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Olympian Struggle

Social Forums are the Next Big Thing. But what does their future hold?

The Guardian, 17th December 2003

The most significant political gathering in Britain next year may not be any of the party political merry-go-rounds of the Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem conferences but a sprawling meeting that is expected to attract up to 30,000 people from Europe and the world, and will seek to address political and social ideas such as grassroots development, the environment, social justice and globalisation from the point of view of the have-nots.

The European Social Forum could be tagged the Olympics of ideas. It will be held in London next November and, although it is almost a year away, a steering committee has already been formed to draw on the experiences of the first two European Social Forums, in Florence, in November 2002 and Paris, last month.

If you have not stumbled across the social forum movement yet, you undoubtedly will. Its time appears to have come. It grew out of the giant, global coalition that has come to be known as the "anti-capitalist", "anti-globalisation" or "global justice" movement.

In 2001, two years after the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle had launched the movement on to the world stage, a group of activists in Brazil decided that this huge and growing global coalition of dissidents needed somewhere they could come together and talk about the kind of future they wanted to see. They needed a space where positive alternatives to the global economy could be discussed and planned.

That space was created in January 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The first World Social Forum (WSF) was planned to coincide with the annual corporate/government beanfeast that is the annual World Economic Forum, which was taking place at the same time in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos. It was to be a riposte to everything that Davos stood for; the scene of a serious global challenge to the exist ing order. Its slogan: "Another world is possible", spoke for itself.

Nobody knew what would come of the WSF, but few of those involved in creating it could have had any idea of the influence it would have. The organisers expected about 2,000 people; 12,000 came. In 2002, a second WSF was held, again in Porto Alegre. This time, 60,000 turned up from all over the world. In 2003, it was 100,000. The next WSF, in India in January, is expected to attract higher numbers.

The WSF tapped into a worldwide mood of dissatisfaction with the modern political process. Since 2001, regional, national and local social forums have sprung up all over the world: Italy, Ethiopia, India, Argentina, Palestine, South Africa, France, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, the US, and the list grows every month.

If the birth of that faction - loosely called the global justice movement and believed to be hundreds of millions strong - was symbolised in the public eye by giant street protests, the rapid spread of social forums appears to represent its second phase: a move from protesting against the system to planning a new one.

What all of these social forums have in common is an open structure and a positive outlook. Most base themselves on the original "charter of principles" laid out at Porto Alegre in 2001. They declare themselves opposed to global capitalism, neo-liberalism and the power of multinational corporations, and are in favour of universal human rights, international law and global solidarity between peoples.

No one person or group is allowed to represent the forums as a whole, and the organising committees - so far - have resisted trying to dominate, direct or otherwise control the participants. Social forums commit themselves to diversity of participation, grassroots democracy and plurality of ideas and discussions. Political parties and military organisations have been banned from taking part.

If this sounds a bit theoretical or idealistic, the ideas that come out of the forums are often anything but. The WSF, for example, produces a vast, detailed and often baffling array of statements, agreements and documents every year. The past two gatherings at Porto Alegre have produced proposals on ideas as diverse as food sovereignty, abolition or reform of international institutions, protection of cultural and biological diversity, children's rights, abolition of patent laws, the reversal of financial liberalisation, the abolition of capitalism and the end of monocultural tree plantations.

Such diversity (the cynical would call it chaos) is what defines these events. The WSF is the first truly global political gathering that represents people from all continents, cultures and classes, urban and rural. It is also an intriguing mix of traditional ideas about rural cultures, tribal identity, place and religion, with newer, international concerns.

The environment is one of these. The WSF alone has discussed binding international environment laws, removing trading rights from multinational companies that abuse the environment, land reform, banning GMOs, new ideas for protecting biodiversity and radical proposals for a potentially workable international agreement on climate change.

So far, so good. But the rapid explosion of social forums around the world raises difficult questions. How, for example, can they speak with a united voice, on behalf of the growing global justice movement, and remain democratic? Do they want to? If not, how will they focus opposition to the current system? How will they work to attract the millions around the world who don't consider themselves "activists", but who may still like to see change and help make it happen?

Already, it seems, the forthcoming European Social Forum in London is exhibiting some of these potential faultlines. Tension has broken out between groups of activists who have been involved in previous social forums, and a more mainstream alliance of NGOs and traditional leftist groups - including the Socialist Workers' party. At stake is the way the event will be organised and the preservation of the democratic structures that are dear to the social forum movement from the dominant tendencies of parts of the old left.

Only time will tell how such questions will play themselves out. Meanwhile, social forums appear to be here to stay. Although much of the world might pay little attention to them at present, in five years, if they continue to grow at the current rate, it will be impossible to ignore them.