|Socialism Today Socialist Party magazine|
World Social Forum – an alternative to capitalism?
The Brazilian city of Porto Alegre recently hosted the second World Social Forum. Billed as an alternative to the World Economic Forum of international capitalists, 16,000 delegates attended alongside tens of thousands of people from all over the world. TONY SAUNOIS, secretary of the Committee for a Workers’ International, was among the participants.
THE THEME OF this massive international gathering was ‘Another World Is Possible’. The local state government, led by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), had billboards throughout the city promoting the same promise.
Every imaginable campaign or grouping in conflict with neo-liberal policies and other aspects of capitalist society attended. Everyday, representatives of oppressed and exploited peoples could be found at the city’s principal university, the venue of the main conference settings. From Brazil there were thousands of health and utility workers, the Movimento Sem Terra (MST – landless movement), students and indigenous peoples. Human-rights campaigners from Paraguay, Argentina and other countries, Palestinians, Iraqis and others came to represent their cause. Environmentalists, gay-rights campaigners, activists demanding affordable drugs for those infected with HIV, and an array of other interests (including Esperanto lobbyists) were present.
The sheer size and diversity of the gathering clearly refuted the speculation by capitalist commentators that the anti-capitalist movement had died following the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, and the launch of George W Bush’s ‘war against terrorism’. The Porto Alegre event not only followed the events after 11 September. The World Social Forum (WSF) took place against the background of the mass social explosion and toppling of five presidents in Argentina, the approaching election in Brazil and the recent decision of the Brazilian CUT trade union federation to call a general strike on 21 March.
Porto Alegre showed that the anti-capitalist movement continues and is growing amongst certain groups. The unofficial youth camp, for example, was attended by up to 10,000 people, compared with 3-4,000 last year. The largest delegation came from Brazil. Significantly, the second-largest delegations, with 1,400 each, represented Argentina and Italy.
Reflected at this year’s WSF was the growing opposition to neo-liberal policies and the globalisation of the world economy – the overwhelmingly dominant tendency in capitalism during the 1990s. Privatisation, the lowering of trade tariffs and the greater integration of the world economy have massively widened the gap between the rich and poor. The tightened grip on the neo-colonial world by the main Western imperialist powers has deepened the huge gulf between the so-called ‘Third World’ and the imperialist countries. It has also sharpened the division between rich and poor within all countries.
The consequences of modern capitalism – the polarisation of wealth, increasing exploitation and the outbreak of national, ethnic and religious clashes – have produced massive opposition to these horrors, even to capitalism itself. This is what was reflected in the idea that ‘Another World Is Possible’, something supported by all those present.
WHILE TENS OF thousands came to Porto Alegre for an alternative to the capitalist world, however, in the official WSF activities there was no explanation of what that alternative to capitalism is. Nor was there any perspective of how to fight to achieve it. There were, in reality, two conferences – the official meetings and the unofficial discussions, lobbies and events.
In the official conferences, representatives from numerous organisations, including trade unions, non-governmental organisations, intellectuals and others were developing a set of alternative ideas to neo-liberalism and globalisation. These point to an attempt to offer a new set of ‘reformist policies’ to replace the neo-liberalism of the 1990s. The main ideas put forward amounted to a programme to build a more humane version of capitalism – capitalism with a human face.
Also present were some capitalist politicians who have implemented neo-liberal policies. There were representatives of Jacques Chirac, the French president (along with four French cabinet ministers), Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, Mário Soares, the former Portuguese Socialist Party president who helped prevent a socialist revolution in Portugal in 1974-75, and Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who now works for the United Nations.
Their presence indicates the emergence of a capitalist wing which is attempting to develop alternative policies to the neo-liberal programmes. This is being forced on them by the onset of the economic crisis and the prospect of ‘other Argentinas’. Their presence also helped to check some of the more radical intellectuals.
The particularly brutal form of capitalism in the recent period is a product of the deepening economic crisis. Even in the main imperialist countries, the reforms – won by the working class and paid for during the post-second world war upswing – can no longer be afforded. Attempts to create a more ‘humane capitalism’ will not be able to satisfy the demands of the protestors outside the official sessions of the WSF or eliminate the worsening social conditions that are being created internationally by widening economic turmoil.
The WSF had a multi-class composition and reflected the different class interests and objectives of those participating in it – in both the official and unofficial sessions. The workers, youth and others protesting outside the official meetings were looking for an alternative to capitalism and a means of fighting against it. The radical intellectuals, in the main, sought to develop ideas that would remove the brutality and poverty of capitalism without challenging its basis or explaining the need for an alternative to the market.
It is necessary to build a socialist alternative in the anti-capitalist movement with a programme that can overthrow capitalism and imperialism, and begin to build another world – a socialist one. Some proponents of the emergent ‘new reformist’ ideas quite skilfully attack the brutality of modern capitalism and argue that the rule of capital needs to be challenged. They do not explain, however, how this can be done. All of them put forward proposals which remain within the framework of the market or capitalist economy but with constraints and checks applied.
SUSAN GEORGE FROM Attac France, one of the most radical leaders of the anti-capitalist movement, outlined the catastrophic conditions existing today. She argued that a multiple crisis confronts the world in relation to poverty, the environment, and democracy where "citizens cannot be heard". Fifty percent of the world lives on $2 or less per day and the rest of the world faces lay-offs and overcapacity. The devastating situation facing the neo-colonial world is illustrated by Brazil. Between 1980 and 2000, Brazil had paid back $587 billion to the world banking system yet found itself with a debt four times greater than that which existed in 1980!
George correctly argued that conditions are now being driven back to those which existed in the 19th century as every gain made during the last 100 years is under attack by the ‘establishment’.
Having made a searing critique of capitalism, however, she then limited herself to putting forward proposals within the market economy. To meet the domination of the new global economy, George argued, international action was needed in the same way that national reforms had been implemented in the past. These measures should include the cancellation of foreign debt and an international tax on financial transactions and mergers should be implemented together with a clampdown on tax havens. These steps could then finance a world ‘Marshall Plan’ similar to that which was implemented after the second world war in Western Europe. The multinationals should be legally controlled.
What her programme does not face up to is the fact that the driving force of the capitalist system is the maximisation of the profits of major companies at national and international levels. What George fails to say is by what means and through which organisations could such a programme be implemented. And she does not address what the movement should do when the multi-national corporations and financial system refuse to accept such controls on their interests.
The question of controlling the multi-national companies was a recurring theme of some of the more radical intellectuals at the Forum, such as Kevin Danaher from Global Watch USA. He explained that the "interests and rights of humanity" had become "subordinate to capital, money values and the transnational corporation". Going further than some other speakers, he supported the abolition of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and wanted the separation of corporations from the state.
Danaher pointed out the extent of the power and control in the hands of the multinationals. Then he left this to one side, apparently imagining that they will meekly accept controls being imposed on them by parliaments whose members’ interests are also tied to those of big business and the capitalist system.
Danaher went on to argue the need to build a mass movement based on alliances. Once this was achieved, individual multinationals such as Exxon could be targeted and campaigned against before they are nationalised, one at a time. But even this was not argued from the point of view of replacing capitalism with socialism. The idea is to convince companies to behave better: "If the big ones get the message then the smaller corporations will get the message".
In answer to our questions, he accepted that socialism would develop internationally and was the ultimate goal. However, he argued that socialism should not be spoken about because, as a word, it had become "polluted" under the regimes of Eastern Europe. For him, the issue is, therefore, whether "capital was to rule or civil society".
Walden Bello from the Philippines clearly spelt out that his proposals to transform the plight of the mass of the world’s population remained within capitalism. His ideas centre on dealing with the excesses of capitalism and the dominant globalisation trend. The IMF is obsolete, he argued, and its power should be emasculated and some institutions abolished. No new centralised power is necessary. There was a need "to give more space to space and compromise", and "a system of multi-checks and balances". Organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) should be strengthened along with regional trading blocks such as Mercosur in Latin America.
As the CWI has explained previously, the onset of a world economic recession will see the checking and, in some cases, partial reversal of globalisation trends in the world economy. This will result in clashes between the various regional blocks and individual countries. Increased trade tariffs and other measures to try and protect their own interests could be adopted. As recent events in Argentina have demonstrated, other steps such as state intervention in the economy will also be adopted, representing a change from the dominant tendency of the last decade.
However, such measures – which may also involve temporary concessions to workers, the middle classes and others – will not fundamentally change capitalism’s character. Furthermore, so long as capitalism exists, any improvements won through struggle or given by governments seeking to win support will be, ultimately, undermined and possibly taken away during new crises.
Any such measures will not resolve the horrors facing the mass of the population in different regions of the world. Implicit in Bello’s argument was the idea that the regional capitalist leaders in blocs such as Mercosur would be better than the imperialist Western powers in their dealings with the working class, middle class, land workers and others suffering under capitalism. The history of Latin America, where practically every country has experienced brutal military dictatorships at some time over the last 50 years, undermines Bello’s illusion.
AN INTERNATIONAL TREND today is the very sharp rightward move of the trade union leaders away from any idea of class struggle and towards the acceptance of capitalism and ‘partnership’ with the bosses. The result is that, in many countries, the privileged trade union bureaucracy is a major obstacle confronting workers seeking to fight for their interests. In the Forum this was clearly illustrated by a representative of the International Metalworkers’ Federation. Marcelo Melentacchi said that the trade unions should negotiate with the multinationals because "we want them to contribute to the economy and society". In other words, he wants the unions to be their partners!
A theme of many of the contributions from the official speakers was the need to maintain the diversity of the anti-capitalist movement and to forge alliances. This was used as an argument against ‘sectarianism’ and any idea that one group could conduct the struggle alone.
Socialists support the idea of unity in struggle of all oppressed people. At the same time, working-class people have a central role to play in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and build socialism. This is because under capitalism the working class develops a collective understanding and common class interests. These, along with its economic strength at the point of production, enable it to be the decisive force in ending the bosses’ private ownership and control of the decisive sectors of the economy and society.
Many speakers, however, attempted to diminish the role of the working class and, in effect, tried to ‘de-class’ the anti-capitalist movement. The role of other social groups was emphasised along with the need for alliances. Danaher argued: "You are a worker for only eight hours a day. You are a consumer for a certain number of hours. But you are a citizen for 24 hours a day".
Even trade union representatives, such as Willie Madisha from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, emphasised that the trade unions and workers were too weak and needed alliances with other forces. As well as underestimating the strength of the workers’ movement, these statements are coded messages that they do not intend to lead a struggle to replace capitalism. They use the issue of alliances as an excuse not to fight for socialism. They ignore experiences like January’s two-day general strike in Nigeria, which took place two weeks before the Forum and was supported by the overwhelming majority of the people in Africa’s most populous country. This showed in practice how the working class could lead an entire nation in struggle.
Recent events in Argentina and the massive general strike in South Africa against privatisation last year have demonstrated that the working class and others exploited by capitalism can force trade unions to act, or by-pass the union leaders and struggle against the effects of capitalism.
Even the most radical leaders of the movement failed to outline a clear perspective or proposals to organise the movement and take it forward. The question of building a political alternative to capitalism and an organised force of workers and others exploited by capitalism is, as events in Argentina have demonstrated, more urgent than ever. New mass parties of the working class with a fighting socialist programme are needed. The leadership of these formations must be democratically controlled by the membership, accountable and not corrupt.
Susan George argued that the movement should be strengthened, should maintain its diversity and, as an international movement, rest on strong national alliances. The alliances should be based on the workers, peasants and intellectuals. However, this perspective was not developed with concrete proposals but left in the air. Porto Alegre, George commented, was creating a "new world order. A society of society was being created". But she then cautioned "not to expect too much too soon". Kevin Danaher urged the targeting of specific multi-national companies, boycotting the likes of Gap and building alternative organic economies.
The Forum in many respects represented a new phase in the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement. In particular, the question of the programme and ideas that it supports was a central part of this event. The young people and workers who participated were looking for a clear alternative to the system. But the leaders put nothing forward which could replace capitalist rule.
This contradiction is certain to increase in the coming period and lead to conflicts within the movement about the way forward. The need to build a socialist current within the anti-capitalist movement, an alternative view to the idea of creating a better version of capitalism, is more urgent than ever because of the deepening crisis and mass struggles in Latin America and elsewhere. The upheavals in Argentina clearly show that the mass of workers and middle-class people are now prepared to fight against neo-liberal policies and even capitalism. A campaign has to be waged to ensure that socialism is seen as the only viable alternative. The emblem of the World Social Forum, Another World is Possible, is correct. It is essential, however, to add that, A Socialist World is Necessary, and to explain what programme and tasks are needed to achieve it.
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