A Fete for the End of the End of History
"This is a city that is developing a new model of democracy in which people don't just hand over control to the state," British author Hilary Wainwright said at the forum. "The challenge is, how do we extend that to a national and global level?"
Perhaps by transforming the anticorporate, antiglobalization movement into a pro-democracy movement that defends the rights of local communities to plan and manage their schools, their water and their ecology. In Porto Alegre, the most convincing responses to the international failure of representative democracy seemed to be this radical form of local participatory democracy, in the cities and towns where the abstractions of global rule become day-to-day issues of homelessness, water contamination, exploding prisons and cash-starved schools. Of course, this has to take place within a context of national and international standards and resources. But what seemed to be emerging organically out of the World Social Forum (despite the best efforts of some of the organizers) was not a movement for a single global government but a vision for an increasingly connected international network of very local initiatives, each built on direct democracy.
Democracy was a topic that came up not only on the panels and in workshops but also in the hallways and in raucous late-night meetings at the youth campground. Here the subject was not how to democratize world governance or even municipal decision-making--but something closer to home: the yawning "democratic deficit" of the World Social Forum itself.
On one level the forum was extraordinarily open: Anyone who wanted to could attend as a delegate, with no restrictions on numbers of attendees. And any group that wanted to run a workshop--alone or with another group--simply had to get a title to the organizing committee before the program was printed.
But there were sometimes sixty of these workshops going on simultaneously, while the main-stage events, where there was an opportunity to address more than 1,000 delegates at a time, were dominated not by activists but by politicians and academics. Some gave rousing presentations, while others seemed painfully detached: After traveling eighteen hours or more to attend the forum, few needed to be told that "globalization is a space of dispute." It didn't help that these panels were dominated by men in their fifties, too many of them white. Nicola Bullard, deputy director of Bangkok's Focus on the Global South, half-joked that the opening press conference "looked like the Last Supper: twelve men with an average age of 52." And it probably wasn't a great idea that the VIP room, an enclave of invitation-only calm and luxury, was made of glass. This in-your-face two-tiering amid all the talk of people power began to grate around the time the youth campsite ran out of toilet paper.
The griping about a "coup d'état of the French intellectuals" was symbolic of a larger problem. The organizational structure of the forum was so opaque that it was nearly impossible to figure out how decisions were made or to find ways to question those decisions. There were no open plenaries and no chance to vote on the structure of future events. In the absence of a transparent process, fierce NGO brand wars were waged behind the scenes--about whose stars would get the most airtime, who would get access to the press and who would be seen as the true leaders of this movement.
By the third day, frustrated delegates began to do what they do best: Protest. There were marches and manifestoes--a half-dozen at least. Beleaguered forum organizers found themselves charged with everything from reformism to racism. The Anti-Capitalist Youth contingent accused them of ignoring the important role direct action played in building the movement. Their manifesto condemned the conference as "a ruse" using the mushy language of democracy to avoid a more divisive discussion of class. The PSTU, a breakaway faction of the Workers Party, began interrupting speeches about the possibility of another world with loud chants of: "Another world is not possible, unless you smash capitalism and bring in socialism!" (It sounded much better in Portuguese.)