Home Thoughts from Brazil

01 March 2001

It was strange to read about an event as momentous as the fall of Peter Mandelson by peering over someone's shoulder in a lunch queue at the newspaper headlines. I only half understood. A sense of glee and come-uppance common to probably well over 50 per cent of my fellow countrypeople briefly came over me.

But this Westminster drama soon fell into the background. I was in the radical Brazilian city, Porto Alegre, participating in the World Social Forum, the 10,000 strong alternative to the invitation-only World Economic Forum in Davos.

This extraordinary gathering, part rally, part demonstration, part celebration, part brainstorm, part research workshop, marked an important new phase in the development of the anti-capitalist movement.

"Seattle was not enough; we have to show the world that we have alternatives" was the common feeling which led delegations as varied as fisherwomen from Indonesia, anti-privatisation coalitions from South Africa, housing co-operatives from Montevideo and anti-WTO activists from all over the world, to make the journey to Brazil.

An intelligent fly-on-the-wall of the 400 or so workshops would be convinced that there were alternatives in plenty. There were those directly stemming from direct action: for example, the Brazilian landless movement which occupies land and then farms it co-operatively or the French farmers picketing McDonald's while producing food free of the poisons introduced by agri-business. There were all kinds of community and economic alternatives developed in the face of state and market failure and driven by collective self-confidence: women's centres, radical housing co-operatives, education for self-management projects, to name but a few. More ambitious in scope were alternative proposals for taxation (the Tobin tax on speculation), alternative approaches to trade inspired by fair trade networks of co-operative farmers in the South and not-for- profit distributors in the North. The Palestinian and Israeli delegation came as one delegation of equals, demonstrating the basis for peace in the Middle East.

It was a kaleidoscope of possibilities. By next year when it reconvenes, hosted again by the Workers Party governments of Porto Alegre and the state of Rio Grande Du Sul, a coherent shared vision might have emerged.

I could see a possible shape, though it is blurred at the outer edges. The principle was summed up by state governor, Olivio D'Utro as "the development of a new democratic public power against the power of private, corporate interests". He was generalising from a very particular yet widely relevant experience of building a new kind of public power in his own city and state. Under his Mayorship of Porto Alegre the PT opened the black box of the city budget to an annual process of transparent and self-regulated direct democracy through which the people negotiate on budget priorities to meet the needs of their neighbourhoods and the city as a whole. This is finally presented to the council - but rarely significantly amended.

The crucial achievement of this combination of representative and direct democracy is that it subjects the executive branch of the government to a degree of day-to-day public control of which parliamentary democracy on its own is incapable. In Brazil, the state apparatus was dominated by a corrupt clientelism, but the same exertion of a popular form of democratic power is also a counter to the kind of state capture by private corporations with which we are all too familiar in the UK.

The "participatory budget", based on a system built up in the neighbourhoods, is just one example of the development of a stronger form of public power than parliamentary democracy can achieve. It is particularly appropriate at a city level. At national and international levels, the kind of social movements and networks we are creating to resist corporate power could themselves be the basis of a more permanent public power, ideally supported by radical political parties.

Which brings us back to Peter Mandelson. Porto Alegre was a good place to celebrate his fall and move on. Now that he and his political fantasies are (almost) gone we have to focus on the fundamental project of New Labour: the accommodation with global corporate interests, driven, sometimes openly sometimes under the guise of "partnership" by Gordon Brown. Our alternatives will only be effective if they are rooted in practical and intellectual people-to-people, movement-to-movement co-operation on a global scale.