The European Social Forum: Reflections on the English Mobilisation

by Lina Jamoul
25th October 2002

When George Bush declared war on anything that threatened the status quo, in the form of military attacks on some the world's poorest countries and in the form of civil attacks on the most marginalized people in the West (immigrants, muslims, activists etc.) the stakes seemed to be heightened. A sense of both urgency and despair surrounded activist and campaign groups. It was in this context that we received the news of the second World Social Forum in Porto Allegre in February. While very few people from Britain actually attended, the ripple effects were felt by most. It was exactly what we wanted to hear about it: a mass gathering of the joyful and the diverse, declaring loud and proud that not only is another world urgently needed, but that it is in our hands to shape.

When a call went out inviting social movements, activists, groups, all and sundry to a preparatory meeting in London for the first European Social Forum, it seemed that the joyful and the diverse, the possibilities and the urgency had come to our doorstep. The initial call that was circulated didn't echo the usual rhetoric of the English hard left, it was open, inviting to groups that weren't the usual suspects and seemed to promise new forms of organising. People responded to this call, enough to completely fill out the room that had been booked. People ended up standing, or sitting on the floor or standing outside in the corridor. Perhaps more importantly, they were people from all manners of organisations and groups. We hear of how socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, trade unionists, church groups, peasant movements, peace campaigners and so on come together in horizontal ways to confront neoliberal policies. Unfortunately, to my knowledge at least, in this country we've only heard about these wonderful ways of organising, never practiced them.

The first call of the mobilisation in England seemed to want to bring together some sort of inclusive organisation. Unfortunately by the end of the second meeting of the ESF, people had drifted away disillusioned and cynical about the process for mobilising for the European Social Forum. As far as I can see, groups of the hard left were left to it, together with a small group of 'independents'.

Has the history of infighting amongst the British Left meant that sectarianism is now so ingrained in our culture of struggle? Is it the legacy of Thatcher that left us decimated? Is it the trade unions fault? Is it the SWP's fault?

Hilary Wainwright in Red Pepper accuses the English left of being parochial and conservative. While socialist parties in Europe are renouncing the idea of a 'vanguard' and embracing practices of contamination, things here seem to be lagging depressingly behind. Instead we seem to embrace a culture of suspicion, an astounding level of political immaturity, and at the end of the day forms of organisation that are just plain boring.

Paradoxically, the mobilisation for the ESF has an incredibly broad list of signatories, ranging from NGOs, trade union branches, socialist parties and prominent individuals. However, in terms of actual involvement very few of the organisations and groups are active in the mobilisation. Groups that are not traditionally associated with the hard left, ranging from Indymedia UK to Amnesty International, are organising for the European Social Forum amongst their own constituent members. It is encouraging that groups and organisations are mobilising themselves for the ESF, but is the idea not that we are connected? We are going to Europe to make connections with social movements in other parts of the world, to learn from each other, to link up our struggles. But what about this process of networking and meshing taking place where we are? Presumably, it is physically easier to link up our different struggles in Britain, or even London. Yet, here we are travelling cross-continent to try and build meaningful links and alliances, while we haven't even tried to do this at 'home'.

It's easy to blame the dominance of one group over the mobilisation. Outside of the SWP and those few very active in the process of mobilisation, there seems to be a consensus that the SWP is very much in control of the process. But it's lazy and too easy to put the blame on one group. And as one SWP organiser tells me, a movement that can be easily taken over by the SWP isn't a movement worth very much.

The organisational form that has taken shape in the mobilisation of electing a committee is not one designed to generate much involvement. Usually the act of voting for someone to make decisions on your behalf is accompanied with passing over the responsibility to those you voted for of making sure those decisions are carried out. The more decisions are made collectively, the more the responsibility for enacting the decisions can be shared. Never mind that the set up of a small group of people always being the ones to offer updates and proposals is completely boring. With the amount of work that is involved in organising for the ESF, it is imperative that we collectivise the decision-making and the responsibility-taking as much as possible, not only in principle, but in practical organisational ways.

There are no particular organisational forms that are predestined to generate involvement and activity, although various ideologists would probably argue otherwise. This is a new venture that we've embarked on and we shouldn't shy away from new ways of doing things however comfortable it is to stick to our old, safe and enclosed ways of getting people together, making decisions and acting on them. Through coming together we can start to explore and create new organisational forms and common agendas, modifying them along the way according to our needs.

There is a theoretical understanding amongst the various traditions that coming together is what we need to be doing. Coalition-building and networks are the in thing at the moment: stop the war coalition, the socialist alliance, social centres network and this mobilisation for the European Social Forum. But what sort of coalitions do we want? And how do we involve people not traditionally involved? The unprecedented alliances between muslims and peace groups, between the socialist factions and greens, have the potential to be major forces. No doubt, they have grown and been able to mobilise huge amounts of people, whether for anti-war protests or for Genoa last year. However, if they are to be built upon substantially so as they don't implode we have to go beyond getting together in a room once a month under an agreed name, agreeing to what design leaflets we want and how we're going to get to Florence.

There is also a lot of talk about involving local communities, people where they are, i.e. where they work, where the live, study etc. In an interview in feminist review Naomi Klein argues that the challenge now is to make connections, not start a movement from scratch. There are so many groups that are organising in some form or another in London alone. And they are the ones mostly picking up the pieces left after government and business failure. The work involved in trying to engage with these organisations is perhaps not so glamorous as a street party or a huge demonstration, but it is this kind of work that will give roots to our global movement (This idea of laying down roots was given to me in an interview with an anonymous 'direct actionist'.). And they will be the kind of roots that aren't easily destroyed by police brutality.

We can all go to Florence and it will be fantastic, and we'll learn a lot and be inspired and meet wonderful people doing wonderful things and we'll feel like we can change the world and that we're making history. And then we'll come back to London - and then what? Will we begin to build again for the next gathering or protest in another part of the world? Will we maybe invite some European speakers to meetings we organise? Or will we come back and try to create the conditions for networking and connections, will we at last be inspired to move beyond our own parochialism?

Doreen Massey in a recent seminar, part of the Signs of the Times globalisation series, made an incredibly important and powerful point: the place where we are, London, holds immense power. Economically, we are at the heart of global financial networks; politically, decisions are made in Westminster that have a huge influence over the European agenda (e.g. we spearheaded the fortress Europe asylum policy); and of-course militarily in Britain's close relationship to the US. And so us Londoners have a responsibility to the rest of the world, never mind to ourselves, to get our act together. It would be great if we can go to Florence and learn some lessons, it would be even better if we could come back and practice those lessons.

By Lina Jamoul