‘Something in the world forces us to think. This something is not an object but a fundamental encounter’ – Gilles Deleuze.
Social Forums are spaces of encounter, or at least they should be. As the Zapatistas noted, encounters offer a mirror and a lens, a means to reflect movements and to focus energies. To find our own struggles refracted through others experiences and in the same process to find these struggles changed, opened and multiplied. Spaces of encounter are fundamentally different to spaces of representation and this difference is at the heart of the organised left failing to understand the concept of a social forum. Whilst a few of them have learned the lyrics, so far the tune evades them.
In order to understand why, it is important to know something of who was involved in turning the ‘official’ ESF in to an ideologically homogenous trade fair at Alexandra Palace. Equally, we don’t need to know too much to know that such an outcome was the inevitable result of professional politicians – union leaders or party cadre - manipulating processes of decision-making, buying political power, restricting information and strong-arming those who dissent, whilst still claiming to represent ‘the movement’, workers or some combination of both. All of the above were commonplace in the UK ESF process and despite the simplistic temptation to portray this as the result of some anarchist/Marxist schism the reality is more complex.
In bringing the ESF to London the SWP, Socialist Action and parts of the GLA envisaged a set of political opportunities. Whilst their perceptions and motivations varied markedly, there was sufficient common ground amongst these groups to pursue control of the forum. Socialist Action set out to play their usual covert role, asserting influence within the left yet insulating their paymaster (Livingstone) from any negative fall out. Livingstone in turn was happy to play socialist Mayor and municipalist, apparently alive to the need for social change but restricted by the realities of limited power and centralised government, a solid performance he’s perfected over a number of years.
For the SWP, however, the stakes were bigger and involved their desire to demonstrate a base within the alter-globalisation movement in order to sure up their negotiating position in a European realignment of the Trotskyist left. Over the past two years, Alex Callinicos on behalf of the Central Committee of the SWP has sought an intellectual and political accord with the LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) an influential Trotskyist party in France who are active in a number of movements and movement organisations, including ATTAC and the French WSF organising process. This tactical rapprochement is considered by the SWP to be strategically advantageous, yet ironically it was criticised by the LCR who suggested the SWP were a ‘verticalist’ organisation unable to recognise the autonomy of the social movements. Criticisms that interestingly predate the vertical/horizontal debate that lit up the variety of ESF lists in the months before the event. It seems the LCR has heard the tune even if it doesn’t want to dance!
So what is this tune, this refrain of the movements that the organised left seems mostly unable or unwilling to hear. Marcos alluded to it when he suggested that:
‘The revolution in general is no longer imagined according to socialist patterns of realism, that is, as men and women stoically marching behind a red, waving flag towards a luminous future: rather it has become a sort of carnival.’
Instead of the linear march of the faithful to the tune of the vanguard the alter-globalisation movement is traceable in those rhythms of thought and action that prefer to privilege encounters and transgressions, communication and reflection. These traces are multiple and non-linear. They are participatory, intellectual, embodied and affective and were often in evidence in the autonomous spaces of the ESF. Whether in the theoretical articulation of the commons conducted during ‘Life Despite Capitalism’, or traversing the concepts of precarité and complexity that found expression in the ‘Radical Theory Forum’. In the subversive street theatre of confusion unleashed by the ‘Laboratory of insurrectionary imagination’ or throughout the affinity groups, spokes councils, disruptions and parties conducted ‘Beyond the ESF’. Of course, they were also profoundly in evidence during the rhythms of resistance, creative fora and carnival blocs that illuminated the drabness of grey skies and earnest speeches and which managed to combine celebration with solidarity. All of these are in direct contradiction to the presumption of representation that animates the organised left, representation that presumes to define, determine, solidify and control a movement of movements that arose in defiance of such mediation and continues to grow despite the best attempts of leftist parties to strangle it.
Representation, of course, cannot simply be willed away, in many ways it is as much a problem for those who advocate direct or participatory forms of democracy yet simultaneously presume to speak for ‘missing constituencies’: people absent from the physical space where the decision is made; future generations; other sentient beings; the environment and so on. These are philosophically fascinating and somewhat intractable problems but the practice that raises these questions equally implies a rejection of crude syntheses articulated by parties where difference is to be assimilated and singularity crushed.
If we value encounter over representation, one question that perhaps needs raising is the multiplication of autonomous spaces. Perhaps we should ask whether this is an example of hybridity and complexity or whether it indicates the embedding of specific identities that are then reinforced by their performance amongst sympathetic audiences. A process of self-ghettoisation can easily arise where we chose to organise alongside friends, events that we know will attract similar people to ourselves. Encounter also implies a degree of friction and confrontation, which can energise or debilitate depending upon how it proceeds. Such friction is often a necessary part of movements traversing problems and oppositions and provoking intensities that leap the gap separating the potential from the actual.
In this sense whilst proliferation is healthy and encounters occur through the random passage of people through places, perhaps the logic of the encounter suggests a need for mechanisms to cross-fertilise these autonomous initiatives and multiply links and communications. Some of this was already in evidence, such as the Lab of ii feedback sessions at the Indymedia centre, the Infoespai (Barcelona) project to produce a thematic directory of autonomous groups and movement networks, the rampart radio project and the wikis at altspaces.net and esf2004.net. These are indicative of the radically democratic culture that these movements have produced and no doubt we can imagine other possibilities: coordinating assemblies, twinning exchanges between groups, spokes-councils for the autonomous spaces etc all of which will push us further beyond the monoculture and formulaic rhetoric of the leftist bandwagon that went so far off the rails in London.
In the meantime, it’s good to see the autonomous spaces are being described, documented and extended in processes which will become irreducible to the events that catalysed them.