“One leg inside the ESF, and one leg outside – but with both feet!” This was the rallying cry of the first autonomous space during the European Social Forum in Florence in 2002. The admittedly clumsy slogan was a mark of critical engagement with the first European Social Forum – autonomist and other critics of the process, while broadly supportive of the social forum project, took issue with the stiff ESF entrance fee, the focus on the state as an apparent neutral actor, and a hierarchical inner organisation of the ESF. The response was to build a complementary alternative venue for discussion, “the hub” it was called, to make available, free to all, the spectrum of autonomist thinking. Unfortunately, the hub was organised just a little too autonomously: the time and venue for each workshop was supposed to arrive through a consensus process of facilitators but, er, no one had consensed upon where this meeting was to happen. Eh – and maybe they had something else to do.
Lesson learned, another autonomous space was organised by grassroots movements three months later, at the Asian Social Forum in January 2003 in Hyderabad, India. And the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, was flanked by two separate spaces: Mumbai Resistance, which took place across the road, and the People’s Movements Encounter, which happened next door to the WSF. To begin with, Mumbai Resistance was generated mainly by Maoist organisations, but farmers’ movements who felt excluded from the preparation committee for the official WSF also joined in. The Peoples’ Movements Encounter was a venue for grassroots movements, such as the fisherfolk and textile workers from South Asia, who considered the broad umbrella approach of the WSF insufficiently radical. The success of these spaces seems to have provided some instruction to autonomists elsewhere.
In London, autonomous spaces finally became significant within in the European context. Partly, this was for internal reasons: the official ESF was dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This Trotskyist organisation used the principles of democratic centralism to good effect, retaining fierce control of the event until the very end, though even within the preparation committee of the official ESF many people would have loved to get rid of them.
This explains why many groups began to create autonomous spaces. Although they were spread across London, and the timings clashed, they were sufficiently unified to share a common inaugural event on the Wednesday before the official proceedings began. The Radical Theory Forum was spawned by young politically active academics, looking for a space to bridge their academic work with activism. The 491 Gallery, a well-kept and well-loved social centre served as a venue, making it not only successful but unusually enjoyable. The workshops covered Popular Education, Anti-Consumerism, and the philosophical and explosive question about who the “We” in social movements is. The discussions were sophisticated, but inclusive. In the final exchange meeting of the Post-Marxisms workshop, working groups reported back on Hardt/ Negri, Laclau/ Mouffe or Deleuze/ Guattari, it felt like attending a house plenary.
In a modulation of the name Life After Capitalism – a conference that had taken place during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre 2003 – people joined for Life Despite Capitalism, here and now, at the London School of Economics. The common denominator was the Commons. A phalanx of working groups concerned with concrete issues like water or transport and how the indigenous Armani deal with commons (workshop with Nolasco Mamani), were combined in a second series with more abstract issues like power (workshop with John Holloway) or democracy (workshop with David Graeber and Jai Sen).
Beyond ESF was not only was the biggest autonomous space, but also the one that opposed the official ESF the most vehemently. Its principal claim was to replace the ESF – it ran concurrently from Thursday morning until Sunday midday workshops took place. And it worked. So many people registered workshops in Beyond ESF that weeks before the start, no rooms were left at Middlesex University. Turns out that the cafeteria of Beyond ESF became a hotbed for networks to communicate, though this was sometimes hard to do in the crush!
If somebody tried to link the autonomous spaces with the official ESF it was Javier. But during the closing event after the demonstration on Sunday afternoon at the close of the ESF, he was disappointed: “For months they kept telling us, ‘there’s no need to discuss the rally, because there won’t be any speeches at all, only culture and music.’ And now there is one speaker after the other!”. Shortly after that Javier gets detained: he heard that people who made for the march from the Beyond ESF venue had been arrested, and he wanted to announce this from the stage. The official organisers didn’t let him. When he clings to one of the barrier grids in order to insist and to not simply let the attendants carry him away, one of the SWP operatives calls the police.
The guy who tried in London, negotiating for hours and months to bridge the gap between representatives of the official ESF and the autonomous spaces, might think this has been a mistake. Let’s hope, in Athens, where the next European Social Forum will take place in 2006, organisers will not fancy fences again.