This year's European Social Forum could
be crunch time
New Statesman, May 2006
Two years ago I was fighting my way through a vast
conference hall in London, in a very bad mood. It was
the 2004 European Social Forum and it seemed as if everything
was going wrong. The build-up to the event had not been
promising, with internecine battles about organisation
and widespread complaints about the involvement of the
notoriously anti-democratic Socialist Workers Party.
In the event, at least some of the fears turned out
to be well-founded, and more problems emerged over the
course of the weekend.
The Forum was badly organised, over-commercialised,
expensive and confusing. There was too much ranting
anger and too little focus on solutions to the problem
that the whole event was intended to highlight: runaway
global capitalism and its effects on the world’s
people and environment. There was literally a Socialist
Worker newspaper seller on every corner. George Galloway
was allowed on stage. It was hardly an inspiration.
Will this year’s forum, in Athens , be any more
successful? It had better be. For it seems to me that
the Social Forum movement stands at a crossroads, and
with it perhaps, that feted ‘global justice movement’.
What happens now will determine whether this generation
manages to change the world or whether, like an earlier
generation of bright-eyed idealists, we instead fade
away; the stuff not of radical political change but
of nostalgic TV documentaries.
This is a big deal. It matters. Why? Because on that
‘global justice movement’, which emerged
at the end of the 1990s and seemed for a while to sweep
all before it, hung the hopes of a generation. It seemed
to many, including me, to be our best and perhaps only
chance to build a global movement of people who could
come up with genuine alternatives to neoliberalism –
and could begin to make them work. With communism dead
and socialism apparently coughing its last it looked
like our only hope.
It mattered so much to me that I wrote a book about
it. In 2001, I spent nine months travelling around the
world, visiting the epicentres of this vast and hopeful
new movement. I spent time with the Zapatistas in Mexico
, the Landless Peoples Movement in Brazil , anti-consumerism
activists in the US , anti-privatisation campaigners
in South Africa and Bolivia and tribal warriors in West
Papua . I was tear-gassed in Genoa and filled with hope
at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre . I really
did think that a new world was dawning.
I wasn’t the only one. After the Seattle protests
against the World Trade Organisation erupted in 1999,
it seemed the world was suddenly swept away by this
new ‘anti-globalisation movement’. The media
was full of it; politicians addressed it; corporations
feared it. It circled the world; there were millions
involved and it was growing. Back in those heady days,
I thought we might be on the verge of a revolution.
These days, that kind of vision seems almost embarrassing.
Our ‘global movement’ has long since slipped
from the headlines, to be replaced by the War on Terror
and John Prescott’s love life. Those London Mayday
‘riots’ have fizzled out and the early imaginative
energy of the movement is being smothered by Trots and
reactionaries. There was no revolution, and now it sometimes
seems further away than ever.
So what ever happened to the ‘global justice’
There are several answers. First, the main reason
why you don’t hear much about it any more is that
the journalists got bored, as journalists will do. For
a while, anarchists getting tear-gassed was exciting,
and made for great pictures. Then they moved on, at
which none of us should be surprised. Secondly though,
and far more importantly, they had something to move
on to: the ‘War Against Terror’.
After September 11 th, three things happened that
would have a big impact on this growing movement. Firstly,
hacks and politicians decided they had more important
things to focus on than the demands of the anti-capitalists.
Secondly the anti-capitalists themselves pulled back,
at a crucial moment, worried about the implications
of the al-Qaeda attacks. Thirdly, politicians used those
attacks as an excuse for a sweeping crackdown on civil
liberties which made it much harder to demonstrate,
dissent or get heard.
But there was a fourth development too. Even before
September 11 th, the global justice movement had been
moving away from talking about the problems to talking
about the solutions. Street protests were being replaced
by social forums: open spaces where those opposed to
the current economic machine could come together to
debate alternative futures under the slogan ‘another
world is possible.’ This development was far more
significant than any of the window-smashing that the
press loved to publish pictures of. This was a movement
attempting to get serious about what it intended to
do about the problems it had identified.
This is why what happens at Athens is so important.
That global justice movement, contrary to some media
assumptions, has not gone away. In the global south
in particular, where it began and where it was always
strongest, the blood still flows powerfully through
its veins. Vast social movements of farmers, indigenous
people and urban workers still fight the system that
exploits them, though they are rarely given the media
attention that used to be devoted to our street skirmishes.
Meanwhile, some of the energy and ideas of this movement
are filtering into mainstream politics in places like
Bolivia , where President Evo Morales came to power
on the back of the very people who formed its backbone.
The global justice movement, in other words, is still
alive. But it is approaching a crunch point. The social
forums are where its energy now lies, and they have
to use it to its fullest. This means that the mistakes
of the last ESF cannot be repeated. It’s too late,
now, for grandstanding, chest-beating or chanting. We
all know what the problems are: now we need serious
solutions, and quick. If we fail, the world will pass
Two years ago, in London , I listened to the dissident
economist Susan George say exactly this, to a hall of
people who fell thoughtfully silent as they listened
to her sobering message. ‘We have got to take
capitalism as seriously as it takes itself, because
it is relentless’, she warned. ‘I’m
70 now, and I’ve seen an earlier radical movement
grow up and then die. There’s no guarantee it
won’t happen again.’
There is no guarantee; everything, in fact depends
on us. It’s a frightening thought, but it’s
the reality. We have to get it right.