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Our man abroad reports from the World Social Forum

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil—For over 20 years, the owners of the world have been meeting yearly in Davos, Switzerland, at an event called the World Economic Forum. Davos is where the theory of world domination by capital begins manifesting into practice.

For several years, small-scale “anti-Davos” meetings have been held around Europe. Three years ago, a group of activists had the idea of coalescing growing anti-Davos (as well as general anti-corporate-globalization) sentiment into a singular, world-scale forum, to be held at the same time as the World Economic Forum. Thus, the World Social Forum (WSF) was born.

The intention of the WSF is to bring together citizens from around the globe who are actively working for a better world, in arenas such as peace, environment, social work, culture, politics, agriculture, economics, etc. The idea is to create a space for networking, strategizing, sharing of stories, morale-boosting, and general collective searching for alternatives to the dominant, capital-centric paradigm.

I was among the 100,000 attendees from 156 countries at the WSF, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Although over 4,000 journalists were in attendance, pitifully few were from the U.S. I wrote this dispatch from Brazil in an attempt to include North Americans in the discussion, since we were excluded by our own corporate media. In light of the overwhelming disgust at U.S. policies evident in Porto Alegre, this exclusion is all the more unfortunate. The people of the U.S. need to know how the world is reacting to our policies.

Yet, despite the flag burning and anti-U.S. rhetoric, attendees did not confuse U.S. policy with the will of most Americans, especially those who made the trip to Porto Alegre. People know that Bush stole a very close election, and the few Americans who showed up at the WSF were eagerly embraced. And many Americans made presentations, including Noam Chomsky, who drew an audience of 15,000.

Other “left-wing rock stars” in attendance were Nelson Mandela, Vandana Shiva, Danny Glover, Aleida Guevara (daughter of Che), Eduardo Galeano, Naomi Klein, and Deepak Chopra. Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, made a surprise appearance, and announced that his embattled regime was part of the movement, affirming his resolve to fight the U.S. empire’s attempts to oust him from his majority-elected position.

While Chavez cast himself as a revolutionary, Brazil’s wildly popular new president-elect, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, aka “Lula,” made a speech in which he presented himself as a peacemaker, determined to end hunger and inequity in Brazil—without destabilizing the Brazilian economy. Lula also announced his imminent trip to Davos, and his intent to keep the discussion at the World Economic Forum focused on ways in which capital might serve people—not the other way around.

The speeches were inspiring, educational, and altogether valuable, but the real engines of the WSF are the workshops and activities organized by the various groups in attendance. These were a sort of civil laboratory, mixing up ideas, strategies, stories, processes, and discoveries from around the world of ideals.

The workshops were held at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica, the major university of Porto Alegre. It was pretty much the ideal college utopian scene. Imagine going to a school with course offerings like “The global water grab,” “Encounters with the truth,” “A feminist challenge to the market: the gift economy,” “Community food security in North America: building alternatives to the global food system in the belly of the beast,” “The transformational power of hip-hop,” “Prostitution and Globalization,” and “Medicinal plants of the Guarini Indians.”

Imagine a campus crowded with students from 156 countries, the symphony of languages filling the halls and stairwells, poking heads into different rooms, with hundreds of options to choose from at any given time. You can check out a class and if it doesn’t stoke you, get up and go to another one. If you arrive late, it’s probably because you got stuck behind a samba parade, or were entranced by a dance of neon-feather-decorated Indians from deep in the Amazon.

I attended a series of workshops on “Individualization, globalization, and civil society.” The workshops were spearheaded by the sustainable development organization GlobeNet 3 of Stuttgart, Germany, with contributions from Merkur of Sweden, and the New York Open Center. I was impressed by their process for running workshops, integrating their own material with comments and ideas from the group, always moving forward while integrating. When asked if Germans had a certain knack for this, one speaker explained:

“From Germany, we can look to the East and see the loss of freedom in the name of solidarity; we can look to the West and see the loss of solidarity in the name of freedom. This motivates us to search for a middle path. Also, we have this lingering national wound of the Holocaust, and a tremendous collective desire to become a nation that promotes peace and unity, to be a leader in international problem-solving.”

These folks definitely had a knack for finding middle ground. Middle ground between the individual and the collective; middle ground between politics, economics, and culture; middle ground between conflicting viewpoints arising in the workshops that were, upon closer inspection, not necessarily in conflict at all.

For me, the most spine-tingling moment of the whole event was when a group of people held hands in the middle of the packed Gigantinho soccer stadium. One read the following statement:

“We, Israeli and Palestinian pacifists, are determined to find peace, justice, and sovereignty for our people, and an end to the Israeli occupation of the occupied territories of 1967; a creation of an independent Palestinian state, side by side with Israel; Jerusalem as an open city, with independent capitals for both states. We call on the international community, in particular the UN, to intervene and arrange an end to this tragic situation and an end to the violence on both sides, by guiding the peace negotiations. Porto Alegre, January 27, 2003.”

Following this declaration, the pacifists on stage began passionately embracing each other, while the crowd roared and the band played John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The stadium rang with voices from all over the world singing along. I get chills, still, just writing about it.

The event was not without criticism from within. Canadian writer Naomi Klein diminished the WSF as a watered-down and mediocre “old paradigm” version of what it was supposed to be, asking: “How on earth did a gathering that was supposed to be a showcase for new grassroots movements become a celebration of men with a penchant for three-hour speeches about smashing the oligarchy?…For some, the hijacking of the forum is proof that the movements against corporate globalization are finally maturing and ‘getting serious.’ But is it really so mature, amidst the graveyard of failed, left political projects, to believe that change will come by casting your ballot for the latest charismatic leader, then crossing your fingers and hoping for the best? Get serious.”

I found Klein’s criticism, while grounded in some important truth, to be more of a downer than necessary. Her conclusion that “the theme of the WSF was big” is only true if you focus on the big events, rather than the 1,000-plus small and intimate workshops. And while she dismissed Chomsky as “another big man,” she failed to mention the small woman, Arundhati Roy (a writer, like Klein) who spoke after Chomsky, batting clean-up for the event. Her short, sweet, and powerful speech ended with these words:

“…No doubt Saddam is a ruthless dictator, and the people of Iraq would be better off without him. But then, the whole world would be better off without a certain George Bush. It’s clear that Bush is determined to go to war against Iraq, regardless of the facts and of public opinion. In its recruitment drive to build allies, the U.S. is prepared to invent facts. The charade of weapons inspectors is the U.S. government’s insulting, offensive obsession to some twisted form of international etiquette…like leaving the doggie door open for last minute allies, or maybe the UN, to crawl through. But for all intents and purposes, the new war against Iraq has begun.

“So what can we do? We can call on our mem-ory. We can learn from history. We can continue to build public opinion until it becomes a deafening roar. We can turn the war on Iraq into a fishbowl of the U.S. government and its excesses. We can expose Bush, Blair, and their allies as the cowardly baby killers, water polluters, and long distance bombers that they are. We can re-invent civil disobedience in a million different ways; a million ways of becoming a collective pain in the ass. When Bush says ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists,’ we can say ‘No thank you.’ We can let him know that the people of the world don’t have to choose between a malevolent Mickey Mouse and a mad mullah.

“Our strategy should not only be to confront empire, but to lay siege to it, to deprive it of oxygen, to shame it, to rock it with our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance and our ability to tell our own stories, stories that are different from the ones we are being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling.

“Remember this: We be many, and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. And if you listen carefully, you can hear her breathing.”

While criticism like Klein’s is important for keeping the “movement” on task and moving forward, and preventing it from falling into “old paradigm” patterns, I tend to agree with the assessment of “big men” like Lula, Chomsky, and Kofi Annan—as well as that of many big and small women—that the WSF is one of the most important events in contemporary history. Personally, it moved me from the fence, and made me a firm believer in the power and importance of activism.

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