A Fete for the End of the End of History
Last year, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote from Davos, "Every year at the World Economic Forum there is a star or theme that stands out"--the dot-coms, the Asian crisis. Last year according to Friedman, the star of Davos was "Seattle." Porto Alegre had a star as well; it was, without question, "democracy": What happened to it? How do we get it back? And why isn't there more of it within the conference itself?
In workshops and on panels, globalization was defined as a mass transfer of wealth and knowledge from public to private--through the patenting of life and seeds, the privatization of water and the concentrated ownership of agricultural lands. Having this conversation in Brazil meant that these issues were not presented as shocking new inventions of a hitherto unheard-of phenomenon called "globalization"--as is often the case in the West--but as part of the continuum of colonization, centralization and loss of self-determination that began more than five centuries ago.
This latest stage of market integration has meant that power and decision-making are now delegated to points even further away from the places where the effects of those decisions are felt at the same time that ever-greater financial burdens are off-loaded to cities and towns. Real power has moved from local to state, from state to national, from national to international, until finally representative democracy means voting for politicians every few years who use that mandate to transfer national powers to the WTO and the IMF.
In response to this democratic crisis, the forum set out to sketch the possible alternatives--but before long, some rather profound questions emerged. Is this a movement trying to impose its own, more humane brand of globalization, with taxation of global finance and more democracy and transparency in international governance? Or is it a movement against centralization and the delegation of power on principle, one as critical of left-wing, one-size-fits-all ideology as of the recipe for McGovernment churned out at forums like Davos (cut taxes, privatize, deregulate and wait for the trickle-down)? It's fine to cheer for the possibility of another world--but is the goal one specific other world ("our" world, some might say) or is it, as the Zapatistas put it, "a world with the possibility of many worlds in it?"
On these questions there was no consensus. Some groups, those with ties to political parties, seemed to be pushing for a united international organization or party and wanted the forum to issue an official manifesto that could form a governmental blueprint. Others, those working outside traditional political channels and often using direct action, were advocating less a unified vision than a universal right to self-determination and diversity: agricultural diversity, cultural diversity and, yes, even political diversity.
Atila Roque was one of the people who argued forcefully that the forum should not try to issue a single set of political demands. "We are trying to break the uniformity of thought, and you can't do that by putting forward another uniform way of thinking. Honestly, I don't miss the time when we were all in the Communist Party. We can achieve a higher degree of consolidation of the agendas, but I don't think civil society should be trying to organize itself into a party."
In the end, the conference did not speak in one voice; there was no single official statement (though there were dozens of unofficial ones). Instead of sweeping blueprints for political change, there were glimpses of local democratic alternatives. The Landless Peasants Movement took delegates on day trips to reappropriated farmland used for sustainable agriculture. And then there was the living alternative of Porto Alegre itself. The city has become a showcase of participatory democracy studied around the world. In Porto Alegre, democracy isn't a polite matter of casting ballots; it's a contact sport, carried out in sprawling town hall meetings. The centerpiece of the Workers Party's platform is something called "the participatory budget," an initiative that gives residents, through a network of neighborhood councils and a shadow city council, a direct say in such decisions as how much of the municipal budget should go to sanitation versus transportation.