The World Social Forum, and the spread of social forums around the world, in some respects is a reaction to this. One of the ideas of this concept is to allow a space for dialogue for the different actors (trades unions, Non Government Organisation's, social movements etc) to try to hammer out some common ideas on how to reach the future society. However, the process has not been unproblematic and has led to controversies and to accusations that the structure and functioning of these bodies are undemocratic and unrepresentative of 'the new movement'.
The WSF was initiated by a coalition of Brazilian civil society groups with much of the organisation undertaken by the Workers Party (PT) that controls Porto Alegre and the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The WSF, and its offspring, the European Social Forum present themselves as venues where all the different tendencies can be represented but in reality the agenda being followed is that of the founders and controllers and more radical elements are consistently being sidelined and obstructed. As one activist Jason Adams wrote, in Porto Alegre the PT "jealously controlled the organizing committee of the WSF" with the result that one person remarked "we thought the WSF was going to be an open event, but then when we attempted to get involved and take part it was made clear to us that we would be given no decision making power at all...we were excluded from the actual planning and execution of the event". At the World Social Forum of 2001, anarchists and ecologists affiliated with People's Global Action protested against this exclusion and in 2002 their protests led to the Workers Party calling in riot police; as Indymedia posters pointed out, "Porto Alegre isn't the social democratic paradise that the PT makes it out to be".
The European Social Forum in Florence was also dominated by authoritarians and reformists. All the main speakers were chosen in advance by the organisers. The inevitable result were meetings with the celebrity names you would expect such as Jose Bove, Susan George, Tariq Ali) and the organisations you would expect (SOS Racisme, ATTAC, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Pax Christi).
The control exercised by certain factions, the non-participatory nature of these events and the top down structures mean that the Social Forum movement "shares less and less of the characteristics that made this movement what it is: horizontal networks, no leaders, broad participation, open communication, self-organisation and diversity of movements and opinions" . Some criticisms go further, with some claiming that the "bureaucratic left" is using the process to "To appropriate a struggle in which they do not participate" and to "catapult themselves to be elected like an alternative to the government".
The experience of being sidelined and sabotaged at the social forums have left more radical activists wondering whether to "abandon or contaminate" (i.e. try to participate and push direct democracy and participatory politics) the Social Forums. On the one hand groups are wary of assisting in the co-option and assimilation of our politics, on the other hand many people are attracted to the social forums because of what they have seen and heard of the anti-capitalist movement and because, in part at least, of our politics and actions, not taking part means abandoning these people to the trots, social democrats and other assorted vampires. Following from this idea groups affiliated to Peoples Global Action (which called the original 'global action days') established the Hub Camp as an autonomous space at the 2002 ESF in Florence 'not in competition' and 'not anti-ESF' to facilitate networking between groups and individuals and to 'contaminate by association the ESF with non-hierarchical practices'.
At the end of the day the social forums, at best, are a space where different people working against neo-liberalism and those interested in that struggle can come together. Obviously this is a good thing and is the reason why we (the WSM) have taken part in the transparent and openly organised Irish Social Forum. At its worst the social forums can be stage-managed election and recruitment platforms for authoritarians and reformists. At the same time the social forums have attracted hundreds of thousands of people seeking a way to change the world we live in, we should not marginalise ourselves nor turn our backs on them. Instead we should present our politics and our ways of working together and explore the possibilities that result. Instead of abandoning the SF movement we should use it as a way to argue for changing society from below, not lobbying or seeking to merely replace those above.
The first Irish Social Forum was held in University College Dublin the weekend of the October 18. Over 170 people registered from what the organisers described as "a diverse range of up to 40 citizens groups, organisations and NGOs".
After the experience of Globalise Resistance many had been concerned that the ISF would simply become another recruitment front for the SWP. This was not the case, the range of forums and workshops was broadly reflective of the anti-neoliberal movement as it exists in Ireland. Everyone I talked to who attended felt they had got something from the experience.
The one criticism is the obvious one connected to the WSF. The refusal to take positions on particular aspects of neo-liberalism in order to keep the reformists and NGO's on board. Talking shops have some use but anarchists prefer bodies like the Grassroots Gathering which are willing to build libertarian struggle against the specifics of neoliberalism and so have an essential role.
This edition is No78 published in November 2003