A Fete for the End of the End of History
"We are here to show the world that another world is possible!" the man on stage said, and a crowd of more than 10,000 roared its approval.
What was strange was that we weren't cheering for a specific other world, just the possibility of one. We were cheering for the idea that another world could, in theory, exist.
For the past thirty years, a select group of CEOs and world leaders have met during the last week in January on a mountaintop in Switzerland to do what they presumed they were the only ones capable of doing: determine how the global economy should be governed. We were cheering because it was, in fact, the last week of January, and this wasn't the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was the first annual World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And even though we weren't CEOs or world leaders, we were still going to spend the week talking about how the global economy should be governed.
Many people said that they felt history being made in that room. What I felt was something more intangible: the end of The End of History. And fittingly, "Another World Is Possible" was the event's official slogan. After a year and a half of protests against the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the World Social Forum was billed as an opportunity for this emerging movement to stop screaming about what it is against and start articulating what it is for.
If Seattle was, for many people, the coming-out party of a resistance movement, then, according to Soren Ambrose, policy analyst with 50 Years Is Enough, "Porto Alegre is the coming-out party for the existence of serious thinking about alternatives." The emphasis was on alternatives coming from the countries experiencing most acutely the negative effects of globalization: mass migration of people, widening wealth disparities, weakening political power.
The particular site was chosen because Brazil's Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, the PT) is in power in the city of Porto Alegre, as well as in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The conference was organized by a network of Brazilian unions and NGOs, but the PT provided state-of-the-art conference facilities at the Catholic University of Porto Alegre and paid the bill for a star-studded roster of speakers. Having a progressive government sponsor was a departure for a group of people accustomed to being met with clouds of pepper spray, border strip searches and no-protest zones. In Porto Alegre, activists were welcomed by friendly police officers and greeters with official banners from the tourism department.
Though the conference was locally organized, it was, in part, the brainchild of ATTAC France, a coalition of unions, farmers and intellectuals that has become the most public face of the antiglobalization movement in much of Europe and Scandinavia. (ATTAC stands for Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens, which, admittedly, doesn't work as well in English.) Founded in 1998 by Bernard Cassen and Susan George of the socialist monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, ATTAC began as a campaign for the implementation of the so-called Tobin Tax, the proposal by Nobel laureate James Tobin to tax all speculative financial transactions. Reflecting its Marxist intellectual roots, the group has expressed frustration with the less coherent focus of the North American anticorporate movement. "The failure of Seattle was the inability to come up with a common agenda, a global alliance at the world level to fight against globalization," says Christophe Aguiton of ATTAC, who helped organize the forum.
Which is where the World Social Forum came in: ATTAC saw the conference as an opportunity to bring together the best minds working on alternatives to neoliberal economic policies--not just new systems of taxation but everything from sustainable farming to participatory democracy to cooperative production to independent media. From this process of information swapping ATTAC believed its "common agenda" would emerge.
The result of the gathering was something much more complicated--as much chaos as cohesion, as much division as unity. In Porto Alegre the coalition of forces that often goes under the banner of antiglobalization began collectively to recast itself as a pro-democracy movement. In the process, the movement was also forced to confront the weaknesses of its own internal democracy and to ask difficult questions about how decisions were being made--at the World Social Forum itself and, more important, in the high-stakes planning for the next round of World Trade Organization negotiations and the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City at the end of April.