Life After Social Forums

New radicalism and the questions of attitude towards social forums

Andrej Grubacic

Usually, when talking about the 'forum', historians consider about three important meanings.

The Third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre wasn't anything like an "agora", it was a little more like a market, but I am afraid there presently exists the danger of its being transformed into a body of elected representatives - that have been elected by no one.

Noam Chomsky has said that creatingan "international", based on anti-authoritarian principles, deprived of the historical burden of old antagonisms, would be a welcome development for the alternative-globalisation movement. Does, however, the experience of the third WSF allow us such optimism? Or does it, still, face us with the possibility of establishing a specific "International of the Irresponsible"?

It is my opinion that, when talking about the so-called anti-globalisation movement, it is possible to identify two parallel processes.

One, which I call the new radicalism, began with the Zapatista insurrection, and brought about the creation of the Peoples' Global Action (PGA) network.

The second one, which I call traditional, has developed separately, culminating in the creation of the WSF and regional forums.

The history of these tendencies, which have largely developed simultaneously, is relatively well known. Demonstrations, the Global Days of Action, and Forums - as well as Indymedia (IMC) project that has inaugurated a quite specific mode of activist communication - have become the most important significant manifestations of the movement itself. The new radicalism implies an attempt to distance oneself from the practices of the old left; to move away from the area of conventional politics and to devise a new political space, "politics from below";pre-figurative politics (i.e. the modes of organization that consciously resemble the world you want to crate); direct action and social disobedience; anti-capitalism and anti-statism.

The traditional block includes liberal-reformists, and representatives of NGOs, as well as members of the old left anti-capitalist parties.

Although certain changes can be felt in the rhetoric (especially when the notorious "civil society" is at issue), the practice has remained the same: trying to reform and humanize capitalism, lobbying around and through political parties, recruiting new party members to fight for a new transformation that will not be another "revolution betrayed". The traditional paradigm implies loyalty towards the old practices of political action, as opposed to the new radicalism's intentional breaking of the old paradigms.

The traditionalists have understood (and they are to be congratulated for this), that there is something really new in the new movement. The evidence is the very idea of organizing "Forums" - the institution that is "new" although organized in the "old" way - as well as the striving of political parties to transform themselves into networks such as ATTAC.

As I have already pointed out, these two orientations have formed their identities largely independently of one another. I do not, however, consider that this difference is necessarily a handicap. On the contrary, I believe that these differences are good for the movement. They feed it with different energies. It is possible to learn a great deal from the reformists. Very often one can learn much more than from anti-authoritarian sectarians who take pleasure in marginalizing themselves and in a certain "anti-authoritarian narcissism".

Problems, however, occur when "Globalise Resistance" becomes "Monopolize Resistance"; or when the balance between the two orientations becomes disturbed; or when the space of dialogue narrows. The last WSF provided convincing evidence of such a disequilibrium, as did the recently held European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence. Bureaucratisation of the movement and the establishing of a forum bureaucracy is more and more obvious.

The danger of turning "globalisation from below" into "globalisation from the middle" is becoming more clearly evident. The phenomenon of "NGO-isation of the movement" is increasingly present, connected to BINGO politics (Big International Non-Governmental Organizations).

Do we really want to create a movement that will resemble a cocktail party in the lounge of the Plaza São Rafael Hotel in Porto Alegre? Do we want a movement dominated by middle-aged bureaucrats wearing Palestinian scarves, armed with the memories of 1968 (or 1917)? Do we want social forums withinvisible organizers?

I do not happen to agree with Naomi Klein's point of view that the Forum has been hijacked, because it actually has never been "ours"; or it might have been hijacked, but in a slightly different manner. It is not that the Forum has been hijacked, but that the anti-authoritarian spirit that has inspired it has been abused. The very slogan "another world is possible" comes from the Zapatistas.

The cake that landed on the face of the President of the Brazilian PT, during the WSF, is a metaphor (in the context of South America), for the opposition of two quite different orientations and two quite different feelings about politics: the one which implies yet another attempt at the change in the area of conventional politics; and the one which reveals the striving for something new, for something that can be found on the other side of voting and lobbying. This means the collective abandonment of party politics and a collective struggle for "politics without power". Is it possible and is it necessary, to hold these two viewsin balance?

An answer to these questions - questions regarding the strategic attitude of the new radicals towards the world, as well as to regional social forums, has been offered by Linden Ferer and Michael Albert in a dialogue that can be found on the pages of the Peoples Global Action website dedicated to the WSF.Both authors think within the "abandon or contaminate" model (the title used as the headline of an excellent article by Ferer), and decide, despite some cautious pessimism, in favour of "contamination". Now, after the WSF 3, it seems to me that it is time to replace this strategic option - abandon or contaminate - by a somewhat different one: participate or abandon.

I believe that time has come to develop some different models of strategic communication in relation to the whole Forum process. Such attempts, so far, have included Hub in Florence, then Intergalactica and the 'Life After Capitalism' project in Porto Alegre.

Hub and Intergalactica have promoted interesting models in the area organizing itself - a laboratory and experiment on social disobedience, organized in the spirit of complete horizontality and a breach with classical "conference" models of political debate. There were certain criticisms of Hub, during ESF in Florence, relating to the lack of organisation, the neglect of theory and of thinking about vision. The new radical activism should not become a permanent global celebration.

Life After Capitalism was envisaged as a 'forum within the forum' that would focus on strategy and political and economic vision and on many dimensions of daily life. The programme included the very successful Peoples Global Action conference. The criticism directed to LAC related to insisting on the classical form of discussion. The new radical activism should not become apermanent conference.

These experiments, with all their virtues and shortcomings, were extremely interesting and deserve attention. But all of them were successfully marginalized. LAC was moved into a suburban country club, while Intergalactica was dis-located to a tent that would have been difficult for even Sherlock Holmes to find. Why? My answer probably differs slightly from the angry tone of most of those who have dealt with this problem. Namely, I do not believe that this was an organized political manoeuvre. I think it was bureaucratic myopia that was at issue there, i.e. the bureaucratic dis-interestedness of the Forum organizers who did not take us seriously enough. Perhaps the time has come to prove them wrong.

Does this mean that the Forum should be abandoned? No. Actually, not yet. The idea of Forums is a good one. If there is a chance, and I believe there is, to organize these in another way:

"For the anti-capitalist movement to achieve real change, it will have to do so through a confrontational approach to liberal democracy.This could involve the setting up of social forums throughout Europe, at local levels, creating direct links with local communities in struggle.These, organized in a federal structure - but respecting local autonomy - would undermine and ultimately make obsolete the earth-destroying, authoritarian and oppressive governmental structures that currently control the planet". (L. Farrer)

The lack of democratic approach and of "transparency" (a favoured term amongst "civil society" theoreticians) permeates the institution of the Forum, as it is today, at all levels. An appropriate question can be here posed, to which even members of the so-called International Council have no answer:

Who actually organizes these Forums? Reading the list of organizations participating in the IC is like going through a forest of names of anonymous non-governmental organizations. The IC, it appears, is a kind of honorary body that only approves already-made decisions, (possibly agreed upon along some Paris-São Paolo axis), that are proposed by the Organizing Committee.

What is the OC? I have no idea. Probably the same people who have established the Orwellian Secretariat for the 'Call of Social Movements' which is to be found somewhere in Sao Paolo. The same is true for the ESF. I was the witness to the preparatory meetings of the ESF. Here the bureaucratic and old left were able, due to the experience they have in such political struggle, to exclude, without difficulty, the grassroots initiatives. Thus we land in an unusual paradox: those who have made this movement interesting and distinctive and who, in a way, are those most responsible for its success, are not adequately represented in its "institutions", in the Forums.

It is therefore necessary to replace the formula "abandon or contaminate" by the formula "participate or abandon".

"Contamination" is not an honest strategy, the very expression is an 'entrist' one: furthermore, it is not even productive. Isolated in a suburban building of the Forum, we are doomed to marginalization and the dissipation of energy. It is necessary to enter into dialogue with other participants in the movement, to organize ourselves so as to be able to reclaim the movement. To say that "another forum is possible". In any case, it is necessary for us to turn to the building of our own network, PGA, the purposes of which would include reflection on the vision and strategy options, on details of the different world we wish to create. Why dissipate the energy of the new radicalism on endless projects? This is the question that imposes itself.

Why don't we formulate a unique, coherent anti-authoritarian politics within the Peoples Global Action network? It would be a politics based on the bottom-up organizing, open and transparent methods, broad participation, anti-authoritarianism, multi-tactical approaches, innovation and spontaneity. We have to abandon sectarianism and "marginalisation feels good" syndrome. But we also need to avoid the trap of accepting the traditional bureaucratic rules of the game and the struggle for power (which we are not accustomed to), bearing always in mind that it is not the goal of anti-authoritarianism to be small and isolated. Our goal should bemovement building, not "summit-hopping":we should try to connect our local work and networking, instead of getting lost in "networks of networks" and "the process of processes", skipping from one place to another.

But what if the traditional old left and the Forum bureaucracy refuse such a dialogue?

Then we should, if the new radicals cannot participate in the process of Forum building, abandon it and build our own forums.

I still hope that there will not be such a crisis. I believe and I hope that the Forum bureaucracy will eventually see that it has to enter the dialogue with the new radicals and reply to their requests. I will take this opportunity to suggest three requests that could be forwarded to them:

  1. An open letter should be sent to the organizers of the WSF and Regional Forums, as well as to the notorious Secretariat of the Call of Social Movements, proposing a dialogue and joint work on democratising the Forum process.
  2. A request for an equal participation in Forum organizing, at all levels.
  3. The forming of working-groups of the movement that would participate in Forum organizing, equally and at all levels.

I believe and hope that these efforts will not be in vain. Whether the Forums will continue to be forums, or otherwise become the "International", I do not know. But it is essential that they cease to be the markets.

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