Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

One Last Chance

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’ movement?

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 us by.

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.