Can we make a people’s Europe?

The social model pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, is celebrated as a template for participatory non-sectarian politics and as a means of disseminating new forms of anti-capitalist thinking and organization. As social movements from across the continent prepare for the European equivalent in Paris, Red Pepper assess the possible highlights and long-term legacy of the event as well as the experience of localized social forums in Italy and the UK.

November 1, 2003
9 min read

Social forums Italian-style

Pierluigi Sullo describes how it is in smaller commodities and not the big cities that Italian social forums have been most successful

Social forums spread rapidly in Italy in the aftermath of the Genoa G8 summit in July 2001. By 2002 there were about 250. In the bigger cities like Rome and Milan they organised assemblies of thousands of people. They aspired to create a new kind of politics: a new relationship between organised groups and individuals based on plurality rather than homogeneity, with common action agreed by consensus; voting was not allowed. They started from a rejection of neo-liberal globalisation and concerned themselves with topics such as privatisation, the inequalities of world trade, the environment and Third World debt.

Initially, they attracted people from way beyond the organised left. In many small towns they were, in effect, experiments in participatory democracy. Because left activists were far better at controlling meetings than ordinary citizens and because of the global themes that the forums addressed, this participatory aspect -has not developed in the larger cities. Many of the urban forums have become political or union-led forces mainly concerned with organising street demonstrations, protest and debates.

In smaller places, where the relationship between people, social groups and local power structures is more direct and formalised, the forums evolved into pressure groups proposing new ideas for local government. For example, in Italy there is a tendency to privatise the management of water companies; in dozens of small and medium-sized towns the social forums organised alternative proposals.

The social forum movement exerted its greatest influence at the time of the war on Iraq. In each city ‘coordination’ peace groups were created. These anti-war groups sought local opportunities to hamper the war machine, taking action against US army movements, bases and barracks and companies producing equipment for war. They involved numerous Catholic and missionary groups, the main Italian trade union, the CGIL, and a huge number of individual citizens. It has been calculated that during these months around 3 million rainbow peace flags were hung from the windows of private houses.

The ‘end’ of the war was very hard. There was a strong feeling of regression and defeat. After two years of immersion in the social forum movement, Rifondazione Comunista (RC) (representing the left minority of Italy’s old Communist Party) has begun talks with the Olive-Tree coalition (L’Ulivo) led by the the more Blairite wing of the moderate left Democratici di Sinistra.

Does this mean the end for the social forums? It is too soon to say. The gulf between traditional left-wing politics (whether moderate or radical), with its focus on elections and the national level, and the social forum movement, with its local-global interests, has widened. This might lead to the defection of the part of the movement that organises electorally. But if national government does not yield change the society of the social movements could flourish.

Pierluigi Sullo is editor of Carta, the weekly magazine for Italy’s social movements. Translation by Peter Field, Mariangela Casalucci, Vittorio Longhi

London comes late to the party

Nadia Idle

It’s 10.45am and 200 people are gathered in a classroom, bopping to the vibrant rhythms of African drumming. You would not guess that this is the opening plenary of the first London Social Forum (LSF), which took place at the London School of Economics on 4 October.

The LSF came into being thanks to a group of individuals concerned that Londoners had very little experience of social forums, and were lagging behind the rest of the world in experimenting with these new and seemingly successful models of participatory democracy.

The LSF would be a meeting with a difference. Organiser Marlies Glasius insisted that ‘none of the usual celebrities would be up on the podium’. The LSF would ‘provide a space in which different groups and individuals [could] talk to each other for the sake of acting together and defining common aspirations’. It would provide an opportunity to learn of methods for overcoming ‘the barriers that divide those who are organised around specific issues’. All well and good. But would it work?

The event comprised an opening plenary, morning and afternoon workshops and a closing report-back session. The workshops “covered themes including local transport in London (one of the issues that drove the founding of the LSF), working in London and international topics that are also of concern to Londoners such as the state of affairs in Israel-Palestine and Argentina. There were also theoretical workshops on ‘Democracy and Organisation’ and, with rather eccentric results, the ‘Progressive Utilisation Theory’. The groups that instigated the workshops included the anarchist collective the Wombles, the movement against neo-liberal economics Attac and the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities. Most of the workshops seemed productive, with egalitarian discussions leading to decisions about campaigns and actions.

It was the feel of the LSF that distinguished it from other meetings. There were no empty slogans or preaching to the converted. But if the LSF is to become a truly representative event, then surely workshops must emerge on pensions, crime, the quality of the local environment and the disappearance of local businesses and services.

The organisers hope that social forums will arise in neighbourhoods throughout London. This will only happen if Londoners become the backbone of the force driving the direction of the next LSF meeting on 1 November.

More information: www.londonsocialforum.org

A ‘people’s assembly’ in Manchester

Chris Leach

The second Manchester People’s Assembly on 4 October attracted over 150 people for a day of debate, discussion and activism. The event largely grew out of the city’s Stop the War campaign, and succeeded in achieving its ambitious aim of ‘creating a space where ideas can be exchanged in an atmosphere of mutual respect and actions can be agreed upon’.

It featured a series of workshops on subjects that ranged from the war in Iraq to racism and how to stop the BNP. Red Pepper chaired a workshop on the media. Local issues were also discussed at length, with the ‘corporatising’ of public spaces in Manchester’s city centre being a pnmary concern.

The assembly called a ‘Liberty Day’ for 18 October, proposing a series of actions to highlight civil liberties’ issues and the need for Mancunians to claim back their rights from big business. It also agreed to build protests against George Bush’s November visit to the UK.

Chris Leach is co-director of the progressive web directory Left Direct

Our campaigns cannot be won in isolation

Newcastle Unison secretary Kenny Bell

Over the past two years the Tyneside Public Services Alliance (PSA) has been debating and campaigning about alternatives to neo-liberal economics and the privatisation of public services. PSA is a coalition of public-sector trade union activists and groups campaigning on issues including housing, waste, disability and racism.

It has a strong track record of contesting Newcastle City Council’s efforts to sub-contract its services. It campaigns under the slogan ‘our city is not for sale’, and emphasises involving public service workers and users in developing alternatives.

The alliance faces an uphill task resisting continued efforts to privatise housing, waste and leisure services. Its members know that the battle cannot be won in one city, or one country; that’s why they sent a strong delegation to the first ESF and why they are mobilising an even larger presence at the next ESF in Paris.

The PSA’s supporters come from the full range of left political parties: Labour, the Greens, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party, as well as independents. The alliance is determined that electoral politics unite rather than divide. With this in mind it is working on a joint manifesto, which it hopes will also be a vital campaigning tool against the BNP. It hopes this manifesto will prove that there really is an alternative to neo-liberal economics and New Labour politics.

What not to miss at the ESF

Oscar Reyes

The next European Social Forum (ESF) takes place in and around Paris from 12 to 15 November. Initial estimates suggest an attendance of up to 50,000 delegates.

The ESF is intended as a space to develop political strategies and coordinate practical actions. The large plenary meetings will undoubtedly prove least useful for this purpose, as they are noted more for their rhetoric than their quality of debate. They do, however, offer a chance to see some social movement celebrities, including the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Negri, the writer on economic justice Susan George and the ubiquitous French farmers’ leader Jose Bove. But these big-name speakers can generally also be found in the smaller and more focused seminar sessions.

ESF seminars are co-organised by a bewildering array of civil society organisations, and cover themes ranging from the WTO to Esperanto. One of this year’s main preoccupations is the question of a social Europe, with several interesting proposals coming from the large trade unions. The war on Iraq and its aftermath remain high on the agenda, and the Peace Roundtable event looks particularly interesting. Immigration will also be widely debated, with the offering from the Mouvement de l”Immigration et des Banlieues looking to be the pick of several seminars on this issue.

The most useful sessions will be those that allow for participation and networking for future actions. The St Denis venue – the largest of the four -is offering a permanent seminar room to enable local social forums to mingle. While the workshops will inevitably offer openings to political parties and eccentrics they will also stage some of the ESF’s more innovative debate. The Radical Theory Forum should be a case in point.


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