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From Protest To Politics | The Nation

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From Protest To Politics

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

Civil Society or Civil Disobedience?

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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.

One of the more spirited talks given during the week came from Naomi Klein, the Canadian who wrote No Logo, which has become a primer for many young activists. Denouncing the prevailing official wisdom that a just society is no longer possible, Klein brought her audience to its feet when she said she had grown weary of the week's focus on building civil society. Enough already with being polite and civil. "The alternative to a world without possibility," Klein proclaimed, "is not civil society--but civil disobedience."

As a sort of pep talk to activists, Klein's speech was flawless. But as political strategy, it seemed to be contradicted by the central message that emerged from the week. Indeed, perhaps the greatest value of an event like the World Social Forum is the perspective it offers--one that counsels a decidedly more patient view. Thousands of activists from hundreds of organizations from dozens of countries have come together to realize that this is not a single or, for that matter, a new movement. It's rather a convergence of many and varied movements that have--at times--only one thing in common: repudiation of a system that puts profit before people. The only other point of unity is an acute awareness that while alternatives and solutions are imperative, any temptation toward easy answers collapsed along with the Berlin wall.

It was enough to look out at the city and state around us--both governed by the Workers Party, a uniquely Brazilian concoction that is equal parts social democratic, Marxist, Christian and nationalist--to understand the very long and uncertain road ahead. Born from the militant Metal Workers Union twenty-two years ago during the darkest days of the military dictatorship, the party eventually emerged from the underground, weathered storms of repression and persecution, and today not only governs the surrounding state of Rio Grande but also, a thousand miles to the north, presides over South America's biggest city, São Paulo, with a population of more than 11 million. Party leader Lula--a former metalworker--currently leads presidential election polls.

Here in Porto Alegre, the Workers Party celebrates its thirteenth year in City Hall. It's a party that is fully committed to the same principles of global justice that defined the WSF. Budgets have been democratized under its rule. City services have been greatly improved. Clean natural-gas buses roam the streets. The local security forces are taught "social policing"--mediation and negotiation before repression. But under Workers Party administration, injustice has not been repealed. Exploitation has not been abolished. Multinational corporations have not been banned from Porto Alegre--nor could they be, unless the city seceded from the world. And, in other parts of Brazil, Workers Party mayors are still being assassinated by right-wing death squads. So here is the Workers Party, eons ahead of any similar political formation in the United States and yet an equally incalculable distance from the goal of a new society--of "another world."

Perhaps the forum's most poignant moments came during its culminating evening session, when, after a long day of panel-hopping, maybe 3,500 people overflowed a huge auditorium to hear a "personal testimony" from radical Brazilian economist Maria da Conceicao Tavares. For more than an hour, the crusty, gravel-voiced, charmingly profane 72-year-old university professor and former Workers Party congresswoman, who at one time or another had just about every member of Brazil's current political elite as a student, moved the crowd from reverent silence to tears and finally cheers.

Using her own life experience as primary evidence, she counseled the long and patient view and warned against any expectation that the powerful would crumble if protesters merely stamped their feet loud enough. Describing her childhood in Portugal marked by the inflow of defeated Spanish Republican refugees, her adolescence spent in the shadow of Portuguese fascism and the horror of World War II, her immigration to Brazil only to face the imposition of two decades of military dictatorship and now the past fifteen years of building a leftist party within an unstable democracy while hoping to elect Lula to the presidency in October, she said: "Maybe when you are 20 years old you can believe in revolution, socialism and even the resurrection of the flesh. But have no illusions; the struggle is permanent. I have fought for fifty years and I will continue fighting until I die. That is all I know how to do. And I hope you will join me."

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