29th September 2002
According to its charter of principles the World Social Forum 'is an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Mankind and between it and the Earth.' Held in Porto Alegre, Brazil the World Social Forum has proved to be a hugely successful, and inspirational practical example of how the anti-capitalist movement has itself been globalised. In November a similar venture will gather in Florence, Italy, in order to initiate a continental, European Social Forum. Tens of thousands of activists are expected from across Europe, developing a dialogue, exploring differences, building alliances. The three core themes of the gathering will be privatisation, war and immigration, these will be covered via hundreds of large and small meetings, with a full cultural programme too. In England a broad-based organising committee is organising transport to Florence and helping to build the profile of the forum at home.
The Forum grows out of a politics that is internationalist and environmentalist, influenced to a varying effect by socialist and communist politics, but given its dynamic by forms of organising, political action and ideals that don't sit so easily with this familiar radical baggage.
Each of us will have a different history of engagement with this 'movement of movements' Mine began on a sunny Sunday afternoon in London, some indeterminate point in my recent political past. Upper Street, Islington, buses and cars in tailback as far as my eyes can see. Reclaim the Streets are having a party, taking back public space for the people, by the people. Some motorists are more than a mite disgruntled, but most pedestrians smile, some join in, it feels good doing something direct, and active, for a change. Later the police who'd been forced to stand off earlier by the sheer size, and obvious peacefulness, of the gathering, move in to mop up those reluctant to give up the ground they'd won with their daring disorganising.
A new politics of opposition? It sort of started to feel like that at the time, as anti- road protests made links with striking Liverpool dockers, the freedom to party crowd, demos against the criminal justice bill. The latter was the first time the organised far left, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in particular, stood up and descended from planet placard to try to dish out the line, sell the paper, mop up and recruit to the bolskhevik banner. But they lacked the credibility of a more libertarian radicalism that treated participation, autonomy, and a break with old political ways of doing things as vital to the experience of organising and campaigning.
Seattle, Mayday London, Genoa and in November 2002, the European Social Forum in Florence. The SWP and their various minor camp followers feel at ease now with a movement that appears to name, and oppose, the same system that their tradition-bound socialism has always stood against, capitalism. When red meets green, with a dash of the red-black anarchomix, plus a flavour of the rainbow coalition there is a tension that at best alienates and narrows, at worst forces unwelcome division, creating the conditions of isolation and defeat.
The turn to a politics that rejected the formalism of Leninist organisation, the organisational and ideological models are broadly the same across all brands of Leftism, was grounded on a desire for a non-hierarchical politics. This draws on a variety of traditions of which card-carrying anarchists are just one expression. Libertarian, decentralised, prefigurative, it is a politics of no name and many names. In Italy there is a fluidity of relationship between these varied forms and the principle left party, Partito della Rifondazione (PRC), which grew out of the left wing of the former Italian Communist Party (PCI). The PRC recently formulated its approach to the anti-capitalist movement as a necessity for 'opening and innovation' that combines three elements.
Firstly, a willingness to be transformed by the anti-capitalist movement in all its difference, Ò we are all for the contamination of our party, its culture and practices, by those of the movement which protests against the world as it exists, which today is the 'movement of movements', which, today, is the 'peoples of Seattle'. These are the occasions which breathe life into insurgency and its break with the existing world, or at least the distance it takes critically from the capitalist revolution and its political and cultural apparatus.
Secondly, an awareness that the traditional left modes of organisation and theory have served to alienate many whom would be the left's natural supporters, 'who are at times held back by repugnant features of what they imagine the party to be like, or what they imagine Communism to be like - images which we have to acknowledge some responsibility for, not just historically but even in our daily practices. They would be held back by our hanging on to what exists; they would be held back by our party remaining closed. '
Thirdly, an understanding that solidarity with, support for the anti-capitalist movement, including its different forms of organising, complete with challenges to existing models of idealism requires deep-seated change by the Left. 'We have produced elements of innovation in the culture of our organisation but these have not driven a real process of opening up to society, the real key to reform. The party's functioning all remain imprisoned in their impoverished traditional forms, despite living in a society convulsed by capitalist modernisation in the workplace and in the field of social reproduction, in culture and in the structure of ownership, in the places of socialisation and communication and in our towns and cities. So the party's situation remains one of detachment.'
This is the language and imperatives of modernisation but of a quite different type to which we have been used to when that mantra has been recited by Blair and the Blairites. However it is also a process that has signally failed to impact upon a conservative English far Left. The authors of the book Empire, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, commenting on the July 2001 anti-G8 protests in Genoa, incite us to consider the implications of how this protest movement must force us to rethink and reimagine what it means to be Left.
The protests themselves have become global movements and one of their clearest objectives is for the democratization of globalizing processes. It should not be called an antiglobalization movement. It is pro-globalization, or rather an alternative globalization movement - one that seeks to eliminate inequalities between rich and poor and between the powerful and the powerless, and to expand the possibilities of self-determination. If we understand one thing from the multitude of voices in Genoa this weekend, it should be that a different and better future is possible. When one recognizes the tremendous power of the international and supranational forces that support our present form of globalization, one could conclude that resistance is futile. But those in the streets today are foolish enough to believe that alternatives are possible - that 'inevitability' should not be the last word in politics. A new species of political activist has been born with a spirit that is reminiscent of the paradoxical idealism of the 1960's - the realistic course of action today is to demand what is seemingly impossible, that is, something new.
Negri and Hardt are surely right, the global protest movement is itself in part a product of globalisation. A generation ago the idea of organising across the continent, forming links worldwide, turning solidarity into organisation and common agendas was mostly forlorn, internationalism was a well meaning wish-list rather than a practical mode of organisation. Today all this has changed. But this cannot be an excuse for a return to fixing these links and connections into something ready formed, solidified by ideologists of one sort or another. Naomi Klein is one who resists channelling energy and commitment all into one container, 'What we need is to formulate a political framework that can both take on corporate power and control, and empower local organising and self-determination. That has to be a framework that encourages, celebrates and fiercely protects the right to diversity, different ways of doing politics'.
This is why space, networks, social forums, affinity and more, coupled with non-violent direct action and an antipathy to centralised leadership more than anything else characterises these new ways of 'doing politics' The European Social Forum will be an achievement if it is a place where these many and varied efforts at political experimentation can mix, collaborate, learn from each other, explore their differences. Anti-capitalism is very much a work in progress, its forms and ambitions products of a dissatisfaction with what came before, not only what we were against but also what we thought we were for.
By Mark Perryman