ESF: Old reformism in new packaging

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The European Social Forum, having visited Florence and Paris in previous years, passed through London in mid October. As before there were hundreds of meetings, seminars, 'workshops' and cultural events touching on a wide range of issues, and a concluding demonstration where everyone was able to dress up and make a lot of noise. While a Guardian (18/10/04) leader announced that "New politics takes a bow" and banners declared that "Another world is possible", it was clear that there was nothing 'new' on display and nothing that even hinted at the possibility of an end to capitalist society and all its horrors.

Capitalist ideas in anti-capitalist clothing

The ESF received �500,000 of state funding from the Mayor of London, including free travel for participants and accommodation at the Millennium Dome. There was also a lot of union sponsorship. It is significant that these pillars of capitalist society were so keen to ensure that the ESF would run smoothly with no financial problems. Socialist Worker (23/10/04) saluted "the beautiful, crazy, creative chaos", and thought that the ESF was a "great success". As a 'media partner' of the ESF the Guardian was bound to be enthusiastic about the "content and style of the inclusive non-party politics now emerging under the ESF umbrella". It also revealed the hopes of the ruling class in wondering whether "the ESF can refresh mainstream British politics and influence the European left."

Many people, the young in particular, want to understand what's going on in the world and how to change it, but are disillusioned with 'mainstream politics'. Spectacles such as the ESF offer the illusion of an 'alternative', an extensive variety of events all claiming to be different from the stale sedative of stuffy parliaments and the spin of the mass media.

But what was really on offer? One of the main slogans of the ESF (and the demonstration) was 'stop the war'. Yet, in all the meetings on conflicts in the Middle East, Latin America, Nepal, Burma, Western Sahara, Ireland etc, the call was not for opposition to war, but for support and participation. Today's war cries are not flagrant outbursts of jingoism but attempts to mobilise against the US, against global corporations, for democracy, against racism, as well as the less subtle nationalist appeals to rally to capital.

The possibility of reorganising the global capitalist economy was one of the ESF's other main concerns. In showing the role of multinational corporations, the IMF or World Bank, or what has happened in particular national economies there were not (according to Socialist Worker) "repetitive denunciations of neo-liberalism". They had taken up Susan George's exhortation (Guardian 15/10/04) to "take the time to examine power coldly, determine its strategic weaknesses and decide, together, how to push our neo-liberal adversaries back until at last they fall over the edge of the political cliff."

They 'examined power' and came up with the answer to all economic and social ills: the capitalist state. If only the state was not controlled by the transnationals, if only privatisation was reversed and everything taken into public ownership, if only governments were more democratic and responded to the pressure of a thousand campaigns, if only political leaders appreciated the importance of sustainable development, then � 'another world is possible.' The experience of humanity, as understood by the marxist current in the workers' movement, is that the state has always expressed the interests of the ruling class which are in opposition to the interests of those it exploits and oppresses. The capitalist state is at the heart of the bourgeoisie's domination of the world. It is the first line of capitalism's defence and will be its last bastion against the revolution of the working class.

It is quite usual to see non-governmental organisations, unions and leftists rallying to the state, trying to channel workers' energies behind their reformist schemes and campaigns. Some people might have expected a different message from 'Beyond the ESF' in the fringe events and 'autonomous spaces'.

Not 'Beyond the ESF'

There were many events organised 'outside' of the ESF: included in the official publicity, but trading under the name of 'Beyond the ESF' in 'autonomous spaces'. These events promoted "a celebration of resistance, organised without funding from government, or political parties", focused more on direct action, DIY media and "A world of autonomy, self-organisation and sustainability". Yet, apart from the more 'radical' language, they were just an authorised loyal opposition to the main events.

Take the protest against Ken Livingstone at an anti-fascist meeting. Although the mayor of London didn't put in an appearance, the protestors displayed a banner with "Ken's Party, War Party" on it. Ken was supposed to be a hypocrite in speaking about racism when he's just rejoined a party that is "prosecuting an unjust and racist war" (in the words of a sympathetic explanation of what happened). Livingstone's presence would have been in conflict with the principles of the World Social Forum, point 9 of which includes "Neither party representations nor military organisations shall participate in the Forum".

Why pick on Livingstone in such a carnival of reaction? At the ESF ideas acceptable to the parties of the left were common currency and the armed struggle of many imperialist conflicts was consistently acclaimed. However, it is worth remembering that it was anti-racist reasons - the persecution of Bosnians and Kosovans by Serbs - that 'Red' Ken gave for supporting the bombing of Belgrade.

This was typical of the 'alternative' approach, where there were reservations about some aspects of union activity, criticisms of the 'corporate' culture of the main events, and a rejection of the 'authoritarianism' of the traditional leftists.

There was certainly a different atmosphere at the 'alternative' meetings. Entirely contradictory points of view were put forward without anyone seeming to mind. This didn't matter, because when you're not interested in a process of clarification there's no need for the confrontation of ideas. To celebrate the autonomy of the atomised individual the meetings in the 'autonomous spaces' spent their time (in the words of an ad for a meeting on 'Life despite capitalism') "weaving discourses of empowerment".

The different ambience could not hide the fact that the same politics were on offer. If unions were criticised it was because of their 'limitations' and the 'concessions' they had made, not because of their role against workers' struggles. The state was still seen as the tool of the multinationals.

Above all there was no evidence that the struggle of the working class meant anything in the 'autonomous spaces'. In sessions at the SchNEWS conference 'direct action' was identified in union struggles, the ANC in South Africa, the Iraqi Resistance, as well as squatting, consumers making 'ethical' choices, food co-ops, using weblogs and opting for bio-diesel. There was praise for the seizure of churches in Colombia to get the Catholic Church to put pressure on the state, and a salute to an indigenous people that was going to commit mass suicide if its demands weren't met. The central reality of capitalist society, the struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie and its state, was not a concern of such meetings. We were told that the state was too powerful to be overthrown, it had to be undermined. For example, if you build your own house you won't have to pay rent.

At the Radical Theory Forum there was a debate on whether marxism and concepts of class have anything to offer the anticapitalist movement. This was attended by about 60 people, and immediately split up into workshops. The groups reporting on 'revolution' told us that the majority view in their group was that the concept of revolution as a particular 'utopian' event was out of date, and that we should be looking at a more "processual" approach.

An Indymedia meeting billed as "Infowar: Media Deception and Disinformation Vs Dissent and Direct Democracy" was on the media treatment of protests, and on attacks on alternative sources of information. We made a basic point about the media as part of the capitalist state apparatus, how it will give publicity to struggles that unions have firmly under control, but conceal any examples of workers extending their struggle or taking it into their own hands. This was against the spirit of the meeting which, at root, stood for democracy and free speech. It was blind to the reality that democracy is one of the main means that the bourgeoisie uses to rally workers to the defence of their exploiters. Indymedia had an online petition against the seizure of hard drives from two of its servers. The list of names was due to be delivered to the FBI, the US Department of State, the Italian and Swiss governments and David Blunkett.

Militants of the ICC intervened outside the main event at Alexandra Palace, at a number of the 'Beyond the ESF' events and at the closing demonstration. Although the label on the ESF product said 'Another world is possible', you'd never have got any sense of the historic struggle of the working class and of its potential to destroy capitalism. As communists we not only criticised the ESF and the way such events act against the development of class consciousness, we were also a small voice putting forward a perspective for a working class revolution that can establish a world-wide human community with relations of solidarity at its heart.

Car 28/10/04.

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