Looking for an alternative

Issue: 106

Mike Gonzalez

It had been a very hot summer in Porto Alegre. The grass was scorched all along the riverbank site where the 2005 World Social Forum was held. Only the converted gas plant which served as a communications centre offered any kind of shade. Unlike previous years, the meeting was divided by areas—environmental, indigenous struggles, social movements, culture, and so on—each with their own complex of different sized marquees to accommodate the meetings and debates.

Walking along through the ranks of tents and past the 2,500 or so talks, you could pick up snatches of the discussions going on inside— though it was over an hour’s march from one end to the other. There were heated conversations about every aspect of the movement—global warming, land rights, sustainable development, the role of trade unions, the future of social movements, the political strategy to follow. It was as if you were listening to the soundtrack of a new, living movement.

The 155,000 gathered in Porto Alegre were the delegates and representatives of a huge and growing movement, multiple in language and background, wide and diverse in its range of concerns. It was extraordinary to think that it had not existed six years earlier—that this movement emerged in Seattle, weathered the post-9/11 demand that we declare ourselves for civilisation against the terrorists, and embraced the anti-war impulse without losing sight of the enemy. Far from being diverted from the critique of capitalism as a system, as some leading intellectuals had feared, a predominantly young mobilisation now rediscovered imperialism, its systematic use of violence in pursuit of economic ends, and linked them in a deceptively simple slogan—‘No blood for oil.’

In January 2003 the third World Social Forum took place just weeks after the election to the Brazilian presidency of Lula, candidate of the Workers Party (the PT), which he had led since its creation in 1980. For the 60 percent of Brazil’s electorate who supported him, Lula’s election promised change. The civil servants who had been fighting for years over their pension rights, the landless workers whose organisation (the MST) had been involved in bitter struggles with private gunmen and government forces for nearly two decades, the poor families who were pressing for a democratised education system, all had invested their optimism in Lula. And it was optimism encouraged by many sections of the left, including one Trotskyist tendency, the DS, which joined his government—and remains there.

Yet when Lula visited the forum in 2003, and was rapturously received, he was already on his way to the World Economic Forum at Davos, where he would be photographed shaking hands with the luminaries of the world financial system. The World Social Forum began two years before precisely as an alternative, a counterweight to the meetings of the bankers whose decisions would directly affect the vast majority of the peoples of the world while giving them no access or involvement in reaching those decisions. So it was particularly ironic that Lula should go straight from Porto Alegre to Davos.

The WSF, after all, was not intended as a lobbying group but as an alternative, a place where the strategies of resistance against the programmes and projects of the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF could be discussed and coordinated. It was already obvious, however, that Lula was bent on renegotiating the terms of Brazil’s engagement with the world economy, not on challenging or rejecting them. His first tests came early in 2003, with the confrontation with the civil service unions, new land occupations and the nomination of representatives of capital to key posts like the head of the national bank and the ministry of agriculture. Three PT deputies and a senator opposed to the government’s pensions and tax policies were first disciplined and later expelled from the party.

Meeting two years later (the intervening WSF took place in January 2004 in Mumbai, India) the promise and the disillusionment could not help but shape the atmosphere and political direction of the forum. Lula’s presence caused friction, anger and frustration. There was no sign of the euphoria of two years earlier, despite the attempts by the PT to recreate it at Lula’s rally in the Gigantinho sports stadium on the first day. But it was a staged affair: the seats had been packed early with party loyalists, though there were a small number of critics who shouted from the benches. A demonstration outside by a number of left groups accused Lula of betrayal.

But in a sense the evidence of a wider disaffection was provided by the PT’s recent loss of power in the city. And this was Porto Alegre, the symbol of a new kind of political arrangement embodied in the ‘participatory budgets’. Some of the key figures in the WSF organising committee, people like Hilary Wainwright, had written passionately about the Porto Alegre experiment. It seemed to fit well into the framework of arguments about taking power without necessarily seizing the state.

In fact it was always open to serious question, as the popular assemblies could only discuss the allocation of a small proportion of the municipal budget, let alone address the overall priorities of the distribution of wealth on a national scale.

In any event, the loss of Porto Alegre was an enormous blow, and no amount of grandstanding could conceal that from a radical Brazilian audience. But the reality was that the implications of Lula’s defeat set the whole political agenda. The national rally of PSOL (the Socialism and Freedom Party founded by the deputies expelled from the PT and others) drew some 1,800 mainly young people and announced the creation of a political space of great potential significance. On a wider panorama, the Lula experience called into question the very positive spin that sections of the movement had placed on the group of new Latin American presidents—Gutiérrez in Ecuador, Kirchner in Argentina, Parra in Paraguay, Chávez in Venezuela (and the recently elected president of Uruguay, Tabaré Vázquez). Kirchner still enjoyed some degree of popular credibility because he had moved against the perpetrators of the human rights abuses under previous military government and seemed to be acting with some independence in the face of international capital. Gutiérrez, on the other hand, had compromised and abandoned his commitments to the mass movement that carried him to power.

Just before the conference the death was announced of the venerable Brazilian economist Celso Furtado, the main architect of a theory of dependency and its attendant strategies of independent national economic development. Months before his death he had broken with Lula—and the new president did not attend his funeral. The symbolism was inescapable. The promise of a solution based on a single nation-state taking on a global capitalist system had foundered in Brazil as it had in Ecuador and elsewhere.

Yet the forum had always had at its heart a strong current of reformism led by ATTAC, the coalition opposed to international finance whose strongest section was in France, and the majority of NGOs. For them the focus was always on a moral case which could persuade social democratic governments to acknowledge a responsibility to aid and debt relief programmes. Blair and Brown’s much-vaunted Africa initiatives, for example, seemed to encourage that kind of approach. On the other hand the recent failure of most of the governments of the wealthy nations to deliver aid in any quantities to the victims of the tsunami called that perspective into question. And recent Latin American experience, with Lula at its heart, did not augur well for any serious challenge to global capital and its priorities—despite the defiance displayed at the WTO conference in Cancun last year.

Against this background, strategic questions were again on the unwritten but acknowledged agenda of many of those present at Porto Alegre.

It had always been a rule of the social forums that political organisations should not take part directly. The rationale was that the problems should be addressed in terms of practical solutions and in a wide-ranging debate. The rule was always honoured in the breach—but it did have the advantage of limiting the intervention of political parties with little or no involvement in the movement. In some ways, the physical organisation of the forum—this year in particular—encouraged the view of its work as a series of parallel and specific debates, with strategic thinking informed by ‘regional’ considerations alone. This year, as opposed to all previous years (and very particularly to Mumbai), there was no central event or space which could bring together all the components and create a sense of the whole movement—with all its tensions and contradictory pressures.

This undoubtedly did present a problem at this key conjuncture. Faced with the failure of the Lula alternative, the central question for all of us was how to develop a central and united strategy to confront the highly centralised and coordinated project of global capital. In 2003 the decision to back the worldwide protest against the Iraq war on 15 February brought 20 million people into activity worldwide and vindicated our common purpose. This year, while the Assembly of Social Movements did emerge ultimately with a clear anti-war position and a call for global action on 19 March, it was harder to achieve than two years earlier, precisely because there was an emphasis on diversity and fragmentation rather than unity of action.

Yet at the same time there was clearly a counter-impulse within the forum. If fragmentation encouraged a lobbying view of the political role of the forums (world, regional, social) there was a different, although not fully formed, political understanding present as well. The questions that were being debated showed the openness of many delegates to discussions about socialism, alternative ways of organising society and explorations of how a different world might look and feel.

And in some ways the alternative was summarised—in a rather contradictory way—by the reception given to Hugo Chávez. He appeared at the end of the forum—in effect his visit to the Gigantinho stadium was the closing act of the forum. And it was clear that the reception he was given was spontaneous and authentic—unlike Lula’s in the same place a few days earlier. For three and a half hours he addressed a crowd inside the arena, and outside it, with the kind of populist rhetoric he is so good at. He spoke with real instinct to the audience he had before him, insisting on his anti- imperialism, arguing for the arming of the people and for the first time ever describing his political objective as a socialist revolution.

Chávez symbolised a more radical alternative with its emphasis on organisation from below, on popular power and on a vision of a socialist future. And in that sense, he spoke for and to the anxieties and concerns of the majority of the delegates to the forum, particularly the young, for whom the issue now was a way forward moving from protest and resistance towards a purposive struggle.

The problem, of course, was that what Chávez said at Porto Alegre was not at all the same thing as what his government is doing. Within Venezuela, the movement for change is also facing a crossroads. It is the upsurge from below that has saved Chávez three times in the last three years from the attempts by the right to overthrow him. But on each occasion he had pulled back from the demands of the movement, seeking compromise with the US and even with sections of the bourgeoisie. The government itself includes people who are bitterly hostile to the project of popular power and democracy from below to which Chávez committed himself in Porto Alegre.

Thus, while Chávez could symbolise the alternative the movement was seeking, he could not claim to be implementing it. If there was a model of a different kind of power, it came not from Venezuela but from Bolivia, where a mass popular movement had twice defeated capitalist economic strategies imposed by the international financial agencies.

For the left, the challenge of Porto Alegre and the period to come is twofold: to build the movement in all its breadth and diversity, as activists and organisers on the one hand, and to raise within that movement the larger political questions on which the revolutionary socialist tradition can offer a body of understanding, experience and ideas. But in fulfilling that double task, there are habits that have to be abandoned—habits of sectarianism and isolation, of a refusal (or perhaps an inability) to engage with those sections of workers, for example, whose daily resistance will bring them into a closer engagement with those ideas—but whose starting point may well be distant from that of the left.

The successful experiences of recent times, the anti-war movement, for example, have built a united front around shared objectives; that has then become the space in which the politics of revolutionary transformation, whose starting point is exactly that self-activity of the class, can begin to take root and make sense. The openness of PSOL’s first congress was an encouraging sign of the possibilities to come. For if the World Social Forum has taught us anything it is that in the absence of revolutionary ideas as a living force within the movement other ideas will fill the void, ideas which cannot offer the prospect of a socialist democracy or a transfer of power out of the hands of that minority that today seems so ready to place the future of the planet in jeopardy.

Further Reading

Critical Reflections on the Fifth World Social Forum by Alex Callinicos and Chris Nineham