ESF At The Crossroads?

When November 2002 saw the first European Social Forum (ESF) take place in Florence, Italy, it was undoubtedly a watershed for the European movement. In excess of 35000 people registered for the forum itself, with some putting the figure for the closing demonstration as high as a million. The battles which Italy’s social movements were having with the Berlusconi government undoubtedly fed into the first ESF’s success, as did the enormous opposition to the impending war against Iraq (also the major factor in a revival of fortunes for Italy’s centre-left coalition in the recent European Parliament elections). But Florence 2002 was obviously and spectacularly an international event. Overwhelmingly young, vibrant and optimistic, it encapsulated a European movement which has first shown its strength in the Genoa 2001 protests against the G8, but whose focus had broadened to encompass a wider global analysis. The proliferation of Palestinian kuffiyehs was just the most visible sign of that.


Florence was also a triumph of self-organisation of the kind that has seen Indymedia spread across the globe since Seattle. With translation problems for an event so large and diverse seemingly insurmountable, activists formed the international Babels network, an organisation of volunteer interpreters who translated simultaneously to and from English, Spanish, French, German and Italian at every one of several hundred plenaries and seminars. Babels still coordinates interpretation at the ESF as well as working on its own projects.


One year later the ESF moved to Paris. Like in Florence, local government money underpinned the event financially, but whereas the city of Florence happened to have a huge and convenient conference centre at its disposal, the event in Paris was spread across four sites which were as much as two hours apart. This had a real impact on the atmosphere. Still only in its second year though, the Paris ESF continued to capture the atmosphere of the global movement and remain interesting.


This year, from 14th to 17th October, the third ESF took place in London. At first glance, it resembled those of previous years. Seminars, plenaries and workshops on a huge range of issues jostled for space in Alexandra Palace in north London, and a secondary area of Bloomsbury in central London. Around 20,000 people turned up, less than either Florence or Paris, but still an enormous event. Some meetings attracted more than 1000 people, such as one organised by radical development charity War on Want about British foreign aid money which is being used to encourage privatisation of basic services. Hundreds of smaller meetings generated useful activist links and served as showcases for existing campaigns and initiatives.


But for the third reincarnation of the ESF, at a time when we should have been building on past successes and learning from mistakes, we seemed actually to be going backwards instead of going forwards. No real process of evaluation ever took place, which meant the London organising committee was without a guide for improving the Forum. Partly this was a problem from which the World Social Forum also suffers; that activists spend most of the year preparing for the Forum itself, rather than engaging in activism, or adequate reflection. For this reason, the decision to hold the next ESF in Greece in 18 rather than 12 months time is a sensible one. But part of the problem was not down to the ESF as a whole, but down to the choice of location.


London is a very expensive city to live in or visit. In addition, for reasons to do with the nature of local government in Britain, the possibilities for local government funding were always going to be more limited this year, which had a knock-on effect on ticket prices. Before the Forum was even planned, people began to be priced out of it. So those attempting to organise it faced real problems. Unfortunately, the way that the dominant factions in the organising process tried to solve these and other problems had an detrimental effect on the pluralism and democracy of the process and created an ESF which was a shadow of what it could have been.


One might have thought that having the Mayor of London supporting the Forum would have been a good start. Indeed, no one can doubt that without the money that the Greater London Authority (GLA) provided, around £400,000 plus free travelcards, the Forum would have looked very different, if it even happened at all. But the strings that ended up being attached made some activists begin to wonder if it was worth it. London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone, is a maverick Labour left-winger with a solid history of quite radical populism behind him. When running London, and in the context of a warmongering Labour government which seems to drift further right with every policy initiative, he is often a breath of fresh air. But he is after all a politician, and ‘hosting’ the ESF, as he very much saw himself doing, was all part of his positioning himself as saviour of the social democratic left in Britain.


Much worse though, were his political staff who involved themselves in the organising process. A number of Ken’s most highly paid advisers are part of a very small, secretive and authoritarian group known as Socialist Action. Members of Socialist Action played a part in the organisation from the beginning, as representatives either of the GLA, or of campaigning organisations which they controlled bureaucratically. The global movement and the process of Social Forums was entirely alien to them (and unfortunately remains so even after the London ESF), their political practice resembling at times the worst excesses of student and identity politics. They used the promise of GLA money (though this only materialised much nearer the event) and the need to attract further money from the trade unions to argue that the ESF had to look ‘professional’. This meant, in the end, excluding people who had an alternative vision of the ESF to them, and keeping the finances, much of the practical organising work, and many of the key decisions, to themselves.


They were aided and abetted in this process by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which although it couldn’t offer cash in the way the GLA could, had been the driving force behind getting the ESF to London, has a larger membership which helped for mobilisation purposes, and had at least been involved in the European movement before. Not that this made them any more democratic. Between them, these two organisations presided over a regime which saw many activists turning away in exasperation, and as a result, few organisations really engaging with the Social Forum process. The trade unions did provide money and donations in kind like office space, but their involvement in organising came late and was largely left to low-ranking officials who happened to have an interest in it and who chose to ally themselves with the now dominant SA/SWP alliance.


There was opposition of course. An ad-hoc alliance consisting of Babels, the translation network, and the representatives of some of the more radical non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as War on Want, the World Development Movement and Friends of the Earth, together with a few particularly committed individual activists, fought to keep the process as open and accountable as possible. Unfortunately, not enough activists wanted to give enough of their own time to something over which they could see they would very little control, once the GLA was entrenched in its position.


In the end, most organisations involved were unable to break out of the idea that they were interest groups competing for the audience’s attention. They came on board too late to prevent the domination of the process, and left once their seminars and speakers had been approved. They missed the central point – that the ESF shouldn’t be a rebranding of the same old confrontations but a new, democratic and co-operative way of working, for which the event itself is only a starting point.


British dissenters were not alone. Following one particularly bad pan-European organising meeting, the Italian mobilising committee for the ESF were moved to publish a statement complaining that the British “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 practical consequences of this debacle impacted on the event itself. The GLA’s professional managerial approach was the antithesis of previous years. By driving away anyone who had experience of self-organisation, or who even found it desirable, the London ESF was deprived of the kind of creativity which produced the Babels network two years earlier. The website, which in previous years was created and managed by activists, was instead handed over to a private company at a cost of thousands of pounds. An ESF which could have been a model of ecologically sound event management was even lacking in the recycling facilities seen in Paris. And at the most expensive ESF yet for participants, commercial caterers charged excessively for largely uninteresting food which could have been laid on by community groups seeking to make a little cash for themselves – hardly an unknown phenomenon in London.


In terms of the meetings themselves, there were mixed results. Inevitably the political weight of the SWP and SA translated itself into speaker panels which were rather skewed, at least in the centrally organised Plenaries. But in a sense, the problem was wider than this, with the whole concept of huge Plenary sessions with the great and the good speaking now somewhat out of date. As Susan George has written, “What we no longer need are ritual denunciations and constant reminders from the platform that we are in favour of some things (social justice, human rights, democracy, ecological responsibility…) and against others (war, poverty, racism, global warming…). Reiteration of these themes has become the primary function of over-abundant ESF plenary sessions.” With all the other problems with the ESF this year, there was little opportunity for reassessments of this kind to be made, though they need to be before Athens in March 2006. On the other hand, many people reported that the workshops and some of the seminars that they went to, being smaller, invited proper participation and sometimes resulted in actual activity being organised as the result of the discussions.


The response of anti-authoritarian activists to the closed nature of the ESF process took a variety of forms. Whilst some struggled on inside the process, others concentrated on organising Autonomous Spaces, simultaneously part and not part of the ESF. Despite police harassment, at least some of these spaces were very successful and generated discussions about grassroots struggles which were absent from the ‘official’ ESF. With a few exceptions, those organising these spaces managed to make them separate from, without being in opposition to, the main ESF.


Inevitably, there were also protests about over the way the ESF had been organised at the Forum itself. The meeting at which Ken Livingstone was due to speak on the Saturday was disrupted by a stage invasion where banners were dropped about the need to ‘reclaim the ESF’. At the same time, the Babels network read out a statement of protest at the fact that for this year’s ESF, “classical neo-liberal practices of organisation, management and service delivery have been employed, with the result that the Forum has been entirely dependent on the state.” Ken himself apparently got wind of these protests and failed to make an appearance, but much of the audience seemed to appreciate the protestors’ sentiments.


In fact it is quite extraordinary the extent to which the shenanigans of the authoritarian left around the ESF has angered other activists, who less than two years ago were happy to work alongside them in the anti-war movement. One side effect of the infighting and manoeuvring in the ESF process this year may well yet be a more coherent and co-ordinated alliance of activists who take the principles of the Social Forums and the spirit of the global movement seriously and can carry them forward.


The ESF remains very important, and Social Forums generally have taken the movement forward in great strides since the first WSF in Porto Alegre nearly five years ago. Despite all the problems, even the London ESF was an occasion for creative protests and constructive debates in and around London as well as some less useful events. That’s because the ESF represents something much wider than one badly organised Forum – it is a product of, and meeting point for the European (and global) movement. The part of the WSF Charter which states that a Social Forum does not represent “a locus of power to be disputed by the participants in its meetings” remains one of its most important principles and one to which we need to return if we are to continue to fulfil the promise that Social Forums hold.


James O’Nions has been involved in the ESF since the preparations for Florence in 2002. For more assessments of this year’s ESF, visit the website of the London-based Radical Activist Network.

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