Paul Kingsnorth | 21.10.2004 19:48 | European Social Forum
Full article on http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-6-91-2175.jsp
A friendly young man had brought a kettle, cups and a few packets of tea bags into Alexandra Palace, site of the third European Social Forum (ESF), and had set himself up in one corner of its great hall, underneath an endearingly felt-tipped sign reading “Free Tea”. He was suggesting donations for his local peace group in exchange for the drinks. An enthusiastic queue had formed.
This, I thought to myself, was the kind of small but important detail that made events like this worthwhile. This, after all, was what it was all supposed to be about: people from all across a continent sharing experiences, free space, inspiration and hot drinks in the search for a better world.
It didn’t last long. Soon, a security guard with a buzzing walkie-talkie arrived. A short conversation ensued in which the free-tea man was politely but firmly asked to cease his largesse. He was, it seemed, in direct competition with the official caterers, who were charging £1.40 a cup. Muted outrage ensued. A potential drinker started haranguing the security guard, but the free-tea man tried to defuse the situation. “It’s all right”, he said resignedly. “He’s only doing his job.”
The 2004 European Social Forum was not a success. It was not quite a failure either, and it certainly wasn’t a disaster. Nevertheless, there were deep, wide and widely-noticed problems with it, which many people commented on. The free-tea man’s experience brought just one of them home to me, but it was by no means the only one.
In this article I’ll seek to lay out honestly and starkly what, in my opinion, were the strengths and weaknesses of the London event. Whatever others think of my analysis, it’s important that everyone is able to openly debate this – because only that way will the fast-snowballing phenomenon that is the social forum movement be able to grow in the right direction, and avoid some of the mistakes of the past.
Open or closed doors?
Let’s start with the problems that the event encountered. The free-tea man’s story was indicative of a larger problem with the organisation of the whole forum – not just the way it was organised, but the principles on which it was organised.
Previous social forums have been largely open events. Entrance prices, where they existed, were kept deliberately low, spaces were provided for all to participate, free accommodation was provided and organising committees were deeply, even if often frustratingly, democratic. All this is in keeping with the overall principles of the social forum movement, dedicated to creating open, free, largely non-hierarchical and democratic spaces for serious debate about the future.
In London, unfortunately, things were rather different. It wasn’t possible to get in in the first place unless you bought a ticket for £30 (though there were concessions). If you wanted to stage an event you were expected to shell out over £200 for the privilege of doing so.
Food – most of it terrible, incidentally – was provided by commercial organisations who employed low-paid workers on long shifts. The whole event seemed commercial, centrally-organised and strangely antithetical to what much of this movement has always been about. It had, overall, more of the feel of a large trade-fair (or a Labour party conference, as one disgruntled activist put it to me, ironically) than an open and open-minded forum.
Much of this, in turn, stemmed from the way the event was organised. For over a year there has been serious criticism of the event’s organisers for trying to control the process themselves rather than opening it up to all-comers. When you discover that the key organisation involved was the notoriously anti-democratic Socialist Workers Party (SWP), this may not seem surprising. But in combination with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Authority (GLA), which put an estimated £400,000 towards the event, it was a potent and frustrating combination for many.
Dave Timms, press officer for the World Development Movement, was involved in the long process of organising the London ESF. He explained to me how the SWP in particular had worked from the very start to make the London forum “their event”, run to “their agenda”.
“I’ve been in plenty of meetings where at least a third of those present are SWP members, in various different guises”, he explained. “It’s always the same people, and they consistently packed meetings and voted their own people in as chairs, speakers and organisers. Often we would have meetings in the UK which would be stitched up by the SWP. Then we would take it to a European level and European activists would overturn all the decisions and complain about the lack of democracy in British activism.”
Timms is not alone. Leading NGOs in Britain and many European activist groups involved in the process of organising the 2004 ESF have made similar complaints. In June, the Italian mobilising committee for the ESF published a statement about how the SWP had behaved at a European meeting: “They … were constantly unwilling to enter into real dialogue, tried to impose their own way and were often arrogant or used blackmail, repeatedly refusing to accept decisions and titles which had already been decided hours before. The result was that many of the other delegations were exasperated and were frequently compelled to raise their voices or in turn threaten to leave.”
There is no doubt that the SWP and the GLA worked hard to ensure that the focus of the event, from the themes chosen for discussion to the people selected to speak and chair meetings, was in their hands as much as possible. The consequence was that many activists refused even to come – holding an “alternative ESF” elsewhere in London – and many who did were disappointed. So much so that 300 people invaded a speaker meeting on the Saturday night at which Ken Livingstone had been due to speak to protest about the “undemocratic” nature of the forum.
Nick Dearden from War on Want, who has been involved in social forum organising for years, told me that this one had been the worst yet. “It has sown real bitterness”, he told me. “The SWP have literally pissed off the whole movement in Europe. Even their former European allies won’t work with them again. I think this event has actually set things backwards.” Whether Dearden is right or not in his pessimistic analysis, it has certainly not engendered the kind of atmosphere that social forums are supposed to about creating.
Going with the flow
In 2003, Susan Richards wrote on openDemocracy about the hard left’s attempts to seize the agenda at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Such attempts, she wrote, misunderstood the nature of social forums: they are not “events” to be controlled from the top, but happenings, which gain their strength from below. She was right about that: in London, again, the hard left showed that they had no idea what this was really supposed to be about, and that they weren’t particularly interested.
The danger, though, is that their attempts to grab this movement for themselves could drive away precisely those people who made the movement happen in the first place, and leave a hollowed-out shell of empty leftist rhetoric in its place. It would hardly be the first time.
This organisational problem is partly, though by no means wholly, responsible for another. Many people commented on how many of the speaker meetings and plenary sessions had a “samey” feel to them. One attendee told me, glumly, that it seemed as if every panel was made up of “two boring trade unionists and a Trot.” This was an exaggeration, but one which summed up, somehow, the atmosphere of a forum the main events of which, at least, seemed coloured by the dead hand of the old left.
But there is a wider issue. This is not something that this forum, or even European social forums in general can be blamed for, but it is a problem encountered wherever radicals get together.
The problem is twofold. First, there is simply too much focus on what’s wrong, and not enough on what we can do about it – and how. We all know global capitalism stinks. We also know that war is a nasty thing, American foreign policy is bad, racism isn’t nice and oil companies are unethical. Why, then, do we need speaker after speaker standing up and telling us so? Why do we need to spend any of these three precious days repeating truisms and patting ourselves on the back for agreeing with each other about how bad things are? Five years ago this was useful. Now it’s unnecessary.
This leads neatly onto the second aspect of the problem: why do so many people here agree on so much? It might seem a strange thing to ask of a forum in which Trots, anarchists and NGO moderates were often at each others’ throats, but it is a valid one.
[edited] To read the rest of the article see http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-6-91-2175.jsp
[note of imc-editor (andi): we have received a request from opendemocracy.org to at least backlink to the original, see http://lists.indymedia.org/pipermail/imc-uk-features/2004-October/1026-zf.html ]