Michaela Collins continues her analysis of 'social forums' by looking at the European Social Forum and how it differs from the World Social Forum
In Solidarity 3/14, I looked at the origins of the World Social Forum, which has met twice in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The WSF, I concluded:
- is anti-neoliberal rather than anti-capitalist;
- blurs class contradictions in a north/south, developed/developing world dichotomy;
- is focussed on movements rather than parties;
- is dominated by the NGOs' tripartite partnership model;
- looks to pressure on governments and trans-national institutions rather than class struggle;
- is discussion rather than action-oriented;
- discussions are exploratory rather than deliberative.
In some ways the ESF follows this model. But the European, and specifically Italian, context has created certain differences and tensions between the ESF and WSF.
Europe is the heartland of imperialism and the birthplace of capitalism. Economic nationalism, building up the domestic economy behind trade barriers, and allying with national capitalists (as Lula has done in Brazil) against the IMF, could look "progressive" in Latin America, Asia or Africa.
In Europe it is utterly and unconditionally reactionary. The "no to the euro" campaign in Britain is an example of how opposing the institutions of international capital can shade over into defence of national interest.
For European workers to give any concessions to their "own" capitalists is suicidal. Their only realistic prospect is international solidarity, against both their own capitalists and the international capitalist world order.
This gives a particular spin to the debate about political parties or movements.
In Brazil the landless rural workers movement (MST) represents radical, grassroots activists more than the Workers Party (PT) with which it is associated. They can thus see exclusion of political parties as a way of resisting electoralist pressures from the PT to discontinue actions like the land seizures or moderate workers demands in order to keep their capitalist allies on side. In Latin America political parties are noted for their extreme corruption and are very often linked with murderous military dictators. To counterpose civil society to political parties is in some ways an understandable defence.
The situation in Europe derives from a very different history. And is much further down the road than the just-elected PT.
The traditional workers' parties, whether they call themselves "socialist", "social democratic" or "communist", have held power, either alone or in coalition. As a result of their abysmal record they are in crisis. For decades they have called on the workers to hold back from class struggle in the national interest. Now they have become, like New Labour, the mouthpieces of "modernising" international capital.
In Italy, Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), which came out of the disintegration of the old Communist Party, was central in organising the general strikes and mass demonstrations against Berlusconi's attacks on workers' rights. It is very much a "movement-party".
In contrast, ATTAC, a "movement" which is heavily represented in the main conferences of the ESF, is politically associated with sections of the French Parti Socialiste, much further to the right than PRC. The "anti-party" stand is more clearly rightist than at Porto Alegre. The NGOs don't want the extremism of the far left parties to compromise their relationship with governments. The real division is not between political parties and movements, but between the different political ideas being debated out within and between parties and movements.
Talk or action?
Some activists, particularly anarchist / autonomist groups, have argued that the ESF will just be a "talking shop". It is an attempt by respectable (i.e., rightist) NGOs to grab the reins of the anti-capitalist movement and lead it off in a reformist direction.
They contrast it with the events of Genoa last year, where the Genoa Social Forum succeeded in disrupting the G8, but at the cost of the life of Carlo Giuliani and a savage police assault on protesters while they slept. This seems to confuse radicalism with sheer activism.
Similarly, the SWP, who dominate the English mobilisation were very keen to push for a demonstration in Florence "so that something comes out of it". It is an odd prioritising of bodies on the streets over ideas.
There were three million on the streets of Italy this year. The problem is winning them to politics that can take them forward from filling the streets to running society.
The job of socialists is to make sure "something comes out of it" in the sense of building links across Europe and laying the basis for Europe-wide workers' solidarity - as a first step a European Charter of Workers Rights.
The huge conferences, addressed by "experts" and dignitaries, may not be deliberative, but they are an opportunity to speak to large numbers - not a chance to be passed up. The thousands who will attend, who define themselves as anti-capitalist in some sense, will be a ready audience for political ideas that go beyond pressurising our "friends" in government.
Future events must address democratic decision-making. For now the ESF is an opportunity to make a start along the road of European workers' unity.