Another World is Coming

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Ken Coates explains the background to the growing European Social Forum movement, soon to be held in London.

THE European Social Forum was inspired by the World Social Forum, which first met in Porto Alegre in January 2003. This defined itself in distinction from the World Economic Forum at Davos, which took on its shoulders all the sins of neoliberalism with the globalisation of greed. An impressive list of participants has been assembled from non-government organisations in a wide variety of countries.

Now the European Social Forum (ESF) will come to London, at the invitation of a number of activist groupings, with the support of London Mayor Ken Livingstone. We are bound to wish it well, because there is a great vacuum where political discussion used to take place and there are many urgent social issues about which informed people need to share their experiences.

It remains to be seen how widely the ESF will be able to cast its net when it comes to England. In several European countries, there are a number of key problems which would clearly benefit from joint analysis and, if it could be achieved, common action.

It is not difficult to see why the ESF has established a prototype for this kind of convergence.

Basing itself on the traditions and the charter of principles of the World Social Forum (WSF), the ESF met first of all in Florence and then, last year, in Paris. Each gathering attracted tens of thousands of participants, from a very wide variety of social movements, NGOs and trade unions.

The WSF slogan, "Another World is Possible," tapped a vein of idealism and commitment which fired many young people to identify with it. It stood out in clear contrast to the compromised behaviour of so many established institutions in Europe, including, unhappy to say, many governments and established political parties. The WSF made clear its opposition to "the process of globalisation commanded by the large multinational corporations and by the governments and international institutions at the service of these corporations' interests."

It was able to draw on the practical experiences of NGOs and aid organisations, as well as movements in defence of the environment and community organisations with a wide variety of aims. The WSF found itself confronting a global power structure, but it did not retreat into parochialism, seeking instead to find the way to an alternative world. Just as it was finding new bases for coherence, the rising tide of militarism engulfed the world in new conflicts, culminating in the dreadful invasion of Iraq, in which Iraqi sources have identified 37,000 civilian deaths. By comparison, the Luftwaffe's World War II Blitz in England killed 22,000 people.

So it was that this continuing international discussion reached out from engaging with a myriad of social problems to embracing the growing worldwide peace movement. A predominant element of spontaneity governed this process, which represented a coming together of many tributaries, innumerable initiatives and centres of goodwill.

In Britain, a political crisis which had already shown itself in numerous other European countries was becoming evident and acute. For decades, dissent in all its forms and wide-ranging pressures for reform had found their focus in the Labour Party.

Of course, not every critic of the established society could join that party, but all were likely to find their behaviour influenced by it. But openness to all the schools of rebellion became identified with sterile oppositionism and a new generation of political leaders arose which sought out and established a new conformity, based upon manipulation, media consent and ruthless accommodation to the established powers.

Assiduous courtship of the Murdoch news empire was but a token of the engagement of this new political establishment. No wonder that it became important for any idealist and for all those alien to cynicism to insist that "another world is possible."

Legions of non-governmental activists, trade union members, Church militants and other volunteers found the prevailing official climate of public organisations increasingly oppressive. Even when good actions were performed by government, they were usually overlaid with spin and wider deception.

That is why, in England, there is a great deal of space for the European Social Forum, if it can maintain its ready traditions of openness and engagement with the important issues which continue to trouble our society.

One of these is, clearly, mass unemployment. In England, followers of the official statistics believe that this problem has been solved. But scholars who are willing to dig deeper disagree. Christina Beatty and Stephen Fothergill have looked in depth at the number of long-term sickness claimants, many of whom, for a considerable time, have been refugees from the provision for unemployment relief. They have concluded that, in parts of England, in the north, as well as in Scotland and Wales, there are some two and a half million unemployed people, who depend on sickness-related benefits to keep body and soul together, although in fact there are no jobs for them.

The employment position in England has eased in recent years, but this level of hardship remains quite unacceptable. When I was in the European parliament, I drew on the earlier calculations of Stephen Fothergill and his colleagues in the course of preparing two pan-European conventions of unemployed people, which met in the parliament building in Brussels and enabled the unemployed and sympathetic scholars and activists to compare notes and co-ordinate their efforts for the recovery of jobs.

These conventions drew support from all the main political groups in the European parliament, although they were initiated by members of the Socialist, Green and United Left Groups. Three of the most energetic activists in the European parliament, who supported these initiatives, are no longer members. But there are very many reasons why a forum of the unemployed is necessary and, indeed, has become more necessary than it was, as the problem of unemployment has worsened in a number of countries and gone underground in others.

These initiatives were part of a broader attempt to bring together groupings within civil society, in order to reinforce political attempts to deal with problems. My first initiative in this respect was the Pensioners' Parliament, which the European parliament's Socialist Group agreed to promote. That initiative brought together 500-plus pensioners from every country in the European Union, to seek to compare provision and experiences between one country and another and to try to agree on common goals.

This meeting was deemed to have been very successful - so much so that it was repeated the following year as a joint initiative of all the groups in the European parliament. I was very pleased when, quite spontaneously, a group of disabled people came to the European parliament to ask for hospitality for a parliament of European disabled people. At first, many of the parliament's officials were very sceptical about this request. But a powerful lobby among the handicapped, the blind, the deaf and the victims of a wide range of disabilities, after a lobby of the wheelchairs and white sticks, won the agreement of a majority of parliament members and the Disabled People's Parliament duly met in the newly opened hemicycle in Brussels.

 

I was asked to give a brief opening speech, where I learnt the meaning of a prolonged session of waving by members of the audience. This, I was informed, was deaf people's applause.

The idea of the social forums is wider and potentially more creative, since it can bring together people from an immense diversity of organisations, NGOs and specialist groups and help to empower them by enriching the field of their contacts. Previous efforts to develop wider associations of NGOs in practical collaboration tended to find their focus in the existing political organisations. But, today, it is a mark of gathering social crisis that worse problems are accompanied by fewer official openings for redress.

Old social democracies sought to manage change in society. Now, with some skill, they seek to understand and to manage change in the reporting of society and the systematic manipulation and underweighting of its bad news.

Thus, we get a flow of tainted information, misleading statistics and fabricated intelligence.

Today, we have the age of the official lie.

That is why inclusive and comprehensive meetings are so valuable and should certainly be continued and developed. But the experience of our people insists that another world is really possible and invites us to move beyond our general forum, toward more specific and conventional meetings of minds, tracing out the lineaments of that other practice which will bring the other world into fruition.

Ken Coates is a former Member of the European Parliament. After being expelled from the Labour Party he joined the United Left Group, losing his seat in 1999. The ESF takes place in London from October 14-17. This article first appeared in the Morning Star, Britain’s socialist daily. Read more about and from the Star at http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/