The 2002 World Social Forum and Us

Michael Albert

At the WSF as a
representative of Z and an invited speaker, I attended the opening cultural
events at close range, learned from presentations in areas of great personal
interest, hosted a party by Z for 30 wonderful folk, spoke on a panel, offered a
testimony, participated in filming and photographing various folks for
forthcoming videos, met with Indymedia activists from around the world and with
Worker’s Party folks from Brazil, and even enjoyed a stopover in Sao Paulo to
speak and meet with folks there.

I would like to
try to relate, briefly, some of what I learned or had impressed upon me with
greater urgency than previously, that may have general relevance to others.

First, it is
possible to have a gathering of huge numbers of people in which, despite heat,
numbers, and frantic pace, overwhelming good feeling abounds, mutual respect
overflows, and everyone enjoys unlimited exchanges of information and
priorities. To host such an event is not easy. It took about 400 volunteers
working for many months, for example. But it is doable.

Second, the U.S.
left is very isolated from the rest of the world’s movements and projects. It
isn’t just that our knowledge of others around the world is low. It is that
others have cross border alliances and affiliations that we are divorced from.
Whatever the causes, our isolation needs urgent attention.

Third, just as
the U.S. left is separated from much that occurs beyond our borders, movements
abroad are also in many respects ignorant about our situation. Views abroad
range from believing there is no left in the U.S. to believing that there is one
but that it is suffering immense repression and scrambling to survive. Many
otherwise well-informed overseas folks asked me how I could even be alive, given
my militancy. They felt that both the U.S. government and its police should
certainly have done me in, or at least jailed me, and if not that, then my
neighbors and other citizens would have been provoked to interpersonal violence
by my dissidence. The idea that the U.S. government would leave me be, and that
I have not been attacked by all kinds of people I address about the issues was
entirely contrary to their view of what life in the U.S. must be like.

Fourth, I was
surprised and elated to find that serious dissidents really do inhabit one
world, even as we also benefit from virtually unlimited diversity in cultures.
The extent to which the most diverse representatives and participants in Porto
Alegre—in the main venues, in the youth camp, in the streets—shared very similar
political values and aspirations, despite only fledgling levels of prior
communications, was astounding.

People from
grassroots movements in India talked about abolishing markets. Their language
was not only music to my ears, but words of the same language and tone and
sentiment that I regularly use. People from networks of economic activists
stretching around the world talked about needing economic institutions that
promote solidarity rather than anti-social individuality, cooperation rather
than competition, and participation rather than exclusion. They celebrated
self-management. Their spirit was original and inspiring, but the content was
familiar despite the lack of prior communication. Revolutionary ideas are
percolating worldwide with remarkable affinity around the globe. Different words
are spoken, in many languages, but the same sentiments are celebrated. A new
International is forming, from the bottom up and it isn’t settling for less than
a new world.

Fifth, there was
the city of Porto Alegre, the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, and the
Brazilian left and especially the Workers Party, or PT. The PT celebrated its
22nd anniversary with a party in Porto Alegre that I attended. They hold the
mayoralty of Porto Alegre and the governor’s post in Rio Grande do Sul, where
the WSF takes place. The PT has the mayoralty in other cities as well, most
notably the immense and very important Sao Paulo. That is, a leftist movement
has attained control over the executive branch of various levels of government
in a huge country and is contesting to enlarge its grip, as well as
experimenting to find new ways to operate. It doesn’t control the legislatures
or judiciaries at any level, nor does it control industries or have a powerful
organized presence within most of them, though there are a growing number of
cooperatives as well as other diverse grassroots movements, including those of
the landless peasants, for example.

The PT regularly
contests at the national level, and will do so again with excellent chances in a
presidential election beginning in a few months. Their candidate, Lula, is
running to win, and needs international attention to curtail violations of his
electoral efforts, but still, as yet the PT has only limited federal influence.

There is
tremendous experience and material for learning in Brazil. What does a
democratic and diverse left that wins limited but important gains do? In this
case, one thing they do is to institute what they call Participatory Budgeting.
That is, they control the state budgets every place where they have the
executive branch. So they have embarked on making the economic and social
investments undertaken by their governments a public matter, negotiated by a
cooperative give and take with populations organized into assemblies or
councils. The new participatory budget intends to replace public government
spending decided from the top- down or determined by competitive market

On the plus side,
the Participatory Budget and associated efforts have helped make Porto Alegre
the best place to live in Brazil. More, the Participatory Budget has
incorporated ever enlarging circles of the populace in political activity. The
project has built infrastructure and explored new methods and interactions.

winning executive powers has enmeshed the PT in delivering daily operational
coherence to the city’s and state’s activities, taking many of their most
talented activists and resources away from direct action, from reaching out to
broaden the base of grass roots support and winning new gains and terrain.
Gaining back the militant outreach and struggle attributes of their movement,
while simultaneously defending, enlarging, and effectively utilizing its
government  powers to immediately benefit the populace, is the PT task at hand,
it seems.

Beyond handling
the budgets in experimental ways and seeking to find means of cooperation and
popular power, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul not long ago decided to try to
reduce income differentials among classes. The plan was to increase wages at the
lowest levels, thereby diminishing the gap up to those at higher levels, whose
income would remain unchanged. The legislature prom- ptly passed a law requiring
that any generalized wage increases at the bottom had to be matched by equal
increases at the top. So much for the governor’s plan to narrow the gap. The
broad lesson is that the gains in Brazil are unstable. There is tension between
delivering better daily administration on the one hand and continuing to
actively grow via outreach and struggle, on the other. A variant of this tension
arises in the coming election regarding preserving existing support, which
reaches well into the professional levels of Brazil’s class structure, versus
trying to get out hesitant voters among poorer workers and peasants—all against
the united efforts of capital to employ massive media manipulations against
Lula, and perhaps of the U.S., too.

The PT is no
doubt eminently aware that it needs to go to the populace to win legislatures,
to topple old judiciaries, and to organize people in workplaces and communities
in their own democratic councils to manifest their wills not only regarding the
state’s investment budgets, and not only regarding the whole of the state’s
budgets, but also regarding the whole of the Brazilian economy and society, all
its industries and institutions, uprooting old forms and adopting new ones with
entirely new values. Whether we are talking about Brazil, the U.S., or anywhere
else, we have to understand this logic of winning non-reformist reforms and
building ever more powerful movements while also constructing the infrastructure
of the new society.

Sixth, have you
all been noticing the rather odd pronouncements occasionally appearing in the
media? Things like Bill Gates joining hands with U2’s Bono and calling on the
rich to pay serious attention to the plight of the poor? Don’t be surprised to
see the IMF or World Bank asking some of our prominent dissidents for advice and
trying to corral them into positive planning sessions and the like.

What is
happening? I’ll tell you. The other side is scared. Yes, with all their bombs,
all their media, all their assets, they are scared, and rightfully so.

What they
know—something that amazingly quite often escapes our consciousness—is that
their whole edifice of power and injustice ultimately rests on popular consent
and passivity. Our submission is institutionally induced and enforced, of
course. But these nervous corporate elites realize that our consent and
passivity is coming undone. Cracks are developing. Serious fault lines are
beginning to emerge. When fault lines in submissiveness reach a certain point,
reversing the dissolution becomes very difficult. Corporate and political elites
fear that the cracks in their system, still far from toppling it, are nearing
the point of being hard to reverse.

This is war.
Their side still dominates ours, but our side is on the move. All over the world
momentum is changing. In my testimony at WSF 2, I closed by saying “I believe
that equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management are coming to Brazil,
are coming to Thailand and Turkey, are coming to Mexico and Italy and Russia,
are coming to South Africa, to Vietnam, and to Afghanistan. I even believe that
equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management are coming to the U.S.—and
that the World Social Forum and all our movements and efforts need to be part of
a massive entwined process that will make it so.”

The World Social
Forum does indeed show that “another world is possible” and that with enough
commitment and solidarity, we can make it a reality. The only real question
about is not whether we will win, but how good a job we can do making it happen
sooner rather than later.           Z

Michael Albert is
the author of numerous bok and articles on radical politics and participatory
economics. He is the cofounder of South End Press,
Z Magazine, ZMI,
and sysop of ZNet.