European Social Forum: Meeting of a Multitude

Issue section: 
(268)

All eyes will be on Florence this month when the European Social Forum comes to town. Tom Behan analyses the Italian left while Andrew Stone talks to some activists who will be attending.

The vast majority of people at the European Social Forum (ESF) will be Italians. While I haven't the space to teach you Italian, I can provide some background on the largest organisations likely to be active in Florence

CGIL
The biggest of three union federations. Historically the union of the Communist Party, although today it is mainly under the influence of the Blairite DS party. Since Berlusconi was elected 18 months ago unions have faced a Thatcherite assault. The CGIL has often led the resistance--organising two massive general strikes in April and October. In March three million people attended a CGIL demonstration in Rome. Although this activity has revitalised the union movement (strike days have risen by 500 percent over the last year), by and large these have been 'bureaucratic mass strikes', in which the rank and file enthusiastically respond to their leadership's call to action, but crucially, local workplaces or individual unions have not really launched offensive attacks against their employers. The CGIL's official participation in the ESF is a great step forward, and CGIL members will be the official stewards of the event.

Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation)
This radical and 'pluralist' left wing party has over 100,000 members. Its 5 percent share of the vote at last year's election, in a proportional electoral system, means it has dozens of MPs and senators. It played a crucial role in mobilising for Genoa. The evening Carlo Giuliani was murdered party leader Fausto Bertinotti urged all Italians to come to Genoa the following day and demonstrate 'in defence of democracy'--party members and the left responded magnificently. Over the last year its opinion poll rating has risen to 8 or 9 percent. Their youth wing is called Giovani Comunisti.

The 'disobedient'
This is the modern wing of Italian autonomism, which has moved on from Ya Basta! and the tute bianche (white overalls), and whose two best known leaders are Luca Casarini and Francesco Caruso. They are heavily influenced by Hardt and Negri's book Empire and its concept of 'the multitude'. Therefore they tend to be hostile towards working with parties and trade unions, and have not taken part in preparations for the ESF. They particularly attract young people who want action as opposed to sitting around listening in meetings. Very likely to engage in high profile stunts.

Cobas
By far the largest of several national union federations. During the 18 October general strike it organised 22 separate marches with a total of 300,000 marchers. Totally against working within official union structures, politically it is a mixture of Marxism, anarcho-syndicalism and 1970s autonomism. A local organisation closely associated with Cobas, the 'Movimento Antagonista Toscano' (Tuscan Antagonist Movement) is likely to be noticeable during the ESF.

FIOM
The Italian engineering union has been an integral part of the anti-capitalist movement. During strikes last year they invited Social Forum speakers to their rallies, who called on engineers to demonstrate in Genoa--they did so in their thousands. Currently involved in a bitter dispute with the Fiat car company. FIOM has been unionising many call centre workers. It is no coincidence that it had the biggest membership increase of any Italian union last year, increasing its numbers by 30,000.

Social Forums
A chaotic but fascinating 'social laboratory', too varied to be termed an 'anti-capitalist movement'. Hundreds were created after Genoa. Very good at mobilising, although since Genoa the Social Forums have found it impossible to agree on basic organisational factors such as membership and leadership. What is decided at the ESF will be a big test for them.

ARCI
A cultural association closely linked to the old Italian Communist Party, for many years it has been in the doldrums, despite having close to a million members through various satellite organisations. Often seen as a 'front' for the DS, its members played a key role in Genoa and the organisation has subsequently been rejuvenated.

The Left Democrats (DS)

The equivalent to New Labour, although the party still has an active mass working class base. The DS control of Tuscan regional government and Florence city council has been very controversial, as some policies have included environmental damage and massive privatisation of local services. In some ways the party is 'hosting' the ESF. If any politicians are heckled they are likely to be from the DS.

The girotondini

This is an anti-Berlusconi protest movement, mainly made up of supporters of the DS and the Greens. Their mobilisations can be huge-in September film director Nanni Moretti called a million-strong demonstration of the girotondini in Rome.

The Black Bloc

One particularly aggressive kind can easily be spotted. They dress all in black, but have a red stripe running down their trousers - we're talking about the carabinieri police force.

These then are the Italians, but there will be many more organisations and individuals from all over Europe. What will come out of the ESF? The exciting thing is that nobody knows for sure. It already seems certain that a European-wide movement against war and unbridled neoliberalism will emerge. As Nanni Moretti often says at the end of his speeches, 'Let's keep in touch.'

- - - - -

John Pilger

Journalist and filmmaker

The ESF is an extremely important next step in the anti global capital movement. It will allow the extraordinary coalition of forces that has come together at great events like Genoa and Seattle to consolidate the movement and draw together the arguments for opposing the spread of global capital and American military domination.

I've never understood why there was some mystery about the linkage between the advance of global capital and the advance of American military power. It is simply the way imperialism works. It is the way it has worked since the East India Company was set up; since all the European powers sent their military, and especially their navies, in support of their commercial interests. Broadly speaking, that's what the United States does.

The attack on Iraq has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and everything to do with America's desperate need to secure its domestic oil supplies over the next 50 years. Countries that resist the policies of global capital, such as structural adjustment programmes from the World Bank and the IMF and a permanent indebtedness, will soon find themselves stitched up as 'harbouring Al Qaida' or some other American phantom. It all has a long history. That's simply the way global capital has worked--probably for the last 500 years. Although the debate among the various groups is very important and valuable, I would like to see a real cohesion now in the face of an accelerating American programme of domination--of both economic and military domination.

Haidi Giuliani

Mother of Carlo Giuliani, shot in Genoa

The ESF is important because it's a continuation of the discussions that took place at Porto Alegre. It is the creation of politics from below. A personal thing is the campaign for truth and justice. Not only for Carlo, but for all the Carlos in the world.

Florence is the coming together of a movement based on unity in diversity and the meeting of all the honest, democratic and progressive political forces in the world.

Billy Hayes

General secretary CWU

There is a need for activists from different sectors, campaigns and traditions to exchange experiences. In our own organisations we may have international connections--certainly this is the case for trade unions. But there are few opportunities for activists from a progressive or socialist background to meet internationally. The ESF can play this role as a popular, campaigning, unofficial parliament.

Trade unionists need allies for their initiatives. The ESF provides some. Trade unionists need to learn from outside their own experience. The ESF offers an education across a range of social questions. Trade unionists need an opportunity to examine how their policies connect with a complete alternative to neoliberal economics and politics. The ESF may not have this complete alternative, but it offers a wider ground to create it.

It is vital that trade unions do not confine their work to simply providing membership services, or to just addressing workplace concerns. We cannot even successfully carry out these basic tasks unless we understand the nature of social conditions which create these tasks. By being more ambitious in our social goals we are being more committed to our original aims. The ESF is an excellent prompt for this.

Globalisation is a new name for an old process. Capitalism has continuously restructured the world market, usually in a brutal manner. Wars for resources follow from this restructuring. At bottom the war against Iraq is a war for oil. It is laughable to suggest that an impoverished country like Iraq is a military threat to the US or Britain. The only threat is that Iraq may use its oil to strengthen its own economy, rather than provide super-profits for transnational oil companies. For neoliberals this would be a terrible abuse of scarce resources. And if the markets aren't open then these people believe in opening them with cruise missiles.

Organisation (within the movement) must be based on the self activity of the workers and oppressed people. Massive organisation is the basis of all serious social change. Organisation without leadership is impossible. For example, differences of experience alone create the potential for leadership. The question then is, what type of leadership and how to control it? Regular elections on a clear policy platform are crucial. In the trade unions we have some mixed experiences to offer! But whether it be a matter of party, union or campaign, it is clear that the best leadership has no interests separate or apart from those that they represent.

From the ESF I'd like to see a commitment to united activity, while respecting differences and a closer relationship between trade unionists and the anti-capitalist movement

Susan George

Writer and campaigner with Attac

I hope the ESF will help individuals and groups from all over Europe to make face to face links and promote organising around the chief issues that concern them. Information sharing and organisation over the web have their limits--nothing replaces personal contact and trust.

But a certain amount of discipline will be required of us all if my experience in the maelstrom of Porto Alegre is any guide. Feeling good just to be part of it is great, necessary and will give us a boost--but with thousands of people present and hundreds of events planned, the ESF could become, politically speaking, a tragic waste of time, energy and resources. I think each of us needs to go to Florence with a clear purpose, determined to accomplish one thing. I'll try to centre my days there on the Gats--the General Agreement on Trade in Services of the WTO which I consider a huge threat to everyone's future and to democracy. Your centre may be Bush's war against Iraq, or Europe's attitude towards immigrants, or the IMF. Fine. Go ahead, but whatever it is, do it seriously. No one has a chance of taking in everything that will be happening in Florence, but we can all at least try to meet the European colleagues who share our own interest to talk and strategise with them.

I've sometimes been taken to task by SWP friends because I say frankly that I simply don't know what the 'fall of capitalism' (along the lines of what the French used to call the 'grand soir') might look like. I believe the world is too complex for such totalising, comforting mythologies now. I'd much rather try to create concrete spaces in which it becomes possible to invent new economic and social relationships--also by preventing the bastards from going any further than they have already done, for example by fighting the Gats. It seems to me this is the kind of work we can enhance on occasions like the ESF, rather than trotting out the old rhetoric one more fruitless time. Dreams, yes, but grounded in reality and the tough tasks before us.

Chris Nineham

Globalise Resistance

The big international anti-capitalist gatherings have played a crucial part in reinventing resistance. People come away not just inspired but empowered, transformed. It is so obvious at these events that we can build a movement that unites people around a hundred issues against a common enemy. They are a practical enactment of internationalism and solidarity.

Florence will help us build resistance across the continent. But it's also going to be a political encounter between different strands of the movement--NGO people, autonomists, environmentalists, the radical left, trade unionists. That's not to pigeonhole people--I think most activists are very open to discussions, to rethinking positions. But given the crisis of mainstream politics internationally and the prospect of another war there are very important debates to be had.

Everything will be discussed at Florence! But three issues seem particularly important. First the debate about whether it is possible to build opposition to war in various countries. In Britain we have had a demonstration of around 400,000 against the war backed by 11 national trade unions. I believe mass resistance is possible everywhere. It seems to me that the war is the front edge of the neoliberal assault. As well as pointing out the connections between war and globalisation, we have to build opposition to the war everywhere on a huge scale. If we don't we can be marginalised.

Then there is the question about the relationship between the movement and political parties. The truth is left wing political parties are already central to the movement--the PCR was crucial to delivering a mass response to police repression in Genoa. Political parties are important because they try to develop strategy on the basis of an overall understanding of the system. We are going to have to have those kinds of strategic discussions in our movement if we want to take it forward. That's why I am for political parties being a key part of the movement as long as they are parties that consistently oppose the neoliberals.

The third issue is the way forward for the movement more generally. Seattle, Genoa, Barcelona--these protests have helped to detonate working class resistance to neoliberalism. We need to take that process further. If we can strengthen the links between anti-capitalism and growing working class militancy then we can build a movement with fantastic power.