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"
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
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
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
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