article on the ESF

author: Robin, 14 December 2002

'For a different world', was one of the main themes of the world movement against neoliberal globalisation. Thousands of European activists converged during the European Social Forum in Italy, Florence, from sixth till ninth of November. At hundreds of conferences, seminars and workshops people talked about this other world. But is this world really different?

collateral image
a poster reflecting reflection
The European Social Forum (ESF) is maybe best described as a big pop-festival. It was great pleasure-time. Missing things were only bands, mud, drugs and ESF-money; basic ingedrients of a festival in Holland.
The central ESF-location was an old fort, just outside the old city-hearth of Florence. This location hosted twenty large and small rooms, an infomarket and some places for eating. Thousands of activist - according to the organisation over fourty thousands tickets were sold - crowded like ants, searching for food, drinks, information or debate.
The latter was the hardest to find. The ESF was lacking reflective debates on strategies by different movement organisations, to give just one example. There was only clapping and cheering but no discussion. It was even difficult to find debate amongst speakers. It was mostly one speech after the other.
To give an idea: in one room, packed with people, there is a very loud clapping for a politician - a so-called 'leader of the left'. In another room, three speakers are vaguely and in an academic language talking about European politics while people are falling asleep. In a third, small room, there was discussion on the future of Brasil since it latest elections. This latter convergence was foremost the most productive, but was not to be found in the conference-paper, while the first conference was made highly visible in the paper but very unproductive.

animal farm

Around town, there were several locations. The workshops, by many people perceived as positive experiences, were sometimes given in far-away rooms. They were put in the newspaper with very few information.
The final meeting was in an old factory-hall, split into two. On the first side there was a foto-exposition on war, refugees and the G8-Genua actions. The others side of the hall was filled up to the roof with activists, clapping and cheering, and waving with flags and paperboards as one of the many speakers said something they agreed on.
It was said in advance that this particular meeting was to be a plenary on the future of the Social Forums. It was however more like a big cattle-stock where all applaud on command. A comparison with Animal Farm, one of the famous novels by George Orwell is made very easily ('Some animals are more equal than others'), because after the conference a relatively small delegation of members of organisations of the ESF came together to hold this discussion privately. Rumours say that some of these even think they own the Social Forums.


A counter-location to the fort was the HUB, a ten minutes walk away from teh Fort. It was set as a meeting-place for media-activists. A connection for the internet was made by satellite, and there was also a radio and tv-station in the air, internet and satellite.
The HUB was also the place for workshops outside the ESF. But the location was not ideal, and it turned into chaos very easily. Space for workshops, space for drawing action-material and space for computers were one and the same. In addition, many people were sleeping in the HUB; especially one of the first nights, when many arrived after nine in the evening and consequently were not given official ESF-sleeping spots.
HUB-activists did have a clear opinion on the ESF. This forum is being dominated by over-funded NGO's like ATTAC, by Italian parlementary 'postcommunist' parties and different Trotskist and Leninist political parties and coalitions like Socialist Worker and Globalise Resistance.


Organisations like ATTAC, very big in some (not all) European countries, were giving stage-directions in the ESF-corridors. In advance of the conference, a group of 21 representatives of several organisations have directed the movie; ESF-participants have played their passive role and played according the script written by the group of 21. The consumption of ideas and speeches was the single most important activity at the ESF.
"Thirty years ago all this would have been organised by the social-democratic parties", was the comment an older German anarchist made. "Even in government."
The directors have made certain topics of less importance. Issues on multiculturalism and 'integration' of minorities, for instance, is high on the agenda of several European countries; these are issues to which the 'left' seems to have no answers. Seminars on these issues however were hard to be found. "It is essential for the movement to link with migrant-organisations. But where are these victims of racism? Here we are all white", was a comment made at a seminar on Islamofobia, one of the few gatherings around these topics. These organisations have not been invited.
It was all very economic and the larger conferences were very samelike. Debates on democracy were on strengthening political rights so as to deepen participation - an old liberal idea. The concept of repres(entat)ive democracy was not for debate; and Forum-participants did not hear about worldwide forms of local autonomy.
Moreover, the analysis of the current state the world is at, are all just the same as well. All seem to agree on the idea that the system is in crisis. The coming war against Iraq is the right-wing answer to that. The idea that our system is in a constant sphere of crisis, and that therefore this analysis is quite simplistic, was not heard.

movement development

The big question is how the movement can use this crisis and which role organisations like political parties, unions and churches could play here. Many speakers see it as a problem that the movement hardly has any access to political decision making within states and alike. Obviously, in here there is a role for political parties.
But, as the political parties were warned, 'the movement' perceives them rather to be part of the problem than the solution.
During a 'debate' of sixteen intellectuals, one of the speakers was critisising this view as well. He foresaw the possibility that the system is able to adapt itself towards the movement and the crisis. It will conquer the crisis with minimal adaptations and cooptate the movement, especially if political parties perceive themselves being representatives of the movement.
"Capitalism does not only destroy, it can also rebuild itself into a new form", he said. In other words, 'The European Forum wants to modernise capitalism', as a pamflet of Greek syndicals tried to explain.
How this relation between movement and organisation could also be put forward, was explained by a radical priest. 'The Church' must not represent 'the voice' of 'the people', but must find a facilitating role within social movements. "They should not replace the voice of the people out on the streets, but consider themselves as being part of grassroots movements", he said. In addition, churches should not choose for power, but struggle against neoliberalism, campaign for radicalisation of democracy and resist all forms of repression.


In and outside the ESF there were all kinds of alternative things organised. There were some spots in the city, made into ESF-squares. On two squares in the city-center, people (consumers and tourists) were dragged by art and culture towards tents with ESF info-material like newspapers, flyers and magazines. Many people came into contact with the movement in a pleasurable way.
Also, there were initiatives being presented somewhere in the city. For example, there was a class of a secondary school that monitors Roma-gypsies from the former- Joegoslavia, some of which are living in former waste-yards and live with no electricity and water. The class monitors the way governments treat them and they campaign for the rights of the gypsies.
Still, in Italy and in the city of Florence there was fear for violence. Just like last year with the G8 summit in Genoa, all was put into effort to criminalise the movement. In the days before the demonstration, as a result of these criminalisations, all windows of almost all shops were protected by wood and other material. Street-capitalism was stopped for some days in Florence.
The demonstration was free of violence. There were between half and one million people out there on the streets. On some places, the demo was cheered after by people of Florence that came out of the houses. Out of many windows there were banners for peace. Although the demo felt like a big parade of red flags, at the end of it, there were also some sound-systems with many people together in little space.
Another alternative was the bus of the Autonoom Centrum. For this Forum, an old city-bus was transformed into a mobile office- and actioncenter. The bus had stand two days right at the entrance of the Fort. Activists could come for action-material like postcards and poster, as well as discuss the concept of ESF and actions and activities of the Autonoom Centrum.


Attention was especially drawn towards a poster of Che-Laden. That poster was reason for the Amsterdam police to enter the office of Autonoom Centrum and take the posters with them during the easycity actions. Many ESF-participants reacted surprised as well to the combination of Che Guevarra and Bin Laden. Surprisingly, many Italians still adore Che. The poster was one of the few things that worked relativising and was very popular amongst participants.
During ESF there was, however, no debate or seminar on Afghanistan and the 'war against terrorism'. The only thing that counts is Iraq, while there are at least fifty other places of war in the world. The organisation chooses easy-to-go topics by which big masses of people can be mobilised to show 'how big the movement has grown'. Today's story is more important than complex issues.
The ESF-movement share less and less the characteristics that made this movement as it is: horizontal networks, no leaders, broad participation, open communication, self-organisation and diversity of movements and opinions. There is now an elite that prescribes the main themes and there are the masses following."No discussion please."
By doing so, the leaders strengthen their position towards the government and ask the movement for trust and to keep up with traditional forms of political behaviour like voting and demonstrating in a non-violent form, until 'our demands' have been met, and a 'different' world has come about. The possibility that, by doing so, the movement will be split and becomes controled, is not of any importance obvious.
A different way of looking towards the ESF is tolerated, but finds no entrance to the important parts of the program. Tolerance is here the opposite of equity of opinions. In the words of the earlier mentioned priest, 'tolerance is a hierarchical concept which is the opposite of equality within diversity'.


"The movement has become mature", was one of the conclusions to be heard at the final manifestation. By saying so, the speakers were concerned with the non-violent character of the movement. Alternatively, one could also explain this statement, by pointing to the fact that the movement has become more hierarchical than ever, and that people who think differently have been set aside the movement effectively.
The ESF-movement is a mass-movement of some producers, and many consumers. It is well-organised to bring so many organisations and movements together at one single Forum, but it seems more and more just like the 'old' than that 'different' world. - European Social Forum - World Social Forum