What happened in Porto Alegre?

In the period leading up to the World Social Forum, just completed in Porto Alegre Brazil, ZNet sent various messages about a set of panels we were co-hosting under the broad label Life After Capitalism, or LAC (www.zmag.org/lac.htm). I have had many questions about the experience, even just in the few hours I have been back from Porto Alegre, and even from folks who were involved.

I fear that the discussion of what occurred, as in any confused situation like this, may lead to diverse rumors which could distract attention from more substantial and important matters at hand — whether the broader issues pertaining to the WSF, or, of course, those pertaining to the world beyond.

So I want to provide what I hope is a clear rendition of the key facts of the LAC experience and some brief comment as to their possible meaning, not because I think these details nor even their interpretation should be a focus of attention, but rather to remove them from attention by getting them named and clarified and thereby settled.

There will no doubt also be articles about the events and the WSF and its future appearing on ZNet — along with our continuing coverage of the war build-up and growing opposition to it, and other focuses, of course.

Also on ZNet there will appear, as time passes, more and more of the presentations that occurred within LAC. Indeed, quite a few are already in place at http://www.zmag.org/lacsite.htm I think these will provide some very valuable vision and strategy content and that more will be forthcoming shortly.

By way of additional clarification, it is also important to remember that LAC is not an organization, or a movement, or something collective at all. It was a group of panels at the WSF that is now becoming a web site presenting the content from those panels and perhaps also some follow-up material.


As of a day before we left for LAC on January 21, we thought we had in place and were ready to proceed with 35 events including 88 speakers (24 from the U.S.), promoted via 40,000 brochures (25,000 in Portuguese and the rest in English) and about 1,000 posters (half Portuguese and half English) plus a prominent place in the printed WSF schedule. We also planned two dinners for LAC presenters, to start and to end the events.

We thought as well that we had rooms assigned and we expected them all to be in what is called the PUC, all near one another and of appropriate sizes (the agreements regarding each panel ranged from hundreds to thousands). We expected, as well, simultaneous translation for most of LAC, a meeting space in PUC for gathering together to socialize between sessions, and a final meeting room for wrap up and for exploring future possibilities — as well as, of course, housing for those who needed it, means of communications, help for some people who needed it with travel, and so on.

The line-up of speakers, some of whom ZNet invited and many of which were in turn invited by others in turn enlisted to help, was designed to incorporate a wide range of anti-capitalist views. We included some very well known people along with many lesser known but highly influential grassroots activists from a range of political perspectives and backgrounds. We felt the panels would attract large audiences and provide a kind of escalating presence for the anti-capitalist elements of the forum.

The goal was to create a venue — one sprawling place — for anti-capitalists to congregate, share, and debate with one another and their audiences. The most optimistic hope was not only to have productive exchanges and to facilitate people meeting and making contacts, but also to explore possibilities for the WSF and for an international movement of movements.

One tension inside the WSF is over it being a forum for discussion, meeting, and educating — on the one hand — and it becoming more like an International Organization of movements, on the other hand.

My own view is that the forum process makes excellent sense as a venue promoting exchange and solidarity as well as pushing the idea of vision, but that the participants are broader in scope of political alignments than could be incorporated in any effective international movement of movements. LAC would ideally have explored that contention, and perhaps been a spur to the anti-capitalist portions of the WSF getting together alongside the on-going forum process, to consider collectively creating something new.

Well, those hopes aside, what happened during the days in Porto Alegre was vastly less, regrettably.

Among other problems, in a message received 24 hours before we left for Brazil, most of LAC's rooms were rescinded on grounds that there was a severe shortage of space for events. After considerable struggle, replacement rooms were won back, but in a pattern that didn't match our months-old schedule. Thus, our agenda had to be changed in the last few hours before leaving, and re-translated, and then printed in the brochures. All that happened, and things might well have been fine, but then the rooms were in many cases altered a second and sometimes even a third time — causing our brochures to point people in wrong directions.

Worse still, LAC events weren't in the make-shift schedule printed for the first day — when the main schedule wasn't yet complete. Then we were told we would be in the next more complete rendition, but we weren't. And that we would be in the next, and again we weren't. The final one we knew we were in on the computer console, but it was never printed.

Our re-assigned rooms were in many cases so far off the beaten track that WSF guides assigned to help attendees looking for events didn't even know where our rooms were and often denied that they existed at all.

The part of our events under our control...our dinners, the actual panels themselves, the final meeting, housing and transport for our folks, etc., came off nicely, but there is no denying that LAC events which should have involved hundreds and in quite a few cases thousands of participants, rarely had even a hundred.

The bottom line is that this year's WSF was marred by chaotic confusion in many respects, not just regarding LAC — at least beyond the core events that were sanctioned and protected by the WSF itself. Many no doubt accurate reports will appear about how excellent those core events and the two large marches were. Those activities were in fact excellent and, since they were the main experience for many people, luckily many people's main experience of this year's WSF was largely without negative incidents. The WSF-sanctioned events went off fine, none of them suffered due to chaos effects. But for the rest of what went on during the WSF, including LAC, everyone has horror stories — and a good guess is that about 400 events were cancelled outright.

Why did all this happen?

The WSF last year was largely aided by the PT government of Rio Grande de Sul. That government lost the recent election. This cut into the available budget, staff, and city support. Additionally, many key participants from last year went off to Brasilia to work in Lula's new administration. So the events lost resources, lost cadre, and lost financing, but had about two and a half times as many people compared to last year. Despite less resources and more attendees, the preparation process didn't change in certain crucial respects — such as leaving creating the schedule until the last week. Last year that approach worked out okay. This year it was less successful.

Was there any more to our travail than chaos effects?

Well, yes, at a minimum there was a selection effect too. The WSF authorities ordain certain events as being at the core of the WSF. When a price had to be paid due to errors of overbooking rooms and other last minute crises or miscalculations, the WSF-sanctioned events were shielded, and other events — whose sponsors had nothing whatever to do with the errors — did the paying. This is actually one of the things I found most upsetting. The people who made the mistakes did not even think to share the cost that those mistakes imposed. They shuffled them off, instead, on others.

Does chaos plus selection explain everything?

There is no way to know this for sure, and I doubt anything can be gained by trying to explore the issue in the LAC case, or in the case of other organizations whose projects suffered. It is hard to see how moving LAC panels around, during the events was a chaos effect. It seemed to take effort. It added tasks and complexity. So I suspect it was rather accommodating last minute requests of others at our expense. Should we have fought against that? Maybe...but would that really help anything in the long run?

Moving us out of rooms with translators who were ready to work, that no one else wound up using, and into rooms without translators-- is also hard to explain. It doesn't seem chaotic. But that is part of the oddness of chaos...it transcends close analysis.

Another hard to explain dynamic is some people in our group not participating or communicating at all, not even to note that they would be absent. If we take that to be a combination of chaotic and busy lives, plus a selection effect — rather than anything overtly malicious toward LAC — then why shouldn't the same logic explain the whole phenomenon of the WSF disrupting not only LAC but many other projects in marginalizing ways?

The big problems of the WSF are the unaccountability and even invisibility of its decision makers, and its having reached a scale that in many respects precludes having productive meetings. These are important matters to discuss...and one approach to their solution would be emphasizing local and regional forums as the more important venues of public mutual exchange and learning, and having the World Social Forum be only for representatives chosen from regional forums and accountable to them.

But these are matters for another essay.

Here...we have Arundhati Roy's Forum speech. Roy was at the events with LAC.


Confronting Empire

Arundhati Roy

I've been asked to speak about "How to confront Empire?" It's a huge question, and I have no easy answers.

When we speak of confronting "Empire," we need to identify what "Empire" means. Does it mean the U.S. Government (and its European satellites), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and multinational corporations? Or is it something more than that?

In many countries, Empire has sprouted other subsidiary heads, some dangerous byproducts - nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism and, of course terrorism. All these march arm in arm with the project of corporate globalization.

Let me illustrate what I mean. India - the world's biggest democracy - is currently at the forefront of the corporate globalization project. Its "market" of one billion people is being prized open by the WTO. Corporatization and Privatization are being welcomed by the Government and the Indian elite.

It is not a coincidence that the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the Disinvestment Minister - the men who signed the deal with Enron in India, the men who are selling the country's infrastructure to corporate multinationals, the men who want to privatize water, electricity, oil, coal, steel, health, education and telecommunication - are all members or admirers of the RSS. The RSS is a right wing, ultra-nationalist Hindu guild which has openly admired Hitler and his methods.

The dismantling of democracy is proceeding with the speed and efficiency of a Structural Adjustment Program. While the project of corporate globalization rips through people's lives in India, massive privatization, and labor "reforms" are pushing people off their land and out of their jobs. Hundreds of impoverished farmers are committing suicide by consuming pesticide. Reports of starvation deaths are coming in from all over the country.

While the elite journeys to its imaginary destination somewhere near the top of the world, the dispossessed are spiraling downwards into crime and chaos. This climate of frustration and national disillusionment is the perfect breeding ground, history tells us, for fascism.

The two arms of the Indian Government have evolved the perfect pincer action. While one arm is busy selling India off in chunks, the other, to divert attention, is orchestrating a howling, baying chorus of Hindu nationalism and religious fascism. It is conducting nuclear tests, rewriting history books, burning churches, and demolishing mosques. Censorship, surveillance, the suspension of civil liberties and human rights, the definition of who is an Indian citizen and who is not, particularly with regard to religious minorities, is becoming common practice now.

Last March, in the state of Gujarat, two thousand Muslims were butchered in a State-sponsored pogrom. Muslim women were specially targeted. They were stripped, and gang-raped, before being burned alive. Arsonists burned and looted shops, homes, textiles mills, and mosques.

More than a hundred and fifty thousand Muslims have been driven from their homes. The economic base of the Muslim community has been devastated.

While Gujarat burned, the Indian Prime Minister was on MTV promoting his new poems. In January this year, the Government that orchestrated the killing was voted back into office with a comfortable majority. Nobody has been punished for the genocide. Narendra Modi, architect of the pogrom, proud member of the RSS, has embarked on his second term as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. If he were Saddam Hussein, of course each atrocity would have been on CNN. But since he's not - and since the Indian "market" is open to global investors - the massacre is not even an embarrassing inconvenience.

There are more than one hundred million Muslims in India. A time bomb is ticking in our ancient land.

All this to say that it is a myth that the free market breaks down national barriers. The free market does not threaten national sovereignty, it undermines democracy.

As the disparity between the rich and the poor grows, the fight to corner resources is intensifying. To push through their "sweetheart deals," to corporatize the crops we grow, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the dreams we dream, corporate globalization needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, authoritarian governments in poorer countries to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies.

Corporate Globalization - or shall we call it by its name? - Imperialism - needs a press that pretends to be free. It needs courts that pretend to dispense justice.

Meanwhile, the countries of the North harden their borders and stockpile weapons of mass destruction. After all they have to make sure that it's only money, goods, patents and services that are globalized. Not the free movement of people. Not a respect for human rights. Not international treaties on racial discrimination or chemical and nuclear weapons or greenhouse gas emissions or climate change, or - god forbid - justice.

So this - all this - is "empire." This loyal confederation, this obscene accumulation of power, this greatly increased distance between those who make the decisions and those who have to suffer them.

Our fight, our goal, our vision of Another World must be to eliminate that distance.

So how do we resist "Empire"?

The good news is that we're not doing too badly. There have been major victories. Here in Latin America you have had so many - in Bolivia, you have Cochabamba. In Peru, there was the uprising in Arequipa, In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is holding on, despite the U.S. government's best efforts.

And the world's gaze is on the people of Argentina, who are trying to refashion a country from the ashes of the havoc wrought by the IMF.

In India the movement against corporate globalization is gathering momentum and is poised to become the only real political force to counter religious fascism.

As for corporate globalization's glittering ambassadors - Enron, Bechtel, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson - where were they last year, and where are they now?

And of course here in Brazil we must ask ...who was the president last year, and who is it now?

Still ... many of us have dark moments of hopelessness and despair. We know that under the spreading canopy of the War Against Terrorism, the men in suits are hard at work.

While bombs rain down on us, and cruise missiles skid across the skies, we know that contracts are being signed, patents are being registered, oil pipelines are being laid, natural resources are being plundered, water is being privatized, and George Bush is planning to go to war against Iraq.

If we look at this conflict as a straightforward eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation between "Empire" and those of us who are resisting it, it might seem that we are losing.

But there is another way of looking at it. We, all of us gathered here, have, each in our own way, laid siege to "Empire."

We may not have stopped it in its tracks - yet - but we have stripped it down. We have made it drop its mask. We have forced it into the open. It now stands before us on the world's stage in all it's brutish, iniquitous nakedness.

Empire may well go to war, but it's out in the open now - too ugly to behold its own reflection. Too ugly even to rally its own people. It won't be long before the majority of American people become our allies.

Only a few days ago in Washington, a quarter of a million people marched against the war on Iraq. Each month, the protest is gathering momentum.

Before September 11th 2001 America had a secret history. Secret especially from its own people. But now America's secrets are history, and its history is public knowledge. It's street talk.

Today, we know that every argument that is being used to escalate the war against Iraq is a lie. The most ludicrous of them being the U.S. Government's deep commitment to bring democracy to Iraq.

Killing people to save them from dictatorship or ideological corruption is, of course, an old U.S. government sport. Here in Latin America, you know that better than most.

Nobody doubts that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless dictator, a murderer (whose worst excesses were supported by the governments of the United States and Great Britain). There's no doubt that Iraqis would be better off without him.

But, then, the whole world would be better off without a certain Mr. Bush. In fact, he is far more dangerous than Saddam Hussein.

So, should we bomb Bush out of the White House?

It's more than clear that Bush is determined to go to war against Iraq, regardless of the facts - and regardless of international public opinion.

In its recruitment drive for allies, The United States is prepared to invent facts.

The charade with weapons inspectors is the U.S. government's offensive, insulting concession to some twisted form of international etiquette. It's like leaving the "doggie door" open for last minute "allies" or maybe the United Nations to crawl through.

But for all intents and purposes, the New War against Iraq has begun.

What can we do?

We can hone our memory, we can learn from our history. We can continue to build public opinion until it becomes a deafening roar.

We can turn the war on Iraq into a fishbowl of the U.S. government's excesses.

We can expose George Bush and Tony Blair - and their allies - for the cowardly baby killers, water poisoners, and pusillanimous long-distance bombers that they are.

We can re-invent civil disobedience in a million different ways. In other words, we can come up with a million ways of becoming a collective pain in the ass.

When George Bush says "you're either with us, or you are with the terrorists" we can say "No thank you." We can let him know that the people of the world do not need to choose between a Malevolent Mickey Mouse and the Mad Mullahs.

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness - and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe.

The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling - their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

-Arundhati Roy

Porto Alegre, Brazil

January 27, 2003

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