Puerto Alegre, Brazil: Two events last weekend made it crystal clear that the anti-globalization movement is alive, well and kicking.
In New York City, thousands demonstrated against corporate globalization at the World Economic Forum. It was an entirely peaceful demonstration. As one demonstrator put it, “just being on the streets here was confrontation enough.”
Even more significant was the massive World Social Forum held in Porto Allegre Brazil. Not only was the anti-corporate globalization movement here in force but so was every other movement for social change on the planet. Eighty thousand participants from 150 countries discussed how to make a better world.
The key words were convergence and diversity. Convergence means that all the ideologies and all the movements are converging towards similar perspectives. Diversity meaning that instead of ripping each other a part over differences, people can respect each other’s differences and still work together.
At the World Social Forum, everyone from Marxists to civil rights activists; from feminists to liberation theologists; from anarchists to trade union leaders concentrated on the rather considerable agreement amongst them.
As one Indian activist put it, “The situation in the world is so urgent, we have to put aside differences of ideology and ego and focus on the our common project to build a better world.”
The social movements of Latin America and Brazil as well as a new kind of socialist party, the Workers’ Party of Brazil, showed the way. This part of South America has perhaps been most devastated by corporate globalization or neo-liberalism, as they call it here.
Africa may be poorer, but Brazil and Argentina have known a better life. Cheap imports have dramatically de-industrialized these countries and capital flight, especially in Argentina, has destroyed the economy. The Argentine government followed all the rules-privatization, deregulation, cuts in social services, opening up to foreign capital—and their economy has tanked.
The reaction from the people started a long time before the demonstrations of pots and pans we have heard so much about. A movement of unemployed has been blocking roads to demand jobs for several years. In December, the middle class joined them and together they have stimulated an extraordinary popular revolution.
In Brazil, the Workers’ Party (PT) is the government of numerous cities and states and is at 55 percent in the polls at the national level because they have based their governments on the direct participation of citizens. In addition their party, a coalition of different tendencies, is closely allied to social movements like the massive Landless Peasants’ Movement as well as to the trade union movement.
In Porto Alegre, citizens decide all new capital expenditures through a participatory budget. Poor people are most active in the budget process and women are half of the delegates to the budget assemblies. In other parts of the Brazil, the PT is taking participatory democracy even further through ideas like People’s Assemblies.
So participatory democracy was a central focus of discussion. There was also agreement on making environmental sustainability a top priority. With the vast majority of participants from developing countries it became clear that continuing growth would end not only in environmental destruction but also in even greater gaps between rich and poor.
The Forum reminded me a little of the Toronto Film Festival. One could only participate in a fraction of the hundreds of events. But it was the spirit that was most moving. There were colourful, spirited demonstrations every day on a variety of issues. The biggest ones, more than 25,000, were against corporate globalization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. On the last day on the five-day conference, a massive rally of tens of thousands of people jammed the University auditorium and people sang and danced for hours.
It was far from perfect. Men dominated on the panels. Youth were mostly segregated in the youth camp. For so much discussion of participatory democracy the size of the gathering made it almost impossible to practice it inside the meeting halls. An anarchist occupation of an empty building showed that housing is a problem even in Porto Alegre.
The last time I was at an international meeting of social activists was in 1995 in Beijing China where feminists met around the U.N. Conference on Women. At that time, I was impressed by the common analysis of how corporate globalization was hurting women most, whether in the South or the North. Everyone agreed that we need an alternative to neo-liberalism on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other but no one was proposing concrete alternatives.
In Porte Allegre, concrete alternatives were proposed in almost every discussion. The theme of the conference was “A better world is possible.” In the midst of all the meetings, demonstrations and parties, it wasn’t too hard to believe.