ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM
Copyright © 2004 All Rights Reserved
"Are you Mark?" the young Asian woman asked me, as she scanned through the different Burtons on the list of pre-registered names. "No, Guy," I replied. She looked down again and turned over another sheet. "Ah, yes, here you are. You'll need to wear one of these."
I looked at the hand she had extended towards me. It was a piece of red plastic, the wristband I would have to wear for the next few days. "Is it easy to take off?" I asked. "No," she replied. "Once it's on that it until you take it off. On Sunday."
I snapped the wristband in place, realising I was going to stand out among in mainstream society when I left the building and hopped onto the tube to my first meeting. Nevertheless, without it admission wouldn't be possible; with it, I was a fully paid up delegate at the third European Social Forum (ESF).
As I hurried away from Kings Cross to Bloomsbury, desperate to get out of the falling rain I thought how odd it seemed. Here I was as an official delegate despite the fact that I represent nothing at this event other than my own curiosity. Nevertheless, it was going to be a journey to a different country; if not physically, at least ideally. I might not be leaving behind the cold of a London October, but along with an estimated 20-30,000 other like-minded souls I was keen to see if 'another world is possible'.
The ESF is the continental offshoot of the World Social Forum which first took place in Porto Alegre three years ago (and where, incidentally, I was born) and brings together activists and groups in the anti-globalisation movement. Since its emergence I had become increasingly interested in the aims of the movement and its activities, not least the question of whether an alternative to capitalism really was possible. Over the last few years I had looked at the timetables and costs of a flight to Brazil and wondered where I would stay if I had got there. But with the ESF circus rolling into town, no longer would I need to plan; instead it would be on my doorstep.
And what a circus it was. It was unlike any political event or gathering I had been to before. Disorderly, chaotic, anarchic, it was everything I thought it would be; and more besides. Until then I had attended organised political meetings, the occasional march or demonstration. But the glitziness of the co-ordinated public meeting was nowhere in evidence; the linear progress of marches in terms of walking from Russell Square to Hyde Park was absent.
I arrived at the university complex around Senate House. Having leafed through the 30-odd page programme and recently taking up a postgraduate degree programme, I thought a workshop on the appropriateness of research policies might be of interest. It was being held at Birkbeck College, one of the institutions which would throw its doors open to the ESF over the weekend. It was also the first and last time I would be asked to show my wristband, the volunteers in purple T-shirts either too shy to ask or tired to bother as the days wore on.
But even if it was the first event I would go to, it certainly wasn't the last that would be cancelled without my or the other participants' knowledge. Not only did the programme list some events more than once, on several occasions the publicised seminar or workshop failed to take place, being either held the following day or earlier that morning.
Of those events which did take place when advertised, attendance varied. They ranged from a handful of people to a packed hall, with extra seats being pulled out from other rooms, interested individuals sitting on the floor or on tables in order to take part. Unlike most other political occasions I had been to, the participants appeared overwhelmingly young. Many were perched on their chairs, their legs pulled up around themselves. A large number of middle-aged and older activists had also made the event, no doubt finding the £20-30 registration fee much easier to pay than the students and other young people who had come.
Casual dress was clearly the order of the day, with many dressed in T-shirts and jeans. But a closer look also indicated a subtle fashion trend at work as well: some of the participants, both young and old, sported shapeless tie-dyed clothes, rainbow sweaters and rainbow socks - the uniform of a particular subset of art students and anti-globalisation activists.
The quality of the meetings was also variable. One which drew over 20 people listened politely to a German activist who spent more than an hour trying to explain the purpose of his project and still failing to enlighten us. No-one made any attempt to interrupt, everyone being acutely conscious of the importance of respecting and tolerating each other. The fact that the experience was akin to a stuttering, nervous dentist trying to pull out your teeth and apologising at every tug, failed to make it any less painful. At another event, two or three participants monopolised the best part of a two-hour session, failing to let others engage in the discussion. Involvement, I quickly discovered, meant being prepared to jump in quickly or the moment would be lost forever.
Few meetings appeared to be chaired in any identifiable way, presenting difficulties for the shyer or more intimidated among us. Spanish lesbians, French Radovan Karadic-look-a-likes, Japanese and Italian students and American peace workers all sought to put their views across. Some managed it more articulately than others, others leaving the rest of the audience bemused. But always there was a level of support, and applause when it happened had less to do with rhetoric and more to do with the speaker's genuine beliefs.
However, there was a darker undercurrent at work as well. At the first of two events which were subsequently cancelled, I was presented with a questionnaire. Conducted by students at four different European universities, the organisers were keen to compare the nature and motivations of participants at the London ESF with those at the first in Florence two years previously. Down the first page of what were several pages of closely typed and stapled sheets, was the question 'What do you consider to be your political affiliation?' Nine options were available, six of them which could be broadly classified as leftist; only three offered any alternative, though social democracy was missing and liberalism and conservatism were lumped together. The assumption, unspoken as it was, was that if you were attending the Forum you deemed yourself to be left-wing - and that anti-globalisation was a given.
On another occasion I asked whether direct democracy was feasible, given the difficulty of managing large polities on a day-to-day basis. Further efforts to elaborate on my points were denied, as two men who took issue with my stance said that I had 'said more than enough'.
But was it? I attended an event on community media where two of the speakers were more interested in inviting different shades of opinion, including those which were diametrically opposed. At another, I met a young Swedish student who was keen to discover what ways she could engage politically on the web; political orientation was deemed secondary.
Like a political party conference, the ESF is the sum of the events and activities which happen on the fringes. Whereas media attention would have been focused on the plenary sessions being held at Alexandra Palace where various statements of intent would be read out and motions formed and carried - one friend who was present described the experience as being in a bingo hall whereby those present could have completed cards listening to the number of times 'capitalism' and neo-liberalism' were used - the real heart of the Forum was in the various meetings and spectacles happening outside. Along with debates on Third World debate and the Iraq war, seminars took place on developing websites, and practising non-violence while films about the movement could be seen and musical and theatrical performances taken in.
In fact, the number of different activities which went on marked the ESF out as more diverse than an old-fashioned political party conference. Life in this alternative world meant that a participant might attend some workshops on direct action and developing community networks in the morning, visit an art exhibition in the afternoon, watch an improvised discussion between Russian academics playing Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in the evening (as I did) and dance to the Turkish-influenced riffs of Ooojami gig put on in support of Palestinian solidarity afterwards (which I didn't).
Call me lazy, but I had decided I decided not to bother with the plenary sessions. I didn't feel like making the 40-odd minute journey to Wood Green and Alexandra Palace. And I had taken the decision to approach the ESF as a 'social laboratory of anti-capitalist networks and alternatives' as one member of the movement put it on the Forum's discussion website. Consequently I missed the stage invasion made by some activists on Sunday morning to protest the involvement of London Mayor Ken Livingstone at the Forum and the behaviour of its leadership.
I also didn't go on the Sunday march which drew between 20,000 and 100,000 demonstrators (depending on who you spoke to) to 'stop the war, [say] no to racism, end privatisation: [and] for a Europe of peace and social justice'. To be honest on such a broad platform I wasn't entirely sure what message I was hoping to get across. Besides, the girlfriend had decided that after two days huddled with the anti-globalisation movement I should come back from my trip to 'another Europe' and accompany her to that bastion of consumerism, Selfridges.
As she looked through the various facial and hand creams on offer, including some made from sugar, almonds and rice I realised that my holiday - if it had really been one - had ended. Well, at least until next year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Guy Burton is a postgraduate student at the Institute for the Study of the Americas in London. His previous articles have been carried on Brazzil and Hackwriters, as well as book reviews in the monthly radical political journal Liberator.