It is much easier to have opinions about a social forum than to organize one. That is one of many conclusions that I could draw after the end of the Stockholm Social Forum (SSF) held in May.
One of the most wonderful things about the World Social Forum (WSF) was the idea of regionalising it and organise forums not only on global level but also on continental, national and local level. The European Social Forums that have been held first in Florence and then in Paris have been great successes. The possibility of recognising the WSF has been there as to its form they have been quite similar. Even though we lack a common place to read about the outcome of such forums we have surely heard or visited some or several and seen how they are and how they work.
The World Social Forum is a space, that every year is filled with different types of political conscious people; grassroots activist, academics that study those activist or movements, others can be politicians or presidents taking the occasion to show off, and many more. The point here is that is attracts already politically aware people that want to have workshops, opportunities to network or simply have an interesting political holiday. The main purpose, I would say is to arrange the biggest workshop ever for the movement once a year. It isn’t to reach out to not politically aware people, even though of course organising a World Social Forum means mobilising.
Now the issue here is why organise local social forums, what is the purpose and how do we do that? Is it simply to copy the WSF but in minor scale, or could the purpose be the same but the given conditions so different that it has to be done differently. I would say that the role of a local social forum is not a “mini WSF”, that is not even worth striving for.
A local forum could have as aim to reach out to “new” groups and people, to make movements that do not traditionally work together to meet, and to have meetings for movements that do work together but get the chance to coordinate even better and include more people. A local social forum should foremost discuss local issues. To do that, and not simply think organising a “small WSF” requires political discussions about purpose and strategy that takes time.
That is obvious maybe for all, but I discovered being an organiser of the Stockholm Social Forum that the obvious can be put aside when there is lack of people and time. We were too few all the time, and we started too late. Time lacks everywhere, and who has not blamed time in an evaluation the last 50 years. It is not an excuse but an advice because political discussions are crucial for organising a local forum, to not prioritize that is a bad priority. What happens then is that instead of exploring the unpredictable the traditional is done.
It is nothing wrong with the traditional but as the forum is something new it requires time both for the organisers to discover and understand what is new and even more time to explain it to others. If not it is easily organised as always, having an organising committee working out everything from small to big issues, instead of not only inviting but actually insisting on the organisations arranging seminars being part of the organisation process. To arrange seminars about interesting things happening far away, adding international guests, and making people talk about there and not here.
It is not easy to mobilise people for local issues, not here at least. Privatisation of water in Cochabamba has received more attention in activist circles that water privatisation in NorrkÃ¶ping, a fairly big Swedish town, and the only to have privatized water entirely. Still one of the objectives we had was to discuss local issues. I think we did right, politically but maybe not to attract people. Then again we must ask ourselves if the objective is mass meetings or good meetings. No, there is not necessarily an antagonism between them both, but the same goes for small meetings and good meetings.
If the aim is how to continue struggling against privatisations in Sweden and people from all networks are present, but not many more, then it could actually turn out to be the best meeting ever. Part of the organisation process is to make organisations aware that the forum is a space and not a commercial machine, the seminars organised on that space has to be managed by the movements.
It is the movements that have to bring people to that space, not the forum. A WSF does not have a PR problem. Since 2001 everybody knows that there is a WSF, and look for it, and even if the program comes out the day after the forum has started, or if the big seminars are empty of people and many don’t understand the languages spoken in the workshops people are already there, and if you have travelled all the way to Porto Alegre, Mumbai or Paris you make sure to have a good time anyway. If it is organised in your town people have the choice of staying home.
And people stayed home, or at least that became the sorrow for some during the weekend of the Stockholm Social Forum For some reason the expectation went high, in the run up for the SSF we forgot about meetings with extremely few people showing up, lack of time making everything from website to flyers coming out late, in relation to the forum and that seminars in our town hardly attracts people.
For many people we did not get enough people there, the rooms were half empty (and not half full) and that several seminars were cancelled because of lack of people. It was because we did not put up enough posters, because the message on the poster was unclear, because the program was late, because media did not write about the forum, because we changed logo late, because the weather was too good, and because the locality was spread out in different places in town.
Many of the things were surely bad and we could have done better in many ways, but we also counted on people that simply not exist. Yes, the 15th February -03 demo in Stockholm gathered 80 000 people in a one million person town, but a “normal” demo gathers between 500 – 1500, and we don’t have several social movements having big meetings and campaigns, and we don’t have interesting interactions between those. But when we organised the forum we acted as we lived in our vision and not according to reality, out political reality was not taken into account enough.
Apart from that neither posters, nor logos, nor programs get people to seminars in the first hand and that we never can rely on main-stream media to mobilise for us our reality is a post-welfare state. That means less people organising, voting, having an over-bureaucratic trade-union totally linked to the Social democratic party that has governed this country for more than 65 years, that forgot the knowledge of mobilising cause they did not need to for 40 years.
One interesting thing was that even though it was a local social forum much of the critiques you can hear go around at a World Social Forum was reproduced against the Stockholm Social Forum. It was too middle-class, we should be in a suburb, we did not reach not to real poor people, not enough homeless, too reformist, the Zapatistas were not there, the forum taken over by NGO:s , academics the trade union. And how do you defend yourself of accusations like that when the whole program is the proof of the contrary (except for the Zapatistas).
I think the forum was great; we actually organised it, with an impressive program and great volunteers wearing a beautiful flower on their t-shirts. I had the best seminar ever on participatory democracy; thanks to that it was not 100 persons but 20 so everybody had a chance to speak. People that attended seminars were very happy, there were meetings between groups that have never met before, and there was a lot of networking between people. Several things started that weekend that will go on. The best with the forum was that it did not end that weekend, as a friend put it.
During the social forums, established analyses should be challenged; social movements should break up, find new alliances, and find new ways. We took the first steps in doing that I think. Some workshops were the beginning of a process that started. One thing we did that was important in my opinion was that we debated a controversial issue for the left.
The veil, in favour or against, is debated in society today and left wing people think different things. So in the last minute what turned out to be a great debate about the veil was organised. Another great achievement was that, even though it was traditional in many ways nobody proposed common declarations, programs or slogans. We did not try to decide what is important instead of responding to the importance of events.
But did we really achieve something? Well, that depends on what you mean with achievement. No, we did not achieve a “mini WSF” with people not being able to see Eduardo Galeano because the hall solely takes 15 000, and we did not sell all tickets, or t-shirts, and people were not dancing and rallying in the street constantly for five days. But to be honest, people never do that in Stockholm, not even after great victories in ice-hockey or soccer. And Eduardo Galeano lives elsewhere. I achieved learning that going local is just much more difficult than we think.