European Social Forum 2004

Friday, November 12, 2004

Passing conversations

One slightly uncanny aspect of walking around the social forum has been overhearing people saying things that I’ve been thinking. Standing outside Alexandra Palace, with its soaring views over the rest of London, I heard one girl say to her friend “It’s really good having all the main events under one roof here – much better than in Paris’ as they walked past. Inside, in the main hall, looking at the stalls, the guy next to me was complaining that “it just feels like it’s full of tankies and the hardcore authoritarian left”. There were plenty of opportunities for listening to more inclusive conversations in the main forum (I went to an interesting debate on anti-corporate activism which took in representatives from Spinwatch, Friends of the Earth and a Malaysian anti-corporate activist) but often the main event did feel more red-and-black, more crammed full of the hard left than usual. The multi-coloured designs of the cultural organisation Arci in Florence were conspicuous by their absence. No! I kept thinking, and sometimes saying, whilst walking around Alexandra Palace, I DON”T want to buy a copy of Socialist Worker!

If this partly seemed to be a sorry reflection on the state of the British left, it also seemed to reflect the expansion of the autonomous spaces of the forum, away from the grasp of the SWP and the torturous time- and energy-sapping process of attempting to be included. My partner said ‘it’s like the Edinburgh festival – the main event is increasingly becoming a less relevant kind of a shell, with the more interesting action happening on the fringe’. We would say these kind of things, though, wouldn’t we, as we were involved in the Radical Theory Forum at Leytonstone’s 491 Gallery. This saw a really interesting mix of academics and activists come together to debate a range of topics from post-Marxism to complexity theory. Like the Life Despite Capitalism event at the LSE, it involved some really interesting cross-fertilisation, sometimes inspired, sometimes haphazard. The same type of productive exchanges looked as if they were happening at Mute’s programme at Tottenham and the four-day programme on Tactical Media and Communication Rights.

Jo Littler

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Blogging the ESF

By Elizabeth Block

On Friday afternoon, like everyone else, I faced a vast choice but opted for hearing the great George Monbiot speak at the session on Privatisation for Aid Money: the third world’s deadly compromise. George pointed out that the global privatisation drive started here in Britain and called for direct action. He discussed a recent uprising against water meters in a suburb of Johannesburg that included burning barricades – “a real war,” he said. Many of the anti-water meter people are actually ex anti-apartheid activists – now being imprisoned by their new government.

“Take up this issue with anger and make it your issue,” he urged. “We must put our livelihoods on the line until this government reverses its programme. Saying that he views third-world privatisation as fully as critical an issue as the Iraq war, he directed those concerned to www.globalrising.org, a web site specifically aimed at those asking “What can I do?”

George had recently talked with Hilary Benn, minister for development, trying to persuade him of the evils of privatisation. “Our tax money, our foreign aid, is being used to destroy the lives of the poor.” He heaped scorn on a “consultation document” recently posted on the DFID website. Those interested can view the document, winningly entitled “Partnerships for Poverty Reduction,” at: http://www.dfid.gov.uk/pubs/files/conditionalitychange.pdf

He praised Action Aid and War on Want for putting this issue on the agenda.


I then visited Pluto Press’ stand to check out the best-selling books. At that point they were “Green Alternatives to Globalisation” by Michael Woodin and Caroline Lucas and “We Want Freedom – Life with the Black Panthers” by Mumia Abu-Jamal.


At 4pm, I wanted to attend the UN=US session proposed by New Left Review but the international situation being what it is, I thought it more pressing to catch "Ending the Occupation and Liberating Iraq". This session was proposed by Iraq Occupation Focus http://www.iraqoccupationfocus.org.uk/


Groups participating included Jubilee Iraq, Voices in the Wilderness, CADTM of Belgium and Focus on the Global South.


Gabriel Carlyle of Voices in the Wilderness criticised the UK anti-war movement for insufficient reaction to the killing in Najaf and Fallujah over the spring and summer. He compared the anti-war movement to the pro-hunting movement’s highly visible tactics: “We can learn from other movements, even those whose goals we don’t share,” he said.


Ideas coming out of this session included:


  • Go beyond sloganeering: look at the rights of Iraqis to determine their own political future
  • Beware of covert operations in lead-up to the Iraqi elections (see Seymour Hersh on this)

I was most impressed by Nahla Chahal, a Franco-Lebanese sociologist, and Iraq-born novelist Haifa Zangana. Nahla saluted the Iraqi people for their resistance during 35 years of “crushing dictatorship” including three wars and 12 years of sanctions. “They are finally saying no to the occupation of Iraq, with women playing a big role, “ she said.


Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South said that the emergence of a strong anti-global movement will help end the occupation but a significant part of the peace movement hesitates to support the resistance. “You cannot have free elections under occupation,” he said. ”The US, like all empires, is over-stretched and the resistance has increased that.”


Haifa
, a former political prison in Abu Ghraib, condemned the occupation and the “puppet regime”. She listed the bombed cities and said that 250 university professors had been killed in one year, according to their trade union. Iraqi journalists are also a target.

She called for immediate withdrawal of coalition forces, an apology to the Iraqi people by the US and UK governments, compensation for victims’ families, reconstruction, cancellation of the previous regime’s debts and for all work to be done by Iraqis.


The chair mentioned the oil workers’ union in Basra, the union for Southern Oil Company (SOC), as especially active.


Haifa
invited me to a session the next day on Iraqi women under occupation in Bloomsbury. So I left Ally Pally, noting the increasing mountains of backbacks and dozing delegates in corners. Environmentally, the scene resembled every other large gathering: vast piles of discarded leaflets – discarded by those who probably carefully divide and recycle their rubbish at home. Outside there were queues for overpriced and dire chips from wagons. The catering was definitely one of the least successful parts of ESF – second only to the division of venues between Ally Pally and Bloomsbury.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Climate Change: The threat to the developing world

Despite the horrendous noise in GH7, the speakers boldly shouted above the fracas to get their points across. And important points they were. Global warming is already a reality, it is not some far off future event, but its effects will only get more severe in the future. Unsurprisingly, it is the poor who are the worst affected and who have the least resources to cope.

Journalist Mark Lynas showed pictures highlighting some of the effects of climate change we are seeing today. Floods in England, environmental refugees in Mongolia. These are people who are forced to leave their livelihoods and land as a result of severe weather conditions, in this case dust storms have forced whole villages to be abandoned. These are not people we hear about in the media yet. These are people left bereft by aggressive abuse of the climate by the West.


In Peru, what used to be great glaciers have retreated by up to a kilometre. In the decades ahead there will be nothing left. This is not just about the loss of beautiful scenery but also the loss of a crucial water supply to some of the world’s poorest people. Low level countries like Tivalu are literally sinking. This is not confined to developing countries. Miami and Florida Keys will also sink as “no part of the world that can escape the effects of global warming.” Is this what it will take for America to ratify Kyoto?


The doom and gloom continues. By 2050 there will possibly be no sea ice, the Amazon will fall prey to desertification. UK concerns and understanding about the environment remain worryingly low. Despite David King, the Government's chief scientist who recently spoke at a Greenpeace business lecture, warning that 'climate change presents a greater threat than global terrorism', 50 per cent of the UK population have never heard of Kyoto.


Saleemul Huk from the International Institute for Environmental Development (
IEED), is from Bangladesh. Bangladesh, one of the very poorest countries in the world, is one of the low-lying places which will be going under over the next 100 years. Severe weather extremes are happening closer and closer together. The pertinent questions remain: who is going to suffer? The poorest people, even in the Western world and vulnerable people living in vulnerable areas. Conditions are going to get worse. Developing countries are used to occasional severe weather impacts, but these are no longer as rare as they used to be.

In Rio in 1992 the UN Convention on Climate Change was signed and ratified
by every country there, including the United States. It includes a stipulation that rich countries must help poor countries deal with climate change. Many of the poorest countries in the world, those where people eke out an existence on less than $1 a day, are geographically the most susceptible to climate change. A meagre $20 million has been given to combat this. We are of course, still waiting for the US contribution.

Carolyn Stephen is a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and also works in Brazil. Governments, she says, are still asking for more evidence of climate change. Well, we have that evidence. Global temperatures are rising, often as a result of Western attempts to deal with the increasingly warmer weather, air conditioning being a prime example.
As natural resources disappear the rate of death rises, food production and productivity depletes, health deteriorates and wars increase.

The final speaker Andrew Simms, the political director of the New Economic Foundation (NEF), argued forcefully that tackling global poverty and climate change are inseparable. The exploitation of natural resources is infinitely linked to the wealth of nations. We need to level the ecological debt playing field. The global north owes the global south an insurmountable amount. Everyone has an equal entitlement to the global atmosphere, we have been over-consuming for hundreds of years. We should pay for the extra that we use, and pay well.


Even the big-boys feel the effects of global warming, BP recently blamed, apparently without irony, the drop in its estimated profits on three massive extreme weather events affecting its rigs. Simms, finished with a quote from Dubya at a recent NASA conference “It is time for the human race to join the Solar System.” Well with his help, we appear to be half-way there.


There is no doubt that climate change exists and we all face an incredible threat. There is no time left to quibble its existence. It also remains unarguable that those nations bearing the biggest responsibility for it should be forced to stand up and take notice and begin to make some serious reparations if we are not going to leave half the world to sink.

By Jo Kuper

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Challenging imperialism

By Jo Kuper

This plenary in the West Hall 2 was packed.

The speeches were good and certainly passionate. Inspiring to many of the people I spoke to after the event. I enjoyed the plenary but perhaps have heard too much of it before. Much as I wish to respond to the rallying cries, I feel a need for a stronger focus on how we are to organise resistance.


Having said that, I was extremely impressed by Maria Styllou's stories of how the Greeks, through mass demonstrations, stopped Powell from coming to the Olympics. It is vastly important that we recognise these efforts. It is not just coincidence that simultaneously the Venezuelans were refusing to accept an attemped coup of Chavez, but rather an indicator of the strength of the solidarity movement.


Richard Boyd talked about the need for us to realise that imperialism is our main enemy, that we must never lose sight of this and that the Iraq invasion has to be seen for what it was an attempt by the US to assert its supremacy as the greatest imperialist. For these reasons, opposition to Iraq must be our top priority, for if we let the US get away with it then it will get away with everything.


Unfortunately, problems with my headset meant that I only heard the end of Sami Evren, from Turkey but I caught the important point that in order to defeat Bush, we must all challenge our own governments. I lost much of star attraction Aleida Guevara’s contributions due to bad reception and hard to follow translation. I am not criticising the translators who all working voluntarily did a fantastic job. But I did feel that I lost much of the content and passion of her speech. There is of course fair argument that I should learn some Spanish.


I could not help feeling that there was unfair pressure on Aleida. Every time her name was mentioned cheers resounded through the hall, yet these were little to do with her and everything to do with who her father was. This is understandable, but we should not lose sight of who she is in her own right.


Aleida talked about Cuba mostly, about how it is an example of what has been achieved against imperialism. She spoke of unity and cited an old Cuban saying “when people with energy cry, injustice shakes.” This she said is what is happening in Iraq today. These words echoed the argument of the previous speaker George Galloway. Galloway exerted his speech so forcefully that they he could be heard in the corridor and the Palm Court.


All the speakers made valid and important points, but I personally did not learn much that was new. What the seminar did succeed in doing for me was to reinforce the need for the centrality of opposition to the Iraq invasion into all our efforts against imperialism. There was a strong focus on the need for unity amongst the left. This is undoubtedly the case, quibbling over small things and in-fighting only serve our opponents. The strength of the anti-war movement across the world is a great inspiration. We must recognise however, that it has to only be the beginning, we have to build on what we have achieved so far and that requires focus and solidarity.

By Jo Kuper

The people need the G8 like a fish needs a bicycle

A pedestrian's eye view of the Carnival & Kritical Mass Tour of the G8 Climate Criminals, 15.10.04. By Noisy Joe

As one of the many grassroots events sprouting up around the European Social Forum, and to flag up the climate change-related resistance to the G8 that is building in the run-up to its visit to Scotland in 2005, London Rising Tide called a 'Carnival & Kritical Mass Tour of the G8 Climate Criminals'.

Publicised in part by a 'postcard from 2050' depicting Big Ben and other landmarks under many metres of water as well as the question 'Wish you were here?', this action planned to select from a shortlist one 'climate criminal' from each of the G8 countries, and visit it in order to proclaim its true activities and announce that it is now on a 'Wanted' list. While things didn't go entirely to plan, there was just about enough going on to make it worth bunking off from workshop-land for the afternoon...

Having said that, there was a bit of a screw-up in the way there was a G8-related action programmed at the same time as an afternoon of discussion about G8-related action at the Beyond ESF event at Middlesex University. This was just bad luck as opposed to anything more sinister, demonstrating at worst a slight communication breakdown between the respective groups....

Some snapshots from the day:

Mermaids, masks, snorkels & a perfect pissed off penguin gather amongst the bikes, cafe-goers, film crews and second-hand books of the South Bank, heavily outnumbered by cops on bikes, cops with cameras, cops in vans and cops on foot...

Scrappy organisation and sporadic rain dampen the mostly continental samba band's spirits until we reach the cyclists at the first of the G8 climate criminals: ExxonMobil, which is warned it's on the people's Wanted list, with an A3 placard duly delivered (via a cop), then we're off again...

Increasingly hemmed in by police as we wander towards Trafalgar Square, where we unceremonially boo the National Gallery for taking BP sponsorship money...

A damp squib of a Canada House seems unattended, unless all its occupants are cowering silently behind its huge metal doors, but spirits are buoyed by free Hari Krishna dinners...

People are generally enthusiastic when they see the leaflet (2000 or so given out through the afternoon; memo to us: make sure we have a banner or similar announcing roughly who the hell we are in future!)...

We proceed in gorgeous traffic-blocking chaos following the Peace Not War/European Creative Forum no-battle bus (which recently drove all the way to Baghdad filled with peace activists) towards Regent Street. What's there? Lukoil - Russia's contribution to the Wanted list, which we somehow miss, ending up instead at BPs HQ in St. James' Square. Here we hear a passionate rant for real change not greenwashed cardboard cutout change, deliver noisy boos and catcalls and deliver another 'Wanted' poster, accepted in the absence of Lord Browne by leather-coated security chief...

Time is short - we have to cut the tour in half, missing Japan, Italy, France, Germany, so we head back to the BP-sponsored National Portrait Gallery for a 3.30 pre-announced but highly elusive finale. Here we hear another little speech and manage to avoid cop-assembled pen across the road. And that's yer lot - time for tea and a wind-down...

So...downside: low numbers, wobbly organisation, too many cops, lack of collective hard-hitting/theatrical/satirical activity at each target. Upside: much-liked 'postcard from 2050'; great costumes; much-needed action focus to stand alongside (Beyond) ESF stuff; raising flag of (climate-focussed) G8 resistance; mainstream media coverage in Guardian and (apparently) Sunday Telegraph; loads learnt for next time...

Love from Noisy Joe

Pix & more info:
www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/10/299115.html
www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/10/298593.html
www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/10/299083.html
www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/10/299299.html
www.risingtide.org.uk/pages/news/london_esf2.htm

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Friday 15 October 2004

Weblog by Elizabeth Block

8:45am Arrived early. All of Europe’s left swarms around, waiting for doors to open. All the usual alternative newspapers being flogged, as well as a new crop of European ones.

8:55 am Joined with a freedom-of-immigration guy I met on the bus and got in a side entrance before main gates opened. Got press pass and turquoise wrist band. One of my favourite colours but felt like a newborn wearing a wristband.

9am Sessions are supposed to be starting but clearly everything is late. Stalls still setting up. Found a coffee bar and met Jan Burgess, another American. I’d heard about her as she’s an academic based in Sheffield who’s active in peace circles. Turns out she’s writing a book on the US military for Pluto Books.

I know several people working on private military companies so we exchanged email addresses.

Jan said she’s been dropping into non-political chat rooms, such as a Good Housekeeping or a French language chat room. Said she’s amazed by the level of faith in arms. “When I write something about peace initiatives, people are so surprised. They think that being armed to the teeth is the key to security.”

As an American citizen, Jan can vote by absentee ballot (postal vote) in her state - Nebraska. Although voting is supposed to be private, her vote was public as she arrived at the postbox near Conway Hall just as the box was being emptied. So she shouted, “Wait – I have to post my vote for Kerry!” She got a big cheer from the many ESF’ers around.

9:20am First session – Great Hall 6. The somewhat forbidding title: “The Exemplarity of the Palestinian Question: Social Movements and Building Strategies.”

I chose this out of the many many offerings starting at same time as I’d met a woman from the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem (AIC) on walk up to Ally Pally and I’m concerned about the issue as a member of Peace Now UK, a mainly Jewish group lobbying for a two-state solution and an end to settlements.

Curiously, my new friend had told me that the AIC is funded by Basques (!) and sure enough a Basque named Josu Egireun from the Basque Social Movement was listed as one of the speakers.

Two Gaza residents were scheduled as speakers but apparently had been prevented from leaving by the Israeli authorities. So the first speaker was one Hassan who called on the people of Gaza to know of the international movement to stop aggression. “Is what happens to use the result of peace initiatives?” he asked? “Of the road map? Of Oslo?”

I’m not too sure about the “us” as it isn’t the Basques who were the subject of roadmaps and Oslo. Clearly he’s identified with his subject.

To defeat Sharon, he said, “We need to focus on one tactic: a large demo in every European city to get European governments to stop Israeli military action.”

Then came Matan Kaminer, a Refusenik – a member of the Israeli armed forces who refuses to serve in the Occupied Territories. Matan and four comrades have the distinction of having been given the longest sentences to date – two years, but were let out recently after a mere 21 months.

Matan, who speaks unaccented American English, is one of the most eloquent and wonderful people I’ve ever heard, and I’ve had the opportunity to hear Refuseniks before. He explained the distinction between “occupational Refuseniks” and pacifists. See www.refuz.org.il for a full story.

Most important, when someone urged a “one-state” solution, which could mean an unlimited right of return to all Palestinians, Matan sighed. “The situation is so much more complicated than people in Europe realise,” he said. He was obliquely referring to the fact that, because of the high Palestinian birth rate, Jews would soon become a minority in Israel.<>“We must be realistic,” he said. “The fact is that returning Palestinians would not find their own houses, or if they did, someone else would live in them. The fact is that this is not the only occupation in the Middle East. There’s a worse one in Iraq.”

The Basque speaker then came on in Spanish so I wandered off to find some headphones.<>

11 am Stopped for a cigarette which I thought I would have to smoke in shame outside. It turns out that when you invite 20,000 plus Europeans to your forum, there will be smoking everywhere. Not an ashtray in sight, so people made do with coffee lids or whatever. Would have liked a coffee but long queues.

I sat down at a smoke-filled table which turned out to be occupied entirely by Greeks. I talked with Yannis Protonotarios, a professor off earthquake engineering but at ESF as a member of the Greek Social Forum. “We’re very active as our forum includes five parties of the left, big trade unions and local forums. We have organised many demos against the war in Iraq including 15 February 2003 and another big one when the war started. For a while we had a demo every week but now we’re planning an anti-occupation march in late November.

Went out to find another coffee bar and found a Basque music quintet performing in the foyer.

11:25 am Back to Great Hall 6 to hear a speaker from a Tunisian human rights group. “No one has mentioned the importance of human rights and democracy in the region,” he claimed. Seems to me that I have heard both mentioned more than once.

A Palestinian speaker called for a “European Day for Palestine”. He suggested 10 December – international human rights day.

Noon: I missed some of the Palestinian session as I went to Great Hall 9 for “Living in Fear: Civil Liberties and the War on Terror.”

Weblog by Elizabeth Block

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The London ESF and the Politics of Autonomous Space

The forum officially ended a week ago, but the barrage of attacks and counter-attacks around the autonomous actions and arrests continues to rage. The simmering conflict between the horizonal and verticals became fully visible when a group of activists from Beyond ESF, including the Wombles and many others, rushed the stage during an anti-Racism plenary Saturday night to denounce Ken Livingstone and the lack of democracy within the forum. Tensions grew after several activists were arrested on the way out, and resurfaced yet again when a highly respected Indymedia activist, who happened to have also played a key role in NOMAD and the broader ESF process, was dragged away by the police after trying to make a statement following the march on Sunday afternoon. Things have since come to a boil as SWP members, the mayor’s allies, and others dismiss such direct actions as violent, anti-democratic, and even racist, while their critics continue to defend their right to take direct action to publicly voice their concerns. Debates that once pitted activists against mainstream politicians and bureaucrats in the WTO, World Bank, and IMF now rage within the very heart of the Global Justice Movement itself.

Before making too much of this situation, it is important to take a step back and reflect on the London ESF experience and the broader politics of autonomos space. Although perhaps more exaggerated this time around because of the nature of London’s political culture- most notably the presence of SWP and Socialist Action- the tension between grassroots network-based movements and their more traditional organizational counterparts has been a constant since the beginning of the forums, and was present within earlier mass direct action mobilizations, including Seattle, as well. Intense struggles over political vision, tactics, and organizational form are not cause for alarm; indeed, they are constitutive of the convergence process that characterizes the forums and the broader movement from which they emerged. The important question is thus how to best manage such conflicts, rather than erase them entirely. And this is precisely where the politics of autonomous space has the most to offer.

Before describing my own experience in London, I should confess that I fully side with the horizontals. Not in the sense of an unrealistic utopia, but rather as a guiding vision, an ideal we should always aspire to. Horizontalism does not ignore informal hierarchies, but rather seeks mechanisms to control them, without reinscribing vertical structures into our formal organizational architectures. At the same time, horizontalism means always remaining open and flexible to diversity and difference- within certain limits, of course. Whereas those with divergent organizational practices may be welcome, those who support war and neoliberalism are not. In terms of ideology, I consider myself left libertarian and anti-capitalist, but I realize I form part of a much larger, complex, and contradictory whole. Building autonomous spaces, “separate, yet connected” as we used to say in Barcelona, becomes a way to manage conflict, respecting differences while sometimes acting together, and at other times taking critical action apart. Such a politics recognizes the importance of open space, but radically questions boundaries and clear demarcations. Rather than open space, we need to start thinking about multiple spaces, open not just internally, but also with respect to one another. Open space thus becomes networked space, physically manifest within and around the forum.

With respect to the politics of autonomous space, the London ESF was a tremendous success. Never before have there been so many diverse, disjunctive, yet complementary initiatives not entirely within or without, but rather straddling various mobile and often elusive boundaries. Some, like Beyond ESF, were more confrontational, while others, like the Indymedia Center or Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination were neither for or against, but rather involved their own innovative forms of political and cultural production across the terrain of the forum and, indeed, the entire city itself. Although autonomous, these spaces were not entirely cut off from official events. In addition to the highly public oppositional actions, many of us moved fluidly- as much as London’s expansive Underground system would allow- from Alexander Palace to Middlesex University, from the Camden Center to the LSE, and back again.

For me the London Forum began with Beyond ESF’s opening of plenary on Wednesday night at Middlesex University, where spokespeople from each of the autonomous spaces presented their projects to an enthusiastic group of 200 grassroots activists. Over the next several days, Beyond ESF would be transformed into an electric hive of activity and encounter, involving thematic sessions, direct action planning, tactical workshops, and project coordination. Even more important were the informal exhanges among hundreds of activists gathered in the bar and canteen, or waiting on line at the vegan kitchen. I noticed a certain glow on the faces of old friends and comrades, which I instantly recognized from previous convergence centers, No Border camps, and PGA meetings. However, whereas such spaces often create a sense of living in a radical ghetto, this time we could be mobile, reaching thousands of others within the official forum, while tactically intervening within the broader city as well.

I spent all day on Thursday at the Radical Theory Forum. Although the formal discussions were somewhat disappointing, the opportunity to meet dozens of others struggling to unite theory and practice, thus moving beyond anti-intellectualism within our movements and the lack of critical engagement within the academy, was extremely exciting. On Friday I made my first and only appearance at Alexander Palace. Although I was mainly interested in the parallel initiatives, I did not want to miss out on the main spectacle, which I do not mean in a derogatory sense. The value of the forums in a world where mass actions are increasingly difficult to pull off is that they allow us to come together to physically represent ourselves, embody our networks, generate affective ties, and perform our politics. It is perhaps too easy to dismiss such collective rituals in critical-rational terms, but how else to explain why they remain such important poles of attraction? Indeed, there have been calls for non-authoritarian anti-capitalists to abandon the forums since the first World Social Forum in 2000. Yet we continue to show up along the margins, and if this year is any indication, in ever greater numbers. Will London be the definitive break?

I do have to say that the overall feeling of the official forum this year left a lot to be desired. It was not so much the massive cathedral dimensions of the Palace, which can actually be quite stimulating, but the way the internal space was organized. It felt more like a massive trade fair, with political ideologies, study programs, and volunteer opportunities on offer, rather than a true space of dialogue, encounter, and exchange. Not that previous forums lived up to this ideal either, but this was perhaps the furthest away. Whether the forum’s commercial feel was a direct result of the influence of the GLA or the SWP, I’ll leave for others to decide. On a positive note, however, the bitter conflict within the organizing process was certainly a major factor in the proliferation of autonomous spaces. As for the panel I attended on the future of the ESF, there was a definite sense of having arrived at a Crossroads, that we are beginning to reproduce the same events and actions, year after year. I sensed nostalgia for the excitement and novelty of Genoa or Florence, and a distinct lack of ability to envision an alternative path. Perhaps it is time to let go, and reinvent the forum as something entirely new.

On Friday afternoon I went back to Beyond ESF where I spent the afternoon meeting with PGA-inspired folk. Our most interesting discussion involved a new direct action concept: the “Chain Re-Flaction”. While many of our friends were busy planning for the upcoming G8 actions in Scotland, we decided to take up a discussion that was begun at the last European PGA conference in Belgrade. The idea is to move beyond the Global Day of Action, which is in danger of becoming a tired cliche, toward a new vision of locally rooted, yet globally linked actions coordinated through a webpage. For example, the first action might be held in South America somewhere, say Cochabamba or Buenos Aires, and the torch of resistance would then be passed along to another continent, perhaps Asia, where an action might be organized in Mumbai. After each action, activists would send reports and reflections to the website, generating an accumulation of knowledge and experience: hence “Re-Flaction.” Whether or not this particular concept works, the main point is the need for innovation. Either we begin to recreate ourselves, or the train will soon stall out.

That same evening I joined several hundred others from Beyond ESF for a Yo Mango Tube Party. We tried to maintain a low profile until arriving at the Circle Line, but the authorities caught on at Victoria Station. We were forced outside and reorganized into an impromptu Reclaim the Streets. Unfortunately, we were herded toward a nearby police station, where many were registered and eventually let free. I then went over to the Camden Center to check out the Indymedia Space. Unlike previous actions and gatherings where Indymedia was only a tool for reporting about other events, this year media activists organized their own schedule of activities, including a four day conference on Communication Rights. I was lucky enough to catch the end of a roundtable presentation in the main theater by activists from local struggles around the world, including Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There was also food, music, and dancing. In addition to the several hundred people gathered in the theater, hundreds more were drinking beer and sending e-mails in the bar, uploading newstories and videos upstairs, or chatting informally in the halls. Incredibly, there were just as many, or perhaps even more people than at Beyond ESF. The autonomous spaces were not only exciting and lively, they were simply overflowing, one into the other.

On Saturday and Sunday, although I also attended workshops and discussions at Bloomsbury, including an informal discussion about activist research, I spent most of my time at the Life Desite Capitalism conference. Together with several hundred friends and colleagues, many of whom had also moved between and among different locales, we explored the concept of the Commons in different spheres: land, labor, communication, etc. Although the opening and closing plenaries reproduced some of the hierarchical structure many of us criticize within the main forum, the smaller workshop discussions were interesting and worthwhile. I particularly enjoyed the Saturday afternoon session on moments of excess, where our conversation ranged from mass direct actions to collaborative networking within open source development models. That evening I translated for a small group of Spanish activists at an ESF seminar discussion with Michael Hardt, who had just come from a gathering at Beyond ESF to found the first ever Union of Precarious Workers. Indeed, autonomous spaces are also excessive, bursting through the boundaries of the official forum, and the boundaries dividing one another.

Despite the vast number of innovative discussions, projects, and initiatives that came out of the numerous autonomous spaces, the focus of most post-Forum discussions has returned to the conflict between horizontals and verticals, and in particular, the direct actions and arrests at the Saturday evening plenary and Sunday’s march. Once again, this is not entirely negative. Indeed, the aim of direct action is precisely to make conflicts visible, provoke discomfort, and challenge commonly accepted ideas. Direct Action is transformative, both for the targets and participants alike. The important thing is what happens between now and the next ESF.

This isn’t the first time an autonomous action has stirred up controversy among the ranks of forum organizers and participants. During the WSF in 2002 in Porto Alegre a large group of international activists from the Intergalactic Laboratory of Disobedience in the youth camp and Brazilian anarchists occupied the VIP room at the Catholic University. Although we clearly articulated that our action was not against the forum, but rather the top-down way in which it had been organized, Brazilian Organizing Committee members were livid. Luckily, our strategically situated allies were able to calm their nerves, and conflict with the police was avoided. Unfortunately, the same did not happen this time around.

Moreover, the 2002 action had a concrete impact. At the International Commission meeting that spring in Barcelona, we learned there were no plans for a VIP room the following year. On our side, many of us in the Movement for Global Resistance in Barcelona realized we could have a positive effect by creatively engaging the forum from the outside. Thus began our part in the long series of discussions at Strasbourg Border Camp, Leiden PGA conference, and elsewhere around creating an autonomous space in Florence with “one foot in, and one foot out.” Several different spaces ultimately emerged there, including the Hub and projects organized by the Disobedientes and Cobas. Although the Hub in particular was perhaps more outside than inside, and was also widely criticized for its marginality, the autonomous space concept had caught on, and would be reproduced in different guises and to varying degrees at subsequent forums in Porto Alegre, Paris, and Mumbai. Indeed, the autonomous space model has perhaps come to its fullest fruition this year in London.

Unfortunately, rather than accept the basic legitimacy of direct action to make publicly visible contradictions and disagreements within the forum process, some ESF organizers have chosen instead to denounce the recent actions as undemocratic and, even more alarming, racist. Their discourse sounds eerily like past statements from James Wolfensohn, George Bush, or Tony Blair. Why do they support direct action when directed against others, but not themselves? On the other hand, it is unfortunate that activists chose an anti-Racist workshop to make their demands heard on Saturday night, but this has more to do with the fact that Ken Livingstone was speaking than anything else. There is simply no justification for the arrests on Saturday night or Sunday, and even less for the subsequent campaign of deligitimation. Yet all is not lost. There is still plenty of time for ESF organizers to react more constructively, and begin to incorporate the lessons learned leading up the next forum in Greece. On the other side, before the inevitable calls for abandoning the forum come again, we might wait and see, recognizing that the politics of autonomous space allow us to remain true to our own values, forms, and practices, while tactically intervening within the official forum to move out from our radical ghettos and simultaneously spark constructive change.

What I am ultimately suggesting is that we renew our vision of the forum itself, recognizing that our movements are too diverse, even contradictory, to be contained within a single space, however open it may be. This does not mean abandoning the process, but rather building on the London experience to recast the forum as a network of interconnected, yet autonomous spaces converging across a single urban terrain at a particular point in time. Some spaces may be larger, and thus generate more gravity than others, while the boundaries are always blurry, diffuse, and permeable. Moreover, there will necessarily be contradiction and struggle, even within and between our networks. Such conflict should not be feared, but rather recognized as an integral part of the forum itself. In places like Prague and Genoa we divided urban space among diverse forms of direct action practice. In London we finally began to incorporate a similar logic on our own terms, without reacting to an enemy. As for we critics, rather than go back to our bunkers to recreate an imagined state of pure horizontality, we would do better to recognize that mass movements are always conflictual and contradictory, that horizontalism is about learning to manage such conflict without reintroducing formal centers of command. This is the lesson I learned in London, and why I support the politics of autonomous space.

Friday, October 22, 2004

European Social Forum 2004

European Social Forum 2004

Privatisation for Aid: The Third World's deadly compromise.

Public services are about rights, rights to dignity and rights to participate.


With more people attending than either of the plenaries on at the same time and two speakers receiving standing ovations, the War on Want seminar Privatisation for Aid: The Third World's deadly compromise was exceptional. The seminar touched on many of the issues in their new report: Profiting from Poverty: Privatisation consultants, DFID and public services. The speakers including George Monbiot, Wendy Caird and Berenice Celeyta were all outstanding.

This is poignant and terrifying stuff: we learnt that our contributions in Aid are being given to the right-wing think-tank the Adam Smith institute, that international organisations supportive of Colombian peoples’ anti-privatisation struggles are being targeted by the Colombian military. No-one could have left this seminar without a firm commitment to fighting travesty of enforced privatisation.

The speeches blew the lies about debt relief, aid and PFI’s out of the water. Exposing the true meaning of conditionality, the seminar showed that the only winners in this game are MNCs and rich governments.

The opening speaker, Mark Serwotka, from PCS UK, laid out crucial questions as to why our government is championing privatisation across the world. The disaster that privatisation has been in the UK is well-known. Why then do we see fit to promote it as a means of poverty reduction when the truth is it leads to higher service costs, non-accountable companies and more often than not a poorer service? Even if privatisation had been a success over here, what right do we have to impose any economic model on any other country?

The most emotive of the speakers was unquestionably Berenice Celeyta, director of the human rights department of SINTREMCALI (A Municipal Workers Union in Colombia). President Uribe's commitment to a neo-liberal agenda, means the UK and US donate vast amounts of money in military aid. Money that is used to systematically assassinate and persecute trade unionists. Over the last few years, SINTREMCALI has been subjected to a terrifying attack on the rights of its members and leaders: eight have been assassinated, three exiled, several abducted, and two arrested.

Colombia has seen the sale of all its basic public services as well as its vast natural resources in gold, coal and petrol. Privatisation is always introduced in strategic areas, those richest in natural resources, places where the land is richest and the people are poorest. This ‘possession paradox’ is a paradox only in that foreign companies are pilfering the possessions of the poor.

“The first lie we have to uncover is that privatisation brings development. In Colombia it brings death.”

Last month spine-chilling top-secret intelligence documents were uncovered listing high profile unionists including Berenice as assassination targets. Known as 'Operation Dragon' the documents also list international aid agencies including UNISON, Justice for Colombia, The Colombia Solidarity Campaign and War on Want as high risk organisations.

It is impossible for us to begin to understand the tragedy that is Colombia today. Uribe and MNC’s may be fighting for their profits but these people are struggling for their lives. Berenice closed by quoting friend of hers who was assassinated, “It is better to die for something than live for nothing.”

The standing ovation that Berenice received is a small testament to the bravery and strength of this woman and of all those who fight for their basic rights in Colombia.

Girish Sant from the Indian NGO Prayas uncovered some of the biggest lies, and folly of the privatisation debate. India is one of the largest borrowers of World Bank funds, with over 500 loans she is indebted by $53 billion. Poverty has only increased in the 50 years since India started borrowing.

Quick and clear the story is disgusting. In Orissa, one of the poorest states in India, less than 50 per cent of the population have electricity. When in 1997, following yet another failed dam project by the World Bank, the Orissa government requested that the left-over funds be used to install electricity, the Bank agreed so long as certain conditionalities were adhered to.

The first was that all the existing electricity companies had to privatise, then in order to make the companies attractive to foreign business the cost of electricity had to be increased by 15 per cent a year over the next decade. Then, in order to be able to privatise, Orissa had to restructure its capacity at a cost of $70 million. In 2000, the first independent review took place. By this time in typical World Bank style of one size fits all, over 50 per cent of Indian states had implemented the Orissa programme.

The independent review found that there had been huge losses and no improvement in efficiency. That in order to get the power sector of India back on track half a billion dollars will be needed. The overall result of not giving Orissa the loan it initially asked for there was a 4fold debt increase and a loss of energy output.

Wendy Caird of Public Services International (PSI), made the case against privatisation clearly and strongly. Neo-Liberalism is an economic fashion, it is not and never will be a science. The question as to why privatisation exists is simple, there are vast profits to be made out of the privatisation of basic services. 90 per cent of water is still publicly owned and multi-national’s can salivate over the potential profits in this 'liquid gold'.

Privatisation of basic services doesn't work because of the reasons above. The private sector exists to make money. Private companies are not accountable to the people but to shareholders. Trans-national companies have no borders, no affinity with certain countries, there is nothing to stop them running away when the going gets tough as they frequently do.

We must challenge the orthodox which says it is too expensive to improve public services, countless failures many resulting in deaths show that privatisation in social and monetary terms is always more expensive. We must challenge the priorities in financing. Money it seems can be found for wars but not for hospitals.

We must make 2005 the year in which we mobilise people against this devastation. Importantly we must have positive alternatives. It is no good identifying the problems
if we can't offer solutions. We must accept that many publicly run services in poor countries are weak and corrupt and produce new models where the people, the community contribute to the decision making processes.

The final speaker, George Monbiot, recounted us with horror stories about what is happening in South Africa today. The residents of Phiri, Soweto – some of the poorest people in the world - are having pre-paid water meters installed in their homes. These meters were abandoned in the UK as being too harsh on the poor. The meters are a response to the political flak the council receives about the number of evictions and riots that occur in these deprived areas as people fail to afford their rising water bills. Could you if your household income was a measly £90 a month, shared amongst up to 20 people?

This is not the first time these meters have been installed in South Africa. When they were brought into Madabele in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the people turned to the only water they could afford. The water came from the ditches and the local sewer systems, instantly 200 people died from cholera and the experiment was abandoned.

Other than empathy for the South African people what role do we have to play? It seems rather a big one. As early as 1996, the UK government had already introduced a PFI. Following such successes as the Coventry hospital saga where a £30 million renovation project was turned into the demolition of two hospitals to build one, at a cost of £350 million, just so private companies would agree to get involved, the PFI strategy was transferred to South Africa.

Last year DFID, our UK aid agency gave the Adam Smith Institute £6 million of tax-payers money in order to fund PFI projects throughout the developing world. In a world where 800 million people are malnourished, £430,000 of the money given to the Adam Smith Institute was spent on a pop video convincing the people of Tanzania that privatisation is a good thing.

It beggars belief, our foreign aid from our tax money is being used to destroy the lives of the poor. When confronted DFID have no answers. Monbiot finished on a rallying cry. We must take action over this issue which is as big as the Iraq war, and will certainly kill more. We must take to the streets, we need direct action on a very big scale. We must take away the platform of those who make these decisions.

Monbiot received the second standing ovation.


Jo Kuper

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Raging Debate over ESF Disruption

It should be recorded on this blog that there is an extremely fierce debate going on, partly on ESF email lists, partly in the letters page of the Guardian, and no doubt in other domains, over the legitimacy and character of the (temporary) disruption carried out against Ken Livingstone at the anti-racist/anti-fascist plenary, and the legitimacy of the organizers' response.

There are also fierce exchanges going on about the Iraq plenary, which was totally disrupted over the inclusion of a speaker from the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (which spoke up to support the leadership at the Labour Party conference), and the events in Trafalgar Square on Sunday, when people were arrested for allegedly 'storming' the stage.

The arrests during these incidents, and the ongoing debates, are polarizing the movement.

I've now collected a dozen or so documents by participants and observers which are circulating by email. No doubt others have even more.

It seems critical to establish (as far as possible) the facts of the matter. I hope that Red Pepper can assist in this.

Milan Rai

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Ramadan says visa withdrawal would be political

Tariq Ramadan, the professor who's US visa to work in the University of Notre Dame as head of Religious and Conflict Studies was suddenly and inexplicaply revoked at the eleventh hour, said that if he is not admitted into the country to work, political pressure will have been used to block his appeal.

Ramadan said that that he had been assured by Colin Powell that the State Department would reassess his case in a fair trial. If this is the case, Ramadan is confident that he will be accepted. "I know that I am transparent about my work and my contacts, and therefore I am confident about my position," he said on Saturday after a seminar at the ESF entitled Europe and the Arab World: Towards Understanding and Solidarity. "Therefore it will be clear, if I do not get the visa, that there was political pressure behind the decision," he added.

He also said that if his appeal fails, he would not apply again for a visa in the US. "If I am rejected, there is no place for me there," he said. He was not clear about where he might settle instead, but said that he would most likely leave Switzerland, where he has lived for most of his life.

Final impressions of my first ESF

European Social Forum 2004

This was my first ESF and I wanted my final post to be focused on my impressions as a newcomer and relative outsider.

All in all I felt that this event had so much potential yet somehow it left me feeling uninspired and dissatisfied. Over the past few days I have tried to analyze why I felt this.

Firstly I thought it was a shame that events had to be spread between Bloomsbury and Alexander Palace. I missed many key seminars as it took so long to travel between the two. I loved the buzz and atmosphere at Alexander Palace but it was lost completely at the Bloomsbury venues. All the seminar rooms were spread out in ghostly corridors - it felt more like attending a lecture at uni than anything else. At least at Alexander Palace you felt free to wander to get a taster of each seminar and be able to socialize with other delegates.

Secondly I was appalled by the treatment of the Babels International Network. The fact that our government refused entry to some interpreters meant that the team were left with limited resources and little support from higher management. Under the circumstances I thought they did a fantastic job and should be applauded.

On a positive note it was encouraging to see such a mix of nationalities, and that people had bothered to pay the extortionate ticket price and traveled to our expensive capital.

Above all I came to the ESF to learn something new about the issues surrounding globalization and to be inspired by new ideas and campaigns yet I feel like I have learnt less than I hoped and witnessed people feeling let down.

Perhaps I have been a little too harsh as I do believe that these events have great potential for the future. If the event can mature into something more focused and better organised, I feel it will be better for it.

Joanna

Babels statement

The following statement was delivered at a meeting on Saturday 16 October where Ken Livingstone was scheduled to speak, although he did not turn up.

"Babels is the international network of volunteers that is providing the interpretation and translation for all plenaries and seminars of the European Social Forum. We are a network of more than 7000 volunteer interpreters from more than 30 countries communicating in more than 50 languages.

For this third European Social Forum in London, Babels has assembled more than 500 volunteers to interpret in all plenaries and seminars. Speakers have been able to express themselves in more than 15 different languages and delegates from more than 60 countries have been able to follow and participate in those debates.

We exist to facilitate multi-lingual comunication in forums and processes that abide by the principles of the World Social Forum Porto Alegre Charter. The most important of these principles are: (1) that the Social Forum does not constitute “a locus of power to be disputed by the participants in its meetings”; and (2) the Social Forum is a plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context that, in a decentralised fashion, interrelated organisations and movements engaged in concrete action at levels from the local to the international to build another world”.

Our aim is to bring those principles to life by enabling the largest number of people to participate as fully as possible in social forums by breaking down language barriers and offering the means to understand one another in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural environment. Perhaps our most important principle is that of self-organisation: we aim to develop the political and technical means for the forums to organise autonomously from the capitalist sphere and demonstrate that another world is not only possible, it is already being constructed.

However, many opportunities of experimentation and innovation have been missed during the organisation of this forum resulting in the exclusion of many people, organisations, networks, groups, and even countries. This is in total contradiction to the Porto Alegre Charter. Instead, classical neo-liberal practices of organisation, management and service delivery have been employed, with the result that the Forum has been entirely dependent on the state.

This has had disastrous consequences for the self-development of our movements. The inclusion of networks of activists and volunteers not only enables the largest possible collective of people in the construction of alternatives, but also the inclusion of the largest number of social and political actors – creating a dynamic of ever-increasing mobilisation of the social movements. This Forum has been an distressing experience of de-mobilisation, not only in terms of the number of delegates (less than half than previous years), but also the chronic shortage of volunteers to help make a successful Forum possible.

Finally, as you prepare to discuss how we must fight against racism and fascism in Europe today, we want to inform you that some of our fellow volunteer interpreters cannot be here today because they were not allowed to enter the United Kingdom. This is a direct result of the racist immigration and asylum policies of the British Labour government and another example that Fortress Europe is a reality not a slogan. In particular, several interpreters coming from Turkey, Russia, Romania, the Maghreb countries (Tunisia, Algeria, Morrocco, Lybia), and the Middle East were refused their visa. It is sad to report that the way in which the ESF was organised this year did not help this situation.

Coordinators of Babels International Network of Volunteer Interpreters and Translators (and not Social Forum translation service as you may have read in the official programme)."

Monday, October 18, 2004

Open Space, Participatory Space

One last note; this time on process.

A lot of debate has gone on about whether the WSF/ESF should be primarily an 'open space' within which all who accept the Charter of Principles should be welcome to discuss the issues of concern to them; or a 'movement' event within which groups and movements may mobilise.

A brilliant book about all of this is 'World Social Forum: Challenging Empires', co-edited by Jai Sen, Peter Waterman, Anita Anand, and Arturo Escobar. (Giving a plug for this book was one of the things that infuriated people at the Life Despite Capitalism event, and sparked a walk-out - see the earlier blog.) It's a fantastic book (one of the many revelations in it is that there are two versions of the Charter of Principles circulating, the earlier of which is much harder on those who support armed struggle) and unmissable for anyone with interest in the WSF process at any level.

One of the questions raised by some people in the book (but not answered, so far as I can see) is the question of participation. How can the 'grassroots' participate in the WSF events/process (I use this as shorthand for the ESF, the African, Asian and other social forums) which is supposed to represent 'globalization from below'?

The reality is that most of the WSF events, including ESF, whether the huge plenaries or the small 'workshops', consist of unidirectional speaker-audience lectures, sometimes with a limited time for question and answer (sometimes with comment permitted).

A lot is known about how to create participatory structures. This knowledge is not being put into practice.

What is bizarre is that Seattle and the WSF are held up as perhaps the two great achievements of the global justice movement, and yet in their organising principles they are antithetical. Seattle was built out of bottom-up consensus-decision-making by enormous numbers of people organised into small face-to-face affinity groups (so I understand, not having been there). The WSF and its daughter social forums are top-down initiatives with (so far as I know) self-selected official organising bodies which in the case of WSF are effectively controlled by smaller, hidden groups of people (so reports Michael Albert in the book just mentioned).

That's what a lot of the 'vertical-horizontal' debate is about, which Oscar wrote about so perceptively at the beginning of this joint blog.

Quite apart from the organising side of it, there is the actual lived experience of people attending WSF.

Out of all the meetings I went to, it was only the nonviolent direction action workshop held by Phil Pritchard and Toby Olditch (the B-52 Two, on trial soon for attempting to disable/disarm a B-52 bomber in the UK on the eve of the 2003 war) that proposed to break up the participants into small groups of 6 people for discussion. This was also the only meeting at which there was a 'go-round' where everyone got a chance to introduce themselves and have their voices heard.

Particularly when there is a single language workshop with international participants, such efforts are crucial. In our small group, there was a German participant who had no difficulty understanding what was said in English, but who found it more trying to speak English, and who really appreciated the chance to express himself to a small group.

Curiously, the 'breaking-up into small groups' proposal was very nearly derailed by a loud, confident veteran with forty years in the movement. He (yes, a man) had a great deal of value to contribute, but like lots of confident veterans did not see the need for creating mechanisms for ensuring that every voice is heard and appreciated.

As I understand it, the participatory culture which is characteristic of much of the global justice movement really started with the second wave of the women's movement, and then spread into the nonviolent disarmament movement, and from the peace movement into the wider direct action movements.

The culture has some way to go, but the hunger for participation and real democracy is not going to go away. The Social Forum process is another wonderful opportunity. We must seize it.

Milan Rai
Hastings

The Look of the Periphery

I spent my entire time down in Bloomsbury. ESF events were scattered between Britannia Street by Kings Cross (four or five rooms, I think); Friends' Meeting House opposite Euston (I think just the big hall got used); University of London Union (ULU, a few minutes walk from Friends' House); Birkbeck College (on the same block as ULU); and SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, round the corner from Birkbeck). In ULU we had around nine rooms and a hall, in Birkbeck something similar - with a screening room rather than a hall, I think. I don't know about SOAS.

There were also related/parallel events at Conway Hall, another ten minutes of so from SOAS (registration was in Conway Hall on Thursday, much to the surprise and dismay of the Conway Hall staff, as no permission had been given for such a major gathering - a letter in today's paper says that 'senior GLA staff' seem to be implicated in this potentially hazardous crowding); and at the LSE, another five or so minutes walk south of Conway Hall.

So, a lot of walking, potentially. I'd say that the 'Bloomsbury' zone was a distant, peripheral mini-ESF, and rather low-key for it. There are other gatherings/conferences that happen in the same area at different times of the year - next month is the Anarchist Bookfair, for example - when a building like ULU will be packed out and heaving with excitement of some kind (if only the excitement of surviving the corridors).

The fragmentation of the periphery added insult to injury. Most of the people using each building were not involved in the ESF, and this diluted the atmosphere enormously. We were peripheral to the building, let alone of Alexandra Palace.

Out on the streets, there were political stalls. I only saw SWP stalls, in Britannia Street, outside ULU, inside Friends Meeting House, and between ULU and Birkbeck. There were also paper sellers and leafleters. The most visible paper was Socialist Worker, produced on a daily basis during ESF (there was a daily paper on site at the WSF in Mumbai). There were also posters on the walls. To be honest, I didn't really take much notice of these, but my impression was that they projected a 'militant/revolutionary socialist' feel. They were far from ubiquitous, though; they were marginal also, in the streets of London.

For the passer-by and the uncommitted newcomer to ESF, I suspect that the main visual impression of ESF would be one of revolutionary socialist parties. Which is unfortunate, since the WSF Charter of Principles says that 'Neither party representations nor military organisations shall participate in the Forum.' (Principle 9, revised version, 10 June 2001).

Did the ESF in Central London seem a joyful, powerful experience of the plenitude of the world anti-capitalist, anti-corporate-globalization movement? I don't think so.

Did it feel like the drawing together of strands of struggle, deliberating together? Maybe. I would guess that for most of us mainly it felt like a snippet of the ESF/WSF experience.

Milan Rai
Hastings

Bounding the Commons

At World Social Forums in Porto Alegre (but not this year in Mumbai) Michael Albert of ZNet organised a series of events entitled 'Life after capitalism'. There was a similar event this year in New York just before the Republican National Convention.

At the London ESF, a day-and-a-half conference was organised called 'Life Despite Capitalism' (LDC), about the challenges of creating anti-capitalism now (or so I thought). Not having been to the WSF events, I was very intrigued, and caught a bit of the event, which turned out to be a pretty theoretical affair revolving around the notions of 'commons' and 'enclosure'.

In pre-capitalist Britain, as in many parts of the world now, there were areas of 'common' land, which could be used by local people according to informal customs and rules governing the grazing of animals, the collection of wood, the cutting of trees and so on. In the 18th and 19th centuries, landowners privatised and seized these lands in a process known as 'enclosure'.

It turned out that the LDC conference was focused on an attempt to theorise the anti-capitalist struggle through the lens of 'commons' and 'enclosure' – capitalism 'enclosing' different resources and social/political spaces, and the movement trying to reverse this.

I listened as several speakers within the debate expressed doubt about the definition of 'commons'. One leading figure said that at one moment he felt great excitement, and the next, listening to a new speaker, he felt he didn't know what the term meant. The chair of the final plenary commented that several different definitions were in play.

My own conclusion was that if this idea is to be useful, then the first step will be to restrict the notion of 'commons' to (roughly) 'resources and social spaces which are democratically controlled by users'. This would cut out much of the confusion created by the wider meaning of 'commons', allowing statements such as 'money is a commons'; 'power is a commons'; and so on (statements made during the final plenary).

I also concluded that the focus out to be on concrete social situations (rather than the abstractions which were the centre of attention, so far as I could see), and extending the frontier of popular control, or, if you like, the 'boundary of the commons' within that situation.

This was the focus of the syndicalist and guild socialist strand of left politics at the beginning of the last century: trying to extend what they called the 'frontier of control'. Placing this frontier or boundary at the centre of attention, in the context of particular social situations, seems likely to be more productive than theorising 'the commons' in the abstract.

(I got up and tried to make this suggestion during the final plenary, but my introductory remarks were so long, and so offended some members of the audience, that someone walked out, and I got heckled before I got to the point itself, and I was asked by the chair to stop talking. As the only other person I saw heckled during ESF was from the Sparticist League, this is not a good sign. Maybe I should stick to requested talks and the written word, and try to steer clear of spontaneous spoken interventions.)

Milan Rai
Hastings

"radical" Ramadan calls for broader debate on both sides of the European/ Arab divide

At the seminar, Europe and the Arab World: Towards understanding and solidarity, Tariq Ramadan, the academic of Islamic and conflict studies recently denied entry to lecture in the USA, called for a more open discussion of the issue by Arabs and Europeans, before real progress can be made towards understanding and solidarity.

Ramadan argued that with the new world reality of US unilateralism and the spread of far right politics, "Europeans have a new responsibility to the Arab world." This meant spending time understanding the nuances of the "other civilisation." "The Arab World is multiple and complex," he said, arguing that national, religious, political and theoretical differences that riddle and enrich debates amongst muslims and Arabs were all too often subsumed under uni-dimensional notions of the Middle East, in Western thought. He warned that such simplistic analyses could only foster limited "emotional support", instead of "practical understanding," essential for effective solidarity.

Ramadan argued that part of this process would be a new respect for the terminology and perspectives of Arab thinkers and citizens. A fellow speaker, Francois Burgat, a simpathetic professor in France, built on this thesis to argue for an end to the "Western Academic monopoly over universality." He said the platform from which we speak should not matter as much as the principles we promote, however we choose to do it.

But Ramadan also warned Arabs and Muslims that they should reassess their own reality. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained central to peace in the the Middle East, they must not ignore the "domestic realities of the Arab world," of which the issue of Israel was as much a consequence as a cause. He pointed to several common national features within the Arab world, such as the restrictions on political freedom, the lack of new intellectual thought, and the prevalence of bilateral agreements with the West rather than mutual cooperation within the South, that should be addressed. An earlier speaker from Palestine was heckled when she brought up the issue of human rights in Arab countries in relation to European freedoms, but Ramadan agreed that the current state of political leadership was an important issue. He insisted though, that change must be brought about through an independent transormation, rather than US or foreign-led.

It was a measured but clear speech. Only with a more open and understanding framework by both the Arab and European worlds can an effective solidarity campaign dispel the notion of the clash of civilisations. The solidarity movement must now move beyond the limited anti-war sentiment, to promote an alternative and forward looking reality.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Women's Iraq

The periphery (for me) is like one long Iraq meeting. Yesterday a brilliant meeting of Act Together, a women's group originally coming out of Women in Black to oppose sanctions (then war, then occupation) in Iraq.

Four Iraqi women presented views of Iraq - the historical background of women's position in Iraqi society under Saddam was set out by Nadje al-Ali from Exeter University; another Nadje who came to Britain from Iraq only in March focussed on education; Haifa Zangana, who writes in the Guardian, spoke about the occupation; and film-maker Maysoon Pachachi presented rough cuts from her film-in-progress, based on five weeks in Iraq in February/March.

The presentations were all excellent, there was lively interaction with an audience of fifty-sixty people (only forty seats) with Q&A after each section.

The highlight was, as one woman said, seeing and hearing ordinary Iraqis in the film expressing themselves, rather than being objects in a Western news segment. Women demonstrating to defend their status in the new constitution; women fiercely lobbying Lakhdar Brahimi as he consulted nationally on the feasibility of elections; women teachers expressing frustration as they gather to review the curriculum.

One teacher remarked wryly, 'Of course we must go on, we have patience, but even Job, even Job fled Iraq.'

Shamefully, Maysoon's film is to be aired in Germany and France, but has no commission from either the BBC or C4.

Milan Rai
King's Cross (public telephone)

Saturday, October 16, 2004

"Another World is For Sale"- Activists Reclaim the ESF

By Leila Deen

The ESF is currently reeling in the aftermath of an intervention in this evening's planned Ken Livingstone-led plenary. A small but vocal deputation of radical activists from the automous meeting "Beyond the ESF" arrived at the Forum this evening, taking over the stage full of speakers moments before the evening's major plenary (Read: SWP Rally).

There were slight scuffles of resistance from the stage occupants, who saw the occupation of the stage as a race, not political, issue. However, to anyone that has spent 5 minutes in ESF organisational meetings, it soon became clear that this was the long overdue eruption of serious internal dissatifaction amongst British lefties.

Banners targetted "head-liner" Livingstone, reading "Free the ESF", "Ken's Party, War Party" and "Left or Right, the Bosses are all the Same". Unfortunately Ken, the self-proclaimed leader of the Anti-Fascist movement, seemingly got wind of an increasing dissatifaction within the movement and bottled out of the appearance, sending vans of London's finest in his place.

Despite a great deal of confusion, stemming from the break down of interpretation (due to the exausted Babel's volunteers iniciating a simultaneous but separate rebellion) the vast majority of participants seem pleased that the autonomous activists highlighted this co-option of their ESF. Many international participants were seemingly kept in the dark regarding the party affliation of the majority of the "Steering Committee" (Read: Socialist Action) and how this stands in direct violation of the ESF Charter and its founding principles.

Of course, there were those a little peed off as speakers and delegates alike had come a long way to discuss anti-fascist issues. However, once the activists had effectively made their point, and had it sufficiently, they keenly left the stage so that the important anti-facist discussion could continue. In this observer's view, the intervention enlived an otherwise bland forum, beginning anew the debate and analysis of how we want our forum to be run. The corridors suddenly came alive with dicussion of what this means for the future of our moment, party-liners versus non-subscribers.

The intervention highlighted, for them so blind, that never again should an ESF think it is OK to employ exploited temporary workforces to sell over-priced, poor quality food to people that came from all over Europe to discuss equality and social justice. Nor close doors to organise our movement for us. Nor invite party politicians hiding behind another name.

We wait, as I write, for news of that same deputation, who were promptly nicked on existing Ali Pali. Bless 'em.

Coca Killa withdrawn from ESF

The Coke Justice group and Columbian Solidarity achieved an important victory today when the ESF management decided withdraw the sale of Coca Cola, dubbed Coca Killa, from sale at the ESF.

Yesterday, Andy Higginbottom, director of Columbian Solidarity, expressed his anger at the sale of Coke at the ESF and urged the audience at an anti-multinational corporation seminar to complain to the ESF about it. His organisation invited Edgar Paez, a columbian trade unionist, to speak at several events at the Forum about the brutal repression his union has suffered for demanding better conditions at work in Coca Cola bottling plants. 9 Unionists from the food and drink union, SINALTRAINAL, have been asssassinated by paramilities, believed to be in collusion with Coca Cola, and several abducted, imprisoned and threatened.

When Red Pepper phoned the management of the ESF about the sale of Coke at the Forum this morning, their initial response was dissmissive. However, an hour later, they informed us that they had decided to withdraw all Coca Cola products. "The ESF did tell the catering companies to maximise the presence of locally sourced, organic and ethical foods. Some were not aware of the controversy over Coca Cola, but they have now been informed and the offending products withdrawn," said Martin Green, Senior Events Officer.

Edgar Paez said of the news, "I thank the ESF for being awake enough to withdraw the sale of Coca Cola. This is a conference where we are denouncing globalisation and we cannot do this through the consumption of multinational companies."

Katherine Haywood

Numbers

A friend of mine came to register at around 4pm today (friday). When he did so, he recieved a free travelcard. Since only the first 20,000 people to register were to recieve a free travelcard, I can only assume that this means that by well into the start of the ESF, less than 20,000 people had registered, well short of both Florence and Paris. In part this was only to be expected, given the cost of the event for punters compared to previous years, and the cost of coming to London, but it still represents a somewhat dissapointing figure for the European movement. Having said that, the movement in Britain has never experienced any event which approaches the level of plurality which is clearly on display in the ESF this year, the fiasco of the organising process notwithstanding, and we can only hope that we manage to take that on board, and that the ESF will come to represent a major step forward for the movement in Britain, despite rather than because of the influence of the major political groupings which have dominated the organisation of the ESF. London is no Florence or even Paris, but I think you can discern the spirit of the new global movements here nonetheless.

Take your shoes off to Moleque de Rua

When you've had a hard day trying to conceptualise the dialectics of the neo-liberal interconectivity galactic pomposity, and you've pondered on the metaphysics of the GM atom in its primal though mutated algorithmic organism.... you need a straightforward revolutionary beat to push you into the next dimension of enlightened calm.

Moleque de Rua did just that. The beats they produced were in no way simple, but the 10 piece hip-hop percussion band from Sao Paulo, Brazil, had an underlying core that kept the discussion-weary audience begging for more. Twice the whoops and the cheers dragged them back for an encore, drowning out the organisers who were trying to shut up shop.

"The inspiration for our music is life," said one band member, simply, who shot to the top of my estimations when he dazzled the crowd with his energetic mastery of the chinelophone, played as a xylophone, but with three ft tubes as the bars, and, what can only be described as, shoe soles for the sticks. Other inventive instruments were tin cans stuck to long bamboo shoots, and chrome cups that were tapped, shifted, banged and passed along in a rotationary movement amongst six band members, to impeccable timing despite the impossible logistics of such a feat.

You have to check out the band at www.navigans.com.br/molequederua

Katherine Haywood

ESF Disability Rights seminar

“Disabled people's struggle for rights - Can the European Union deliver?"

First things first, a confession and apology. I arrived forty five minutes late for the talk on Disability Rights in Europe. This meant that I missed the speeches by David Morris of Independent Living Alternatives, Bob Mills of Mad Pride and Tomato Lichy of Greater London Association for Deaf People. I arrived midway through a speech by Ugo Vernizzi of Italy’s Cooperativa La Cruna, but by the time I had been supplied with a translating device, the speech was ending. Fortunately, I had time for the final speech by Caroline Gooding of the Trade Union Disability Alliance and the follow-up speeches and questions from members of the audience. Caroline replaced Stefan Tromal of the European Forum of Disabled People.

So If I write that this seminar sometimes felt like a group of people dancing on the spot for two hours, then it must be quantified. It’s not that I disagree with what was said, but rather that I left without any great plan of action for progress.
The answer to the title question, according to Caroline was no, Europe can’t deliver. It may no longer be permissible, for example, to discriminate against people in the workplace, but the value of such anti-discrimination legislation is reduced if the accessible education and transport isn’t available and if disabled people are still incarcerated in special housing that marginalises them from the community. As she put it ”a law is a dead letter unless it’s backed by a powerful social movement.”

Post 9/11, the quality of life for disabled people is being reduced. The government’s obsession with privatisation ensures that the care service supplied is often mediocre, and money that could be spent on social care is diverted into the “War on Terror”. Given that many people face multiple forms of discrimination, disability politics needs to be hooked into opposition to sexism, racism and homophobia

I may not have left this meeting invigorated but it is impossible to underestimate the importance of bringing disability to the ESF since disability politics have often been shamefully neglected by the left. In this writer’s opinion, the charitable sector is at best restrained by its need to appeal to the general public, and at worst works directly against the interests of its supposed client group. Disability rights alone isn’t enough, sympathy is demeaning, and activism and Direct Action is still the most progressive way for disabled people to achieve equality with those without bodily, sensory or mental impairments.

Owing to a rigmarole involving a website fiddly for the visually impaired and unhelpful (borderline hostile) organisers, I arrived unsure whether I would be let in. Luckily, staff when I arrived were much friendlier, but the extreme contrast highlights the importance of disability activism.

STEPHEN PORTLOCK

Friday, October 15, 2004

Three Iraq Meetings

This afternoon I attended the Stop the War Coalition meeting in Friends Meeting House in Euston Road (300 odd people); this evening I went near to the boundary of the ESF to the home of some Solidarity Village events and went to a 'civil society' meeting about Iraq at the LSE (about 80 people).

I think the most powerful moment of the whole ESF will probably be the tumultuous standing ovation that the hall gave to Rose Gentle, who lost her son Gordon in Iraq, and who has launched a personal campaign to bring back the troops. It was an incredibly moving moment. Rose Gentle then gave a short, powerful speech, saying that Tony Blair was a 'disgrace', the war was illegal, and we should not be there.

Four ESFs
Someone said to me in the LSE that there was the 'liberal, SWP-dominated ESF'; then the Solidarity Village (first known as LETS Cooperate (LETS is an alternative currency/trading system for community sustainability/development)); then there is Beyond ESF; then beyond that is Schnews, the direct action conference tomorrow at the Camden Centre in Kings Cross, and the Indymedia gathering.

I'm not sure I agree with this description (it's daft to just write off the ESF as 'liberal', and no single party can dominate it, however much they may be trying), but it is certainly true that the Solidarity Village, based in Conway Hall, the bastion of free speech in Holborn, has cooperative relations with the ESF, while the other autonomous events do not.

One of the vertical/horizontal tensions is about making events participatory, and not simply unidirectional, ;speaker-spoken to', panel-dominated events. Well, along that axis there was little to choose between the STWC event and the civil society event. Both left half an hour for question and answer/comment at the end.

I don't think this is the limit of making meetings more participatory...

Missing from the Agenda
One of the central questions for the anti-war movement is why it is in the state it is in - why, for example, as Hilary Wainwright asked at the LSE event, are there not massive protests at the daily assaults on Fallujah?

The plain fact is that much of the movement which mobilized last year is paralyzed and demoralized. This was denied by several leading figures in the STWC at their meeting, but a couple of speakers alluded to the problem. The union speaker, from the Communication Workers Union, said bluntly that the movement is not in a good state and needs to be rebuilt.

Another speaker at the STWC meeting said that the general public was concerned with 'what happens after withdrawal', and this was an issue that needs to be addressed. I think this is the central issue confronting us.

It was not dealt with at either meeting. It was avoided, or assertions were made about the state of Iraq, and the likely peaceful course of events post-occupation, which just cannot be made so categorically.

Withdrawal - How?
There are two questions for those people who believe that the war was wrong and the occupation is appalling. Firstly, what each of us thinks is the best way forward for Iraq - the best way to carry out withdrawal. Secondly, assuming that rapid withdrawal is needed, what proposal will win the overwhelming majority of British people over to rapid withdrawal in the shortest possible time.

At the STWC meeting, several speakers, including an Iraqi exile who is a leading figure in the Muslim Association of Britain (who pointed out that today is the first day of Ramadan) called for Troops Out Now - Today.

Whether or not you agree with that, it is clear that this is not the feeling of the British people (or, I believe, the US public).

Majority feeling
At the LSE event, I asked for a show of hands choosing between three options: troops out tomorrow, that's it; set a date for withdrawal in a few months, bring in replacement UN peacekeeping forces (or some other third party), have UN transitional political support leading up to elections; or, continue with occupation indefinitely. Option 1 got half a dozen votes; Option 2 got over thirty votes; Option 3 got a couple of hands in the air.

I've done this same straw poll all over the UK, across the US, even at the STWC rally at the Labour Party Conference last year, and it has always shown massive majorities in favour of Option 2, staged withdrawal with replacement.

One question is: if this is the view of a majority of people in the movement, why is it not even mentioned as a possibility on the major platforms of the anti-war movement?

The Third MeetingOh, the third Iraq meeting? I heard tonight that an Iraq plenary at Alexandra Palace was disrupted by protestors angry at the presence on the platform of (it seemed) a representative from the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, which argued for a continuation of the occupation at the Labour Party conference and helped to swing the vote in favour of the leadership. The whole plenary was wrecked by the protest, according to a friend of mine who popped in and out of the meeting to see how it was going.

Milan Rai
Brixton