of corporate globalisation, Porto Alegre was designed to become both a show of resistance to Davos, and a symbol of progressive social reform.

Radicals who demonstrated against the events staged by the global elite in Seattle, Prague and Quebec came to this city in southern Brazil to stage an event of their own. This meant that the movement was coming of age; it had to go beyond protesting and criticising to offer its own vision of a better world, a vision that needed to be inspiring and practical at the same time.

The choice of the host city was not accidental. Not only is Porto Alegre administered by the Workers Party (PT) of Brazil, but by representatives of the party’s left wing. The result is a model municipal administration famous for its “participatory budget system”. Municipal functionaries from other Brazilian cities and even from Europe now come to Porto Alegre to study this experience.

The first Porto Alegre forum brought together about ten thousand people. This time about sixty thousand delegates and guests attended. It was not only the number of participants that was different from last year. This time, ministers, deputies, mayors and trade union officials arrived in Porto Alegre, along with the leaders of popular movements, critical intellectuals and radical activists so often seen in the past two years at protest rallies.

The PT is expected to win the next presidential election in Brazil, and leading figures from the international Social Democratic movement were taking the chance to have a closer look at the party which will probably soon lead the biggest Latin American nation.

It is not surprising that the radical wing of the movement immediately described the Porto Alegre forum as a reformist event. Indeed it was; bringing different currents together, it had to work out a minimal consensus which was not a revolutionary one.

But the question can also be put in a different way: how far will the Porto Alegre reformism extend? The World Social Forum showed that the numerous journalists and politicians who predicted the collapse of the “anti-globalist” movement after September 11 were wrong. The movement has not only survived, but is gathering strength. The symptoms of the new upsurge include not only the demonstrations in Porto Alegre, but also the march against the World Economic Forum in New York.

The corporate barons and politicians who gathered in expensive hotels in the American business capital were forced to try to justify themselves, feigning concern for the fate of the poor.

One of the tasks of the Porto Alegre Forum was to demonstrate that the left is making a comeback internationally. The left is in fact slowly recovering from its catastrophic decline of the 1990s, and the World Social Forum showed that it is growing in size and public influence.

But the left has also to become more mature; a rebirth of enthusiasm is not enough to ensure effective social change. Electoral successes are insufficient; the need is for ideas and programs. The main programmatic element in 2001 consisted of declarations about another world being possible. But after the global recession and the crash in Argentina, the 2002 Forum could be expected to go somewhat further.

The key issue this year was capital controls. Since the ruble crash of 1998 and the Argentinian disaster, many people even in the business community have concluded that deregulation and privatisation have gone too far. However, there is no returning to the “good old days” of the 1960s. Over the past decade the mechanisms of regulation have been dismantled, and the welfare state eroded. These institutions do not need to be restored, but reinvented – and reinvented radically.

Development priorities must not be formulated by financial elites, and neither should they be invented by government bureaucracies. Porto Alegre represents the rise of global civil society which wants its voice to be heard. Radicals marching in the streets of Porto Alegre were calling for socialism, while moderates chairing the seminars and conferences were proposing a tax reform.

For all their disagreements, however, both groups need each other. What united the crowd in Porto Alegre was not only the slogan “Another world is possible!” It was also the conviction that the existing world is unacceptable. The crisis in Argentina proved that things are not going to stay where they are now. This explains the popularity of the Porto Alegre Forum. New ideas are needed, and the economic dogmas of the 1990s need to be questioned globally.

Unlike protests against one or another move by the financial elites, the forum in Porto Alegre was not aimed at any particular “local” adversary. It was meant to oppose the system as a whole. In this, however paradoxical it might seem, lay the problem of the World Social Forum. On the one hand, participants needed not just to criticise the policies of the financial institutions, but to put forward alternatives.

On the other hand, efforts to take a “constructive approach” were often interpreted as moderation. The triumph of moderation would mean the end of the movement. It was precisely after the impotence and degeneracy of the “moderate” left became blindingly obvious that the “anti-globalist” protests began.

In the epoch of neoliberalism, moderate reformism is impossible. Neither the political nor the social space for it exists. Workers are having to contend with shameless and irresponsible elites which of their very nature are incapable of social partnership. The compromises of the mid-twentieth century were achieved not through negotiations or through “constructive suggestions” from the working class, but through bitter struggles whose outcome was a changed relationship of forces in society, and the defeat of the most reactionary sectors of the bourgeoisie.

Since then, however, the situation has changed. Neoliberalism represents a comeback by the worst elements of capital – worst in moral terms, as well as everything else. When the movement falls into the trap of “moderation”, it risks paralysing itself, doing what could not be achieved either by the police repression in Goteborg and Genoa or by the psychological pressure that followed September 11.

Meanwhile, the trap at the World Social Forum did not materialise all by itself. The presence of numerous ministers and deputies representing the “left-wing” government of France was no accident. This government, which has implemented policies of privatisation and deregulation no less zealously than any set of right-wingers, turned up at a forum where alternatives to these policies were meant to be worked out. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

The answer from the French students at the Forum was a pie thrown in the face of one of “their” ministers. This, of course, proves that despite everything, the culture born in May 1968 is still alive. Nevertheless, the left needs to work out more serious responses to this kind of challenge from “moderation”.

The movement, quite simply, is obliged to formulate its own reformist initiatives, but radical initiatives closely linked to our anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois values. The elites put up with discussions on taxes and regulation in more or less tranquil fashion, but fly into a rage when the talk gets around to property. This question needs to go back on the agenda.

While adjustments to the tax system were being discussed in the seminars, in Buenos Aires popular committees were calling for the nationalisation of the banks. In California after the energy scandals of 2001, the activists of Global Exchange began a campaign for “public power” – the nationalisation of the energy industry.

The task is to combine the demand for public property with the ideas of an alternative economy of participation, cooperation and democracy, the ideas that prevail in the ranks of the new radical movement. Unless we do this, the hopes aroused by Porto Alegre will be betrayed. A different world will not necessarily be a better one, but this depends very much on us.

The capacity of today’s popular movements to change things will be tested in the near future. But it was because of the popular mobilisations of the past that we have parliaments, electoral rights and political democracy. This allows us to hope that economic democracy is also possible.

Leave a comment