The 2003 European Social Forum: Where Next for the Anti-Capitalist Movement?

By Tormey, Simon | Capital & Class, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The 2003 European Social Forum: Where Next for the Anti-Capitalist Movement?


Tormey, Simon, Capital & Class


It is Paris in late autumn 2003. It is the European Social Forum (ESF): the very epicentre of the new anti-capitalism. Here is where the future of European resistance to global neoliberalism is being forged. I take myself off to an exciting-sounding session--one of forty or so to choose from at this particular hour, on the last full day of the Forum. This one is encouragingly entitled 'Cultural action by and for young people as a tool to transform society'. I follow a gaggle of fashionably grungy Italian disobbedienti into a marquee. So many have come to hear so few: there are about 600 of us inside. One could cut the sense of expectation with a baguette. But wait: this doesn't look so promising. Down at the front sit three middle-aged men, in full Marks & Spencer-style 'casual' garb. For the next forty minutes excitement gives way to tedium as, one by one, the speakers tell us how various French maries (town halls) help 'youth' to articulate itself in these difficult times. We are told that rock bands regularly receive subsidies from them; that they hold seminars on social exclusion; that marginalised groups are able to use the facilities of the marie to hold meetings and so forth. They tell us about the photography exhibitions they hold, and how members of the community are invited to talk to the 'youth' about how it can overcome obstacles to self-advancement. It goes on. I look around the room. People are frowning, although they seem too overcome by this over-bearing, if well-meaning, speech to know whether to yawn, yell or leave. I leave. On the way out, I encounter a 'Russian Marxist'. He tells me that these are 'nice people', but that he has 'come to find revolution'. I nod in sympathy. We are in the wrong place.

Cut to two days earlier. There is a session on 'The World Social Forum from Porto Alegre to Mumbai: Dynamics and ambitions of the Social Forums Movement'. It features one of the founders of the World Social Forum (WSF), Bernard Cassen. Cassen is delivering a plea for the politicisation of the WSF process so that it might, well, do something, achieve something, be something. His view is that the social forum process needs to constitute itself formally as a political movement, with a manifesto, permanent offices, elected representatives and, indeed, the full garb that political scientists associate with organisational 'maturity'. (1) It is clear that this is an unfashionable view with the audience and with the other members of the panel, who luxuriate in the anarchic disaggregation of the Social Forum. By the end of the session, Cassen can be seen cradling his head in his hands, dreaming, perhaps, of setting up (yet) another organisation that might be able to confront the corporate dominance of the planet. As the audience and participants move cheerily off, he, in contrast, looks weary. After three years of intense involvement with the social forum process, he does not look like someone who is looking forward to being involved for another three.

I may have been unlucky. I may have misjudged the nature of the sessions I chose to attend or not attend. I may have taken away an unrepresentative impression of the ESF. But I cannot recall any session filling me with puzzlement about the social forum process and what it 'represents'. Having thought that the Social Forum would be, at the very least, 'political', at the end of three days I could not point to anything that might make the avatars of contemporary capitalism more worried than usual. A cartoon in Le Monde on the Friday of the Forum said it all. It showed a group of executives sitting round a table. One of them asks: 'What are we going to do about the alter-mondialistes?' Another replies: 'We can always sell them stuff.' Indeed they can, and they will. What has gone wrong here--if it has?

The Social Forums: How? Why?

For those not completely au fair with the social forum 'process', some background is required. The World Social Forum (WSF) was the brainchild of Le Monde Diplomatique and the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT) led by 'Lula' da Silva, former leader of the opposition and now the president of the country. …

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