Another debate is possible
Everything was tolerated at the European Social Forum - except an argument.
According to reports, the European Social Forum (ESF) last weekend ‘attracted to a wet city on the very edge of Europe [London] nearly 25,000 mainly young people from more than 70 countries’ (1). This has been taken as evidence that recent low-turnout elections aren’t indicators of political apathy. ‘Young people are highly political’, London mayor Ken Livingstone said before the event (2). They are just not party political.
Nobody could accuse the ESF of lacking diversity in its delegates. Among the many stalls dotted around Alexandra Palace in north London were representatives of everything from the Marxist/Leninist Communist Party of Turkey/Northern Kurdistan to enthusiasts for the international language of Esperanto. The ‘Campaign against Climate Change’ handed out leaflets calling US president George W Bush ‘the most overtly anti-environmentalist president in US history’, and promising to hold a ‘global funeral march’ if he won the upcoming presidential elections. One of the stranger contributions was a leaflet produced by the Vegan Society proclaiming that ‘honey ain’t so sweet for the bees’, who apparently have their ‘substances stolen’ and are abused on a regular basis.
The sheer range of participating groups was one of the reasons for the chaotic nature of the event – even its media partner, the UK Guardian, admitted it was badly organised. There was friction between British organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Greater London Assembly (GLA) and Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU), who had been central to coordinating the event, and some more radical Europeans who felt the ESF had been hijacked by mainstream figures and corporations. This tension led to a stage invasion at a session in which Ken Livingstone was due to speak.
Another outburst prevented Subhi al-Mashadani – the general secretary of the Iraq Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), and member of the US-backed interim government in Iraq – from speaking. This was achieved by a minority of protesters who continued to shout al-Mashadani down despite a vote from the audience supporting the continuation of the meeting. Such intolerance for those who seem to in any way represent ‘the system’ shows an unwillingness to enter into serious debate with anyone who challenges anti-globalisation orthodoxies.
Director of the Transnational Institute Susan George complained of the ‘ritual denunciations and constant reminders from the platform that we are in favour of some things (social justice, human rights, democracy, ecological responsibility…) and against others (war, poverty, racism, global warming…). Reiteration of these themes has become the primary function of over-abundant ESF plenary sessions’ (3). This list of likes and dislikes denotes a social attitude rather than a political agenda. Almost anyone could say that they agree, but it would only serve more as a comforting set of stock phrases than a political analysis and programme.
The plenary session on Friday 15 October, ‘Oil Addiction – energy, politics, corporate power and global climate change’, bore out Susan George’s point, only coming close to a conflict of views when a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) supporter challenged the overriding consensus that cheap air-travel is evil, reminding us that workers ‘need a holiday’ too. A request for the panel to state why they thought global warming is a manmade phenomenon was derided by the chair of the debate, who said that they need not waste their time with such ‘rubbish’.
This failure to respond to criticism was mirrored in the seminar on youth, students and the anti-war movement. Despite the impressive array of speakers that had been assembled from youth movements throughout Britain and Europe, there was little disagreement or debate from the panel. Instead we were treated to a variety of speeches, each telling us how that individual had organised their protest – which sounded more like a primary school essay about what I did during the holidays than a radical political agenda. Although several of the young people were good speakers, they were often guilty of parroting phrases that have been passed down from the rest of the ESF.
A representative from School Students Against the War claimed that we have reached a ‘turning point in people’s consciousness’ and that ‘people now want a real understanding of the ideas’. But there was little of substance in her speech. Her criticisms of ‘imperialism’ and the ‘imperialist’ Bush seemed to become less coherent the more they were used.
A complaint was made that the ESF ‘discriminates against youth’ by not allowing younger people to speak on the main platforms, not because they lack ideas, but because their views are ‘too radical’. But perhaps the real problem is that they are readily delivering up stock slogans, which were something of a caricature of those heard on the main stage.
A representative of student CND who co-chaired the meeting described the positive aspects of organising it as the chance to ‘make contact with other organisations’, and that it ‘incorporated a variety of views’. The work that must have gone into creating an international panel did bear fruit with several agreements for future conferences, but there was little evidence of a ‘variety of views’.
One report noted the low number of MPs at the conference, and commented that the ‘lack of curiosity about what is energising young people at the European grassroots suggests that mainstream politicians are out of touch’ (4). From where I was sitting, this didn’t seem to be the place for either mainstream or grassroots politics to be revived.
For me, the ESF was typified by a badge I saw several people wearing that boldly stated ‘Fuck capitalism’. This is just the kind of high-on-gesture, low-on-content politics that will need to change before another world really is possible.
Francis Boorman has just finished his A-levels, and is currently working as a spiked intern.
(1) New politics takes a bow, leader, 18 October 2004
(2) Young people are highly political, Guardian, 14 October 2004
(3) This is the way to win, Guardian, 15 October 2004
(4) New politics takes a bow, leader, 18 October 2004
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