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People's carnival at Porto Alegre

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

The Second World Social Forum at Porto Alegre, Brazil, was not just a rejection of undemocratic globalisation but even more, a celebration of the more positive aspects of internationalism.

THE Brazilians love festivities, and of course they are also very good at them. And so when they hosted the Second World Social Forum between January 31 and February 5, at the town of Porto Alegre, it really became a wonderful carnival, as only the Brazilians can do it, but with the essential and enthusiastic participation of large numbers of people from across the world.

The First World Social Forum was held in this town last year, in counterpoint to the World Economic Forum that is usually held at Davos, Switzerland, to indicate that the true concerns of people were not just ignored but increasingly trampled upon by that meeting of corporate capital and its assistants. Since then the World Social Forum has grown in both stature and attraction, and can no longer be defined in terms of the "other", since it has become a gathering of those seeking to reclaim the spirit of internationalism for people across the world, away from the undemocratic globalisation of corporate capital.

So this huge mela was much more than a simple anti-globalisation protest or even an attempt to bring together critiques of the current system. Rather, it was a much more positive exercise to show that there are alternatives which are both attractive and feasible, and to indicate the spread and proliferation of dissent as well as of creative options.

THE sheer size of the event required very impressive organisation. There were more than 15,000 delegates (8,000 from outside Brazil) and more than 40,000 participants in the public events such as the opening march and rally and the subsequent festivities up to the emotional closing ceremony. The delegates were from 117 countries, taking part in more than 500 officially organised conferences, seminars and workshops along with other public events and spontaneous activities, as well as a wide range of cultural performances, including street and open air performances of various kinds. A youth camp involving tens of thousands of young people was held simultaneously in a major park in the city, with joyous late night concerts and other attractions.

To a large extent this extraordinary event was possible because of the specific character of Porto Alegre, which is the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, one of the richest provinces of Brazil. For the past ten years it has been governed by an explicitly socialist party, the Workers Party (Parti Trabalhadores or PT), which also took control of the provincial government two years ago. This very competent socialist government has ensured public infrastructure and efficient services that are significantly better than those in many First World cities. The willingness and ability of the PT and the government it controls, to host this very large and varied gathering was obviously crucial in ensuring its success.

The opening ceremony itself, with its impressive starting march and rally, with strains reminiscent of Woodstock as well as the more recent major social protest movements across the world, set the tone for what was to follow. While there was much that was greatly serious and important, in terms of analysis and critique of the current world order and presentation of alternatives across a range of areas, there was also a very strong sense of fun and enjoyment throughout. This was evident in the crowds milling around the campus of the Catholic University where many of the events occurred, the spontaneous displays on the streets, the large and motivated audiences that filled halls and even distant warehouses and gymnasia around the city that hosted some of the events.

The mainstream press internationally has been quick to downplay this event, or to sneer at its enthusiasm. Thus, The Economist of London described the World Social Forum as "the Disney World of the Left", and others tried to focus on more extreme or fringe elements among the participants to pretend that the Forum was less representative than it actually was. But all that could not squelch the vitality and gusto of the participants. Certainly the basic spirit of the whole jamboree reflected an earlier slogan of the PT: "We are not afraid to be happy".

Of course, it is not as though this happiness is something that would automatically emerge from the current state of the world. And indeed most of the conferences and workshops highlighted and brought into sharp focus the many and growing problems associated with aggressive capitalism and unequal development, as well as the difficulties of dealing with rampant U.S. imperialism which has been made even more belligerent by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

But despite this, the overall sense was one of great positive energy. Partly it was simply the realisation that there are so many different groups all over the world, very different in many ways, but sharing a basic aversion to exploitative capitalism. Partly it was the knowledge being shared of other experiences, the awareness of other struggles and sometimes of small but impressive victories. Partly it was the emphasis on going beyond critiques to presenting clear and viable alternatives to present strategies.

It was also the presence in one place of so many inspiring figures, ranging from Noam Chomsky and Manuel Escobar to Rigoberta Menchu from Guatemala, Makal Aref from Afghanistan and Nawal el Saadawy from Egypt, and a host of others, including activists from India such as Medha Patkar. And then there was the infectious enthusiasm of the tens of thousands of young people who thronged the meetings and listened for hours to the heated discussions. There was the grateful participation of so many cultural groups - artists, musicians, dramatists - who enlivened the proceedings daily and constantly. When all this was put together with the spirit of Brazil, with its huge capacity for spontaneous celebration, it was a heady mix.

MUCH is written in the mainstream press disparaging the anti-globalisation movement. And certainly it is true that insofar as it is a movement, it is unlike those of the past, both in its international orientation and in its very nature. In a succinct exposition, Walden Bello from the Philippines underlined some of the key features of the current movement: it is decentralised and flexible, it is relatively suspicious of representative democracy and prefers "direct" democracy, its leadership is not elected but "emerges" more in the form of moral authority, it is explicitly both national and global in its focus.

While these can be seen as positive features, each of them also can create problems, in particular when viewed in relation to the much more organised and powerful enemy that it seeks to confront. And of course, this in turn means that the anti-globalisation "movement" is not really one movement at all, but a huge coalition of what are often very disparate and differing forces.

But this may be precisely why it is so important to have gatherings like the World Social Forum, which allow for more detailed elaboration and working through of the differences as well as the commonalities, which in turn lay the ground for much more effective future struggles. The conferences, seminars and workshops - and indeed the subsequent discussions that seemed to continue far into the night in the bars and even at noisy public concerts - served to make positions explicit, to clarify and sharpen understanding. This was important not only because it is necessary to be aware of the precise nature of the differences and the common ground. Eventually, it should serve to empower those involved in their own local and national struggles, and to make for more effective action in one's own context.

The possibilities were encapsulated at one level in the experience of the Planning Secretary from East Timor, a very bright woman whose newly independent government is being led slowly but surely by the World Bank into the now standard external debt trap. She described how the sessions made her realise that many of the proposals made by foreign consultants, which her government has already unwittingly accepted, are actually detrimental to her people's interests, and how she can now think of exploring alternative strategies.

So such a gathering can have truly positive learning effects. But even apart from these, and from the unique opportunity to mingle with such a wide range of broadly progressive people from across the world, there were other invigorating effects of these few days for most of the participants. Most of all, because the very gathering served as a strong reaffirmation of the basic slogan of the World Social Forum: "Another world is possible".