Europe: bridging the emotional gap

In search of a fresh argument for the left in Britain to become more European in its thinking and organising, I picked an extraordinary book off my bookshelf: 'Europe in Love; Love in Europe' by Louisa Passerini from the European University Institute in Florence.

November 1, 2005 · 11 min read

Two of its insights deserve particular attention. Firstly, the argument that the distance between emotions and European political institutions is ‘one of the roots of the failure of the political idea of Europe, second to nationalist interests.’ Secondly, the idea that ‘placing love at the core of identity rather than abstract individualism or inherited patrimony based on class, race or region’ provides the basis of chosen affinities as well, or sometimes instead of, inherited ones becoming what constitutes an individual and their relationship with their collectivities.

To be European is mostly a chosen affinity, hence love being closer to the core of our identity is an important condition for the spread of a European identity. Her examination of the cross cutting themes of love and Europe (in fact more Britain and Europe and the changing emotions of the British left towards Europe) between 1920 and 1945 includes two complicated moments in which activists and intellectuals on the British left were prepared to sacrifice their lives for a democratic Europe: the Spanish Civil War and the resistance to Fascism.To illustrate her arguments, she provides an analysis of the writings of two partisans – the poet, John Cornford, who was killed at the age of 21 by Franco’s troops and Frank Thomspon (brother of E.P.Thompson) killed by fascists in the fight for the resistance in Bulgaria.

The context of 21st century Europe and the continent wide struggles against economic insecurity, the destruction of public services and the growth of racism is of course very different but there are strong signs of an equivalent emotional engagement with the idea of a democratic and egalitarian Europe. I am thinking of the extraordinary growth of the European Social Forum (ESF) and all the spreading networks and campaigns that this has generated or reinforced. An outcome of the global social justice movement, the ESF has organised three four-day events – in Florence, Paris, and London – and next April in Athens, around the theme of ‘Another Europe is Possible.’ Forty thousand activists gathered to debate, plan and enjoy. It fits Passerini’s theme. For its momentum, the Forum, despite huge organisation, political and cultural problems, owes much to sharing different cultures and to the international friendships generated in the course of working for a common belief in social justice and human dignity. It is this rather than the cold, remote, intergovernmental negotiations which will lay the foundations for a democratic Europe.

The achievements of the ESF process stem from a recognition of the need for a cross border, trans-European way of organizing, debating and exchanging ideas. This is being reinforced by accumulated skills creating new, international networks for social change. As a result there is a strong dynamic around the ESF as a pan-European civic space, evidenced by significant growth of trade union involvement and by new practical initiatives in co-operation and joint action. Another is the creation, most notably at the 2004 London ESF, of a web or ‘galaxy’ of autonomous spaces, connected by common publicity and by thousands of individual participants whose eclectic political desires gave them the energy to criss-cross London in pursuit of new ideas and connections.

There are important areas of conflict in the ESF which its participants do not fear to face. These concern both the basis upon which the infrastructure of the Forum should be organized and the Forum’s programme, as well as the relationship and dependency of the Forum upon political institutions and their impact upon its autonomy. First the issue of the infrastructure of the Forum: its physical architecture, the organisation of the translation, the management of the knowledge generated, and the way finances are administered – including the relation of free labour and the social economy to services bought commercially from the corporate economy.

These practical issues are also political – they are sites of radical imagination and sometimes, of conflict. For example, many feel uncomfortable listening to panels on food sovereignty and then going to a bar stacked with Coca-Cola. Conflict over these issues has illustrated two sharply different views of politics. If the Forum is treated as a means to an end, on an instrumental approach to politics, then the nature of the space it takes place in, or the means by which it is paid for and organized, don’t much matter. But the predominant ethic of the Forum implies that rather than a means to an end, it is an attempt to prefigure the kind of ‘other world’ that it promises to bring about. Prefigurative politics of this sort is understood not simply an alternative means to reaching the same end. Instead, it recognizes that our knowledge of possible other worlds is incomplete, and that we will only arrive at meaningful social improvements (if not perfect ‘ends’) through refinements developed out of our everyday practices. As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it, ‘Caminante no hay camino se hace camino al andar’ (‘Walker there is no road, the road is made by walking’).

Babels, the network of volunteer interpreters and translators, is another example of prefigurative politics. Born in a squatted medieval tower in Florence, Babels is a non-market alternative to professional translation services – relying on solidarity and a massive collective effort of voluntary labour to make space in which language diversity (and, through that, political and cultural diversity) can flourish.

The Babels network was also involved in the birth of Nomad, an international project for the construction of nonproprietary alternative technologies. Using free-software to record and transmit different translated versions of speeches, it increases the number of different languages that can be offered simultaneously and even more innovatively, it allows for the real-time streaming over the internet of speeches in several different languages.

The – precarious – development of Nomad is an example of the use of the Forum as a laboratory of experimentation for alternative technologies, for volunteer work outside of the money economy, and for alternative ways to engage in noncorporatised, locally appropriate production within a global scope.

Running through the organization of the Forums is a division over organizational principles, summed up (far too crudely) as the division between ‘verticals’ and ‘horizontals.’ These arguments also have wider implications for the debate about the nature of democracy within our movements. On the one side, ‘verticals’ assume the existence and legitimacy of representative structures, in which bargaining power is accrued on the basis of an electoral mandate (or any other agreed means of selection). On the other, ‘horizontals’ aspire to an open relationship between participants, whose deliberative encounters form the basis of any decisions.

There is, however, also a clear danger inherent to the framing of this debate in binary terms (vertical vs. horizontal), which is that the division could harden and become entrenched. Horizontality can be specified as a ‘mode of doing’ but there is a risk that it is becoming a mode of being, an identity formation which defines and delimits itself to a specific group of people; ‘the horizontals’. To fully assume this identity could risk the reproduction of a core/periphery structure which, in antagonistic terms, would undermine the fluid relationship between the ‘official’ Forum and the autonomous spaces from which both potentially derive strength.

Going beyond these divisions in the preparation for the 2006 ESF in Athens is enabling the organizing committee to address a growing dissatisfaction at the Forum’s core programme. Up until now it has been based on a system of national bargaining, weighted in favour of the host country, which has not produced creative outcomes – on the contrary it is leading to repetition and tedium. There is much to learn from the way that activists prepared for the 5th World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre in January 2005.

The 2005 programme was decided through a six month process of consultation with all the campaigns, networks and projects who have participated. The method was, in theory at any rate, one of co-ordination without centralization. The overview is a widely shared one rather than the monopoly of small organizing groups. It is an experiment from which the ESF is learning. The result was messy and problematic as well innovative and productive. It takes time for organizations to get used to working in this way, by which they have to take some responsibility for making the whole process work, rather than just working on their particular project. But it is a methodology that builds on the networking methods that are already second nature to many organizations.

In the first phase of this innovation this could tend to favour organisations that have more resources and time to participate in the process. On the other hand, there is much wider access to the decision-making process than before, every network and group can play a part. We will see. For its success much will depend on the capacity of the process to learn lessons from its experiences and negotiate new solutions.

The need to reclaim the global and globalization from all the varieties of neo-liberalism is leading us, the ‘alter-globalization movement, to produce radically different understandings of space and place. The global is being reproduced and struggled over in every locality – from Manchester to Sao Paulo and beyond. We have a sense of space that allows for a multiplicity of histories simultaneously occurring, rather than a single queue or line of historical development. Therefore what becomes strategically important and interesting is the consciously created connection between these struggles to enhance their collective ability to determine the nature and direction of globalization. In this sense the global is highly concrete. If the movements that are a product of these different but connected histories are to produce democratic counter power internationally then the existence of a means by which locally rooted organizations and networks can exchange and debate the lessons, insights and perspectives arising from their different histories is of vital strategic significance.

Here lies the importance of the ESF, WSF and the international process they and other Social Forums have stimulated. This internationalism is part of a rejection of a politics organized around the nation state. The Social Forum process explores new forms of political agency, new subjectivities, and new agencies of social transformation. The process is an experiment in finding new ways of integrating the particular – demands and campaigns on specific issues – with the universal – the wider effort to bring about a radical transformation of the whole of society. Traditionally political parties have had a monopoly over such a process. The principles of the WSF, the original inspiration of the ESF, specifically exclude the direct participation of political parties and state institutions. This does not mean the Forum is necessarily or invariably anti-party and anti-state. In both Brazil and Italy many of those most energetically building the forum come from parties (the Brazilian Workers Party, PT, and the Italian Refondazione Communista, PRC) trying to open themselves up to the influence and activity of the social movements. The point is that just as the Women’s Movement and movements of ethic minorities argued in the 1970’s, movements of the oppressed and marginalized need autonomy to develop and identify their own needs, identities and sources of power. And that includes thinking through in theory and in practice what forms of political subjectivity/ies to create or recreate.

In that context, relations with existing political institutions will be judged according to how far they behave with a genuine modesty, showing that they recognise the need to learn and support from the movements. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Communista, made an interesting remark: ‘Every way of reforming party policy has to start from an experimental approach; practice has to come before theory&.The collective intellect is the movement and the party is helping to contribute to that but it cannot in itself be that collective intellect.’

The notion of ‘a collective intellect’ is controversial and still to be negotiated in the new conditions of the diversity of the alter-globalization movement but the commitment to a collective process is clear. Negotiation and experimentation will be influenced by the example of Paulo Freire, Antonio Negri ,Antonio’s Gramsci, and by feminist, environment, peace groups and new networks of precarious workers as well as traditional organisations of labour.And it will be driven by chosen affinities that combine the powerful mix of friendship, political commitment and the excitement of intellectual and cultural discovery.See Louisa Passerini Europe in Love; Love in Europe (1999).

This article was published in Catalyst’s What Future for Social Europe? and draws on the newsletter European Social Forum: Debating the challenges for its future (

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