Second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre: Is another world possible?

The recent gathering of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre showed clearly how the anti-globalisation movement is becoming more and more dominated by career politicians, and groups and organisations that do not really represent the millions of youth who look to this movement for an alternative to the capitalist system. The capitalist class internationally is using a dual tactic. On the one hand, where they feel it to be necessary (as in Genoa) they use the most repressive and brutal methods to try to crush the movement. On the other hand they try to corrupt the movement and direct it away from radical anti-capitalist ideas.

From January 31 to February 5, the second World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Porto Alegre, while the representatives of the largest multinational companies and their political henchmen were meeting for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in New York to provide "leadership qualities in unsafe times".

The World Social Forum has become something like the International of the "anti-globalisation movement". With at least 50,000 participants from 2000 "movements of the civil society" from 110 countries, this year's WSF was twice as large as the year before. Where is the movement going according to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre?

Main Emphasis

An issue of central importance at this year's WSF was the discussion about cancelling the debts of about 2 trillion euros of the countries in the "southern hemisphere". It was a commonly held view that foreign indebtedness is one of the major obstacles for sustainable human development and the responsibility for this lies especially with the "speculators" and the governments of the creditor countries in the "northern hemisphere". The latter use the debts as a way of putting pressure on the debtor countries, "particularly for the realisation of Structural Adjustment Programs". The large part of foreign debts is said to be illegitimate and a fair procedure for overcoming the debt crisis is therefore absolutely necessary.

In addition the WSF condemned the military "anti-terror-campaign" of the USA. At their last general assembly the delegates passed a unanimous resolution, which declared that war is not an appropriate means for fighting terrorism and for solving the world's current problems, and that after the attacks of September 11 and the war in Afghanistan there shall be no more innocent civilian victims. The latest speech of US president Bush, in which he declared Iran, Iraq and North Korea to be an "axis of evil", provoked heavy criticism amongst the delegates in Porto Alegre.

Furthermore the delegates expressed their solidarity with the Argentinean population suffering due to a dramatic economic crisis. The countrywide protests are said to be the consequences of monetarist economic policy, which intensified the economic, political and social crisis in Argentina. The subjugation of the governments in Buenos Aires to the international financial institutions have caused a "process of recession with high unemployment, an increase of poverty and social isolation." This would be a "clear demonstration of the failure of monetarist policy in Latin America."

The message of Porto Alegre

The demonstration at the official inauguration of the WSF showed how broad the movement has become. Not only was there a strong participation of the youth. There was also a significant presence of individual workers and trade unions. Bank employees distributed leaflets with the title "all bankers are thieves" and burnt dollar and euro banknotes. Metal and oil workers called for international solidarity with the Palestinians. In the morning the organisation of the homeless people occupied a building, which the city council had promised to convert into state-subsidised flats a year ago.

In spite of these positive developments, unfortunately the bulk of the WSF is dominated by other forces, such as individuals like the Belgian Guy Verhofstaedt. During the EU summit in Laeken he had tried to make a name for himself by acting as a mediator between the opposing fronts and for a short time he had managed to bring the European Federation of Trade Unions to the negotiating table.

This year's meeting was dominated by many politicians from the Social Democratic and Green camps. Obviously an increasing number of people who are involved in running the present political order are attempting to exploit the movement. Jose Luis del Rojo, the Italian coordinator of the WSF made the following criticism: "We have a problem. There are several thousand politicians present, many of whom are members of parliament, mainly from Europe, who voted for the US war against Afghanistan. Many of these had declared themselves to be against our movement. And now they are all here, giving interviews to the international press...We have problems especially with the French and Italian members of parliament. For example, there is the secretary of the Left Democrats from Italy, Piero Fassino, who spoke strongly in favour of Italy entering this war. These are the same people, who in Genoa, while the police was beating us up, called upon the population not to join the demonstration, in order to isolate us and leave us in the hands of the repressive state apparatus...This should be a Forum of local government politicians, but here we have prefects from Europe taking part. These people in their municipalities and regions have expelled immigrants. All this has nothing to do with our principles."

It is worth noting the composition of the European delegations. For example the German delegation was extremely characteristic. Only a few genuine social movements participated. The majority was made up of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), like the Evangelische Entwicklungsdienst (Protestant Voluntary Service Overseas). The bulk of the delegation was formed by foundations linked to political parties, such as the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Friedrich Ebert Foundation) with a total of 19 delegates, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) with 9 delegates, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Heinrich Böll Foundation) with 2 delegates and the DGB (German Federation of Trade Unions) with 7 representatives.

Social movements from countries and areas furthest away from the venue of the Forum and those that do not have financial help from influential organisations, or the smaller Non-Governmental Organisations, could not afford the travelling expenses. Those organisations that can afford the expenses bring along crowds of political tourists, who have nothing to do with the local movements. Because of this the "delegations" were not necessarily representative.

Against "Turbo-capitalism"?

The WSF is politically dominated by tendencies which stand for "globalisation with a human face". Their most important mouthpiece is ATTAC. To the pleasure of the bourgeois media, no fundamental opposition against the profit orientated capitalist system could be noticed at the Forum. Die Presse (an Austrian daily newspaper) stated: "Savage turbo-capitalism, which only understands the maximisation of profits and does not care about any social commitment, should be tamed. Horst Köhler, a boss of the International Monetary Fond (IMF), expressed the same idea in New York, although not quite so clearly. Both venues of these conferences are not as far from each other as they might seem."

ATTAC also set out in Porto Alegre the main points of their plan for the regulation of the process of globalisation:

  • The Tobin Tax, a tax on financial transactions, to stabilise the international financial markets; reform of the World Bank and the IMF, in which those institutions should be responsible to the national parliaments.
  • A global anti-trust commission, in order to slow down multinational companies and increase competition.
  • A procedure of mediation for countries of the "Third World" in debt, where creditors and debtors should name their representatives and who then have to come to an agreement in regard to an arbitrator.

All this shall be realised by lobbying, through a "dialogue" with governments and international institutions like the IMF or the World Bank.

Where is the movement going?

In Porto Alegre the "anti-globalisation movement" has proved that it has not yet overcome its political weaknesses. The WSF should, according to its organisers, be the most representative Forum of the movement. In reality the movement is dominated by a host of "generals", who do not have an army at their disposal, i.e. they are not rooted in genuine social movements, factories, schools or universities at all and their only goal is to bring the representatives of capital back to the negotiating table. Like all movements which arise suddenly and out of the contradictions in society, the "anti-globalisation movement" also develops within a specific social context and therefore reflects the real balance of power at any given moment.

The ruling class, in its attempt to bring the movement to an end, achieved an important partial success at this weekend's meeting. Their tactics are obvious. They present themselves as being cautious and self-critical, in order to fool the movement and to slow it down. By offering a dialogue to reformist tendencies like ATTAC they try to bring the movement to an end, while at the same time the more radical elements within the movement are being silenced by state repression. For example during the same weekend, the red-green (!) council in Munich denied the right to demonstrate against the NATO summit taking place there.

If this movement proves to be incapable of moving forward and going beyond these reformist positions and does not develop a perspective of the revolutionary transformation of society, a socialist perspective, this strategy of the ruling class will indeed succeed in achieving its objectives.

February 2002

Translated from the Austrian Marxist magazine Der Funke.