The ESF has experienced many problems over the years, and we should be honest enough to admit that it has been on a downward course ever since the first and most successful one was organised in Florence in 2002. The ESF is therefore in a crisis, and we need to analyse and discuss its current situation and possible future.
In order to understand the crisis of the ESF, it has to be put in a broader context. The ESF does not operate in a vacuum. On the contrary, the problems we experience in it in many ways reflect the current social and political situation in Europe and in the world. At the very least the following four points are important:
1. The labour movement and the political left have not been able to come out of their deep ideological and political crisis in which they have more or less been since the beginning of the neoliberal offensive (“globalisation”) from about 1980 and the breakdown of the Soviet model in Eastern Europe as well as the social-democratic partnership model in large parts of Western Europe.
2. For the political left in many countries in Western Europe the situation has generally evolved for the worse. Attempts at joining centre-left governments without sufficient direction and strategic clarification have proven disastrous. Thus the parliamentary left both in Italy and France has experienced enormous defeats. The current experience with a centre-left government in Norway is not very encouraging. Despite these experiences, the parliamentary left in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden is heading in the same direction without adjusting its course on the basis of the negative experiences in the countries mentioned above.
3. In addition to this, there is also a crisis in the trade-union movement, which has been put very much on the defensive. Great parts of it are still deeply influenced by the social partnership ideology, which increasingly acts as a barrier against a more action-oriented practice. There has also been a backlash of other social movements in most parts of Europe. At the same time we have seen the growth of a number of right-wing populist parties (and neo-fascism particularly in many Central and Eastern European countries).
4. Thus, neither the political left nor the trade-union or other social movements have been able to develop a strong response or real alternatives to the current financial and economic crises, which increasingly are becomoing social and political crises. The same can be said of the increasingly important environmental and climate crisis.
The ESF itself
The lack of responses and alternatives also applies to the ESF. Even though the social forums themselves, and many of the movements, organisations and networks which work within the social forum processes, were developed partly as a response to the crisis of the traditional left, they have not been able to compensate for those weaknesses. The general setback of social and political struggles does of course influence the ESF strongly.
One of the internal effects of these developments is that the vacuum which has been created by the lack of real movements and struggles has to a certain degree been filled by a number of small NGOs and full-time activists who play a disproportionate role in ESF planning processes. Some of them also lack roots in, and sufficient understanding of, class relations, social struggle and social power. As a result there has been an increasing tendency towards sign-on statements, lobbying perspectives and proclamation of European days of action which have had very little basis in existing power relations and real on-going struggles.
It seems also that some informal power-structures have formed inside the ESF processes, which some participants, particularly from Central en Eastern Europe, experience as excluding them. This has particularly been the case in the programme developing process.
The arguments above also raise the question of whether the ESF will be seen as an important tool if and when the development of real movements and the level of mobilisation and struggles increase in Europe. This is far from obvious today. One example is that in a situation in which more and more people in Europe face multiple crises, the ESF programme process is fragmented into a number of different areas of struggle (called “axes” in the internal language). It is probably time now to ask whether this is the best way to meet the current challenges.
The future of the ESF
To the degree that the ESF is in crisis, it reflects an objective reality in the world in which it operates. It therefore cannot be solved by any kind of voluntarism or moralism. We have to understand the causes as well as identify possibilities and opportunities – and then come up with political and organisational proposals for change.
None of us today have the solutions to these problems. That is the reason why we will have to join our collective intellectual forces at the next ESF in order better to understand the situation and hopefully improve the way the ESF is working. To do so, we must analyse external as well as internal factors at the same time as we question all aspects of the way we are working today.
Here are some questions which could guide us in the discussion on the future of the ESF:
? How will we see the EU develop in the near future (the multiple crises)?
? Which are the most important arenas in which we can expect social struggles to break out, and how do we relate to these struggles?
? What do we have to do to the ESF structure and process if we want to see the ESF as a tool for unifying struggles across countries and across different sectors of society?
? How can we renew the ESF and make it more attractive to new and other groups and movements? (Included in this is also the aim of increasing Central and Eastern European participation in the ESF process. So far, to a certain extent, this problem has been dealt with as a question of financial support for CEE representatives. Maybe it is time now to abandon this very narrow approach and to deal with it as the very political challenge it represents?)
Proposals for Istanbul
On the basis of the above, the discussion on the future of the ESF could be organised through the following three seminars at the Istanbul forum:
I. ESF in Crisis? – The Context
II. ESF in Crisis? – Internal Factors
III. The Future of the ESF
* This a slightly adapted version of a note which originally was written as part of the discussion in a working group in the ESF to prepare for a debate of the crisis and the future of the ESF at the European Social Forum in Istanbul in July 2010.