“We are here to show the world that another world is possible!” the man on stage said, and a crowd of more than 10,000 roared its approval.
What was strange was that we weren’t cheering for a specific other world, just the possibility of one. We were cheering for the idea that another world could, in theory, exist.
For the past thirty years, a select group of CEOs and world leaders have met during the last week in January on a mountaintop in Switzerland to do what they presumed they were the only ones capable of doing: determine how the global economy should be governed. We were cheering because it was, in fact, the last week of January, and this wasn’t the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was the first annual World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And even though we weren’t CEOs or world leaders, we were still going to spend the week talking about how the global economy should be governed.
Many people said that they felt history being made in that room. What I felt was something more intangible: the end of The End of History. And fittingly, “Another World Is Possible” was the event’s official slogan. After a year and a half of protests against the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the World Social Forum was billed as an opportunity for this emerging movement to stop screaming about what it is against and start articulating what it is for.
If Seattle was, for many people, the coming-out party of a resistance movement, then, according to Soren Ambrose, policy analyst with 50 Years Is Enough, “Porto Alegre is the coming-out party for the existence of serious thinking about alternatives.” The emphasis was on alternatives coming from the countries experiencing most acutely the negative effects of globalization: mass migration of people, widening wealth disparities, weakening political power.
The particular site was chosen because Brazil’s Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, the PT) is in power in the city of Porto Alegre, as well as in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The conference was organized by a network of Brazilian unions and NGOs, but the PT provided state-of-the-art conference facilities at the Catholic University of Porto Alegre and paid the bill for a star-studded roster of speakers. Having a progressive government sponsor was a departure for a group of people accustomed to being met with clouds of pepper spray, border strip searches and no-protest zones. In Porto Alegre, activists were welcomed by friendly police officers and greeters with official banners from the tourism department.
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Though the conference was locally organized, it was, in part, the brainchild of ATTAC France, a coalition of unions, farmers and intellectuals that has become the most public face of the antiglobalization movement in much of Europe and Scandinavia. (ATTAC stands for Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens, which, admittedly, doesn’t work as well in English.) Founded in 1998 by Bernard Cassen and Susan George of the socialist monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, ATTAC began as a campaign for the implementation of the so-called Tobin Tax, the proposal by Nobel laureate James Tobin to tax all speculative financial transactions. Reflecting its Marxist intellectual roots, the group has expressed frustration with the less coherent focus of the North American anticorporate movement. “The failure of Seattle was the inability to come up with a common agenda, a global alliance at the world level to fight against globalization,” says Christophe Aguiton of ATTAC, who helped organize the forum.
Which is where the World Social Forum came in: ATTAC saw the conference as an opportunity to bring together the best minds working on alternatives to neoliberal economic policies–not just new systems of taxation but everything from sustainable farming to participatory democracy to cooperative production to independent media. From this process of information swapping ATTAC believed its “common agenda” would emerge.
The result of the gathering was something much more complicated–as much chaos as cohesion, as much division as unity. In Porto Alegre the coalition of forces that often goes under the banner of antiglobalization began collectively to recast itself as a pro-democracy movement. In the process, the movement was also forced to confront the weaknesses of its own internal democracy and to ask difficult questions about how decisions were being made–at the World Social Forum itself and, more important, in the high-stakes planning for the next round of World Trade Organization negotiations and the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City at the end of April.
Part of the challenge was that the organizers had no idea how many people would be drawn to this Davos for activists. Atila Roque, a coordinator of IBase, a Brazilian policy institute and a member of the organizing committee, explains that for months they thought they were planning a gathering of 2,000 people. Then, suddenly, there were 10,000, more at some events, representing 1,000 groups, from 120 countries. Most of those delegates had no idea what they were getting into: a model UN? A giant teach-in? An activist political convention? A party?
The result was a strange hybrid of all of the above, along with–at the opening ceremony at least–a little bit of Vegas floor show mixed in. On the first day of the forum, after the speeches finished and we cheered fanatically for the end of The End of History, the house lights went down and two giant screens projected photographs of poverty in Rio’s favelas. A line of dancers appeared on stage, heads bowed in shame, feet shuffling. Slowly, the photographs became more hopeful, and the people on stage began to run, brandishing the tools of their empowerment: hammers, saws, bricks, axes, books, pens, computer keyboards, raised fists. In the final scene, a pregnant woman planted seeds–seeds, we were told, of another world.
What was jarring was not so much that this particular genre of utopian socialist dance had rarely been staged since the WPA performances of the 1930s, but that it was done with such top- notch production values: perfect acoustics, professional lighting, headsets simultaneously translating the narration into four languages. All 10,000 of us were given little bags of seeds to take and plant at home. This was Soviet Realism meets Cats.
The forum was filled with these strange juxtapositions between underground ideas and Brazil’s enthusiastic celebrity culture: mustachioed local politicians accompanied by glamorous wives in backless white dresses rubbing shoulders with the president of the Landless Peasants Movement of Brazil, known for chopping down fences and occupying large pieces of unused farmland. An old woman from Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, with her missing child’s name crocheted on her white head scarf, quietly sitting next to a Brazilian soccer star so adored that his presence provoked several hardened politicos to rip off pieces of their clothing and demand autographs. José Bové, the French cheese farmer known for “strategically dismantling” a McDonald’s, unable to go anywhere without a line of bodyguards protecting him from the paparazzi.
Every night the conference adjourned to an outdoor amphitheater where musicians from around the world performed, including the Cuarteto Patria, one of the Cuban bands made famous by Wim Wenders’s documentary The Buena Vista Social Club. Cuban anything was big here. Speakers had only to mention the existence of the island nation for the room to break out in chants of Cuba!Cuba!Cuba! Chanting, it must be said, was also big: Not just for Cuba but for former presidential candidate and honorary president of the Workers Party Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula-la”). José Bové, after almost landing in jail for teaming up with local landless activists and destroying several hectares of genetically engineered soy beans, earned his very own chant: Olé, Olé, Bové, Bové, sung as a soccer stadium hymn.
One thing that wasn’t so big at the World Social Forum was the United States. There were daily protests against Plan Colombia, the “wall of death” between the United States and Mexico, as well as George W. Bush’s announcement that the new administration will suspend foreign aid to groups that provide information on abortion. In the workshops and lectures there was much talk of American imperialism, of the tyranny of the English language. Actual US citizens, though, were notably scarce. The AFL-CIO barely had a presence (John Sweeney was at Davos), and there was no one there from the National Organization for Women. Even Noam Chomsky, who said the forum “offers opportunities of unparalleled importance to bring together popular forces,” sent only his regrets. Public Citizen had two people in Porto Alegre, but their star, Lori Wallach, was in Davos.
“Where are the Americans?” people asked, waiting in coffee lines and around Internet linkups. There were many theories. Some blamed the media: The American press wasn’t covering the event. Of 1,500 journalists registered, maybe ten were American, and more than half of those were from Independent Media Centers. Some blamed Bush. The forum was held a week after his inauguration, which meant that most US activists were too busy protesting the theft of the election to even think about going to Brazil. Others blamed the French. Many groups didn’t know about the event at all, in part because international outreach was done mainly by ATTAC, which, Christophe Aguiton acknowledged, needs “better links with the Anglo-Saxon world.”
Most, however, blamed the Americans themselves. “Part of it is simply a reflection of US parochialism,” said Peter Marcuse, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University and a speaker at the forum. It’s a familiar story: If it doesn’t happen in the United States, if it isn’t in English, if it’s not organized by American groups, it can’t be all that important–let alone be the sequel to the Battle of Seattle.
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.
“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.)
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.
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.