Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Where energy and mushy thinking collide

Irish Times  05/20/05

BRAZIL: The World Social Forum ends today in Brazil and for proponents of leftist politics, progressivism, civil society - call it what you want - there is cause for both hope and concern, writes Samuel Loewenberg

A case in point was last Saturday, when thousands of people packed into a Porto Alegre theatre at 8.30 a.m. to hear five of Latin America's most admired writers and intellectuals talk about globalisation and other problems of the world.

The eager fans had formed kilometres-long queues and fought their way through the entrances, finally filling the stairs and aisles when all the seats were taken. They might as well have been going to a rock concert.

But when the talking finally began, amidst all of the cheering, it was hard to see what the fuss was about. The theme of the talk was "Quixote today: Utopia and Politics", and led to lots of mushy thinking.

Predictably, the panellists, which included Nobel Prizewinning author Jos Saramago and World Social Forum founder Ignacio Ramonet, went to great lengths to define the word "utopia", extolling the virtues of Don Quixote's valorous madness, and denouncing the International Monetary Fund for not being a democratically-elected institution. The crowd loved it.

But while populist rhetoric (or in this case postmodern/ romantic/populist rhetoric) is good for pumping up crowds, it is like fast food in that it does not leave one with much in the way of substance. For that, one had to sit through the much smaller and far more mundane meetings being held in small, stuffy tents.

Even then, finding the right workshop took lots of sifting. "Lots of the meetings are ideological. They talk about the bad things in the world, but they don't talk about solutions," said Elise Christensen, a 24-year-old Norwegian who was attending the forum for the first time.

Much more useful, she said, were the panels that address specific subjects. As an example, she cited a presentation from that day about the growing trend, often supported by international lenders like the IMF, of privatising water in Third World countries. At the panel, Uruguayan activists described how they were able to pass a constitutional amendment securing water as a public right.

That the stuff of the World Social Forum varies so much between the ethereal and the concrete is a problem as old as the Left itself.

Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva - a man who knows the dangers of dogma, having angered the left wing of his own party by playing the IMF's austerity game - warned in October that the World Social Forum was "becoming a bazaar of ideological products, where everyone buys and sells whatever they feel like". When the meetings started five years ago they were focused almost totally on globalisation and free trade. The organisers consciously broke from that at last year's conference in Mumbai, India, said Shalmali Gultal, a development and poverty researcher and one of the forum's organisers. The organisers felt the meetings had been too dominated by elites and experts, and decided the best way to deal with that was to abdicate much of their oversight role, opening the forum meetings to whomever wanted to present.

"The World Social Forum is a reflection of the state of civil society," she said. "It doesn't necessarily need to have a sharp focus."

Which is fine in theory. In practice, this correspondent spent half an hour looking for a meeting on child trafficking that was to take place in tent K604, but this was renamed K609 and was, when found, housing something called the African Women's Court.

Even the old foundation of the forum, anti-globalisation, is due for a reassessment. The term itself, globalisation, is now practically meaningless, having come to stand for everything from multinational corporations, Third World debt, McDonald's, and President Bush's war in Iraq. One union activist sees the lowering of old national boundaries and the revolution in communication as an opportunity. "We have to globalise to compete against multinationals," said Patrick van Klink, a worker and union organiser at the Unilever margarine factory in Rotterdam.

Over the last five years, his union has forged links with Unilever workers in India and Brazil, sometimes providing them with strategic advice, publicity and funding. "The possibilities for us as a workers' movement are better than ever before - it is easier to travel, communicate, and meet face to face. We have to take advantage of these opportunities."

It is an amazing thing when thousands of people - most of university age - turn out for five days of political discussion. It is inspiring that these masses treat novelists with the admiration usually reserved for pop stars.

And all of this has been happening in a country which, like many of its neighbours, recently replaced corrupt and repressive regimes with politicians who, like President Lula, seem to be committed and serious reformers. On the first night of the forum a student named Mario, in the midst of a discussion on the problems of the world, was clearly feeling frustrated. "So what should we do?" he asked. Five days and hundreds of workshops later, maybe he got some ideas.

By Sam Loewenberg