From Protest To Politics | The Nation


From Protest To Politics

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Porto Alegre, Brazil

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

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

On a balmy evening, under a sky streaked pink with the dying sun, the fiery leftist governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul set the loftiest of goals for the second annual World Social Forum, which convened here at the end of January. On the forum's opening night in this city of 1.3 million, a jubilant crowd that had been singing "Another World Is Possible"--the forum's theme song--cheered mightily in a bayside amphitheater as Olivio Dutra proclaimed a battle against what he called the "profound dehumanization and systemic banalization of civilization." He added, "We are among the millions of other people who now proclaim that humanity is not for sale."

It was in these pages, on the eve of the WSF, that Paris-based activist and author Susan George laid down a daunting challenge to that snaking, sometimes seething, ill-defined thing generally called the "antiglobalization" movement. In a world where official leadership fails to address the most basic of injustices and inequalities, George pondered whether the citizens of the globe were willing to "accept the risk of being serious." Governor Dutra's words seemed to confirm that this gathering of 50,000 people--three times more than last year, when the WSF was born as an alternative to the corporate World Economic Forum--was ready to offer up a resounding "yes."

The world may or may not have changed forever after September 11. But the movement was certainly at a turning point that demanded sober introspection. It had proved it could build giant puppets and wreak creative civil disobedience in one capital after another. It could attract the media's gaze as well as the loyalty of a new generation of college activists. It could begin to build once unthinkable bridges between hardhats and tree-huggers. It could force powerful international agencies like the World Trade Organization to rework their rhetoric and public posturing. But after the shattering events of the past six months, with the political topography radically reworked under its feet, it was clear the movement must now collectively think in long-term, strategic and politically effective ways. "September 11 was the cutting edge of the offensive against us," said Filipino economist Walden Bello. But, he noted, referring to the demise of one of the world's most enthusiastic corporate proponents of globalization and the collapse of a country that was only recently hailed as a model of one-size-fits-all global economic policies, "history is cunning and inscrutable. And she has handed us two boons: Enron and Argentina."

Against that backdrop, the thousands attending the WSF went about a week's business of debate and discussion with the earnestness of a gigantic study group cramming for finals. Organized primarily by Europeans and Latin Americans, it was subsidized with $1.5 million from local leftist city and state administrations. The intellectual menu was staggering, and refreshingly free of the wearisome, process-obsessed infighting that often marks events organized by the American left. Instead, from 8 in the morning until late into the night, delegates, guests and the plain curious from around the world jammed hundreds of seminars, conferences, workshops and panel discussions focused on such fare as "The Production of Wealth and Social Reproduction," "Access to Wealth and Sustainable Development," "Civil Society and the Public Arena" and "Political Power and Ethics in a New Society."

If you didn't want to join the 3,000 admirers who overflowed an auditorium to hear Noam Chomsky, you could go next door and listen to Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, or visit with Sashi Sail from the women's movement of India, or attend a panel on trade chaired by South Africa's Dot Keet, or ponder the words of Suwit Watnoo from the Thai "Forum of the Poor." At one point, Chomsky was inspired to compare this gathering to those convoked by workers' movements a century ago. "Porto Alegre," he said, "offers the real possibility of building a new international."

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