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Dan Gordon

 

 
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So, from 15-17 October 2004, the third annual European Social Forum roadshow at last rolled into the most Eurosceptic, and arguably least socialist, country in Western Europe. What would happen? The run-up to the London ESF had been so dominated by bitter and acrimonious splits within the British left (anarchists versus unions and SWP over the role of Ken Livingstone, and so on) that anyone seeking something constructive to come out of it was bound to be a little apprehensive. Would another world really be possible with this lot? But since this was my first ever Social Forum, I wanted to appreciate it for the exciting event it was, rather than focus on the negatives. I decided the wisest course of action was to avoid the big set-piece plenaries on the burning issues of the moment, likely to attract the usual fruitless shouting, in favour of supporting more obscure but no less worthy initiatives, and learning from international experiences by prioritising sessions with less British involvement. This is after all meant to be a European Social Forum, in which storms in British teacups should not take on an exaggerated importance. Therefore, at the risk of stretching the patience of time-poor Turtle readers, I have provided fullish summary reports on the less publicised sessions I went to, a first draft of history if you like, for the benefit of those who were not there.

Friday

A good place to start, then, was For a citizenship of residence, which judging from its entry in the programme should have won the prize for greatest number of organisations calling a meeting, known and unknown outfits from civil society ranging from 'Coup de soleil en Rhône-Alpes' to 'Souriez vous êtes filmés' totalling 94, a figure which unfortunately well outnumbered the audience present. Barely had I sat down than I was signed up as the British contact of the Collective for a European Citizenship of Residence by an excited activist keen to meet someone from this side of the Channel for what is essentially a French-based campaign, with some interest in Spain, Italy and elsewhere. Basically the idea, outlined in the session by its chief proponents Pierre Gineste, Paul Oriol and Saïd Bouziri, is that Europe cannot be built in a just way by attributing European citizenship, as has been done since the Maastricht treaty, only to nationals of member states, which excludes some 15 million people. They therefore aim to get one million signatures on a petition to ask that EU citizenship be granted to all residents of Europe. This is combined with a call to equalise voting rights in local and European elections for all residents across the EU, replacing the current hotch-potch of arrangements which are considerably more generous in some member states than others. As Filippo Miraglia of the ARCI cultural organisation in Italy argued, this would avoid the danger of a 'separation wall' between nationals and what the Italians call extracomunitari. Carlo Cartocci of Rifondazione Communista's immigration commission called for a Europe-wide migrants’ confederation and newspaper. Manuel Delgado Cabeza of the Andalusian Association for Human Rights outlined progress so far in Spain.

This bright idea combines utopianism and practicality in the best spirit of the movement, since it builds on existing provision in some member states and seeks to apply it universally. It would have the merit of distinguishing nationality (which would remain for individual states to apportion) from citizenship, open equally to all residents of Europe. However, the reasons for the lack of interest in Britain are not hard to see: the existence of automatic voting rights even in national elections for people from Commonwealth countries, not to mention the fact that most members of ethnic minorities in Britain are British citizens, make the right to vote for immigrants - on which there has been a passionate debate in France for 25 years - a relative non-issue here (though as was pointed out to me, there are also many residents of Britain who do not fit this category). And, given the level of europhobia even on the Left in Britain, campaigning around the theme of European citizenship will be an uphill struggle. Europe - usually identified with fortress Europe - is usually seen as a problem for those campaigning in favour of immigrants in Britain (in a mirror image of the Daily Mail thundering about Brussels taking control of our borders), rather than as a possible part of the solution. There was some dispute from the floor even from a French Socialist Party regional councillor of North African background, on the grounds that being in favour of granting the vote for foreigners did not necessarily mean that one was in favour of an EU constitution; but other speakers argued that voting no to the constitution as it currently stands was not incompatible with arguing to get better political rights put in it. Closing comments by panel speakers emphasised the need to get committees, petitions and conferences on this issue going in the twelve out of 25 member states where there are presently none.

After lunch, a timely debate organised by New Left Review, with the shortest title in the programme: UN=US? I had been preparing to feel this was going to be a bit indulgent and ultra-leftist: at a time when Bush has demonstrated contempt for the authority of the UN in the most naked way with his doctrine of preemptive war, the priority should be to defend the UN, despite its faults, against the greater danger of US unilateralism. (Oh, and I always get moved by that bit in Tony Benn’s antiwar speeches where he reminisces about, as a recently demobbed ex-RAF officer in 1946, hearing the UN Charter promising to free succeeding generations from the scourge of war). However, a posse of middle-aged academic types, Peter Gowan, author of the article in NLR of this title, Perry Anderson, Bernard Cassen of Le Monde Diplomatique (the organ partly responsible for the birth of the World Social Forum) and Luciana Castellina of La Revista, disabused us of our illusions. The UN has a record of rubber stamping imperialist ventures, Gowan argued: the Korean War, the 1960 intervention in the Congo which killed Patrice Lumumba, the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent twelve years of sanctions on Iraq. Only the Soviet bloc veto prevented such occasions in the intervening years between 1960 and 1991.

Anderson disagreed, however, with those in the audience who argued something along the lines of, "Why bother with the UN, it just reflects the power relations between states?". It is because people look to the UN to provide an alternative, Anderson suggested, that, it needs to be viewed critically. Was it a coincidence that the non-UN-backed 2003 Iraq war aroused mass opposition in the West, whereas the preceding, UN-approved decade of sanctions (which killed far more Iraqis than the war itself) did not and the now UN-backed occupation has not? He had a point: I can recall attending a meeting of a handful of people at Speakers’ Corner in 1999 to see off George Galloway’s red London bus (now converted into the European Creative Social Forum, hosting impromtu rapping amidst the burger vans outside Alexandra Palace) on a sanctions-busting trip to Baghdad. That gathering had been called to show that the British people cared about the plight of the Iraqi people under sanctions, but the pitifully low turnout sadly suggested otherwise. As for solutions, panelists called for the abolition, not reform, of the Security Council, to be replaced by a power of decision over the use of force to the General Assembly. They also demanded that the UN leave New York for a venue in the global South (the Venezuelan capital Caracas being suggested by one bright spark). One small problem, though: if all this happened, and the UN became genuinely independent, wouldn’t the US simply leave the UN, thus leaving the world with even less control over US unilateralism?

Off then for a session on Our world is not for sale (remember that was what the movement was meant to be about?). Gus Massiah - who has been around on the thirdworldist end of the French alternative left since the 70s - and now head of CRID, a group of NGOs, hailed five years of social forums (fora?) as achieving "le refus de la fatalité": no longer is there a consensus that There Is No Alternative. Nevertheless, he urged realism: we are still in a conservative period and cannot be too satisfied with our achievements. Raoul Mark Jennar of Oxfam, author of a recent book, L’Europe, trahison des élites, denounced EU policies as, far from being a rampart against neo-liberalism, agressively pursuing them. He quoted the late Pierre Bourdieu: "Europe does not do what it says, does not say what it does, says what it does not do, and does what it does not say" (hope I’ve got the right permutation of does and says, anyway it sounded better in French). He had begun his speech, however, with the caveat, that, speaking in the country of Euroscepticism, he must add that the solution is not less Europe but more "Europe sociale". His complaint about the EU constitution was that rights such as the right to housing and the right to work, which feature in the constitutions of countries like France, Belgium, Spain and Denmark, are absent from it. The implication was an argument sometimes heard on the French Left: that a better Europe can be built by levelling up to the best social provision in member states, rather than levelling down to the worst as often happens at present.

This, then, is a critical but constructive attitude to the EU, distinct from the purely negative denunciation of a "bosses’ Europe" - sometimes accompanied with abstract invocation of a united socialist states of Europe, without any indication as to how we get from here to there - that often passes for a European policy on the British hard left. A similar contrast could be found on the pages of that day’s Morning Star, where on the same page the international secretary of the German Party of Democratic Socialism argued that "drawing back to one’s own national quarters cannot be the left’s answer to the ongoing process of internationalisation", as against the general secretary of the Irish Communist Party calling, absurdly, for the break-up of the EU (I can just see John Redwood and UKIP hailing that as a great victory for communism). Seeing the plaque on the side of Alexandra Palace in memory of its use as an internment camp for Germans during World War One, can’t we be just a little positive about the achievement of a largely peaceful Europe?

I confess I then became a little consumerist in my approach to the ESF, trawling the competing cacophony of stalls (this was truly a leaflet-collectors’ paradise), before settling to catch the end of the flagship plenary on What future for Palestine?. A range of figures from Palestine, Israel and Europe, and the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, came together to agree on an international boycott of Israeli goods. This featured, amongst other things, an emotional embrace between Mustapha Barghouti, a leading figure in civil society in Ramallah, and Yonathan Shapira, former pilot in Israeli helicopter assassination units turned refusenik and peace activist. Barghouti - banned from entering Israel - and Shapira - banned from entering the Occupied Territories - promised to meet each other again illegally. Such moments allowed for some rare hope for the future, before the debate opened to the floor, free for the British shouters to do their usual predictable rants. Then a visit to the fast-food vans outside - pausing to reflect that guests from some European countries were likely to be disappointed with the typically British, functional, joyless and overpriced catering arrangements on offer. Why no big tents with Slow Food, eaten communally and convivially? No self-respecting French or Italian anticapitalist would have organised a gathering with lunch breaks as short as half an hour! By this point, after a day inside Alexandra Palace, a brisk walk through the rain in search of a nearby pub holding an advertised social with European Jews for a Just Peace, was welcome.

Saturday

On the Saturday morning, I decided to see whether this ESF had managed to do something about the imbalance between Western and Central/Eastern Europe at previous events by attending the session on Democratic Challenges in East and West Europe. Honourable mention, therefore, to Hilary Wainwright of Red Pepper maagzine for arranging this initiative, and providing an exception to the rule of insularity on the British left. It had its origins in a visit that Wainwright made to Prague in 1989, at which she was amazed to discover the sudden predilection for Hayek and Thatcherism of people she considered as fellow comrades fighting for civil rights. This led to a long attempt on her part to understand why, culminating in a recent journey through Russia and search for a way of bringing lefts in East and West together after so long apart. This is an important point, for Western leftists too often fail to learn from Eastern Europe, behaving as if socialism had never been tried before, and that all that is necessary is to a revive and implement a pristine classical Marxism unsullied by its undoubted perversions under Stalinism. It has to be asked, doesn’t it, whether the complete and total abolition of all capitalism is really feasible without an unacceptable degree of state coercion: after all, small-scale capitalism was under way within the ESF itself, with the sale of Che T-shirts, newspapers, books, peace flags at varying prices and so on.

Clearly the principal danger in Eastern Europe today is not a resurgence of Leninism but the excesses of neoliberalism, amply documented by a range of speakers in this session. A grinning Boris Kagarlitsky, of the IPROG globalisation research institute, after hailing the increased Russian presence at this ESF, called for a new democratic struggle in both East and West to stop the democratic structures now achieved from losing their democratic essence: at the moment democratic spaces are shrinking, as privatisation excludes the whole economic sphere from democratic supervision. Even Weber, he noted, had recognised that capitalism and democracy could be in contradiction. Kagarlitsky powerfully conjured up a dystopian image of where we are headed: the current situation in Romania and Russia, where the rich and powerful simply do not respect the law, is the West’s future too unless we do something to stop it. Hilary Wainwright, though, offered a note of optimism: the Russians she has met recently are thinking together about deeper forms of democracy in a more sophisticated way than in the West. She plugged her new series of booklets Eurotopia, which aim to stimulate these kinds of debates across Europe. Incidentally, her answer to "why did Eastern Europeans turn to Hayek?" was that the appeal lay in the recognition that the party/state can’t know everything, people have their own "tacit knowledge" from experience – not a million miles from the do-it-yourself ethos of the 70s New Left and feminism in the West.

Peter Damo of the Romanian Social Forum pointed out that the key difference between East and West remains the historical legacy: in the West, the Left emerged democratically from within society, whereas in the East the ‘Left’ was imposed by Red Army-imposed totalitarianism, thus 1989 created the false impression that all Lefts were necessarily wrong. In Romania, the old Communist oligarchy, now in liberal, social democrat or Christian Democrat clothing, was imposing extreme neoliberalism using doublespeak. Andrei Zhbrovsky from Poland outlined the mass disillusionment now with post-1989 ‘shock therapy’. We used to think everything in the West was more modern and democratic, but now we blame western institutions like the World Bank. The antiwar movement in Poland, though small by Western standards, is much bigger than it used to be, though subject to government repression: one demonstrator was recently fined for holding a placard calling the prime minister and president ‘lapdogs’. The meeting also heard a speaker from Transform Italy call for "diverse forms of radical social disobedience"; Huseyin Avgan, a German-Turkish trade unionist, outline current disillusionment in both his countries of birth and of residence; and a representative from the Russian provincial city of Ivanova speak on experiments there – one key dilemma being that while big property is a crime, there can be no freedom without (small) property.

I did slip from my original plan by attending the start of a plenary on Challenging US Imperialism, tempted for historical reasons by the prospect of seeing the legendary former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella and Che Guevara’s daughter Aleida. But I was soon turned off by the style and content of the aggressive, militaristic and simplistic support for the Iraqi insurgents to be heard from the first speaker. There was something a little distatesful about this vicarious incitement of violence by people one has never met against other people one has never met: how many people in the room, I wondered, had ever seen a gun fired in anger, or felt the human cost of war at first hand? To exclaim "They’ll fight by their rules, not ours" was both amoral and patronising, because it wrongly implied that somehow respect for the lives of non-combatants was an exclusively Western concept. Meanwhile those attempting to hold a session on the equally urgent issue of For asylum, refugee and migrant rights – against fortress Europe on the other side of a thin partition in the same hall found their voices completely drowned out.

 

Go to Part Two of this article

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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