Giving Ourselves Another Chance
The ambition of this article is a modest one: that of facilitating the discussion on social forum processes and on the next European gathering of the ESF organisers. Its premises are five theses:
1) Living social forum processes can help the left in Europe come out of its social-political defensive position.
2) Social Forums are indispensable for mobilising effectively against the causes and perpetrators of the crisis and for gaining the competence to process the connections between the financial and economic crises, the environmental and climate crises and the food and energy crises.
3) Social forum processes offer especially good opportunities for learning and self-reflection, and for developing solidarity with each other and with the weakest members of society.
4) The left in Germany and Europe should therefore be at pains to really understand the “social forum innovation” and appropriate it.
5) It is also high time that we help the social forum idea to arrive or be newly discovered. This in turn presupposes a growing interest in exchange experiences and ideas beyond one’s own special issue and political or social spectrum.
This article advocates seeing the life conditions of people in their complexity and ecological problems in context. It is oriented toward always showing solidarity first to those who need it the most, and toward working for broad social alliances. With this as a point of departure, the present contribution wants to promote binding accords for action and work.
Frequently it makes sense to ask apparently simple questions – thus, for example, why, how and through whom something has come about, and what exactly it is that has come about. This can benefit self-reflection “and a renewed and renewable enjoyment of social forums.” It is a condition for social forums becoming “magnetically” attractive especially for those citizens who consider themselves to be left and who (still) look for opportunities to exercise their social-political activism.
The first World Social Forum of January 2001 was based on strong collective protagonists, who were responsible, especially in Latin America, for emancipatory political turning points and movements. It came out of social and political struggles and showed that left politics can be lively, full of ideas and attractive. Thus it could be counterposed to the World Economic Forum of the global elites as a counter-power, and the WSF could become a place of experienced commonalities, in which individual and collective experiences of everyday life and of struggles could be exchanged and analysed and lead to common conclusions. The WSF contributed to a new identity of the global left, to a feeling of “we”.
Part of the history of the social forums involves insights into one’s own deficits and the left’s limitations up to now. There needs to be a tough discussion of why the left’s neoliberal opponents could become so strong; why “state socialism” collapsed; why all “classical” organisational forms, such as “the workers’ party” and the inherited trade-union form have proven to be unsuitable; why, however, precisely in Latin America, farmers, landless people, poor (and) indigenous people – that is, social groups outside the “classic left labour and trade-union movement” – could mobilise themselves for social struggles and experience broad social solidarisation.
Social forums are inseparable from the criticism of the inherited political practices and organisational forms, from the criticism of “left” politics that has not understood how to make the dignity of the individual into its point of departure, of his or her engagement, solidaristic way of relating and respect for nature. The social forums arose out of the criticism of the left’s over-estimation of its own capacities, arrogant claim to possess the truth and self-presumed leadership role in the struggle against a “capitalist system.” To the alleged “challenges of globalisation” it counterposes global solidarity from below. It wishes to confront thinking and action fixated on “one’s own region” or “one’s own nation-state” with locally and regionally anchored global movements for “another world” worthy of living in. The “inventors” and adherents of social forum ideas focus on sovereign politically active individuals capable of learning, predominantly outside of parliaments, of administrations and armed forces.
The many complicated questions that confront the left in its everyday political practice, can easily mislead it into suppressing contradictions and can make difficult their recognition and analysis. This is also, and especially, seen in how it deals with social forums, which are either uncritically celebrated or dismissed as irrelevant.
2002 Florence – 60,000 and in the final demonstration more than a million
2003 Paris – 50,000 and in the final demonstration up to 250,000
2004 London – 25,000
2006 Athens – 35,000
2008 Malmö – 10,000
2010 Istanbul – 3,000
Being as sober as possible, and taking all disappointment into account: The social forum processes have done a lot to attack the dominance of neoliberal thinking and policies. Because of them, socially committed people and those who are involved in politics, from very diverse contexts, have come together. Alongside the exchange of views on problems and of alternatives, effective agreements have been reached in the Forums on action to be taken. European networks have arisen, which are working in an intensive way. People were encouraged to become politically engaged for the first time or after a long hiatus. A left political culture of debate was raised to a higher level. The principles of the Forum have gained entry into many left sectors. It has provoked discussion in more or less “classical organisations” on strategy, on new political alliances and new forms of cooperation and has, for example, resulted in points of contact in IG Metall and the GEW (the teachers union) and also in the Bundestag group of Die LINKE for cooperation with social movements. The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference (and the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba) are inexplicable without the social forums, and they in turn have also given the forums an opportunity for rejuvenation.
Despite this positive balance sheet, it has up to now not been possible in Germany and Europe to develop spaces at the local and regional, at the nation-state and European levels, in order to organise exchange and discussion, on an equitable basis, among socially critical people with diverse social, cultural and political outlooks, and to situate one’s own activities in societal contexts, and seek, cultivate and expand international communication.
We need first of all to realise that at present in Germany and Europe there are no attractive and effective social forum processes. The Florence and Paris initiatives could not be generalised and given an ongoing existence. However, it was precisely these initiatives that could help bring together those who should come together: those who (want) to act so that every person can live in self-determination and dignity, and in solidaristic interaction within a healthy natural environment, and those who do not want to be forced to compete against those who are weaker, to tolerate poverty and social exclusion and accept the destruction of nature. When they come together to exchange ideas about the present and about a liveable future, they can find commonalities in their societal critiques, in their demands and positions and in their conceptions of societal alternatives. They can decide on actions, on working on concepts and projects. They can thus make commonalities politically effective and expand these commonalities – and struggle in a sustainable way for social change.
This practice allows much more for the manifold reasons why people (want) to be involved “in politics” than does cooperation in organisations that represent concrete interests and which are thus principally oriented toward protagonists in parties, parliaments, administrations and social associations. This is not to speak against such organisations; rather it is to speak for the participation of the already “organised” and the “non-organised” in social forums. It especially has the advantage of not having to orient itself to political departmental and administrative boundaries.
Social forums as open spaces for the exchange among equals, makes it easier to develop an understanding of the problems of the socially weakest, to solidarise with them and to reformulate one’s own conceptions and goals on the basis of this understanding. From this, political alliances can emerge, which struggle to strengthen the standing and the rights of the weakest members of society and lastingly to improve their conditions of life. In this way society can be changed in a positive direction. Such alliances can structurally roll back the causes and repress the perpetrators of social and ecological destruction and overcome them in the end. Social forum processes can thus not only be “midwives” of new alliances, but a means of constantly renewing them and sustainably strengthening them.
Social forums make it easier to see human conditions of life and political activity in their interrelated entirety, that is, not to mechanically divide them and perhaps also rank them – for example, “labour”, “income”, “social co-determination”, “the position of women”, “ecology” … or to group them according to forms of organisation or struggle. Thus they can help to overcome the fragmentation of the left.
In any case, two principles must be paramount: first, giving help to the socially weakest, those most threatened existentially, and seeing the natural conditions of life as social conditions of life. The practical realisation of these principles necessarily makes the concrete deployment of resources a major theme. For this reason, the left must above all work for the democratisation of the political decision-making processes, of taxation and of public finances and budgets – “reclaim the budget” is the motto we need, nowmore than ever in view of the crises.
The interweaving of the financial and economic crisis with the social and ecological crises forces the left to develop a complex point of view and way of working. Regardless of whether people motivate their political activity by the struggle against social and ecological destruction or by their dreams, desires or visions of a future society, there is no way around confronting the causes and perpetrators of the various crises and their effects on the human conditions of life.
All experience, which people accumulate in this process, together with their collectivities, is important – whatever the social situation is in which they find themselves, of how they are politically active and which function they fulfil – regardless of whether they practice civil disobedience, protest and resistance and / or work for alternatives, organise demonstrations or take part in them, favour alternative ways of life or are active in parliaments and administrations.
Social forum processes and social forums are there to make it possible for all these protagonists to come together and bring their experience into common political strategies.
If this approach is followed, there would be no further nerve-wracking fights over the “thematic axes” of social forums. In such a case at least the following three decisions could be taken at the next European gathering: