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Athenian democracy

by Open-Publishing - Monday 22 May 2006

Social Forum Movement Europe

by Hilary Wainwright

The fourth European Social Forum, held in Athens in May, outstripped the modest expectations of the Greek organisers. Hilary Wainwright reports on the key themes of the Athens forum - and what might come next

In the build up to the European Social Forum (ESF) in Athens, the fourth since Florence in 2002, the Greek organisers were modest in their expectations of its political significance. ‘It will be a well organised event; but that’ll be it,’ said Panayotis Yulis from the ESF social and political rights network on the eve of the gathering that took place in the abandoned airport next to the almost abandoned Olympic village from 4-7 May.

The political context of the left in Greece helps to explain this somewhat fatalistic approach. The left there has long been weighed down by the strength and the heavy dogmatism and sectarianism of the most orthodox communist party in Europe. The anti-Stalinist Synaspismos party, strongly influenced by the social movements of recent years, receives just a few per cent of the vote. An autonomous social-movement left has had no identity whatsoever.

By the Monday after the ESF, however, members of the Greek Social Forum, the main grouping behind the event, could not believe what had happened. The forum’s 80,000-strong demonstration was ‘the largest demonstration ever called independently of the Communist Party’, said Sissy Vovou, one of the organisers of the forum’s women’s assembly. ‘Most notable were the many young people who were not members of any political organisation. It’s a sign of a subterranean radicalisation.’ The positive aftermath was spoiled only by the taste of tear gas after a group who call themselves anarchists tried to provoke a reaction from the police by chucking Molotov cocktails.

It wasn’t just the size and composition of the demonstration that made the concept of social movements likely, at last, to become a potent part of the language of public debate in Greece. It was also the forum itself, which was organised very consciously to illustrate that it is possible to run a 30,000-strong extravaganza of political discussion and cultural experience in a participatory, egalitarian and pleasurable way.

Out were big plenaries with endless lists of celebrity speakers; in were focused seminars involving networks whose roots were first put down in the previous forums in Florence or Paris and are now coming to maturity. Out were corporate sponsorship and high price entrance fees; in were solidarity funds, low entrance fees and thorough international organising work, leading to over 1,000 participants from Turkey and 3,000 from eastern Europe.

A generally good-humoured social movements assembly at the end of the forum heard of focal points for action over the next year. These include a Europe-wide week of action to campaign for complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, against the threat of a new war in Iran, against the occupation of Palestine, for nuclear disarmament, and to eliminate military bases in Europe; and a day of mobilisation across Europe and Africa in favour of an unconditional legalisation and equal rights for all migrants, and the closure of all detention centres in Europe.

There was a mood of satisfaction with the three days of intense, almost sleepless, international planning. ‘It’s been more focused than ever before. More new ideas have come up than ever before,’ said Alla Glinchikova, one of 100 Russian participants from the Moscow Social Forum.

The flow of new ideas coming from the ESF is something even Le Monde remarked upon in its leader on ‘Europe Day’ - a few days after the Athens forum. It pointed to the ESF as a source of alternatives at a time when the European elites are at an impasse. I found a widespread insistence on the importance of deepening our analysis. ‘It’s not enough just to be against Bolkestein [the EU directive introducing market forces to essential services]. We need specific analyses of how neo-liberalism is being carried through in different countries, the impact of enlargement and what can be learnt from the UK,’ commented Kenny Bell, deputy convenor of the northern region of Unison. To this end the network of public service trade unions is organising not just action but a Europe-wide seminar in October.

This conscious connection between action and analysis was also indicated by a new seriousness towards the knowledge of the movements. ‘An aspect of the power of the movements is the fact that as they act and organise they are generating knowledge from below,’ said Mayo Fuster, one of a group of researchers, media and techno activists working to systematise the collective knowledge of the ESF.

But along with these signs of maturity went a sense of the need for innovation within the innovation. A few years back the focus was on breaking up hierarchy, creating decentralised, autonomous forms of organisation, ensuring space for the multiplicity of initiatives, projects and organisations that made up the movements. The concept of the network expressed the idea of coordination without a centre. But now there is a search for new ways of interconnecting the multiplicity.

The search comes out of practical needs, felt after taking decentralisation to its limits. For Yannis Almpanis, the human ‘hub’ at the centre of the process of merging the hundreds of seminar proposals into a manageable list, the need is for ‘more open collective decision making with clear rules to overcome the problem of informal power’. For example, techno-political tools, using the web as a means of interactive communication and collaborative work, are playing an increasing role in the development of the ESF. They are vital to extending decision-making beyond those who can afford the airfares and the time to attend organising meeting - a recurring source of informal power.

For the next ESF gathering the talk is of holding it somewhere like Brussels and organising it on a Europe-wide basis, rather than it being nationally hosted as in the past. As indicated by the Eurotopia survey discussed on the following pages, there are still many tensions and disagreements and very uneven growth. How the social forum process responds to these challenges will determine whether it can build something of lasting influence on the foundations laid in the past few years.