• The Challenges Before the European Social Forum

  • Por Raffaella Bolini | 20 Apr 10 | Posted under: Foros Sociales

    In January, the group of Brazilian organisations, which ten years before had promoted the World Social Forum, invited more than two hundred people from all over the world to Porto Alegre to attend a four-day seminar on a balance sheet for, and perspective of, the Forum process.

    The seminar took place inside the Porto Alegre Regional Social Forum attended by 50,000 activists, and it provided an occasion to deepen the dialogue between representatives of social movements and organisations from all the continents on the global and multiple crises humanity is going through.

    At the beginning of March in Bouznika, a coastal village close to Casablanca, the Maghreb Social Forum organised an international event celebrating the 10 years of WSF attended by 700 people, coming not only from the region but also from all the Middle East, including Iraq and Yemen, where national Social Forum processes have been initiated.

    On June 22, the second United States Social Forum will open its doors in Detroit to thousands of activists from all the country and to hundreds of people arriving from abroad. And the Australian Social Forum is working, together with the civil society of the Pacific Islands affected by climate change, to organise a Pacific Social Forum next year.

    These are only some examples; the list is long. In Asia new national forums are going to be born, and in the last two years in Africa there was an explosion of national Forum processes. Of course, each of them reflects the reality of the country and the level of maturity of the local civil society, but in any case, the WSF process is bigger and more inclusive today than a decade ago.

    Certainly, anyone who harboured the illusion that Porto Alegre could really change the world in a short while might feel frustrated. This miracle did not happen, even if all the presidents of the new democracies in Latin America continue to say that they see themselves as resulting from the WSF.

    Nevertheless, the WSF is nowadays the largest network of social organisations on the entire planet, and an incredibly fundamental tool for keeping and strengthening international connections throughout the globe for any kind of democratic social activist, wherever they live and whoever they are.

    The Maghreb event bore the noteworthy title “WSF – Ten Years without a Wrinkle”. Nobody in Europe would be mad enough to employ such a slogan. The European Social Forum has many wrinkles, and it would be a good idea to start looking at them closely. 

    The decision to go to Istanbul was a good one. Because of the big cultural, social and even linguistic differences there it is quite difficult on the European level to really take part in the work of the Organising Committee in Turkey. Nevertheless, the 2010-ESF in July can play an important role, at least in the hosting country.

    When the decision to go to Istanbul was made, the beginning of the dialogue for a peaceful solution of the Kurdish question seemed to be very close at hand. As we now know, this is not the case: the resistance within Turkish power structures is strong, and the path is longer and more painful than we thought. But, as Kurdish organisations have recently confirmed, Turkish society is undergoing a real change, and the ESF can give support to those who are playing a good role.

    Europeans and the WSF

    However, even the Kurdish call has, up to now, not produced a wave of real European mobilisation for the Istanbul ESF. Despite the attempts, it is not so clear that the new social movements and coalitions which arose in the last period, like the climate-justice movement after the positive explosion in Copenhagen, will use Istanbul to mount a large presence.

    Of course, the situation is different from country to country, and the Italian perspective certainly does not make me view optimistically the situation of our continent. We are so immersed in our tragically deep political, cultural and moral crises that the great majority of activists and organisations, even the ones who produced the most important European public space in Florence in 2002, are simply not devoting any kind of attention to the international framework.

    It is a huge mistake, and it shows how deep our national crisis is. International relations are not a sort of luxury for good times. Especially when there is a so great a lack of ideas and perspectives, good energy could come mainly from abroad in this period where all the new visions live in the South of the world.

    The situation is not the same all over Europe, but the constantly decreasing presence of Europeans in the WSF event all around the world tells us that – to varying degrees – the situation is similar all over our continent.

    What is happening to us? It will be crucial to use Istanbul to start a debate on this.

    In reality, this kind of discussion about the crisis of the ESF – and about what this crisis shows – is an old one. The ESF Preparatory Assembly devoted some specific sessions to the issue in recent years. Probably, the mistake is to do it alone and closed within that framework. 

    The ESF Preparatory Assembly, even if in theory it is open to everybody, for a long time has been hosting only the traditional and specially dedicated organisations, the few which continue assuming responsibility for organising the Forum.

    It is necessary to broaden the spectrum of protagonists in this debate, first by including Social Forum experiences from other continents, who can look at the European situation in a more objective way. We should ask for a sort of solidarity in reverse, from the South to the North, in a moment in which Europe needs some help.

    It will be necessary to find a way to propose this discussion to a broad spectrum of European social organisations, including the ones who left the process or who are not any more convinced of its value. We should also involve the ones who never were in it because they were born later, or lived too far away or because of their criticism of it.

    And it will be crucial to involve intellectuals, think tanks, political and cultural foundations, leftist and progressive people who spend their energy in other fields of action, different from classic militant social activism: in media and communication, in research and education, in sciences, in culture and the arts, and so on.

    Most of these people probably are not at all interested in speaking about the ESF. But probably we could attract the interest of many people if we invite them to take part in a large, broad, deep and open dialogue on the decline of Europe.

    Europe in the crisis

    The decline of Europe – this is the real problem and we should look it straight in the eye.

    The decline of Europe is not only the result of changes in the global balance of power. The new deregulated multilateralism, where the Euro-Atlantic countries are surpassed by the BRIC countries – Brazil, India and China – is producing a shift of the geopolitical and economical axes and the end of European centrality.

    It is a cultural and ethical decline and one of ideas, which, in connection with the economic and strategic crisis, is producing a very dangerous vicious circle.

    The progressive idea of Europe and of the unity of Europe was not neutral at all; it was founded on democracy and social justice. Anyone knowledgeable in European history was willing to highlight the positive part, in order to use it as a basis for a model of social development.

    Traditional mainstream progressive forces all over Europe, by accepting neo­liberal ideology, have dismantled the European Social Model, which could have been the basis for an alternative both to the collapse of state socialism and to savage capitalism.

    Following the illusion of an impossible combination of free market and social guarantees, the once progressive camp in Europe has accomplished the complete defeat of the principal protagonist of welfare and social cohesion in our societies: the working middle class.

    The impoverished working middle class in Europe more and more resembles its counterpart in the USA during two generations of Bush, with administrations which believed they were responding to the insecurity they put people in by making war on the outside world, and on the socially weakest. 

    The answer to insecurity is often racism and war against the poor. Competition for survival produces individualism and collapse of communitarian ties. The answers to the crisis of meaning often are consumerism and materialism without any ethical code.

    And there is a major power component – this could clearly be seen in the history of the Balkan Wars – which is ready to ride any evil horse in order to keep or to conquer power.

    In Europe today, a large section of politics is renouncing its educational role and instead indulges in the most regressive instincts of a frightened population.

    The US has probably reached the ultimate level of internal impoverishment. And now they are trying to climb back up again by changing at least the cultural message, as is shown by Obama’s fight for public health – which is the real emblem of his presidency, despite all the difficulties and contradictions. 

    In Western Europe the welfare system is still able to provide the people with certain tools to stave off the collapse, and we do not feel the emergency as keenly as it is in reality. This is probably an additional reason for many in the democratic and progressive camp not to react.

    To react is not easy. To provide a positive alternative to the cultural hegemony of capitalism, too many aspects even of our European progressive and leftist history have to be overcome.

    Not only brutal capitalism but also European socialism, communism and social-democracy were based on industrialism, on the domination of human beings over natural resources and on their dissipation, on homologation of national, human, community diversity and differences.

    In addition, even in the workers’ movements and for decades, nobody has asked where the wealth of the European nation-states came from, the wealth used for redistribution and welfare; and now we know very well that a great part of it came and is coming still from the exploitation of the world’s South.

    To simply defend the old European Social Model is not enough. It is a dream for European men and women, and it is a nightmare for the environment, the climate and for the people of the South. At the same time, simply to say that we stand for an alternative is not enough. We should prove that we are credible. This is not so easy, as the social movements have often told and are still telling us.

    Sometimes it is more credible and serious to pose questions than to provide too many simple answers. Posing questions is necessary when humanity is facing a period never before seen in all its history, due to climate change and the real risk to life on the planet, which no one in the previous left culture ever took into consideration.

    The search for new paradigms

    Together with indigenous people, stateless peoples, social organisations from Latin America, Africa and Asia, some European organisations initiated a deep dialogue at the Belém-WSF, which is now crossing the planet in different events, each time trying to involve local actors and – as much as possible – cultural and political differences.

    The initiators have called this process “the crisis of hegemonic civilisation and the search for new paradigms”. The attempt to find a good name took much time, but once found, it conveys quite a lot. Human history has seen clashes and interchanges between different models of civilisation. Throughout the centuries, the “winning” model always has been one based on human and natural exploitation, war and violence as well as homologation.

    Europe is among the winners in the history of hegemonic civilisation. If Europe wants to search for a credible and strong vision for the future, capable of convincing people to move and to take their destiny into their own hands, we should start from this. And the left and progressive cultures have to accept that they, too, must rethink themselves.

    To resist is crucial and necessary, but it is not enough. It is natural and obvious for progressive and leftist organisations to support the struggles of industrial workers all over Europe against the dismantling of factories. And much more effort should be made on their behalf. 

    At the same time, trade unions and the workers themselves know very well, for example, that it is nonsense to defend intensive car production, or to defend devastating chemical factories.

    However, for people defending their work and their basic rights, to be ideological is not enough. Concrete plans are needed for positive alternatives. What kind of economy, what kind of work, what kind of social guarantees, what kind of rights and who will pay for them? – these are the questions to be answered. And they are not the same all over Europe, due to the different social, economical, geographical and environmental conditions.

    The main characteristic of the ESF and of all European social mobilisations has been and still is to gather together diverse social resistances. But in the face of the lack of a credible alternative project of the future, which is not provided by anybody in Europe, social movements and progressive civil society can do more.

    A new project for Europe

    The positive experiences and the good practices, which exist everywhere and in great number in all the local laboratories of “good life” in Europe, are not utilised, but remain fragmented. Most of the new ideas live in isolation and often those in power try to prevent the spread of their contents to a general level.

    At present, it could be important to try to put together these fragments to build from them a new project for Europe. A new project, as we learned from the terrible mistakes of history, will not aim at homologation; it will be plural and pluralistic. But a common starting point is needed.

    Somewhere a space is needed in which to put together all the fragments of alternatives and to try to combine them, without any fear of discovering – as we certainly will – that some of them are so contradictory as to be mutually exclusive.

    It could certainly be interesting from the very beginning to have a dialogue with non-hegemonic cultures, like the “bien vivir” of the Andean indigenous peoples or the African “ubuntu”, which can provide something that seems to have disappeared from our European modernity: the importance of memory and of the experiences of the elderly, for example.

    The new Latin American constitutional laws, which have established a new model of democracy based on a combination of representative, direct and communitarian democracy, could help Europeans tackle and challenge from a progressive point of view the tendency to disaggregation which is affecting many national states.

    A common and inclusive European search for a credible alternative is made more complicated by the absence of any established, inclusive and recognised European public space. 

    A real public space needs citizens. The EU´s democratic deficit, demonstrated by the results of the referendum on the Treaty and by the very low participation in the last European elections, is already well known. Currently, Europe is also facing a mounting democratic crisis inside the national borders of its states.

    In France and in Italy, the last local and regional elections (the ones which usually have the most citizen participation) have seen the abstention of almost half the population. So, at the very moment when the European Parliament has finally conquered more power and can have more influence on Commission policies, the Parliament itself represents only 30 % of the EU-population, and national parliaments risk suffering the same fate.

    People’s participation in political life, which was a specific feature of democratic achievements in Western Europe, is disappearing at a frightening rate. The relationship between political parties and citizens is lost in many countries, while at the same time the crisis of representation is opening up an enormous space to populist and plebiscitary tendencies.

    Eastern Europe, with its incomplete democracy, adds its own contribution to the diffusion of these negative phenomena.

    A real European citizenship has never emerged, if citizenship is to mean anything more than public opinion. Such a concept needs the democratic organisation of power. And a European public space, which is the prerequisite for building a transnational civil society and a European people, has never been established. 

    The only existing European democratic public spaces have been created through experiences coming from social organisations, social movements and organised civil society outside the dynamics of institutions.

    Despite all the difficulties of the last period, the European Social Forum is certainly one of these, and one of the most important ones. Others are the European workers’ and trade-union struggles, the anti-war movement, the immigrants’ and the women’s rights struggles, and so on.

    The need today is probably to anchor these kinds of self-organised public spaces both to the grassroots and to the institutions, so that they do not remain marooned in cyberspace – too much politics stops at the virtual level.

    To anchor the democratic public spaces deeply in society means to connect them to real communities, to real territories, to the real space where people live. In my own country, the only struggles able to defeat right-wing and ­neoliberal hegemony are the ones which are able to involve whole communities of people at the grassroots level, and which are aimed at conquering the minds of the citizens one by one – not just claiming to represent people’s will. 

    The dangerous involution of popular European culture does not permit the use of simplifications or illusions.

    It is necessary to return to doing basic work inside the communities, close to people – to their fears, to their anger, to their needs – mainly to those who do not know, who do not have the tools to decode the propaganda messages coming from power: to return to politics as a tool for popular education and for personal and collective emancipation, as was the case with the left in its beginning.

    To anchor the democratic public space below – to the grassroots – means to connect, much more than previously accomplished, the self-organised and independent public space built by social movements and civil society beyond the existing institutional framework. 

    It is really counter-productive to leave the new space for civil dialogue established by the Lisbon Treaty only to the organised civil-society lobby in Brussels and Strasbourg.

    In 2010 the Commission, for example, will decide how to implement Article 11 of the Treaty which adds participatory democracy and civil dialogue as fundamental components of EU-democracy. They are discussing how to regulate the so-called “civic initiative”, the possibility of collecting one million signatures in order to ask the Commission to discuss specific topics.

    The EU-institutions are the ones which decide a great part of our future. Independent civil society, the self-organised social movements, should force open the door of EU construction and claim its right to be part of the debate.

    Last but not least, it is impossible to build a European public space without taking seriously into account the Eastern European countries and societies. There is still a high and strong invisible wall between the two parts of the continent. And the colonialist, paternalistic approach does not only belong to the market protagonists and the businessmen. 

    Even inside progressive civil society and leftist social movements, Europe still means Western Europe, the old and strong democracies, the democratic constitutional laws and the anti-Nazi-fascist resistance.

    The story of the other part of Europe is denied and forgotten. In this way, we will not understand what could happen there. And what happens in the East will now heavily influence our common destiny, whether we want it to or not.


    So, to conclude: The situation in Europe is difficult. Whenever European people were in the past dispersed, confused, frustrated and manipulated, very bad things happened. So, we have to be as serious as possible about this.

    We need to look at reality, to search for allies, not to be alone, not to be isolated. We should get deeply involved in the discussion, trying to address all the tendencies which are against populism, racism and the degeneration of the feeling of insecurity, which are affecting a lot of our people. We should fight for a very basic common ground, avoiding competition among ourselves and starting a real dialogue between different approaches. We should try to start from the right questions, because nobody has the truth and what we need is a common search.

    Without this kind of common and strong effort and commitment, it is difficult to imagine that even the European Social Forum in the present condition can overcome its difficulties. The ESF represents the European situation; there is no way to overcome its difficulties without taking into account the deep reasons of its weakness.

    There are progressive social and cultural forces in Europe which are interested in this kind of debate. Perhaps it is time to strengthen these links and to start the debate.

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