FLORENCE — It was always going to be a recipe for chaos. Take 40,000 European leftists, fractious at the best of times, shoe-horn them into a Renaissance era Italian city and tell them to discuss, across half a dozen languages, the state of the world and the possibilities of changing it.
And chaos it certainly was — but of the kind from which revolutions come.
The European Social Forum took over this city for five days, November 6-10. Its participants, French, Spanish, Germans, English, Scots, Poles and most of all Italians, crammed into the enormous Fortezza da Basso, its conference halls like aircraft hangers, scrambled for translator headsets and strained to hear speeches on every conceivable topic, from the war on terror to privatisation to the WTO to non-violence.
Between sessions, they packed into the Fortezza’s large main courtyard, bought leftist newspapers in 10 languages, squeezed past countless information stalls, stood in long lines for food, drink and toilets, and admired each other’s Che Guevara t-shirts.
When the Fortezza couldn’t hold them all, they overflowed into workshops and seminars in pretty much every public venue in the city and into every street between, filling them with people wearing bright red registration tags around their necks.
At night, they filled the city’s hotels to capacity and then spread across the floors of football stadiums, racetracks and gymnasiums.
And at its highest, most historic point, on the Saturday afternoon, the Forum’s participants turned into a mere vanguard, as perhaps a million people poured off buses and trains from every corner of Italy and Europe to flood Florence’s streets and squares in a massive show of counter-power to war and Empire.
The march was of staggering proportions, even in a country more used to them than most. The front of the march left the Fortezza at 1pm, two hours beforwe the official starting time. It wasn’t until 7.30pm that the foot-weary affinity group I was in, two-thirds of the way back, reached the finishing point some five kilometres away. At 9pm, there were still crowds milling at the starting point which hadn’t left.
The whole way, the only thing I could see, even down sidestreets, was people, red banners, Palestinian keffiyehs around necks and rainbow “Pace” flags, the only thing I could hear was Italian partisan songs and that dull roar you get when huge numbers of people talk to the person next to them.
The outcome of the Forum was a stunning victory for the European “movement of movements” — a show of force which will be hard to top.
It was also a very hard slap in the face for Silvio Berlusconi’s Italian government, which had sought to whip up an atmosphere of fear in the lead-up, conjuring images of angry youth putting the city of Dante to the flame. The right-wing media happily waded in: under the banner “Assault on Florence”, Panorama magazine ran a cover photo of Michelangelo’s David, which stands in a museum a few blocks from the conference site, made up like a Black Bloc-er, with anarchist tattoo, helmet and red-and-black bandana.
The local business association also joined in, urging its members to draw their shutters for the duration. And some 20,000 carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police who at the Genoa G8 protest last July murdered the young anarchist Carlo Giuliani, were deployed on the streets.
In the end, the “assault” never happened. The massive crowd had only the most peaceful, albeit still most revolutionary, of intentions and the carabinieri were either too scared or too wise to show their faces.
But the Forum’s victory goes beyond just the enormous show of strength — it shows that the global movement is at the centre of a truly profound social process which cannot but render the world unrecognisable.
Beyond the obvious “streets flooded with people”, perhaps the most apt analogy is with water.
You can’t stop water running downhill. You can build walls against it — that works. But eventually the water runs around or under or over them. You can cut canals to divert it — that also works. But seperate bodies of water have a way of finding their way to each other and eventually water still gets to its predetermined destination anyway, having picked up more tributaries on the way.
The same with this movement of movements: it is unstoppable and, as it runs downhill, it gathers to itself more forces and more discourses, more issues and more movements.
This was clear in the extraordinary number of issues discussed at the forum. Yes, they were all “specific” — this act of repression in this place, that movement of self-determination in that place, this union struggle in this other place — but they were also at the same time general, self-consciously one part of a larger picture. The process of globalisation had blended previously seperate processes into one, and in so doing had made the connections between issues and struggles and movements so much more obvious.
The most obvious this got was in the way the Forum dealt with the war. The past year, the movement’s most dangerous so far, the year of Genoa, of September 11 and of Bush rampant, hasn’t defeated it, as its opponents no doubt hoped.
But nor did it divert it, as even some within the movement either feared or advocated. The movement hasn’t “turned” from being a movement against neo-liberalism into a movement against war. It hasn’t “transformed” from opposition to supposedly “esoteric” institutions like the WTO or the IMF into one of opposition to something supposedly more “tangible”, the war.
No, what happened in Florence is that the pre-existing movement, the movement against corporate globalisation, itself a coalition of movements, simply flowed into and brought into itself a new movement, against war. And in so doing it has not diluted or even narrowed itself, but has rather deepened and radicalised, made its nature as a movement against capitalism itself even more self-evident.
“La Guerra” in Florence wasn’t just the atrocity inflicted on Afghanistan, nor the crime against humanity about to be perpetrated against Iraq. It was “la guerra permanente globale” — the permanent global war. It was all those attempts by states to suppress dissent, in Chechnya, in Palestine, in the Basque lands, in the laws of Western countries aimed at activists, in the walls being built to keep out asylum seekers and even in the daily economic violence on the poor, the homeless, the excluded. The “war” was, simply, the war of power against the people.
But this wasn’t simply a Forum of opposition, it was also a forum of alternatives, embodied in its slogan across many languages: “Another Europe is Possible”. What people most strained to discuss was the need for an entirely different set-up.
Certainly the slogan, and sentiment behind it, got a good airing. I lost count of the number of times speakers used it to finish, always to a grand cheer, or indeed the number of times someone said something along the lines of “We stand against the globalisation of capital and for the globalisation of solidarity”.
But the sentiment roamed abroad in more profound ways too. For a start, the alternatives and solutions argued for were always the global ones, the universal ones: universal welfare against privatisation and unemployment, universal freedom of movement against “Fortress Europe”, universal citizenship against the “Divine Right of money”.
One morning, looking down from a balcony on the courtyard of people, one thing more became obvious, however. The alternative, the “other globalisation” people talked about, was not just possible, a reachable utopia for the future. It already exists — in this, this movement. What surfaced for five days in Florence was this other globalisation, the globalisation from below, the alternative new world which is already taking shape under the surface.
The forum itself was a powerful experiment in self-management, run by thousands of harried but no less effective volunteers, and was a successful experiment in cross-pollinating, in swapping ideas and actions and stories.
European social movements certainly stand at an advantage in globalising themselves. There are already deep cultural connections between countries, made deeper by the last decades of the political and economic contruction of the European Union. Even on a practical level there is certainly no lack of opportunities for common pan-European action. The Assembly of European Social Movements, on November 10, quite easily came up with a full Europe-wide program: protests against a NATO summit in Prague in late November, in Copenhagen against the EU summit in December, in Evian, France, against the hated G8 next July.
But Europe is not exceptional, it just runs ahead.
In an attempt to escape their crisis, the world’s rulers unveiled a grand project: a globalised market under their control. But in so doing, they provided the world’s people with new horizons of struggle and opened the door to an entirely different and new and unexpected process of globalisation.
In Florence, it was clear that that possibility is becoming an actuality.