Social Forum Does London

21 Octubre 2004
Article

While the short history of the World Social Forum has been connected almost exclusively to Porto Alegre, the European Social Forum was conceived as a "nomadic" event: After Florence and Paris, it fell to London to play host.

Being an annual gathering of left-wing activists and social movements, the European Social Forum inevitably depends on the political scene of the host country. On the continent, the British left has earned a reputation for being highly fractious. So other countries looked on with some concern as preparations got underway, wondering whether the quarrelsome islanders could work with one another.

The outdated British electoral system, based on the first-past-the-post principle, keeps the radically inclined out of Parliament and out of the political mainstream, deprived of a platform for communicating with the general public. In Denmark, the red-green United List, garnering just over 2 percent of the vote, has worked successfully in the Danish parliament for many years, while in Britain, even larger parties are regularly left out in the cold.

Under these conditions, a sectarian culture takes root. Inhabitants of the political ghetto are condemned to infighting instead of getting on with more significant matters. However, the situation is changing. Demonstrations on the streets of London against the war in Iraq with thousands of protesters, widespread dissatisfaction with government policy and irritation at neo-liberal reforms have shown that there are a lot of people willing to listen to the left's arguments even if the speakers are not endowed with the magical status of an MP.

John Rees, one of the organizers of the Respect coalition, which is fighting for seats in the European parliament, compared the situation to a flooding river. When the water level is low, there are numerous individual streams and rivulets; now the water level is high and there is a single current. But despite this, the forum organizers wasted much energy quarreling among themselves. The Russian delegation's organizers experienced this firsthand, spending several weeks resolving the simplest of problems. Muddle interspersed with bouts of terrible bureaucracy. First no invitation was sent for weeks, then requests were received for a stack of paperwork, which, as later transpired, was totally unnecessary.

Various autonomous and anarchistic organizations were terribly afraid the forum's organization committee would be dominated by Trotskyites; the Trotskyites were wary of the involvement of the London mayor's office in forum preparations. Such an event is practically impossible to hold without municipal support. However, radical-left groups and others suspected the mayor's office, headed by the charismatic and ambitious Ken Livingstone, of wanting to reap maximum political gain from the event for itself and complained that city officials just wanted to organize some big conference without having any understanding of the forum's specifics. The mayor's office, on the other hand, was indignant at the activists' ineffectiveness.

The biggest surprise, though, was that everything went off without a hitch. The delegations arrived, discussions were held, people and representatives from all political walks of life had a chance to speak up and be heard. For the Russian delegation, London was a success, and in some sense, a turning point. Until the forum, Russia and Eastern Europe had been represented only by a few intellectuals famous in the West or small unknown youth groups, who acted as observers and supporting cast members. This time the situation was changed. Not only was the delegation larger than before, but its members participated in the discussions and had a noticeable influence on the course of events.

The forum declared its intention of turning "corporate Europe" into "social Europe." But this can only be possible when the entire continent is redefined and the West realizes that Europe extends beyond the boundaries of the European Union, which is no longer the exclusive club it was 10 years ago. This is all a gift to the left, but the left still has a lot to learn before it can use it.

The main problem of the social forums is the threat of them becoming routine, an annual ritual, an anti-globalist parade. The thoughts and ideas discussed at the forums need to become political reality, best summed up by Susan George, one of the movement's inspirers: "We have to concentrate on something we can win now. If we don't do it, I see no point in coming here anymore."

Copyright 2004 The Moscow Times