'But what is it? Should I go? And will they make me wear sandals?'
The summer is always full of sport - the good weather sends us outdoors and between the cycling and the walking and the boating and the wrestling it can all get a bit competitive. But now that Mayday and Bush are behind us, and the summer is ending we move from sport to debate in the flow of the seasons. The Autumn is conference season and the movements generally have their shindigs around now. From Grassroots to SIPTU, from the Independent Media Support Group (c. 25 members) to the British TUC (c. 7 million members) it can be called a gathering or a meeting or a conference or whatever.
From the committee rooms, the meetings and.. err.. the meeting rooms of the ongoing social forum process the full shocking story.
The Social Forum movement will be in the news this Autumn: The second Irish Social Forum is planned for Dublin and Ken Livingstone and the GLC are about to invest at least ST£400,000 and a lot of time and effort supporting the European Social Forum the week after in London. Predictably neither event has avoided a generous helping of controversy on the side
On 15th - 17th October this year the European Social Forum will take place in London and between the Alexandar Palace and spaces booked in Camden and Bloomsbury up to 50,000 attendees can be catered for. There are plans underway to organise an Irish Social Forum the weekend before that, with a social evening, a thematic conference and a closing plenary switching between city centre locations and UCD. This will be the second ISF while the event in London, involving the Lord Mayor , the trade unions and the people behind the Stop the War campaign will be the third European Social Forum..
The Social Forums are difficult to pin down politically and in many ways that is their strength. Consistent with the Porto Allegre World Social Forum principles, the social forum doesn't make decisions or issue calls – this is left to the Assembly of Social Movements which have started to take place directly after the forum proper. The social movements in Florence two years ago called for the anti-war demonstrations on Feb 15th last year and in some ways could claim to be a voice for that 2nd superpower, civil society, that was spoken of at the time. By consciously challenging existing political forms and refusing to be a “locus of power” the Social Forum model has developed to provide a conference for the movement of movements.
I met the group of people who are organising the Irish Social Forum in Dublin a few weeks ago to discuss the upcoming event. The summer holidays deplete the numbers but the group has been meeting fairly consistently over the last year – forming a network that is now quite sizeable and can call on a certain infrastructural ability that you would normally associate with a much larger organisation. The range of participants was, as usual, impressive. Of course with a range like this there are going to be tensions and differences of emphasis – again, paradoxically part of the strength of the social forum.
UK Indymedia ESF Page
The Irish Social Forum Invite Individuals and Groups to get Involved
Wombles Critique of the ESF Process
Most Recent UK IMC Feature on the ESF
Open ESF Site
Official ESF Site
All the Backstage ESF Drama from the Weekly Worker
The ESF in London has been the scene of arguments, walk outs and accusations of operatic proportions. The official, £40,000 website is dwarfed by the range of material and commentary on the faults of the process, the weaknesses of the model and the all round excitement of the bloodsport that is competitive politics. By far the best example is the weekly worker website which documents every coffeebreak and its associated gossip. While the official forum site, paid for by the Trade Union and other large donors, is at the Alexandar Palace, Londons largest conference centre, there is a seperate Forum on Communication Rights in Camden which will contain the Indymedia centre. Autonomous spaces and groups will provide a vast and flowing fringe – how this interacts with the main event will be a key question about the forum in London this year. Paris, last year, was criticised for being too scattered – even with the political spectrum being wider the forum looks like being geographically tighter this year. What is certain is that the rows early on have meant a lot more space has been booked and events planned than may otherwise have been the case.
The Irish forum is also changing structure this year. Last year's planning was marked by the prospect of going up against the WEF, due to take place in Dublin in October 2003, which inspired memorable Teachers Club meetings as the professional radicals had to come to terms with the Mexican shake – showing consensus with a wrist shake of both hands raised forward from your body that came from the Zapatistas to a back room on Parnell square. These meetings of over a hundred people drafting a leaflet (I kid you not) stretched the process to its limit – but last October when the social forum happened in UCD, in the absence of the World Economic Forum which was cancelled due to 'security' concerns, the value was seen as the networks could form and share and, strangely for Irish politics, co-operate. There were 40 workshops covering a huge range of issues along with plenaries on Public Services, the Environment and Peace activism.
To try and manage the range of events a bit better this year the Irish group are working on a plan to have a video / social / intro type thing (possibly with alcohol), a full day conference on multi-culturalism with plenaries and workshops, and then a closing plenary on globalisation. This is a brave decision.In many ways focussing the movement on multiculturalism after the citizenship referendum result is only what can be expected from the social forum - the internationalist, no borders viewpoint is as close to a principle as the opposition of social to economic. But choosing to discuss globalisation by debating the role of the state in opposing globalisation, with speakers on partnership and civil society / state solutions is brave. A debate like that could show all the differences in the movement as clearly as the commonalities. But this is sort of the point really – if the conference doesn't define the movement then its not worth having and its about time that this discussion was had in Ireland. Clear the air and all that.
Because the interesting thing about the social forum is that you're not sure who will turn up and what will be the range of opinion. Choosing to look beyond the market with others for a weekend can make for a strange mix – a big diverse group of people meeting brought together by a single event. Which in many ways is the effect of sport as well. But this time out, it's not a zero sum game. The great thing about the social forum is that because of that locus of power rule nobody can really lose from a good social forum – there are no committee places to stand for, no motions to oppose, no rules committees where you can play out your power trip. Just information, debate and people. The network effects of the social forum provide the opportunity for co-operative activism as a new pasttime. Which is worth going and having a look at anyway.