From Protest To Politics

From Protest To Politics

A report from Porto Alegre on the “antiglobalization” movement.


Porto Alegre, Brazil

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.”

No Blueprints, Please: Just ‘Deglobalization’

Perhaps Professor Chomsky, understandably, got a bit carried away on the high emotional tide. Fortunately, no manifestoes, marching orders or instant recipes for a New Society issued forth from the WSF. Instead, the focus was on what Emilio Taddei of the Buenos Aires-based Latin American Council on Social Sciences said were the five main areas of concern facing the movement: “Strategies to confront international financial agencies, imposing controls on international capital, the relationship between politics and civil society, the tactics of protest and international solidarity.” From the week of reflection and debate a consensus seemed to emerge as to how and where to move the fight forward after the setback of September 11:

§ Redefine the Movement. There was general agreement that the time had come to reposition the movement in affirmative terms–moving from a stance of exposing and protesting to proposing alternatives and solutions. “We are labeled as anti, anti, anti,” said Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach. “We need to change that perception. It’s they who are anti. We are a movement for democracy. For equity. For the environment. For health. They are for a failed status quo.” She joked, “You can see I’ve got who we are down to about fifty words. Now we’ve got to get it down to bumper-sticker size.”

There was also recognition that after the bloody confrontations in Genoa, and certainly after the World Trade Center attacks, the movement could no longer afford any ambiguity about its stance on violence. “Too often we get dragged into a swamp debating what is euphemistically called ‘diversity of tactics,'” said one European environmentalist. “Now we need to speak up and say clearly that violence, as a political tactic, just doesn’t work either in the United States or in Europe.”

§ Escalate the Fight Against the World Trade Organization: “Shrink It or Sink It.” There was wide agreement that the ministerial meeting of the WTO last fall in Qatar was a clear setback for the poorer countries of the global South, notwithstanding some rhetorical genuflections toward issues of equity by the richer countries. “We have to strip the image of the WTO,” said Martin Khor, founder of the Third World Network. “And given that the WTO is becoming the most powerful multilateral organization in the world, there’s an added urgency to the task.” The still-tenuous new trade round launched at the Qatar meeting aims to expand WTO authority radically into even more areas of global commerce and culture. At a minimum, the WTO and its power have to shrink.

One key part of this fight, Khor argued, is for the movement to make clear that the WTO isn’t unfair just because it is for free trade. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “The WTO is about free trade and protectionism at the same time. It’s about a double standard that continues to protect rich countries against products that poor countries are good at exporting.” Tackling the WTO, argued Canadian Tony Clark of the Polaris Institute, means campaigns ranging from what he called “reformist” strategies of suing multinationals and imposing codes of conduct on them to “radical strategies that question the right of existence of corporations.”

§ Block the Free Trade Area of the Americas. At least in the Western Hemisphere, the frontlines of the fight will be against the White House push to approve the thirty-four-country FTAA–a proposal that its critics call “NAFTA on Steroids.” “The FTAA is no less than a coup de grâce to Latin America’s development and environmental protection,” said economist Miosotis Rivas Peña of the Dominican Republic. There’s crackling energy around this issue, and it sparked during the forum. “We will fight [the FTAA] every possible way, and we will defeat it,” vowed Luiz Ignacio “Lula” Da Silva, Brazil’s most important opposition politician. As head of the left-of-center Workers Party, which already governs large parts of Brazil, “Lula” is currently topping the polls in this fall’s presidential election. The FTAA “isn’t really a free-trade pact,” Lula said. “Rather, it’s a policy of annexation of Latin America by the United States.”

Much of the leadership in the fight against the FTAA is expected to come from Brazil, which has the biggest economy in Latin America and the ninth-largest in the world. Many Brazilians see their country as the prime target for the corporatist agenda behind the FTAA. Multinational interests covet not only the resource-rich Amazon but also potentially profitable targets for privatization in a country that still maintains a heavy state presence in its economy.

In December the Bush Administration won a one-vote majority in the House on “trade promotion authority” for fast-track negotiations on the FTAA. It will still have to pass the Senate and then go back to both houses for reconciliation votes, where opponents think they have a good chance of killing it. In Porto Alegre, plans were floated to call for a series of national plebiscites on the trade pact–giving ordinary citizens a voice in the debate. Wallach said, “Our best weapon is the ‘Dracula strategy’–exposing the details of the pact to the light of public scrutiny.”

The primary line of attack on the FTAA will be the extraordinary powers it grants to private corporations, allowing them to sue national governments that take any measure that could impinge on profits. The model used in drafting this aspect of the FTAA is the notorious Chapter 11 provision of NAFTA [see William Greider, “How the Right Is Using Trade Law to Overturn American Democracy,” October 15, 2001], which has allowed a US company to sue Mexico for attempting to block toxic dumping and a Canadian company to sue the United States because of California’s clean-water standards. The international campaign against the FTAA was formally jump-started here last week with a march of 25,000 organized by the World Social Forum and the Brazilian Central Trade Union Confederation, CUT.

§ Propose a New World Financial Architecture. The International Forum on Globalization, which groups together a number of prominent anticorporate campaigners and strategists, used the occasion of the WSF to release an advance summary of a report on alternatives to corporate globalization that will be published soon. Economist Bello, a member of the report’s drafting committee, outlined a post-cold war vision that seeks a third way between the two failed models of the twentieth century. “There is no blueprint,” he said. “We’ve had two blueprint disasters in the past fifty years: centralized socialism and corporate capitalism. We need something different.”

Bello proposes that we think not in terms of withdrawing from the international economy but rather of a process of “deglobalization.” This would mean reorientation of local economies toward domestic and not foreign markets; significant land and income redistribution; policies de-emphasizing growth and maximizing equity; and implementation of a strategy that subordinates markets to social justice. “Which likewise means we also have to rethink the role of the state,” said Professor Alberto Arroyo, a trade studies expert from Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “When we are talking about a new and strengthened role for the state, we have to be talking about a new kind of state–one subject to real democratic controls by civil society.” Otherwise, he said, what results is a failed model of centralized, bureaucratic socialism. Other thinkers argue for the so-called Tobin tax, which would impose a levy on international financial transactions to finance global development. And some call for a full-scale global Marshall Plan.

Any of this requires a new system of global financial governance that would supplant agencies like the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. “When it comes to these international institutions,” Bello said, “it’s not a matter of replacing neoliberal principles with social democratic ones. Rather it’s about decommissioning, neutering and disempowering these organizations while revitalizing regional pacts and UN groups, and constructing new institutions that would devolve production and trade decisions to national economies that would have the space to pursue diverse development strategies and not be bound to one centralized model.”

Bringing It All Back Home

At last year’s WSF there was a constant buzz about the conspicuous absence of US delegates–there was only a sprinkling of US attendees. But this year’s event drew more than 400 stateside representatives, making the US delegation the fifth-largest. The AFL-CIO sent a small but high-level group headed by federation executive vice president Linda Chavez Thompson. And president John Sweeney electrified the crowd at the opening-night celebration with a live satellite video greeting from the New York City street protests against the World Economic Forum.

Labor-backed Jobs With Justice (JWJ), working with other Washington-based groups, put together a “New Voices” delegation of about forty frontline community activists, ranging from members of a Communications Workers local in Massachusetts to Southwestern environmentalists, immigrant textile workers and Florida healthcare organizers. “Up to now I haven’t been involved in the antiglobalization campaigns,” said an ebullient Tracy Yassini, development director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has fought effectively for a living wage and union rights. “But coming out of this forum, now I feel I have an obligation to get linked up.”

Overall, the Americans kept a low profile in the forum, deferring to the Europeans and Latin Americans, who were recognized as being vastly more experienced in building oppositional social and political movements. But they were treated with respect: Superstar attention was lavished on Chomsky, and Americans Lori Wallach from Public Citizen and Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies were on headliner panels.

There seemed to be a general notion among the Americans present that they were at a decisive moment: that in the post-Seattle rush, the movement’s tactics had started running way ahead of its strategy, that protest was supplanting politics and that it was time to re-evaluate. “Seattle brought us visibility,” said one organizer. “But it also brought so many people at once into the movement that our goals got muddied. Leadership got weakened and dispersed. We’ve actually lost much of the initiative in the past year and a half.” The next stage, suggest some delegates, is to dig in. “It’s ever clearer that this can’t be a movement of hops from one summit to another,” said JWJ executive director Fred Azcarate. “It’s going to be a very long haul.”

It would be disingenuous to deny that the US movement faces serious roadblocks. The blue-green coalition has frayed, and tension between much of organized labor and the rest of the movement is real. “The biggest problem inside the Seattle coalition isn’t the war,” said one key US activist. “The problem is around those who want to use violence. The post-9/11 labor movement doesn’t want its rank and file to see its leaders in street demonstrations that turn violent. Labor is simply no longer on board for any ambiguity.” Bad blood is also brewing around the Bush Administration’s energy policy. The Teamsters, Mine Workers and building-trades unions support the White House on proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (as does the AFL-CIO in a more nominal way); nowadays their reps won’t sit in some meetings with the Sierra Club, which opposes expanded drilling.

Some Teamster/turtle channels remain open. And in spite of the differences, work proceeds on several common projects. Public Citizen’s Wallach is confident that coming out of Porto Alegre, and with the nonlabor part of the movement better focused, the coalition will be reinforced. “We have too much in common not to keep working together,” she said.

Civil Society or Civil Disobedience?

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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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