Firenze 10 + 10 and the changing character of power

30 November 2012

A series of interviews with young activists shows signs of a movement that connects local everyday struggles to a global movement, and one that resists by creating alternatives in the present.

Firenze 10+10, was an imaginative, and self-consciously modest gathering of European activists over four day in November 2012 to agree actions to challenge the EU Goliath of financial and political power. As we reflect on this experience to help us carry out the decisions, we all bring different perspectives to our shared thinking.

As one of the 60,000 who ten years ago crowded into the 16th Century fortress turned conference centre, Fortezza Basso, for the first European Social Forum and marched with nearly a million down Firenze's Viale Matteotti, I found myself trying to figure out how to explain what had changed. Here I'm not thinking so much of the contrasting atmospheres  – the exuberant, exciting  self-celebratory and often rhetorical feel of  2002 compared with the low key, thoughtful, calm, sober feel of last month's event  – but more the underlying changes that set the context today.

TNI carried out a series of interviews in Firenze with the most recent generation of radical activists. They provide a useful resource for reflection not just on this interesting and important event but more generally on how we build transformative power in Europe – recognising as Vica, from London Occupy says, that we need to act and think at many levels, local and global as well as European.

They prompted me to reflect on the changing nature of ruling power and the sources of its vulnerabilities on the one hand, and the implications of this for movement power and how we build it, on the other .

This question of power is an implicit theme in these interviews. The young people, for whom Firenze 2002 is history rather than memory, are both searching for the accurate ways of naming and locating the kind of power we are up against and also innovating the forms of organisation of communication – like live-streaming and self-organisation for example in neighbourhood assemblies -  through which we can create effective counter power against austerity.

Global networking to confront corporate globalisation

The early political generation who dominated the first ESF were the generation who first confronted corporate globalisation, exposing the secret workings of the World Trade Organisation, breaking into its literally and metaphorically walled enclaves and politicising the question of the global market that had been presented as forces of nature.

In Seattle, Genoa, Prague and many other cities this generation effectively tracked down and called to account  the governments and corporations which had effectively sought to escape democratic pressures of their populations.  A new political generation was joining with, but also challenging, those from the 70's who had become isolated and also a little stuck in their ways. This new left was moving in global, predominantly horizontal, internet facilitated ways of organising and sharing knowledge that combined sometimes uneasily, sometimes  creatively with more traditional trade union and party political forms.

Though the attack on New York's 'twin towers' gave the political elite a brief opportunity to derail the movement with a new Islamaphobic kind of cold war, the US-led attack on Iraq that swiftly followed  gave a political focus for an extraordinary convergence of the movement against the war and the movement for an alternative anti-capitalist globalisation.

The anti war movement produced a civic power impressive enough to be described in the New York Times as a 'second superpower', it was not powerful enough to stop the war. However it significantly wounded the political elites who perpetrated the war and at the same time shaped the critical consciousness of a new generation. It provided  two important lessons: first that global coordinated mobilisation is necessary to confront global problems; and second the limits of mere protest. It set off a renewed search for more direct kinds of democracy.

Search for new forms of direct democracy

Years later the new movements would advocate street protests as essential, however they would go further: the public space is not only a place in which to protest, it is also a space for gathering with others sharing the will to act and bring about changes here and now that challenge in their practice the asocial individualism proclaimed from Thatcher onwards. Meeting in the streets and especially  camping in the squares has proved to be a first stage of self-organisation, laying new foundations for effective resistance and alternatives to capitalism. This too is one of the themes of these interviews. 

Meanwhile, and inevitably behind closed doors, the same wartime secrecy was being applied to decisions around monetary and economic policy at a European level, even before the financial crisis. The alter-globalisation movement had succeeded in politicising questions of corporate power, free trade and the selling off of public assets; but the leading EU government elites and Eurocrats were already one step ahead, taking monetary policies and more recently national budgets out of the hands of national parliaments.

Few national political elites seriously resisted.

Popular resistance however to the austerity measures imposed through these opaque mechanisms  has been considerable, especially in Spain, Portugal and Greece and more sporadically in Italy. However the resistance from the traditional organisations of the left (for example the trade unions) was, with some important exceptions – several of whom were actively involved in Firenze 10+10  -were mainly national and local. Yet the austerity measures are being imposed through the EU. The coordinated strikes across southern Europe on 14 November indicates that the practical significance of this is now recognised.

Uniting resistance across Europe

The fragmentation of protests led some  involved in the 2002 ESF to reflect on whether the 10th anniversary could be put to strategic use. ' We noticed that many of the Europe wide networks who had been part of the ESF were inviting each other to their meetings to achieve ad hoc some stronger Europe wide organisation' explains Raffaella Bollini, the secretary of Arci, a historically  important Italian cultural association of the left with over a million members, that has been a consistent facilitator of the ESF and the WSF. 'For example,' she continued, 'There were around 20 different appeals for joint action, ' so after a long tour round Europe we decided Firenze 10 + 10 could be an opportunity for a convergence that could at least establish preconditions for joint action'.

Raffaella and her fellow organisers had a clear headed awareness of European movements' weaknesses and a modesty about what could be done in one meeting. But at the same time they shared an acute sense of the seriousness of the threat, 'the worst attack since the rise of fascism', said Raffaella. This led to an agreement amongst participating organizations that one purpose of of Firenze 10+10would be to  identify priority actions, in particular against the austerity measures,  which everyone could work towards. As Tommaso Fattori put it, 'if we don't fight together the austerity measures, then rights, commons, public services won't exist.

A distinctive innovation of Firenze 10+10 learning lessons from the limitations of the ESF of ten years ago was to make a concerted push towards convergences around agreed themes -  rather than  being a political showground where everyone had their own events. 'Fragmentation was a weakness of the ESF ' continues Tommaso, 'It meant people talked just to the circles close to them rather than  reaching out'.

Aware of the time necessary to reach a consensus a preparatory meeting was held in Milan on 14-16 September. This identified five convergences: austerity, debt, finance and economic governance; natural and social commons; social and labour rights; democracy; and global justice and peace. Gender issues and migrant rights were considered transversal to all convergences. The meeting also agreed to identify a limited number of common actions for mobilisation .

Two dates were agreed” a common day of action on the occasion of the EU Spring Summit, which will take place in Brussels by middle March 2013. This call has special relevance since the EU institutions are placed at the centre of a pan-European  mobilisation. Secondly Firenze 10+10 launched the Alter Summit to be held in Greece in June. It already has the support of more than 80 organizations and is gathering momentum.

Furthermore the final declaration stressed the historical relevance of the first transnational European strike mentioned above, defining it as a first step towards a pan-European social response to the crisis.

Different political cultures

Firenze 10 +10  was an important beginning of joint work with groupings, generations and different kinds of organisation coming together for the first time. Sometimes the relation was tense because different approaches to organisation clashed.

On the one hand the fixing and arranging behind the scenes which trade unions and some NGOs are used to –  which has its uses and can be efficient in limited circumstances - and on the other hand, the open assembly approach proclaimed by the new movements. There was enough trust and belief in the importance of arriving at some common priorities to find a common path and learn from each other at the same time. This open, co-operative approach is reflected in these interviews.

It is reflected in the growing movement around different kinds of debt, a major focal point of discussion also illustrates the how different kinds of power are being developed in practice.  Take debt for instance which is central to the new kinds of power that we are up against: the power of both privatised money creation, the power of the banks and and the power of the European financial institutions.

On the one hand around the public debt all kinds of mass activities are under way from calls for participatory debt audits of national and municipal governments to shareholder action against the former IMF head and Spanish Finance Minister for his role as chair of the collapsed Bankia group. And now in Spain Agora 99 – the first international gathering explicitly based on the Indignados and Occupy movements- is promoting direct action to regain our rights to personal debt, student debt, banking debt and sovereign debt . Nick Dearden from Jubilee Debt campaign gives a full report. l This is a movement which essentially about repoliticising finance against the attempt by banks and governments alike to present finance as a matter of placating the markets policies devised by technocrats. How this movement  will develop is unclear but it is mostly the new generation interviewed here which are on the frontline.

It is noticeable in the final interview featured here that this new generation of activists take further an innovations of the Genoa /Firenze 2002 generation; connecting struggles nationally and locally  around the struggles of everyday life. The impact of austerity measures reinforces the importance of this. It is locally where struggles are erupting but they are being imposed by policies from European and globally. The problem is how to build a movement that interconnects these levels. Several organisational methods are stress: these include a self-conscious  attention to processes and to means of communication that enable everyone to share information, develop self confidence and participate at whatever level and with whatever degree of of intensity they find appropriate.  Another important condition for developing power from below is the  building of a diffuse but self- conscious leadership, this requires the rotating and sharing of leadership roles, for example. It is an important lesson from the success of the movement in Italy to defend water as a commons. So too is the idea shared by several networks in Firenze 10+ 10 of working simultaneously at many levels, co-ordinated but without a single centre. Maybe it's no accident that many of the organisers of Firenze 10+10 have been deeply involved in the so far successful movement to defend and develop water as a commons. A movement which forced a nationwide referendum in which 96% voted to keep water services public.  

The Italian and international Reclaim Public Water movement exemplifies what is said in one of the interviews about creating alternatives in the present as part of our resistance. And living examples always help us to think strategically about the future. That's what makes these interviews rich, all of those interviewed are immersed in daily struggles illustrating alternatives as they resist.