Life After Social Forums

Usually, when talking about the forum history, historians talk about three important meanings of this word. According to the first meaning, the word “forum” refers to “agora”, a place for meetings and discussion.. According to the second meaning, forum is a market. According to the third meaning of the word, forum is a elected central body that brings fully valid and binding decisions.


The third social forum in Porto Alegre wasn’t in the least “agora”, was a little more like a market, but I am afraid there exists the actual danger of its being transformed into a body of elected representatives – that have been elected by no one. Noam Chomsky has said that creating  an “International”, based on anti-authoritarian principles, deprived of the historical burden of old antagonisms, would be a welcomed developement of the alter-globalist movement. Does, however, the experience of the third WSF allow us such optimism? Or does it, still, face us with the possibility of establishing a specific “International of the Irresponsible”?


It is my opinion that, when talking about the so-called anti-globalisation movement, it is possible to trace two parallel processes. One, which I named new radicalism, began with the Zapatista insurrection, has brought about creating of the Peoples’ Global Action network. The second one, I call traditionalistic, has developed separately, culminating by the creation of the WSF and regional forums. The history of these tendencies that have mainly developed simultaneously is relatively well known. Demonstrations – the Global Days of Action – and forums, as well as the Indymedia that has inaugurated a quite specific mode of activist communication, have all become the most important distinctive manifestations of the movement itself. The new radicalism implies an attempt to distance from the practices of the old left; to move away from the area of the conventional politics and to devise a new political space, the “politics from below”;  pre-figurative politics (i.e. the modes of organization that consciously resemble the world you want to crate); direct action and social disobedience; anti-capitalism and anti-statism.


The traditionalist block covers the liberal-reformists, representatives of NGOs, as well as members of the old left anti-capitalist parties.


Although certain changes can be felt in the rhetoric (especially when the notorious “civil society” is the issue), the practice has remained the same: trying to reform and humanize capitalism, lobbying over and through political parties, recruiting of new party members to fight for a new revolution that will not be the “revolution betrayed”. The traditionalistic paradigm implicates loyalty towards the traditional practices of political action, as opposed to new radicalism and the intentional breaking of the old paradigms.


The traditionalists have comprehended, and they are to be congratulated for it, that there is something really new in the new movement: the proof is the very idea of organizing “forums” – the institution that is “new” although organized in the “old” way – as well as the striving of political parties to transform themselves into networks such as ATTAC. As I have already pointed out, these two directions have mainly formed their identities independently from one another. I do not deem, however, that this difference is necessarily a handicap. On the contrary, I believe that these differences are good for the movement. They feed it with different energies. It is possible to learn a great deal from the reformists. Very often one can learn much more than from the anti-authoritarian sectarians who take pleasure in marginalizing and in a certain “anti-authoritarian narcissism”. Problems, however, occur when the “globalise the resistance” becomes “monopolize the resistance”. When the balance between the two spirits becomes disturbed. When the dialogue space becomes narrow. The last WSF was a convincing evidence of the dis-equilibrium relating to the recently ended ESF in Florence. Bureaucratisation of the movement and establishing of the forum bureaucracy is becoming more and more obvious. The danger of turning the “globalisation from below” into “globalisation from the middle” is becoming more clearly discernable. The phenomenon of “NGO-isation of the movement” is increasingly present as connected to BINGO politics (Big International Non Governmental Organizations). Do we really want to create a movement that will resemble a cocktail party in the Plaza Hotel lounge in Porto Alegre? Do we want a movement dominated by middle-aged bureaucrats wearing Palestinian scarves, armed with the memories from 1968 (or 1917)? Do we want social forums with  invisible organizers?


I do not agree with Naomi Klein’s point of view that the forum has been hijacked, because it actually has never been “ours”; or it might have been hijacked, but in a slightly different manner. It is not that the forum has been hijacked, but that the anti-authoritarian spirit that has inspired it has been abused. The very slogan “another world is possible” comes from the Zapatistas. The cake that landed on the face of the Brazilian PT president is becoming a metaphor, in the context of South America, for the opposition of two quite different spirits and two quite different feelings regarding politics. The one which implies yet another attempt at the change in the area of conventional politics, and the one which reveals the striving for something new, for something that can be found on the other side of voting and lobbying: the collective giving up of party politics and collective struggle for the “politics without power”. Is it possible and is it necessary to sustain  both of these views  in equilibrium?


The answer to these questions, the questions regarding strategic attitude of the new radicals towards the world as well as regional social forums, has been offered by Lindon Ferer and Michael Albert in the dialogue that can be found on the pages of the Peoples Global Action web site dedicated to WSF. Both these authors think within the “abandon or contaminate” model (the same was used as a headline for an excellent article by L. Ferer), deciding, despite some cautious pessimism, in favour of “contamination”. Now, after the WSF 3, it seems to me that it is time to replace this strategic dilemma – abandon or contaminate – by somewhat different one: participate or abandon.


I believe that time has come to develop some different models of strategic communication with the whole forum process.


Such attempts, so far, have included HUB in Florence, then Intergalactica and Life After Capitalism project in Porto Alegre.


HUB and Intergalactica have promoted an interesting model of an area organizing itself, a laboratory and experiment on social disobedience, organized in the spirit of complete horizontality and breaking of classical “conference” model of political debating. The reproaches directed to HUB, during ESF in Florence, related to the lack of organisation, the neglect of theory and thinking about vision. The new radical activism should not become a permanent global party. Life After Capitalism was envisaged as a forum within the forum that focuses on strategy and political and economic vision and on many dimensions of daily life. The whole occurrence included into the programme the very successful Peoples Global Action conference. The reproaches directed to LAC related to insisting on the classical form of discussion.The new radical activism should not become a  permanent global conference.


All these experiments, with all their virtues and shortcomings, were extremely interesting and deserve attention. But all of them were successfully marginalized. LAC was moved into a suburban country club, while Intergalactica was dislocated into a tent that would have been difficult to find even by Karl May’s Vinetu. Why? My answer is probably a bit dissonant with respect to the angry intonation of most of the authors that have dealt with this problem. Namely, I do not believe that it was an organized political purpose in question. I think it is the bureaucratic myopia that was the issue there, i.e. the bureaucratic dis-interestedness of the forum organizers who did not take us seriously enough. Perhaps the time has come to prove them wrong.


Does this mean that the forum should be abandoned? Are we to say: abandon the forums? No. Actually, not yet. The idea of forums is a good one. If there is a chance, and I believe there is, to organize these forums in another way: “For the anti-capitalist movement to achieve real change, it will have to do so through a confrontational approach to liberal democracy. This could involve the setting up of social forums throughout Europe, at local levels, creating direct links with local communities in struggle. These, organized in a federal structure – but respecting local autonomy – would undermine and ultimately make obsolete the earth-destroying, authoritarian and oppressive governmental structures that currently control the planet”. (L. Ferer)


The lack of democratic approach and of “transparency” (the term favourite with the “civil society” theoreticians) permeates the institution of a forum, the way it is today, at all levels. An appropriate question can be posed here, which even the members of the so-called International Council have no answer to: Who actually organizes these forums? Reading of the list of organizations participating in the IC is like getting through the woods of names of anonymous non-governmental organizations. The IC, as it seems, is a kind of honoured body that only approves the already brought decisions, agreed on probably somewhere along the Paris-Sao Paolo path, that are brought by the OC. What is the OC? I have no idea. Probably the same people who have established the Orwellian Secretariat for Call of the Social Movements which is to be found somewhere in Sao Paolo. The same is valid for the ESF. I was the witness of the preparatory meetings of the ESF, in which the bureaucratic and old left, owing to the experience they had had in such a kind of political struggle, pushed out without difficulty the grassroots initiatives. Thus we bump into an unusual paradox: those who have made this movement interesting and distinctive and who, in a way, are the most deserving for its success, are not adequately represented in its “institutions”, in the forums.


It is therefore necessary to replace the formula “abandon or contaminate” by the formula “participate or abandon”. The “contamination” is not a sincere one, the very expression is an entristic one: furthermore, it is not even productive. Closed in a suburban building of the forum, we are doomed to marginalisation and dissipation of energy. It is necessary to enter into dialogue with other participants in the movement, to organize ourselves so as to be able to reclaim the movement. To say that another forum is possible. In any case, it is necessary for us to turn to building of our own network, PGA, the optics of which would include reflection on the vision and strategy, options, on details of a different world we wish to create. Why dissipate the energy of the new radicalism, is the question that imposes itself, on endless projects? Why don’t we formulate a unique, coherent anti-authoritarian politics within the Peoples Global Action network? It would be the politics based on the bottom-up organizing, open and transparent methods, broad participation, anti-authoritarianism, multi-tactical approaches, innovation and spontaneity. We have to abandon sectarianism and ” marginalization pleasure”, but also avoid the trap of accepting the traditionalistic and bureaucratic rules of the game and the struggle for power, which we are not accustomed to, bearing always in mind that the goal of anti-authoritarianism is not to be small and isolated. Our goal should be the movement building. Not “summit -hopping”:  we should try to connect our local work and networking, instead of getting lost in “networks of networks” and “process of processes”, hoping from one place to another.


But what if the traditionalistic old left and the forum bureaucracy refuse the dialogue?


Then we should, if the new radicals cannot participate in the process of forum building, abandon it and build our own forums.


I still hope that there will not be a complete break up. I believe and I hope, that the forum bureaucracy will eventually see that it has to enter the dialogue with the new radicals and reply to their requests. I will use the opportunity to suggest three requests that could be forwarded to them:


1. An open letter should be sent to the organizers of the WSF and regional forums, as well as to the notorious Secretariat for Call of the Social Movement, requesting commencement of the dialogue and joint work on democratising the forum process.


2. Request for an equal participation in forum organizing, at all levels.


3. Forming of work groups of the movement that would participate in forum organizing, equally and at all levels.


I believe and hope that these efforts will not be in vain. Whether the forums will continue to be forums, or otherwise become the “International”, I do not know. But it is essential that they cease to be the markets.

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