When I arrive in Britain on Wednesday morning the headlines all announce the woeful state of British pensions. By evening, I discover that not many Britons are aware that tens of thousands of thinkers and activists from across Europe and beyond gather this week in London for the third European Social Forum (ESF). These two observations seem connected. Neo-liberalism, which officially began here with Mrs Thatcher, has not yet finished its dirty work. As Wednesday’s headlines show, it is still bent on destroying hard-earned rights – sorry, “privileges”. Many people seem to take this for granted and consider all resistance futile.
When the social forum concept was first launched in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2000 it was meant to provide a counterweight to that neo-liberal festival, the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. The idea was fruitful and duly multiplied, hiving off smaller replicas of itself in various cities, regions and continents. In the process, the Davos crowd has tended to be forgotten, sometimes even shrugged off as irrelevant by those who proclaim that “another world is possible”.
But Davos, the people who hobnob there, and the institutions they represent, have not gone away. Their ideology, money and rules still dominate the world, creating ever greater social inequalities, destroying democracy and leading us all towards planetary collapse. “Globalisation”, a word invented to convey the false hope of an integrated, inclusive world, has in reality meant the opposite: the rejection and exclusion of hundreds of millions who contribute little or nothing to production and consumption and are thereby considered useless by 21st-century capitalism.
ESF participants utterly oppose the Davos view of “globalisation”. The challenge they face is deadly serious. It deserves the best strategic thinking they can muster in order to mobilise effectively against powerful adversaries, to alter the present balance of forces and ultimately, yes, to change the world.
So far, social forums have fulfilled the goal of providing a space for discussion and confrontation of points of view; they have supplied the citizens’ movement with cogent analysis and come up with a good many concrete proposals. Without the first ESF (Florence, November 2002) and the World Social Forum of Porto Alegre two months later, the spectacular, unprecedented and worldwide mass mobilisation against the Bush/Blair war in Iraq could never have happened. Although the mass movement didn’t succeed in stopping the war (nothing could have done that), it did earn the New York Times accolade of “the second superpower”. That’s quite an achievement for a movement barely five years old, if one counts from Seattle in November 1999.
We now need to apply the same passion and determination to battles which, unlike the one against the Iraq war, we can actually win. Each participant has his or her own list; mine would include international taxation and redistribution, cancellation of third world debt; getting rid of genetically manipulated organisms; and saving public services, health and education from the clutches of the World Trade Organisation. The list is long, but do-able.
What we no longer need are ritual denunciations and constant reminders from the platform that we are in favour of some things (social justice, human rights, democracy, ecological responsibility…) and against others (war, poverty, racism, global warming…). Reiteration of these themes has become the primary function of over-abundant ESF plenary sessions. I cannot imagine any Davos Masters of the Universe quaking in their boots as a result of these ceremonial activities.
The Porto Alegre World Social Forum in 2005 will take the welcome step of eliminating the plenary star-system altogether in order to concentrate exclusively on seminars and workshops. The role of a social forum should be to identify groups worldwide working on similar issues and place them in contact well before the event so that they can set their own agendas and, when they arrive, hit the ground running. This is the way to win.
People from all over the world have been invited to London, but we should keep in mind that this is primarily the European Social Forum, and Europe just now has a lot on its plate. How many Europeans, including those attending the ESF, have ever heard of the Bolkestein directive, a noxious EU proposal which conveniently invents a whole raft of new legal concepts like “the country of origin”? A firm providing any service has only to set up its headquarters in one of the 25 EU countries – Slovenia, say – and, hey presto, Slovenia’s social and labour legislation will apply to that company’s activities throughout the EU. The “receiving” country will no longer have even the right to know what firms have set up shop on its territory – the responsibility for surveillance will be exclusively Slovenia’s, and the said firms can also “import” labour from anywhere so long as they have a residence permit in, you guessed it, Slovenia.
I am myself a convinced European but I cannot vote for the proposed constitution which would enshrine the competitive free market as the heart of Europe’s identity, exclude all mention of solidarity and cooperation; make subservience to Nato mandatory and render all its provisions irreversible for decades.
The EU trade commissioner has given wholehearted support to the WTO, including the services agreement (Gats) whose ultimate goal is to turn all human needs and activities into commodities. I fear ESF participants may learn little about such scandalous subjects – wilfully complicated by the authorities to make opposition more difficult – and most of them will leave London no more equipped to fight against them than when they arrived.
We need therefore to take seriously the “E” in ESF, improve our alliances and determine ways to combine our forces. Whereas the South has undergone decades of “structural adjustment”, better known as austerity and destruction of all social services, most Northerners are only starting to understand that neo-liberal policies apply to them as well. The assault against European citizens, against the welfare state, even against social cohesion, is well advanced. Everything gained by people’s struggles over the past 100 years is once more up for grabs. The ESF does not have the luxury of time to be side-tracked.
The neo-liberal ideal stresses individual responsibility, freedom for business and market solutions; it affirms that private is always better than public, that people “get what they deserve”. We propose instead the rule of law to curb the insatiable appetites of transnational corporations and financial markets; social solidarity with the poor and weak wherever they may live; and participatory democracy as the means to defend and improve the “welfare model”.
At the ESF, as in every other social forum, we should cease ritual, repetitive complaining about the ills of the world and, rather, take the time to examine power coldly, determine its strategic weaknesses and decide, together, how to push our neo-liberal adversaries back until at last they fall over the edge of the political cliff.
â€¢ Susan George is associate director of the Transnational Institute; her most recent book is Another World Is Possible If …