Globalisation from the Middle? Reflections from a Margin
Globalisation from the Middle? Reflections from a Margin
Introduction: Marginality has its Privileges
Being marginal, in the sense of either ideology or power, to the World Social Forum process, has its privileges. At least if one has the wherewithal for attendance, internet skills and access! From such a position, today, and in relation to a process that is itself carried out partly on the internet and partly in negotiations (themselves partly accessible to outsiders) it is possible to see and say things that those who are central and responsible either can not or do not.
This observation applies, it will be seen, not only to myself, as a participant-observer at the European Social Forum (ESF), but also to others I knew of, met there, or found with a little help from my virtual friend Google. The reflections below may be marginal also in another sense - of failing to deal with the central issues or events at this first-ever European event. Such evaluations will be found elsewhere in the days and weeks following the event. I do not, below, try to follow even the relationship between 'labour and the social movements' (as even the unions are now calling it), which I have been doing over the past couple of years (Waterman 2002b, Waterman 2002c). An email from the European Trade Union Confederation listed some 10 pages of union-sponsored or union supported events (ETUC 2002)! And I am hoping someone else will have followed this line of activity. [For a broad but rather uncritical account from the British Left, check www.socialistworker.co.uk/1826/IX.HTM. I am also hoping that the following reflections will stimulate thought (and energetic response) in the months leading up to the World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, late-January, 2003.
Traveling the Centre-Periphery Axis
I had three commitments at the European Social Forum, Florence, Italy, 6-10 November, one near the core and two at the periphery - or different peripheries. The first was to informally introduce, at an evening reception, the new e-journal of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, Transnational Alternativas. The second was to present a paper requested by an existing web journal, The Commoner, an Italian-edited but English-language 'web journal for other values' www.thecommoner.org. The third was a last-minute thing (a result of searching the discussion forum on the ESF website) to contribute to a session on: New Era, New Internationalism: Political Theory and Practice of the New Movement(s). This was set up by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL), a tiny British Marxist party, itself part of the Socialist Alliance in the UK. Apart from these, I took time to attend one of the official panels, on: Politics as Common Good: The Movement Against Neoliberalism Talks to the European Leftwing (in which the who was who, and the nature and direction of the dialogue, was quite obscure) to wander the bookstalls; to spend time with my Peruvian partner; to do some last-minute tourism; to search (without success) for a cup of bad espresso; to walk a long way on an anti-war march of 500,000 to one million people, to check out the Feltrinelli bookshop for Italian books on the new movements (see Resources). Oh, and to travel to the neighbouring region of Umbria, in search of a old friend, once a young friend, within another internationalist movement, nearly 50 years ago.
I enjoyed all these activities, as well as what usually turns out to be of most lasting value to me: meeting and talking with old friends and new about the 'global justice and solidarity movement' (GJ&SM). How could I not enjoy this? It is, after all, not so often that one can be a participant-observer in a world-scale social movement with emancipatory aspirations. Being now 67, I am inclined to make the most of this latest wave.
I was introducing Transnational Alternativas, or TaT, as the Guest Editor of its pilot issue, this one being devoted to the Forum process itself. Its title is - either with or without the question mark:
Two, Three, Many New Social Forums?
TNI is a long-established and well-funded - if modestly sized - Leftist think tank, based in Amsterdam, that has thrown itself into the Forum process with a certain energy and impact. Several of its Fellows are, like Walden Bello (Philippines), Dot Keet (South Africa), Boris Kagarlitsky (Russia) and Susan George (USA/France), stars of this new firmament and variously influential within the Forums. What I was introducing, to an audience of TNI Fellows, staff, and a small, diverse audience of younger people, was actually a work-in-progress, since t@t is not yet fully translated, designed and available-on-a-web-site-near-you (although some of it is up, in English, in rough, on the indicated site). I am hoping that this pilot issue (done without funding, by easing or squeezing time and effort out of TNI resources and friends) will provide a unique bi- or tri-lingual resource on the Forum process as such. I did, however, complete my presentation (and editorial) by reminding readers of the relative power and influence of even such a modest publication, and of "our" need to listen to those within and around the movement but who have less power.
The lesser breeds, without the cabin translation, were to be found not within the central Forum site, nor even in the centre of Florence. They were sited, in both cases, some 30-40 minutes bus ride away, on the edge of town, but with compensating views of the post-renaissance suburbs of Florence and of its decorative surrounding hills.
The Association for Workers' Liberty offered what appeared to be an almost entirely British event. It could have been transported from the back room of a pub in Brighton or Birmingham, into the alien setting of a Florence cultural centre. When I arrived, however, I found that the earlier-mentioned title had dropped in size to 16pt Times Roman, whilst another had appeared, in 30pt:
What with the leaflet layout, I was transported, momentarily, back to the Young Communist League, London, 50 years ago. With the assistance, however, of a glass of neighbouring "grappa", I took it in my stride. Ten to 15 youngish Worker Libertarians had set up a Lit Stall (as we called them Back in the Pro-USSR) downstairs, from which I bought a copy of their magazine (Workers' Liberty 2000) dealing with the Big G. The first two speakers, Martin Thomas from AWL, and Akis Gavrilidis, a Brussels-based Greek, spoke from, or about, traditional Marxism. Since WL had printed two somewhat disconnected passages from my writings on its leaflet, I took this as a licence to try out on them a third,
Omnia Sint Communia/All in Common (Waterman 2002a)
This was the one I was due to present up another mountain that same afternoon. Although I would have thought there was some Marxist licence for reviving the notion of 'the commons' within the GJ&SM, one young guy did say something to this effect: Yes, well, we do have to remember that there was no united mass movement in defence of the commons historically, which is why they were lost, whereas organizations and parties rooted in the working class are still here and fighting. I did not say so, but certainly felt, that this suggested both a certain disregard for the historical origins of the labour movement and a matching lack of imagination about its future (at least if it wants to have one).
Back down to the main station, then up the other hill, to one of Italy's famous 'social centres' - in this case a disused factory of considerable proportions, with early-industrial toilets, and a tent-like internal structure intended (without notable success) to protect us from the rapidly-falling mercury. The goodwill of the resident activists, handouts of excellent food being prepared for other Forum marginals, and the perfect espresso (evidently not yet Europeanised), kept me going till the Commoners arrived. Mixed in terms of age, gender and European nationality, these appeared to be followers of the Italian tradition of 'workers autonomy', which first required Marxists to pay serious attention to the new social categories and movements (largely, however, by seeing them as other parts of the working-class and of working-class struggle). In the case of Massimo De Angelis, the London-based Italian academic behind the "The Commoner", the tradition seems to be going beyond both workerism and political-economy (whilst not - Marx forbid! - abandoning either). This Robin Hood and his Merry Wo/men seem to be now seeing the notion of the commons as something that can 1) bring together a wide range of struggles (social and geographic) in defense or extension of what is considered to be common property, and that can 2) give a cutting edge to a Forum process that seems to be settling down as a radical-reformist rather than an emancipatory movement (these may be dialectically inter-related within the GJ&SM, but there is a difference of ambition between them). The two-session workshop was of a theoretical, though non-academic, character, in which various contributors, mostly new to one another, took on rather complementary roles. If WL is at the Old Left periphery of the Forum, the Commoner event seemed to me to be at the New Emancipatory one. I met here Mariarosa Dalla Costa, an Italian veteran of autonomist-socialist-feminist struggles, and Olivier de Marcellus, from Switzerland, a leading figure in a radical tendency within the new movement, People's Global Action. Also Franco Barchiesi, another Wandering Italian, just back from South Africa, whose unprinted contribution I await with interest. People handed out documents, showed or mentioned books they had been reading, Olivier's offering being one in French on the 'gift economy' under contemporary capitalism (Godbout 2000). Being not content with my own paper, which was intended to (re)link the struggles of labour with the concept of the commons, I was happy to declare it part of the Common Heritage of Humankind (CHH) and therefore available to others - preferably to produce something better. In so far as many of those engaged in the official Forum programme are "themselves" engaged in struggles to preserve the environment, to save the welfare state, to seek alternatives to privatization, or to extend social control within cyberspace, and in so far as the first event I had attended, had itself been addressed to 'the common good' (exemplified rather than conceptualised), I did think that a revival or re-invention of the concept of the commons could have an emancipatory effect. My own argument was largely focused on the value of this notion for the international trade union movement (still in a posture of junior partnership to those downsizing it), and in relation to international campaigns for the Common Heritage.
I did not attend, but heard, other marginals talking about The Hub. This turned out, from a computer search, to be both an earthly- and a cyber-space. It may have been more centrally placed than other marginal events. It seems to have acted as some kind of focus for those on the libertarian left periphery of the Forum. One interesting feature is precisely the extent to which it represented and advanced a multi-mediated and cyberspaced internationalism. As one commentator wrote to its list immediately following the Forum (punctuation preserved): "what we're definitely good at is creating a space, a laboratory, an alternative infrastructure in no time. it was just incredible to see how from tuesday evening until wednesday night / thursday that space emerged out of nothing, until it included a large computer network, a tv station, video projections, an evening programme, a (more or less) decorated meeting space, a rough but relatively well functioning collective decision-making structure, a satellite experiment, a sleeping space, a kitchen... and a bar, of course.... generally, a whole alternative village created from scratch..".
The writer continues with interesting criticism of the shortcomings of the experience. The Hub promises us its own evaluation of ESF in the near future. Given the recognised shortcomings of WSF communications revealed by communications specialist, Roberto Savio (2002a, b), it may be significant that communication sensitivity and intensity finds expression precisely at the margins of the Forum. Because here was an activity that marginals (again with web access) could participate in without being physically present in Florence.
Another 'autonomous' periphery I wasn't at was a feminist one, called the NextGenderation. I found this also online. Before the event, Cristina Vegas identified certain problems with the Forum process, which deserve quoting at length:
The first one refers to the attempts of socialdemocracy to 'translate' the global resistance claims into 'realpolitik', meaning into something that can be articulated in concrete demands. This, of course, is not a fair explication of the real aim of this translation, which in the last run responds to a struggle over representation and the crisis of that very same realpolitik. The antagonistic force demonstrated by the movement, with its claims to horizontality, creativity, scope, diversity and capacity for interruption are appealing for a stale left that has suffered from the neoliberal touch and the incapacity to generate a new discourse that would cede protagonism to the social movements. Those that say we do not have proposals when we say 'no one is illegal', 'social income now', 'share the global burden', 'papers for all' or 'no to the privatization of education and public health' want, in fact, to arrive at a intermediary state between the way the world is now and some decreased version of our high pointed goals. To those that have sold again and again our desires we say one more time: we want it all and now. We have been criticized for being utopian and pre-political, for having no alternatives. If we are going to discuss the alternatives in, let´s say, regulations on the sexual identity of transexuals, let´s let transsexuals led the way, let`s involve ourselves in a becoming-transsexual that is not the same as being transsexual, or as giving voice to transsexuals or as expressing punctual solidarity with transsexuals and then getting back to business! We want to decide in each case what is going to be the object of our negotiations and where we set the limits. This will not be possible with the old paradigms of representation and with the parties and unions we have to suffer: some of them incapable of understanding rhythms that are determined externally, others directly responsible for so many repressive laws and measures that it is amazing they can still show their faces at this type of encounter to reenact their spent leftist manners. [English uncorrected]. https://nextgenderation.let.uu.nl/esf/cristina.html
Interesting here, perhaps, is that despite the note of radical autonomy, the event planned for was announced, without any noticeable embarrassment, as being partly funded by a Dutch (i.e. social-democratic?) funding agency, Mama Cash.
Forum Resources: The Printed and the Virtual
Whilst Gina was attending the International Organisation Committee for the next World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, late-January, 2003, I was collecting and buying Italian books and documents about the Forum process. I also, for the first time since arriving in Florence almost a week earlier, checked my email and scanned the web.
Books. Even from what I picked up or bought, at the Forum or within Florence, it is clear that the GJ&SM is creating a new international/ist global culture, at least in print, and that Italy is making a major contribution to such. I want here, however, to talk about one significant contribution to this culture. This was the French edition of a new collection on the 'globalisation of resistance' (Amin and Houtart 2002). Produced by the influential World Forum of Alternatives, this consists of an extensive regional survey, an identification of key issues, and the editors' analysis and strategy proposals. It is a professional production, will appear in English, Portuguese and other languages. It may have a major impact on the image and/or orientation of the Forum. If the ESF could be considered to be under the heavy influence of Italian and other European political parties and Non-Governmental Organisations on the Left, this collection hits more of a Radical Third-World/ist note. This evidently means a stress on North-South contradictions, and an openness to development discourse. Whilst labour struggles may be mentioned in the review, they play no significant part in the sections on analysis and strategy. But, then, women's struggles here also seem to be largely understood in developmental terms, and without regard to body politics. Indeed, the general orientation of the compilation seems to be towards problems and policies rather than social movements as such.Internet. My email was surprisingly thin, or short, possibly because many of the people I correspond with were themselves in Florence. Given that official and shopfloor union organizations were better represented than ever in this Forum (ETUC 2002), I wondered whether cyberspace had been already informed of this. I did a search under 'European Social Forum, Florence, Unions'. Nothing directly relevant. Even a week or more later, indeed, there was little or nothing to be found on the sites of either the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions or even of the institutionally-independent LabourStart. The first thing that turned up whilst I was still in Florence, indeed, was a "non"-labour item entitled: Who Controls the European Social Forum? (Treanor 2002).
This had been uploaded, or updated, with considerable alacrity. It contains the most detailed information about the funders and sponsors of the ESF, about the political parties and NGOs most prominently involved, and includes the accusation that what the event amounted to was an exercise in the control of social movements in the interests of a new kind of corporatism:
[T]he ESF is not a radical organization: it has financial links to business and governments, and promotes neo-corporatism. Like the WTO, the European Social Forum can not be reformed: it should be abolished.
The Forum as Disputable Terrain
Abolishing something that has hardly begun - and that is capable of assembling massive numbers of young people, old people, workers, and women from all over Europe - seems both hasty and extreme. However, Paul Treanor's is an Ultra-Radicalism of a New Type. His argument is not only documented, but provides links to those he is dismissing. Moreover, whilst much of his alternative agenda is eccentric (in the sense of representing a personalized wish-list, hallmarked by impossibilism, and unarticulated with any familiar group, worldview or utopia), his challenges, concerning what I have elsewhere called the political-economy of the Forum (Waterman 2002b), are surely reasonable. In the case of the Amin-Houtart book, for example, the financial sponsors of the World Forum of Alternatives are actually identified as including not only European NGO funding agencies (themselves mostly state dependent) but the General Commission of International Relations of the French Community in Belgium - presumably a sub- or quasi-state body. Treanor is also, admittedly, a 'funding-mentalist' - someone who believes that ideas and behaviour are totally determined by funders. In so far as most critique of capitalism has come from universities funded by capital and state, and in so far as even Marx' "Capital" was funded out of the surplus value of Engels' textile mill, this assumption does not meet the evidence of either actually-existing or historical radicalism.
Other radical critics, such as some of those mentioned above (e.g. de Marcellus 2002), combine their critique of the Forum form and process with an intervention within it. The Treanor position assumes that places are either entirely liberated or totally incorporated. It does not allow for the existence of contradictory spaces. Nor for change as process. Nor, apparently, for transformation of a non-apocalyptical type. It does not recognise to what extent the space created by the Forum process differs from those provided by or within other or earlier forms of capitalist polity, other forms or periods of internationalism. The Forum form, in my view, cannot be considered either simply traditional and determined, nor simply free and indeterminate. It is a disputable and disputed terrain. And one which needs, within it, its own marginals and radicals. Given, in fact, that the Forum is both articulated with and dependent upon cyberspace, Paul Treanor's challenge-cum-diatribe "is" part of the World Social Forum process. (Or is now I have written about it. Sorry about that, Paul). Self-marginalisation, today, may require not simply non-presence but a vow of silence and a cloak of invisibility.
The Communist Pre-history of the New Internationalisms
This brings me back to my hopeful travels to Perugia, and to Forums - or at least Festivals - Past. I was visiting Carlo Ripa di Meana, with whom I worked at the international Communist organization for students, the International Union of Students, in Prague in the mid-1950s. Carlo was the editor and I, effectively, chief sub-editor, of "World Student News", the long-forgotten monthly of a long-ineffective Communist front organization. Carlo left Communism ten years or more before I did. Now in his early-70s, and still working, he has been through a range of left of center Italian political parties, was a Minister of the Environment in one Italian government, European Commissioner for the Environment, and is still an elected member of the Regional Council of Umbria. Carlo has also written his own biography, with some 40 pages on his period in Prague (Ripa di Meana 2000). I had wanted to track him down because of a book project of my own, provisionally entitled 'We Were the Youth!' or 'Whatever Happened to The Communist Internationalists of 1955?'. I recall Carlo at the Warsaw Youth Festival in 1955, mostly because the English girl I then fancied had said, cruelly, to me, 'Who is that "beautiful" guy?'. (This was some decades before heterosexual men could even see this, never mind say it). These bi-annual youth festivals, held in Communist countries during the height of the Cold War, make an interesting, if distant, contrast to the current Forums. It goes without saying that they were controlled, down to the last tee-shirt, badge and lunch packet, by the Communist parties of the participating countries, and the hosting states. Where political controls, financial limitations, hostel arrangements and programme constraints failed, the local police and security were there to step in (leading to the conversion, at the Moscow Festival, 1957, of one Stalinist French colleague of ours who had got involved with a Russian girl). At this same festival, I was supposed to be co-editing the English edition of the official festival newspaper. My first task was to write the report on the International Student Day - about one week before it took place. 'But what if it rains?' I asked plaintively, thus revealing my empiricist and positivist deviations from Actually Existing Stalinism. 'If it doesn't rain in the newspaper', came the cheerful reply, 'it didn't rain'. I was henceforth relieved of all editorial tasks in Moscow (where it later took a third visit before I was finally coerced into seeing the Lenin Waxwork Show on Red Square). Back on "World Student News", Carlo and I and a whole team of co-editors and administrators, fought over article topics, orientation, layout and even spelling, whilst the belated outcome of our efforts landed up as piles of unread junk mail in the dusty corners of student union offices worldwide (Hill 1989: Chs 17-20).
Now, if the IUS has passed into the mists of Internationalism Past, one of its sister organizations, the World Federation of Trade Unions, continues a shadow existence - and even issued a declaration on the European Social Forum that witnesses its continuing mastery of ritual international labour-speak (WFTU 2002). I don't want to belabour (no pun intended) the difference between the internationalism of 1952 and 2002. Nor even to simply dismiss, as historically irrelevant - nor merely to condemn as perverse - the Communist form of what I would call nation-state internationalism. (After all, my own internationalist itinerary evidently reaches from there to here). But I do think we should note that, despite the Third Worldist Internationalism of the 1970s, the shopfloor labour internationalism of the 1970s-80s, the Anti-Apartheid, anti-war and New Social Movement internationalisms of the 1980s-90s, the form and content of the GJ&SM is "radically" new. Indeed, so novel is the new internationalism that it requires, in my opinion, comparison less with the 1950s than with the birth of the international labour movement and the internationalism of the "Communist Manifesto".
The (Non-reciprocal) Dependence of Reformism and Radicalism
One significant difference between the social movements of then and the social movements of now, of the internationalism of then and the internationalism of now, is the implicit understanding of the "interdependence" of reformism and radicalism within democratic social movements. This mutual dependency is not analogous. Serious reformists require serious radicals in order to make the hegemons consider themselves "interlocuteurs valables" ('worthy intermediaries', a French term from the period of decolonisation). Serious radicals need serious reformists to make life difficult and complex for themselves. (Some of the radicals did issue at the ESF the facile and simplistic battle-mumble, 'One Solution: Revolution!'. How about, drawing on 20th century experience, 'Revolution: No Solution!'?). Any significant social movement also, surely, has its "moment" of challenge and its "moment" of negotiation or settlement.
There is little doubt in my own mind that the Forums are under significant pressure from old, or even new, political parties and big/influential NGOs - which pressure may even increase along with increased trade-union participation. Nor can there be much doubt that even 'new' social movements are still often controlled by 'old' political people and processes. Some of the decision-making procedure at the Forum is opaque. There is a temptation, for example, for leading tendencies or leaders within the Forum to cut a quiet deal with those of the international trade union organizations (that still have one foot on the other side of the razorwire - favouring simultaneous partnerships with 'industry' and with 'civil society'!).
But radicals have to also recognize what effort it has taken to move such people from there (wherever that was) to "here" (however ambiguous this is). And that even if moderates want to 'capture' the GJ&SM for a Global Neo-Keynesian project, this is now going to have to happen in front of a diverse, and not-necessarily passive, constituency. The slogan 'The Whole World is Watching!' does not apply only to Capital, Patriarchy, the State, the Military, the Scientific Establishment and the Church. It applies - it must come to apply - also within the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement itself.
Conclusion: Globalisation from the Middle?
There are working-class participants in the events of the Forum, and popular voices speaking from the central platforms of the Forum. There are, on its councils, representatives of the poor and marginalized. But many such representatives are there without being in any way mandated, without being answerable to their constituencies and therefore without any necessary empowering effect on those they claim to speak for. Many other leading figures, and NGO representatives are, indeed, self-appointed and financially dependent on such states as the Scanadanetherlands. This is not an accusation, it is a statement of the case. It is nothing to necessarily feel embarrassed about - even if many such people do feel embarrassed about it. The leading (dominating?) NGOs, left unions and other organisations are there because they tasted the wind and foresaw the whirlwind. And have whipped it up into something a bit more like El Niño. But does this provide a justification for characterising the WSF, as many do, as an instance of 'globalisation from below'?
The question above only occurred to me after the event. I was doing, with Gina, our bit of tourism. Because there was a museum in it, we landed up on the opposite side of the square in which the IOC of the WSF had been meeting up to the day before. We had noticed, around town, distinctive groups of "Peruan@s populares". Now we seemed to have landed in the break during some Peruvian Social Forum. Gina, as is her want, began to talk with one woman, with grey strands in her black hair, and a padded jacket which looked as if it had been also slept in. We waited whilst she wrote a letter for Gina to take back to her family in La Victoria, a "barrio popular" in the centre of Lima (which has ten pages on Google, including mention of "cabines internet" - cybercafes). I took a couple of photos. The woman, it appeared, and as we had guessed about the other Peruvians, was an illegal immigrant. She was there waiting for a church soup-kitchen to open. Her tale was one of being unable to pay the rent on the family shop in La Victoria, of hoping to earn it here in Florence, of having so far found no job, of being dependent on church accommodation where she felt under surveillance.
Was she, were they, aware of the European Social Forum that had just taken place? Of the World Social Forum that had been prepared on the other side of the "piazza"? Were those Forum people, who had been considering the place of the migrant labour question in the WSF, aware of the embodiment of this question, and an essential part of the answer, 100 meters away? My guess is that - even if the "inmigrantes illegales" had noted the massive peace march a couple of days earlier (an almost totally white affair) - and even if those taking part in the Forum were acutely aware of existence of such migrants in Italy, the two parties were actually moving on parallel lines that will not necessarily touch. Globalisation from below, in other words, has to be seen as an aspiration to be achieved by the Forum process, not a reality already existent and represented. This is a challenge to all of us, reformists and transformists, those at the center and those at the periphery. And this is one part of that utopian horizon toward which we need, now, to move, with all deliberate haste.
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Porto Alegre: Social Forum. Un video di David Riondino. VHS. 45 mins. Italian spoken. Production: Pontassieve Cultura - Giunta Regionale Toscana.
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