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Editorial - The European Social Forum

In the middle of this month several tens of thousands of people will assemble in London for the 3rd European Social Forum (ESF). They will come from all over Europe, and perhaps further afield, to discuss how to make the world a better place and how to achieve “global social justice for all”. In a series of workshops and seminars they will talk about a different world and how to bring it about. With the help of hundreds of volunteer translators and interpreters it will be a truly multilingual and multinational gathering. But will it really be a success and will it accomplish what the organisers and participants want?
Previous forums have been held in Florence and Paris, growing out of the World Social Forum held originally in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In 2001 the WSF adopted a Charter of Principles, parts of which are not bad. The first principle, for instance, states that the WSF is for organisations which “are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a global society of fruitful relationships among human beings and between humans and the Earth”. Much of the rest, however, is couched in very general terms – a kind of ‘all things to all people’ approach. The ESF has adopted a similar stand, and describes itself “a giant gathering for everyone opposed to war, racism and corporate power, everyone who wants to see global justice, workers’ rights and a sustainable society”.
No doubt many, perhaps most, of those who attend the ESF see themselves as coming within this so-called anti-capitalist framework, opposing globalisation, the power of the US and the WTO, and wars whether for oil or other reasons. Of course there is nothing wrong with discussing such issues with people from different countries and varying political backgrounds. But there will also be participants who have a particular party line to sell. As at the WSF, political parties are excluded from participation (as are military organisations). But this will not stop the usual lefty crowd from attending, under the cover of various ‘front’ groups. Another controversial issue has been the role of the Greater London Authority, which is partially funding the event, and of London mayor Ken Livingstone – some of the left think he has had far too much influence on the arrangements.
Opposition to capitalist oppression and the inequalities and brutalities of the present world set-up is fine, but that it needs to be combined with understanding in two further ways. Firstly, an appreciation that the root cause is the capitalist system of production and the ownership of the world’s resources by a small class of parasites. That is to say, it is not free trade or the neo-liberal Washington consensus or the spread of privatisation or the inequalities among nations that are the underlying problem and that therefore need to be addressed. Rather it is the system within which such nasty manifestations can arise. Linked to this is the second point, that the solution is not a fairer or nicer or less malevolent form of capitalism, and certainly not a state-run form of capitalism, but a revolutionary change to an entirely different social system. One that is not built around money, wages and trade and exchange but relies instead on co-operation, democracy and equality – a society without classes, nations or governments, where production is for use not profit.
Among the broad principles of the ESF are ideas that can be built on in showing that a socialist society is not only possible but is also the answer to the problems people experience under capitalism. The volunteer interpreters are just one small example of how people will undertake work because they feel it makes a useful contribution rather than because they will get paid for it. The general rejection of leadership and the insistence on participatory democracy are in keeping with the idea of a society where humans are in charge of their own lives, and with the view that such a society can only be brought about by the deliberate and conscious action of ordinary people, not by some self-appointed vanguard or elite. Ideas of decentralisation and local production are also important. But without an overreaching concept of a new society, these ideas lead nowhere, since capitalism cannot deliver them. The slogan ‘another world is possible’ needs to be complemented by some real ideas about this other world if it is to be anything more than an empty catchphrase.