Throughout the ESF process, I kept on having this dark vision: the European Social Forum office in London as an encampment deep in the Congolese Jungle. Like the Heart of Darkness – Ken Livingstone a 21^st Century Kurtz. Picture him: lurking in shadow, brooding in the last rays of a blood red sunset, deep within his humid, plastic-plant-filled office. Picture him: at the end of a long, dark corridor lined with the heads of SWP members and GLA officials who displeased him…
Which has been worrying me a little, since I like to think of myself as a fairly measured and reasonable kind of guy. I eat regularly, and my bowel movements are normal. What on Earth has happened to me that I find myself feeling this way?
It’s OK though, I’m sure. We trust all those folk to do the right thing, don’t we?
After all, it’s not like there’s actually anyone from the SWP involved – it says so in the minutes of ESF meetings. There’s lots of folk from Globalise Resistance, and this chap called Alex Callinicos who’s from ‘Project K’. So no-one from any group thinking they’re the way and the light, merely mouthing principles they have no intention of honouring. Good good.
Still, sometimes, I get delusional. In the wee small hours, I start hearing voices in the pipes. They whisper to me in the night:
“Another world is possible – in fact we've got the blueprint right here! We know what we're doing. If you'll just follow us, there'll be a brief interlude where we dispense with niceties like democracy and accountability, but it'll be worth it. Oh, believe you me, yes! You'll wake up in a socialist utopia, small children frolicking with smiling tigers, everyone with immaculate hair-dos...”
Oh, hang on - my subconscious must be getting confused: surely this is a cover of a Watchtower magazine? I think my paranoid delusions must be fusing my synapses.
Well... I could go on ranting about the Trot sect we all love to hate. So I will.
“The SWP have taken control of the European Social Movement!”
“Oh no we haven’t! Stop being paranoid! We’re not even involved – go look at the minutes! And besides which, you don’t represent anyone!”
“Oh yes you have! You always do it! Your own theory states that the SWP needs front organisations, because the class unconscious, unready, unwashed masses won’t openly accept that a vanguard party is the only route to utopia! And the social forum movement is a perfect vehicle for that! So yes, you have taken over! Or at least you’ve been trying your best! So nyer!”
“Oh no we haven’t! And you’re a smelly petit bourgeois reactionary anyway! So nyer back!”
Etc. It’s really not going to get us anywhere, is it? Besides which, no-one from the SWP involved in the process ever responds to criticism or direct questions anyway, which kind of makes dialogue difficult.
Anyway, is there much point in actually engaging such groups on their own theoretical ground - any more than there would be in trying to logically counter creationists? Fundamentalists of all shades, religious or secular, go to quite Herculean lengths to rubbish every aspect of the beliefs they oppose. As anyone who’s ever tried to argue with a creationist or an avid member of the SWP on their own territory will know, it’s a peculiarly surreal – and strangely similar - experience, and one best avoided. You can perhaps organise stuff with them, and make small talk – but best to stay off their respective religions if you value your mental balance.
For the sake of getting on with the work of building the world we want, let’s breathe, and count to ten …
I’ll try not to mention the SWP again – unfortunately, they’ve become the McDonalds of leftie in-fighting. We all like to smash their windows when things get nasty, but it’s powermongers and Vanguardists of all shades we should be giving our attention to. So -
I think I've used this quote before - found it at:
... and I've probably spammed these lists with it a hundred times, but it keeps on going round and round in my head:
"You never change things fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete." (Buckminster Fuller)
New model? Remember the early Zapatista communiqué that read: “We do not want to struggle for power, because the struggle for power is central to the world we reject; it does not form part of the world we want… They do not understand that we do not want offices or posts in the government. They do not understand that we are struggling not for the stairs to be swept clean from the top to the bottom, but for there to be no stairs, for there to be no kingdom at all.”
This wonderfully romantic notion neatly captures what so many hope the social forum movement, and the global justice movement, may have presaged: (Whether it’s what the EZLN meant is a different matter. )
The Social Forum movement, to many, means the end of power: every eruption of a social forum a small microcosm embodying – really embodying, on the ground - the end of neoliberalism. Like a rampant Japanese Bindweed, the social forum movement would slowly but surely suffocate it.
Someone, it seemed, had come up with the magic formula; a method of organisation that kept all the best things about the global social justice movement, but guaranteed it against turning into just another hierarchy, just another bureaucracy, just another ‘locus of power’ for the usual suspects to scramble over.
How? The 'forums' of the social forum movement could not be used for voting or carrying motions: they existed only to allow networking and the formation of new movements within its space. New ideas, new syntheses and new alliances could come into being there, but the forum itself would forever remain a power-struggle-free political space.
But the power of The Iron Law, it seems, could not be undone! The Iron Law whispers to us: ‘who says organization, says oligarchy.’ The Iron Law sniggers, ‘fools! So you think you could end power merely by poncing about shouting ‘not a locus of power! Yah-a-ha! Your romantic clap-trap has merely eased the birth of a few more organising committees and leftie European Junkets! All will love me and despair!’ (Sorry… Lord of the Rings references will crop up again, I’m afraid…)
The Iron Law says, in less noisy terms, that organisation must develop structure, as an acorn must become an oak. And when such structures form, there are always – /always/ – going to be groups and individuals waiting for their chance to snap this power up and push others out of the room.
And neither will the people who’ve grabbed power necessarily be bad-intentioned. You’re unlikely to hear them saying things like, ‘ha ha! Now we have power, we’ll begin by mincing the babies first, and move on to sandpapering the skin off old people! Only butchers and carpenters and party apparatchiks will survive the winter! Ha ha!’
But it’s power, ain’t it? That’s the thing. Lord of the Rings may be a fairly awful paean to the divine right of Kings – but there’s a sharp anarchist message at its heart. Trying to destroy power is next to impossible, but *failing* to destroy it can lead only to tyranny. Power: would you give it up, if you had it? Or would you believe that, in your hands, it would be a force for good?
It may be a bit of a bolloxy metaphor, but I’m gonna use it anyway: the Charter of Principles is kind of a formula for chucking the Ring into Mount Doom! It’s a tenuous, quiet little voice that says, ‘yes – we can do away with power. It’s not just a childish fantasy.’ It's not just leftie in-fighting: it's power structures of all shades - despotism as well as neoliberalism - that we want rid of.
And if this is true, then it's worth struggling to keep the social forum movement alive.
But where to start? How the hell can we do this?
There’s a bit of writing with the snappy title of */Twenty-two theses on the problems of democracy in the World Social Forum/*, written by Teivo Teivainen. It was written at the request of the Strategy Commission of the World Social Forums International Council, held in Paris in November 2003. It can be found at -
Teivainen begins with a principle that’s the opposite of the ‘end justifies the means’ arguments of those who believe that a ‘democratic centralist’ vanguard is a necessary evil. It’s a principle that, in my youthful naivety, I still believe it is possible to enact:
“It is strategically and morally desirable that movements that want to radically democratise the world apply democratic principles to themselves and the articulations they build with other movements. Democratic principles should be applied to the way the World Social Forum (WSF) is organized.”
Simply – walk the talk. Don’t go about saying things like, “well, we /do /know the way to Utopia, but unfortunately it means going via Authoritaria for a while. Is that OK? No? What do you mean, /no!/? Wrecker! Out of the meeting!”
I’d have this principle written in my world charter for peace. If I were so inclined, it would be tattooed across my forehead. ‘Walk the talk’. Nobody would be torturing in the name of Jesus, nobody bombing for peace, nobody dictating for democracy, nobody powermongering for socialism - nobody f**king for virginity.
But - shock! -Teivainen then claims that this whole ‘it’s not a locus of power!’ thing is, well, a bit rubbish:
“The WSF rules and practices include depoliticising elements that block the possibilities for more democratic and transparent procedures… Pretending that there are no relations of power that should be made visible within the WSF process is the most harmful of these depoliticising elements. Even if it is often presented as ‘not a locus of power’, ‘not an organization’, and ‘only a neutral space’, the WSF does have relations of power.”
Here, Teivainen is making some heavy problems for the case that social forum organisation is a radically new form of non-power-base - saying 'we ain't a locus of power' doesn't make it so. Worse: it can be used as a cloak to hide real power.
It’s worth reading the WSF Charter of Principles again –
- which aim to set in stone that social forums cannot be fought over: this is the DNA of the Social Forum movement.
Key to this is that, as the charter says, “no-one… will be authorized to express positions claiming to be those of all its participants. [Nor shall participants] be called on to take decisions as a body, whether by vote or acclamation, on declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority, of them and that propose to be taken as establishing positions of the Forum as a body.”
No motions, no voting, no locus of power. No decisions as a body. It’s the key driver for the explosion of the social forum idea - allowing exchange in an environment of trust, where you simply can't take control.
But it's also an Achilles heel that may yet kill the hope it embodied.
I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about the SWP again but, well… I lied. OK? This principle in the charter – that social forums cannot act corporately - is the one point where any SWP member will start sweating and twitching. It’s utterly anathema to their organising principles – more than this, their fundamental(ist) belief that utopia can only be reached through an organised class, led by a Vanguard.
The Iron Law, then, may be welded tightly to an oligarchy who, in ranks, chant, ‘not a locus of power, not a locus of power, not a locus of power…’
You want this thing, do you? A world changed without taking power? Then how do we get past this? An age-old question, that's vexed Anarchists as well as arch-neoliberals like Hayek.
I'm just gonna dip a toe into the question here – some thoughts on how to break that strong weld between the oligarchs and the ‘not a locus of power’ chant. Most of my thoughts here are woolly – there needs to be a lot more grounded work on how to make *sure* that, where power may coagulate, we know how to disperse it again. It may be that the anarchists and the liberals have more in common than it seems…
But for now –
“Those who pay lip-service to a principle they do not intend to put into practice always run the risk of being outflanked by those whose homage is more sincere. Hence the idea of democracy, or of popular power, however much and however easily it is abused and exploited, still retains a radical potential.” (Anthony Arblaster)
Another quote of the year. My question here is simple: what to do? How to outflank?
Those who have seen what methods have been used to organise the ESF know who has enacted WSF principles in their behaviour toward others, and those who have merely used them as a figleaf. Reading the quote that Jon has sent can surely leave no-one in doubt about this. Go and search a bit on the net…
Whatever anyone has done after the event, those of us who still believe in living our values will have to move on – as Teivainen says – to apply the principles we believe in to ourselves and our organising.
We are accused of everything under the sun: sectarianism, propounding a philosophy of tyranny by consensus, – even of racist violence, as we’ve recently seen.
And remember Callinicos’ response to the Italian statement condemning the UK process? He said -
“The implication that our partners in Italy… should stand in judgement over the movement in Britain and decide who should 'play a central role' in Britain (particularly when the basis of who is to be preferred is that they agree with the Italian delegation) is inappropriate and divisive and would, if taken seriously, do much more damage to the movement than anything that is alleged against the majority of the British delegation in Paris.”
'Stand in judgement over the movement in Britain?’ No – in judgement over authoritarian tactics in the social forum movement. We should remember that. We are right to *continue* to challenge those who with one hand stuff the Charter of Principles in our mouths, and with the other shut the door in our face.
And accusing the Italians of being divisive and 'more damaging than anything else'? We’ll see a lot more of this. It is an unpleasant little tactic, with the sole aim of silencing dissent.
“But look! You’re doing the same! You accuse a small group of hard-working activists of exactly that – being more damaging than anything else!”
True, true. But here’s the difference, you see: some of us talk to each other, debate, compromise, build trust over time, value openness and accountability – whereas others do things like go to meetings claiming to be the UK ESF Organising Committee, having made no effort whatsoever prior to the meeting to debate the issues around such a committee, or outline in detail – openly, in public forums - what it’s meant to do, how it relates to social forum movement…
It’s not a very difficult game of spot the difference, is it? Rocket science it ain't.
I think the truth of it is summed up well by an amazing little real-life allegory: a social forum activist I know recently rented a house, and a week later the local SWP full-timer rented the one next door – entirely co-incidentally. They live side by side. They even share a yard.
One might expect, then, a great opportunity not only for a quality sit-com, but a meeting of minds – debate, argument, thesis, antithesis, synthesis… Uh uh. Nowt. And perhaps this is a fault on both sides.
Yet… I believe there are those who value arguing, discussing and learning our way to another possible world, and that such argument and debate are tools for trust-building - and those who already believe they *know* how to get there, for whom argument is merely a process of driving the juggernaut forward over all wrong-headed obstacles.
For these, the social forum movement is merely one part of the global class consciousness they have long prophesied. Like the planes flying into the Twin Towers confirming that a clash of civilisations is inevitable, and that terror is battling against freedom, their commitment to sacred beliefs leaves no room for other interpretations - and no room for genuine argument.
Genuine argument is where different groups work out how to move forward together: it isn't done on an e-mail list, or in an academic journal. It is *meant* to be what happens at social forums.
Imagine what a plenary should be: not a line of speakers all roundly condemning bad things, followed by clapping - but a range of speakers outlining the paths that may be taken, the diverse parameters of the future struggle as they see it; speakers that hand ideas to the listener, who can then turn to their neighbour to see which tool may do the job - where they are - of making the world a truly just place.
The *hardest* part of enacting democratic principles – of walking the talk in all our actions – comes here, for me. It means believing in one’s own judgement; it means loosening one’s grip on cherished beliefs long enough to hear another’s voice.
It means believing in the central *point* of building that space – that wonderful things happen there. Things that change the way we all think about how to get to that possible world.
It also means seeing clearly: tactics and methods utterly opposed to the values of the social forum movement are being used by a small clique claiming to represent those values on our behalf.
But back to Buckminster Fuller – our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to build a new model that makes the old model obsolete. We know the ones who make the Iron Law work. They seek power in order to save the rest of us. We must see this clearly, and then be sure enough of ourselves to simply get on with the job of building – locally, through trust, meeting other organisations on the ground, building local participatory alternatives, turning protest into change…
Thing is, that’s where it gets difficult. This could take a long time, and as a Worker’s Power member argued to me recently – we don’t have time.
But what’s the alternative? It’s like Julia Cameron said:
“I’m 45! I can’t start learning to play piano now! Do you know how old I’ll be before I get any good!?”
“Yup – exactly as old as you’ll be if you don’t.”
The range of things we need to think about are enormous. How do you build radical democracy? In fact – can you? Doesn’t the current state of the ESF movement just shout out to us that the Iron Law is true true true?
Is building open organisations made of trust and consensus is a bit like rearing a young lamb, and then putting it in an open field where we know foxes will be a-wandering? Aren’t we just making something that less scrupulous groups can just come and gobble up?
I don’t know the answers, but I’m of the belief that we can find them. Either that, or I’ve been watching too much Lord of the Rings.
 Holloway & Peláez, (Eds.), p.4
Holloway has argued, precisely as the EZLN did, that “you cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost… for what is at issue is in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not /whose/ power but the very existence of power.” He then goes on to suggest that “to change the world without taking power: this is the challenge that has been formulated most clearly by the Zapatista uprising.” Thus, from getting rid of the PRI state, we get, changing the world without taking power.
 The Zapatistas were probably only talking about Mexico, and the problem of the ‘PRI state’/./ The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), before it finally lost power in 2000 after six decades, had used all-encompassing patronage networks to control the entire of Mexico. Political stability was ensured by the linkages between the PRI and civil society. (Hmm... interesting parallels to Blairite Britain, actually!) This is most likely what Marcos is referring to when he speaks of stairs being swept clean. A tenet of the EZLN is opposition to any compromise with the state, to avoid assimilation in patronage networks that they suggest had neutered so many other movements.
 F**king for virginity: stolen from the ‘Buddhist Punk’, a Sheffield political poet.