When November 2002 saw the first European Social Forum (ESF) take place in
One year later the ESF moved to
This year, from 14th to 17th October, the third ESF took place in
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
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.
Much worse though, were his political staff who involved themselves in the organising process. A number of Kenâ€™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 â€˜professionalâ€™. 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 couldnâ€™t offer cash in the way the GLA could, had been the driving force behind getting the ESF to
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 audienceâ€™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 â€“ that the ESF shouldnâ€™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 â€œwere 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.â€
The practical consequences of this debacle impacted on the event itself. The GLAâ€™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
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, â€œWhat 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.â€ 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
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 â€˜officialâ€™ 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 â€˜reclaim the ESFâ€™. At the same time, the Babels network read out a statement of protest at the fact that for this yearâ€™s ESF, â€œclassical 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.â€ Ken himself apparently got wind of these protests and failed to make an appearance, but much of the audience seemed to appreciate the protestorsâ€™ 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
James Oâ€™Nions has been involved in the ESF since the preparations for