Another Europe? Reflections on the second ESF
By Oscar Reyes
17 December 2003

You could hardly move for anti-imperialists on the Boulevard Lenine. The Boulevard de la Commune de Paris was a commuter route for anti-capitalists. And there were even a few communists on the Avenue Karl Marx. The European Social Forum (ESF), which took place from 12-15 November in Paris, did its best to help the city's suburban 'red belt' live up to its name. With a series of large and distinctly old-style political rallies at the heart of its programme, it sometimes felt a long way from the promised 'new' politics of participatory democracy. But first impressions do not always last. And for every big rhetorical speech on the forum's major platforms, there were dozens of lively and interesting debates in smaller seminar and workshop spaces across the city - not to mention the bars and restaurants surrounding them. It is this resistance to the grand programme and sweeping gesture that continue to make the ESF a valuable space for reflection and the exchange of experiences of the struggle for 'another world'.

The ESF is a regional offshoot of the World Social Forum (WSF), which was established in Porto Alegre, Brazil as a counter-summit to the World Economic Forum in 2001. The basis of participation for both events has been a rejection of neoliberalism. In the face of a politics of 'no alternative', the ESF reminds us that the contemporary practices of global capitalism are perpetually in question. It opens to consideration a plethora of progressive civil society initiatives and encourages the planning of new ones. According to Laurent Vannini, one of the organisers of the Paris forum, 'The ESF aims to create international networks among civil society organizations, find ways for them to reinforce one another's work, and enrich the common assessment against neoliberalism.'

Yet the sheer scale of this year's ESF - 60,000 delegates attending over 600 meetings in four suburbs of Paris - suggests a rich diversity that cannot be reduced to a single assessment or common programme. This is a limitation when viewed from the perspective of party politics, but it can also be taken as a sign that the ESF has not yet closed its doors to the emergence of new political demands, or sought to privilege certain sectors as the prime agents of political change.

The Debates

It is impossible to summarise the full breadth of debates at the ESF because, with so many debates going on concurrently, there are likely to have been several very different Forum experiences. This makes any attempt to capture the Zeitgeist of the event slightly ridiculous - a point picked up on by one Indymedia reporter's tongue-in-cheek efforts to sum up 'what's hot and what's not at the ESF in 2003' ('Bolivia: the new Argentina', 'The Berbers: oppressed ethnic group of the moment', etc.). The joke seems to have been lost on a few of the more fashion conscious organisations, however, who struggled hard to articulate their core concerns to whatever topic they perceived to be popular - with predictably uninspiring results.

The Iraq war and its aftermath predictably attracted the most attention, with at least 15 seminars explicitly focused on it. Yet this breadth did not readily translate into depth, with little co-ordination (and not a little competition) between these events resulting in the duplication of the same rhetorical content. 'We heard a lot of slogans, but there wasn't any more in depth analysis on the topics discussed' according to Polly, a Cypriot anti-war student. This was more generally true of a lot of the largest plenary sessions, which were effectively just three hour long political rallies.

The case of Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim intellectual who defends a citizenship-based model of Western Islam, was another key talking point. A month before the ESF a media storm broke out in the French media over his criticism of the pro-Israeli stance of several leading Jewish intellectuals, who then branded him 'anti-Semitic'. The controversy touches on a more general crisis of the relationship between Islam and French identity. Abdul Rahman Malik, who attended the Forum on behalf of British Muslim magazine Q News, explained: 'there are many on the French left who are saying that you cannot bring your faith identity into the public sphere. That compares unfavourably with Britain where, for all its problems, we've come to accept faith as a legitimate identity formation.'

Despite all the talk of globalisation, such national and cultural differences were not uncommon. Lucy Mason, who spoke at a plenary on disability rights on behalf of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, remarked that 'It was really apparent how different the cultural, economic and medical situation is across Europe towards disability. I was speaking about inclusion and standing against the ideology that people are valued according to their ability to produce goods. It was interesting to hear what response that got, when other speakers were still concentrating on issues of healthcare and public transport.'

These are exactly the kinds of issues that the ESF was established to address. The encounter between activists from across Europe draws attention to otherwise unnoticed cultural assumptions. Yet the treatment of minority rights in general, and of disabled and queer people's struggles in particular- was disappointingly thin, with just two seminars apiece.

The diversity of the platforms also remains an issue. One of the most common complaints about the first ESF at Florence was that middle-aged straight white men dominated the seminars. This time around, the gender balance of the largest plenaries had significantly improved, thanks to the pro-active efforts of the ESF organisers, but this was not sustained through most of the smaller seminars and workshops. The issue is not one of mere tokenism. If it is to work towards 'another world', then the ESF must avoid simply reproducing the power relations that exist within our current society.

A new politics?

Diversity is not the only area where the ESF risks advancing into the past. Although it is fashionably hailed as a 'new' form of politics, It is often more accurate to think of them as the coming together of a number of older traditions - networking, popular education, cultural festivals and political rallies.

The network idea is at the core of the ESF, although the way that manifests itself is sometimes quite limited. At the most basic level, networks are established and consolidated by the task of co-organising seminars on an international basis. In the case of some trade union collaborations, this has seen regional branches and individual unions working together for the first time - helping to open channels of communication that bypass the traditionally conservative ETUC federation. The seminars also foster more immediate contacts between their participants, with several fruitful initiatives and contacts born out of informal conversations between panelists.

In many cases, though, the collaboration is less successful. The compositing of seminar proposals on Palestine in the run up to the Forum, for example, resulted in different political positions being reflected in separate seminars rather than ever having to confront each other. In fact, this was a more general problem with the ESF as a whole. With the programme listing only seminar titles and speaker lists, the obvious temptation was for delegates to attend those events which most closely reflected their own political positions. Added to the fact that several of the large plenaries seated well over 1,000 people, this meant that participation was often reduced to cheerleading rather than constructive dialogue.

The networking opportunities for ordinary delegates were also severely limited within the formal spaces of the forum. 'There are moves towards a new politics of participatory democracy, but there are always limitations to that,' says Philip Moore, a researcher based at Queen Mary, University of London. 'People worry about the plenaries being too much like academic lectures, and the discussions are fairly muted.'

Masha, a Swiss environmentalist, expressed her disappointment at the retreat from some of the movement's more innovative organisational practices. 'Networking should mean the creation of 'dis'organisations, linked together through participatory debates and decentralised actions rather than through self-appointed leaderships talking to each other.'

For the moment, at least, such spaces remain on the margins - although they do exist. I participated in a Radical Theory workshop, for example, whose 50 or so participants managed time for personal introductions, theoretical debates on complexity, hegemony and identity politics, and a resolve to start a non-specialist journal linking theoretical work more closely to political practice than is possible within an academic setting.

Smaller, more participatory and ad hoc workshops and activism planning sessions could also be found in alternative spaces such as GLAD (Globalisation des luttes et actions de désobéissance), whose participants tended to be rather younger than the average for the forum. As Philip Moore points out, 'the workshops and alternative spaces do give people a real sense of coming along and discussing issues and that builds confidence at the grassroots level.' With a bar and vegetarian food at solidarity prices (pay what you can afford), the GLAD space was also a popular hang-out and space for more informal conversations - a sociable forum whose value should not be underestimated.

Popular education

'Social forums have so far been a popular university, an enterprise in people's education,' says Bernard Cassen, President of ATTAC and one of the founders of the World and European Social Forums. With such large numbers of people attending the forum, their educative role is often overlooked.

One notable exception to this was the heavyweight 'rumble in the forum' clash between Professor Alex Callinicos, a leading SWP member, and the Italian autonomist intellectual Antonio Negri - whose co-authored Empire has found a home on several activist bookshelves. This was an event so over-subscribed that the organisers had to carry the PA equipment outside. In the end, though, the discussion turned on a series of misunderstandings that revealed the limitations of both the orthodox and autonomist Marxist perspectives: 'good entertainment, but very little real debate' according to one eyewitness.

On the whole, the more tightly focussed and practically oriented seminars proved the most educational. 'At some of the large plenaries you can almost guess what people will say before they say it,' according to Matt Sellwood, a member of the Young Greens based in Oxford. 'But the fact based things have been very useful to me. For example, I went to something on EU stance on Cancun and learnt a lot about bilateral trade deals and how, with the collapse of the WTO talks, the EU is moving in to enforce its power over individual countries. I also found out about a campaign to stop that.'

This sharing of practical knowledge is potentially one of the most fruitful aspects of the forum, since it provides delegates with the capacity to forge their own connections without the mediation of leaders and experts. In the aftermath of the forum, many of the seminar speeches and write-ups will also be available on the official ESF website, which will aid this process. This aspect still requires further work, though. If abstracts and background information on talks were made available in advance, this would help delegates to make an informed choice about which seminars to attend. It would also allow the Babels translations service sufficient time to build up accurate lexicons of the technical vocabulary that is likely to be used, which would significantly improve the quality of the translations offered.

Cultural politics

The cultural politics of the ESF was disappointing. This is particularly surprising, since creativity was once what the global justice movement did best - bringing us Reclaim the Streets, culture jamming and a whole series of 'carnivals against capital'. In Paris, the spoken word was king within the official spaces of the forum. The political impetus for creative, street-level interventions which try to prefigure and enact alternatives to the current world order was overlooked.

So the artists went underground. Literally. With the aid of a few hundred marker pens, an army of scribblers turned a significant proportion of the Metro's corporate hoardings into canvases for the free expression of ideas and political commentary. Some of the grafitti was crude and unimaginative (like many of the adverts), but there were plenty of witty parodies and clever subversions too. The overall effect was a challenge to the assumption that the underground is a marketplace.

The closing demonstration also started on the Metro - at least, as I experienced it. A German samba band had struck up a steady rhythm and even the shoppers were tapping their feet. We emerged at the Place de la Republique into a gathering of 100,000 people, marching 'for a Europe of rights in a world without war.' The carnival atmosphere carried on late into the evening, and the demo saw a colourful mix of costumes, banners, samba bands, sound systems and even tractors. It was a fitting exhibition of what the forum stood for.

What did the ESF achieve?

It is impossible to gauge the overall impact of the ESF. It offers no final declaration of intent, and its achievements cannot be integrated by grand sweeping statements. Yet the continued existence of the ESF is an expressive political gesture in itself, showing that 'another world is possible' and that hundreds of networks and organisations across Europe are working to make that a reality. 'The ESF builds up morale and gives courage to activists to continue their struggles where they work and live' says Gregory, a Greek anti-war activist. It is also a rare opportunity for thought and reflection away from the immediate context of those struggles. In practical terms, the most immediate result is to let a thousand email lists bloom. But from these new discussions arise new international campaigning networks and the consolidation of existing ones.

This is what it means for the ESF to be a space - socially horizontal, and incapable of ever being fully controlled. Yet this conception is under severe challenges from an unlikely quarter. The leading organisers of the ESF are increasingly promoting the Assembly of the Social Movements as the vehicle for just such a declaration, and risk transforming the organizational process from a 'facilitating' role to a political one. According to Chico Whittaker, one of the originators of the WSF, this is the quickest road to the destruction of the forum itself. If the ESF becomes a locus of power to be disputed by its actors, then its capacity for 'horizontal social articulation' will be lost.

With the ESF coming to London in 2004, we need to be very wary of being frogmarched down this Boulevard Lenine. The novelty of the ESF, as well as the global justice movement from which it arises, arises from its embrace of a deep-rooted pluralism: the idea that the monoculture of global capitalism can only be overcome by recognizing the specificity and autonomy of particular struggles. 'Another world is possible' as the Zapatistas say. But it is their less famous dictum 'One No, many Yeses' to which we should aspire. To achieve this, we may need to create another kind of ESF in London next year.

By Oscar Reyes