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A Fete for the End of the End of History | The Nation

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A Fete for the End of the End of History

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Some of this criticism was unfair. The forum accommodated an extraordinary range of views, and it was precisely this diversity that made conflicts inevitable. By bringing together groups with such different ideas about power--unions, political parties, NGOs, anarchist street protesters and agrarian reformers--the World Social Forum only made visible the tensions that are always just under the surface of these fragile coalitions.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein
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But other questions were legitimate and have implications that reach far beyond a one-week conference. How are decisions made in this movement of movements? Who, for instance, decides which "civil society representatives" go behind the barbed wire at Davos--while protesters are held back with water cannons outside? If Porto Alegre was the anti-Davos, why were some of the most visible faces of opposition "dialoguing" in Davos?

With a sweeping new round of WTO negotiations set for the fall, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) being negotiated in April, these questions about process are suddenly urgent. How do we determine whether the goal is to push for "social clauses" on labor and environmental issues in international agreements or to try to shoot down the agreements altogether? This debate--academic at previous points because there was so much resistance to social clauses from business--is now very real. US industry leaders, including Caterpillar and Boeing, are actively lobbying for the linking of trade with labor and environmental clauses, not because they want to raise standards but because these links are viewed as the key to breaking the Congressional stalemate over fast-track trade negotiating authority. By pushing for social clauses, are unions and environmentalists unwittingly helping the advancement of these negotiations, a process that will also open the door to privatization of such services as water and more aggressive protections of drug patents? Should the goal be to add onto these trade agreements or take entire sections out--water, agriculture, food safety, drug patents, education, healthcare? Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, is unequivocal on this point. "The WTO is unreformable," he said at the forum, "and it is a horrible waste of money to push for reform. Labor and environmental clauses will just empower an already too-powerful organization."

But that is not the strategy leading up to the Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Several large labor organizations and NGOs have taken government money to organize a parallel People's Summit during the official week of meetings, and have yet to issue clear statements on the FTAA. Not surprisingly, there were tensions about these issues at the forum, with those favoring direct action accusing the People's Summit organizers of helping to make the closed FTAA process appear open to "civil society"--perhaps just the public relations gloss Bush needs to secure fast track.

There is a serious debate to be had over strategy and process, but it's difficult to see how it will unfold without bogging down a movement whose greatest strength so far has been its agility. Anarchist groups, though fanatical about process, tend to resist efforts to structure or centralize the movement. The International Forum on Globalization--the brain trust of the North American side of the movement--lacks transparency in its decision-making and isn't accountable to a broad membership. Meanwhile, NGOs that might otherwise collaborate often compete with one another for publicity and funding. And traditional membership-based political structures like parties and unions have been reduced to bit players in these wide webs of activism.

Perhaps the real lesson of Porto Alegre is that democracy and accountability need to be worked out first on more manageable scales--within local communities and coalitions and inside individual organizations. Without this foundation, there's not much hope for a satisfying democratic process when 10,000 activists from wildly different backgrounds are thrown in a room together. What has become clear is that if the one "pro" this disparate coalition can get behind is "pro-democracy," then democracy within the movement must become a high priority. The Porto Alegre Call for Mobilization clearly states that "we challenge the elite and their undemocratic processes, symbolized by the World Economic Forum in Davos." Most delegates agreed that it simply won't do to scream Elitist! from a glass house--or from a glass VIP lounge.

Despite the moments of open revolt, the World Social Forum ended on as euphoric a note as it began. There was cheering and chanting, the loudest of which came when the organizing committee announced that Porto Alegre would host the forum again next year. The plane from Porto Alegre to São Paulo on January 30 was filled with delegates dressed head-to-toe in conference swag--T-shirts, baseball hats, mugs, bags--all bearing the utopian slogan: Another World Is Possible. Not uncommon, perhaps, after a conference, but it did strike me as noteworthy that a couple sitting in the seats across from me were still wearing their WSF name tags. It was as if they wanted to hang on to that dream world, however imperfect, for as long as they could before splitting up to catch connecting flights to Newark, Paris, Mexico City, absorbed in a hive of scurrying businesspeople, duty-free Gucci bags and CNN stock news.

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