European Social Forum: debating the challenges for its future

After three European Social Forums (ESF) we need to step back and ask: what next? The successes and achievements of the European Social Forum (ESF) process stem from the strong desire amongst almost every social justice initiative for a cross border, trans-European way of organising, debating and exchanging ideas. This felt need is being reinforced by accumulated skills at creating new agencies for social change.

December 1, 2004 · 19 min read

There were many signs in London of the ESF process having a momentum of its own, whatever the organisational and political problems encountered in the course of it. One sign was the significant growth of trade union involvement and with it the achievement of new practical initiatives in cross border co-operation and joint action. Another was the creation, across London, 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. A further achievement is the as yet undocumented range of networks and initiatives created and strengthened in the spacious but crowded ballrooms of Alexandra Palace and the inner city halls and backrooms of Conway Hall, the Camden Centre, and Middlesex University . By way of example: several NGOs used the forum to plan for a Global Week of Action Against Free Trade. Others initiated an International Tribunal of Ecological Debt, Environmental Justice and Human Rights and launched campaigns such as Stop EPA, which is contesting the EU’s neo-liberal Economic Partnership Agreements. Unison and Ver.di – the British and German public sector trade unions – reached a formal co-operation agreement at the ESF to jointly resist privatisation. The Assembly of the Social Movements was an opportunity, once again, to disseminate several calls to action – including a pan-European day of action against war, racism and a neo-liberal Europe on 19 March. Nor were these initiatives restricted to the ‘official’ spaces. ‘Beyond the ESF’ played host to the first Assembly of the Precariat, which forged some interesting new alliances as well as bringing the concept of ‘precarity’ into focus.

These positive outcomes were not achieved without considerable difficulties and tensions within the organisation of the London ESF, however, and that experience has led many activists to reflect on the basic aims and purposes of the forum. The ESF process has invited this process of renewal, with meetings to reflect upon its achievements and limitations taking place in Paris and Brussels in preparation for the start of the organising process for the next ESF, which will take place in Athens in the spring of 2006.

As a contribution to this ongoing debate, we suggest that the Forum should be considered as a space to explore new agencies of social transformation, and to consolidate the connections between them in order to constitute a democratic counter power that extends across national boundaries. This does not necessarily mean breaking off relations with political parties and state institutions, but it does require that their support for the Forum should be characterised by a genuine modesty and respect for the autonomy of the social networking process that takes place there. We also argue that the infastructure of the Forum, the practical arrangements that are required to make possible a transnational convergence on this scale, should emphasise experimentation. This is a crucial goal if the Forum is to prefigure the kind of ‘other world’ that it promises to bring about, since the achievement of meaningful social improvements requires the refinements and learning processes that develop out of our everyday practices as well as theoretical reflection. Finally, we reflect upon the implications of adopting a set of participatory principles for the organisation of the Forum and its programme, drawing attention to the decentralised character of the new methodology adopted by the organisers of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2005.

Traditional national institutions and new international subjectivities

The need to reclaim the global and globalisation from all the varieties of neo-liberalism is leading the alter-globalisation 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 globalisation. 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 organisations 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 the rejection of a politics organised primarily around the nation state. The move away from such politics is two fold: turning away from the confines of the nation, and the domination of the state and the party over the process of social change; and turning towards plural sources of power, such as the capacity of citizens to act in their workplaces, communities, cultural activities, and on the streets… everywhere they have the capacity to refuse exploitation and initiate transformation.

In this way the Social Forum process is consciously exploring new forms of political agency, new subjectivities, new agencies of social transformation. The Social Forum 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 the articulation of these two domains.

As is widely known, the principles of the World Social Forum specifically exclude the direct participation of political parties and state institutions. According to its Charter of Principles, “The WSF is a plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context that interrelates organisations engaged in concrete action from the local to the international to build another world.”

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 ethnic minorities argued in the 1970s, 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 these behave with a genuine modesty, showing that they recognise the need to learn from and support the movements. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Communista made an interesting remark in relation to this attempt to create for new subjectivities: ‘Every way of reforming party policy has to start from an experimental approach; practice has to come before theory. Experiment plus the collective mind. 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 diverse conditions of the alter-globalisation movement but the commitment to a collective process, for all its difficulties, underpins much of what its various actors hope to achieve. This process of negotiation and experimentation will be one influenced by the example and writings of Paulo Freire and Antonio Negri as well as by the writings of Antonio Gramsci; by feminist, environment and peace groups and new networks of precarious workers as well as by the changing traditional organisations of labour. But if the Forum is to consolidate the lessons of these movements and theorists, then it should also be judged by the extent to which it is able to facilitate the self-organisation of a collective, networked intelligence, as well as by its ability to prefigure the practices of ‘another world’ beyond the norms and values of neo-liberalism.

Learning through practice

The infrastructure of the Forum itself could be a crucial terrain for the innovative practices of these new collectivities. Experimentation should therefore characterize its physical architecture, the organisation of the translation, the management of knowledge generated through the Forum, and the way its 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 – that is, we should understand them as sites of construction and, sometimes, of struggle. Instinctively, many of us feel uncomfortable listening to panels on food sovereignty in one corner of a room and then going to a bar stacked with Coca-Cola at the other end of it. This feeling matters, moreover, because it has a bearing on how we conceptualise the Forum itself.

If the Forum is treated as a means to an end, then the nature of the space it takes place in, or the means by which it is paid for and organised, don’t much matter. But what if the Forum were not simply a means to an end, but rather an attempt to prefigure, in the here and now, the kind of ‘other world’ that it promises to bring about? There are already several initiatives underway which attempt to realise just such a view of the Forum – developing new ways of organising interpretation and communication tools, as well as experimenting with sustainable environmental practices.

The London Forum was, in this respect, a missed opportunity and nowhere more so than in its insensitivity towards environmental issues. The rubbish-strewn corridors of Alexandra Palace showed the 3rd ESF to be lacking even a basic recycling policy. Yet the same is not true of all social forum spaces. The first three years of the Intercontinental Youth Camp (IYC) in Porto Alegre saw the development of greater sustainability through ever more elaborate practices of recycling and waste management. These included using bioconstruction techniques, manufacturing polypropylene mugs to avoid disposable drinks waste, and even ‘grey water’ treatment that turned shower water into organic fertilizer. These may not be headline-grabbing issues, but they have an important educational effect by sensitizing the Forum’s participants to their responsibility to the physical environment. As experiments in the creation of ‘another world’, the sustainability initiatives of the IYC (from which the WSF as a whole is now learning) also flag up the importance of learning through practice. Prefigurative politics of this sort is not simply an alternative means to reaching the same end. Instead, it recognizes that our knowledge of the other worlds that we think are possible 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 good example of prefigurative politics. From its birth in a squatted medieval tower in Florence to its difficult coming of age in London, Babels offers a non-market alternative to professional translation services – relying on solidarity and a massive collective effort of voluntary labour to make the Forum a space in which language diversity (and, through that, political and cultural diversity) can flourish. As such, it is a political actor within the space of the Forum and not simply a ‘service provider’.

The Babels network was also involved in the birth of Nomad, an international project for the construction of non-proprietary alternative technologies. Its potential is encapsulated by the Nomad Interpretation Free Tool (NIFT), which combines a piece of free-software to record and transmit different translated versions of speeches, with various forms of audio transmission (such as FM radios or magnetic hearing-aid loops). To fully appreciate NIFT, it is worth thinking of it in terms of the existing professional interpretation equipment. NIFT is technically more advanced than these systems in several respects because it is fully computerised. This has positive side effects in terms of the number of different languages that can be offered simultaneously or, even more innovatively, in allowing for the real-time streaming over the internet of speeches in several different languages.

The use of these new technologies alongside ‘old’ and cheaply produced audio delivery systems like radios and hearing-aids reflects an approach to technology that is needs-driven rather than market-driven. As Sophie Gosselin points out, the Nomad system offered will closely reflect the context in which it operates, with technical development “linked to specific practices determined by specific ecological, economical and social contexts.” In this way, Nomad is managing to operate globally whilst challenging the homogenizing tendencies of globalisation. Where physical materials such as headsets are needed, Nomad aims to produce these locally: in the ‘physical’ sense meaning geographically close and in the in the ‘ethical’ sense meaning produced by means of solidarity economy. Nomad will therefore provide the Forums with vital resources that are produced in conformity with its own principles. In so doing, it is using 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 non-corporatised, locally appropriate production with a global scope.

Autonomous spaces

The spread (in terms of number, size and political diversity) of the autonomous spaces surrounding the London ESF was a welcome development in many ways. The experience of similar initiatives at previous social forums – such as the IYC in Porto Alegre , the Hub in Florence , or more ‘specialist’ areas such as the Métallos Medialab in Paris – has shown that spaces operating outside of the ‘official’ programme are important sites of innovation and experimentation with the capacity to influence the wider social forum project. This is partly a question of developing a practical and prefigurative politics through which, as we have seen, new cultures of politics are starting to develop. But it is also often the case that such spaces are quicker to address emergent issues and identify new concepts through which we can reframe our understanding of a changing world. The autonomous spaces in London were no exception, devoting generous amounts of time to the discussion of communication rights and precarity, for example, which were largely absent from the ‘main’ programme. The constant flow of participants between the ‘official’ Forum and the autonomous spaces (and vice versa) then ensured that these issues became integral to the experience of the London ESF as a whole.

The potential implications of this for how we define and construct the social forum should not be underestimated. Indeed, the successful organization of so many interesting, diverse, and sometimes disjunctive spaces represents a model for re-conceptualizing the social forums entirely. As Rodrigo Nunes argues, the dispersal and deterritorialization of the Forum through the proliferation of autonomous spaces offers one vision of its future: “the Forum as a constellation of related self-organized convergence spaces without a centre.” Rather than viewing the Forum as a singular open space, we might then begin to understand it as a complex pattern of interlocking networked spaces, whose openness is defined not just internally but also in terms of their gravitational pull towards each other. By facilitating the convergence of the European Social Galaxy across an urban terrain at a given point in time, we would then be reproducing the organizational logic that allowed us to successfully organise mass direct actions against multilateral institutions in places like Prague , Quebec , and Genoa .

Verticals and horizontals

There is another side to this story, however, as the spread of the autonomous spaces in London was also the geographical expression of a political fault line running through the UK ESF process: the division between ‘verticals’ and ‘horizontals’. These labels primarily express differences in organising principles, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the importance of this debate was played down in some quarters. What does it matter how the ESF is organised, after all, as long as it is organised? Yet the London experience showed that difficulties encountered in the process of organising a Forum have direct consequences for its success, damaging the basis of trust upon which the event and the processes it feeds are built. 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 means of selection to which the members of an organisation assent). On the other, ‘horizontals’ aspire to an open relationship between participants, whose deliberative encounters (rather than representative status) 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, cast in antagonistic terms, would then undermine the fluid relationship between the ‘official’ Forum and the autonomous spaces from which both potentially derive strength. From the other side, any attempt to further exclude or marginalize ‘the horizontals’ by for example, labeling them ‘black bloc’ or throwing unfounded accusations of racism is likely to have an extremely damaging and counter-productive effect: turning potentially productive differences into all-out conflict, and damaging the reputation of the alter-globalisation movement as a whole.

Dilemmas of organizing

These warnings may sound dire but they are also necessary: the difficult process of organising the London ESF, and the bitter divisions that surfaced within the UK Organising Committee at several occasions, are experiences that we hope will not be repeated. To ensure this, we also need to recognise that they raise issues that cannot be wholly dismissed as peculiarities of the ‘exceptional’ situation in London or the personalities involved. In particular, they shed light upon several tensions within the structures and decision-making procedures of the ESF which now need to be addressed. The current procedures fall well short of what is commonly understood by consensus decision-making, as several participants in that process have attested (see articles by Marianne Maeklebergh , Lars Bohn and Magnus Marsdal et al.) . There has been a lack of clarity surrounding how meetings are prepared and conducted, and how their results are communicated and implemented. In this respect, the ESF would do well to learn from more positive experiences of the alter-globalisation movement, which have adopted techniques to clarify the making of proposals and attach time-limits to unwieldy discussions, as well as establishing clear norms about how to use ‘blocking’ and register objections, and how to form consensus groups and spokes councils. These techniques cannot in themselves overcome a lack of trust where that has arisen, but they may be able to prevent some of the ambiguities and confusions that have led to this situation. In addition, any successful reforms in this area will need to be attentive to both the official and unofficial loci of decision-making power. These do not necessarily correspond to the formal position which states that the European Preparatory Assembly acts as the sovereign body for the making of collective political decisions, but extend instead to all levels of the process – ranging from that Assembly to the day-to-day running of the ESF office.

Overcoming these problems will enable us to address a growing dissatisfaction about the core programme and the way it is decided. The present system of national bargaining, weighted in favour of the host country, is not producing creative outcomes – on the contrary it is leading to repetition and tedium. Possible solutions also lie in making the ESF more explicitly a process, rather than simply an event, in making this process more European – rather than leaving so much with the host country – and in opening the decision-making more radically to networks and initiatives, especially the growing number of those organised on a Europe wide basis.

There is much we can learn from the way that Forum activists across the world are preparing for the 5th World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre at the end of January. The programme for the 2005 WSF has been decided through a six month process of consultation with all the campaigns, networks and projects who have participated in the WSF. The method is one of co-ordination without centralization, which allows for the common construction of the programme rather than making this process the monopoly of a small organising group, and resulting in an overview that is more likely to be widely shared.

The outcomes of this new process are likely to be messy and problematic as well innovative and productive. Its decentralised character will probably make for a certain amount of chaos in the first few years, as a quite centralised method of deciding and organising a major part of the programme comes to an end and an untested method, whose energy comes from organisations on the ground, settles into place. It takes time for organisations to get used to working in this way, in which they each have to take some responsibility for making the whole process work rather than simply working on their particular projects. But it is a methodology that builds on the networking methods that are already second nature to many organisations.

In the first phase of its implementation this could mean that the new programme methodology tends to favour organisations that have resources and the time to participate in the process, in addition to their day to day work. On the other hand, it allows for much wider access to the decision-making process than before. Every network and group can play a part, whereas before it was only those who had the resources and knowledge to participate in the meetings of the WSF IC or, at a European level, to send delegates to the European Preparatory Assembly. We will see. Much will depend on the capacity of the process to learn lessons from its experiences, to recognise its mistakes and negotiate new solutions between all those involved in a transparent way.This article is adapted from the introduction to the European Social Forum: Debating the challenges for its future newsletter, which can be found at

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