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Achievements and Limits of the First United States Social Forum

 

The first US Social Forum wrapped up on Sunday, July 1 in Atlanta, Georgia.  That it happened at all seems almost miraculous.  It is hard to remember any previous comparable gathering of diverse currents of US social movements.  This is not a particularly dynamic moment in their history — the anti-war movement is bland and harmless, labor is largely flat on its back, student movements are weak and isolated, and the immigrant movement — the most assertive in years in terms of taking to the streets — has been weakened by the pervasive climate of fear.  For that matter, in the eyes of many, the World Social Forum process has peaked (or at least is currently in a bit of a trough in terms of energy and creativity).

Yet the US social forum was a dramatic success in several important ways.  Most significant was its diversity.  Reportedly, about 9,000 people were registered as participants in the forum.  Of that group, roughly half appeared to be people of color (it was difficult to accurately assess this, since I was not at the opening march — for that matter, neither were many of the participants — and there was no other moment when one could be confident that a large portion of the participants in the forum were present).  Latinos and African Americans were highly visible, as were Asian Americans and indigenous people, in terms of both plenary speakers (who functioned as the self representation of the forum to itself) and participants.  As the organizers had sought, large numbers of participants appeared to be the members or organizers of people-of-color, community-based organizations.  The white people who made up the other half of the participants also appeared to be predominantly from activist groups.  A considerable portion of the participants were youthful (under 25) flaunting a somewhat “anarchist” style of piercings, butch haircuts, tank tops, army caps.  Particularly among the youth, it seemed obvious that the center of gravity of the left in the US is queer, much in the way that the center of gravity of the socialist left in Europe and the US once was Jewish.  Broadly speaking, the white people present resembled the crowds of direct action protesters at the WTO meeting in Seattle back in 1999, while, as anthropologist Jeff Juris commented to me, the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity was the result of a conscious and strategic effort to address the critique in Seattle epitomized by the famous question: “Where Was the Color in Seattle?”  At the same time, the major labor unions that marched in Seattle did not show up in large numbers in Atlanta (most labor activists present appeared to be with the smaller, more grassroots efforts such as workers’ centers and campaigns to organize day laborers).

What do people do at a social forum?  Go to workshops and plenaries.  Listen to the many bands.  Visit the various tables and tents staffed by members of organizations.  And talk to each other.  One of the pleasures of an event like this is just striking up conversation with strangers, during which you can often learn more than at official workshops.  Virtually all the workshops appeared to be “self organized” by interested groups.  The plenaries focused on several themes (Katrina, war and militarism, indigenous peoples, immigration, sexuality and gender, workers) and, to as great an extent as possible, featured speakers from those groups most adversely affected by current dynamics.  None of the current “celebrities” of the left (Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, et al.) were featured as plenary speakers.  That the program did not list the speakers at each workshop, only the title and the sponsoring group, further tended to de-emphasize existing hierarchies on the left (some groups distributed fliers offering more details on the panels they sponsored, but good luck finding these before the panels took place).  On the final day of the forum, there was a “people’s assembly” that, in theory, would make decisions about how to move forward.  In reality, little was decided (apparently one can now submit resolutions until September 1st — it’s not clear what will be done with them).  About half of the people’s assembly was a mini-plenary focused on “new paradigms of social change,” while the other half was devoted to people briefly stating the reasoning behind resolutions they were proposing.

As sociologist Marina Karides commented, protest aimed at the forum is practically a tradition in the World Social Forum, but it was relatively subdued in Atlanta, perhaps because the principal organizing groups were close to the grassroots, rather than well-funded NGOs or political parties that have been central to the WSF.  The most notable controversy occurred around Thursday evening’s plenary session, when Yifat Susskind of MADRE described the situation in Israel/Palestine, and ended by attacking Hamas, stating that their rise had complicated images of “good Palestinians vs. evil Israelis.”  She went on to say that we should find those among the Palestinians who share our values.  Her comments were met with both applause and catcalls.  This isn’t really the space to analyze this position, but we can speculate about what Palestinians and their firmest supporters in the Middle East and elsewhere were thinking at this point: here is a social forum that is “right on” about every possible struggle — African Americans, Latinos, indigenous, LGBTT, etc. and yet, as always seems to happen on the American left, when the issue of Palestine comes up, suddenly things get complicated.  The next night, following the indigenous people’s plenary, the National Planning Committee stated they had made a mistake by inviting someone to speak on this issue who was not Palestinian (Susskind is Israeli, although this was not clear on Thursday night) and then a Palestinian woman spoke, offering an impassioned denunciation of Susskind as a supporter of imperialism and Islamophobia, before concluding that the Palestinians appropriately felt welcome on indigenous people’s night.  I suspect the apology and insertion of this speaker “preemptively” warded off a protest.  At the people’s assembly, one speaker referred to exclusionary practices of the “media justice” tent, but it was difficult to determine the specifics of this charge.  And Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and Global Exchange was “pied” for alleged shortcomings of Global Exchange, an incident that was denounced by the National Planning Committee as being at odds with the values of the forum.  Finally, at the people’s assembly, a speaker (an Ecuadoran indigenous activist) had the microphone taken away when he spoke past his allotted time.  After everyone had spoken, he was given the mike to finish what he had to say.  This was followed by a Lakotan activist stating that what he had seen was insulting and racist.  He delivered a lengthy denunciation of the crowd at the forum (many of whom had booed and yelled “let him speak” when the microphone incident first occurred) as being fake friends of indigenous struggles, which ended the event on a little sour note.

Limits of the United States Social Forum

Before I mention some of my reservations about the social forum in Atlanta, it is important to state that I think the forum overall was highly successful.  It brought together diverse groups of activists in a way no other strategy at present can.  Familiar critiques of the social forum model as ineffectual and dominated by non-profits strike me as irrelevant to this case. These sorts of events produce alchemical effects that cannot be determined in the short term, so it would be silly to fret much about the lack of clear next steps (this goal always struck me as unrealistic, in any case).  Far from being dominated by the wealthier arm of progressive non-profits, such groups were typically pushed off to the sidelines.  I criticize the social forum in the spirit of trying to improve something which is already very good.

In a nutshell, I think the weakness of the forum was its anti-intellectualism.  Although this was often dressed up with vaguely radical notions like “popular education” and “having the people most affected by global problems speak,” it in fact dovetails with the anti-intellectualism pervasive in American life.  It was visible in a number of forms — the tendency on plenaries to conflate capitalism and racism, class and race ; the priority given to “popular education” (indistinguishable from the sorts of games and group activities widely promoted by the educational establishment in the US as an alternative to the demanding and sometimes unpleasurable activities of reading and listening) over analysis and debate in workshops; and, perhaps most significantly, the exclusion of any academic voices from the plenaries.

As noted above, the speakers at the plenaries were typically promoted as the people most directly affected by the problems they spoke about (although this policy was at first abandoned around the Palestinian issue and no Americans of Middle Eastern descent were invited to speak about the repression and surveillance enveloping the Muslim American community and its most outspoken supporters).  Not only did this mean that academic voices were ignored; it also meant that the speakers possessed an aura that made criticism difficult (in any case, the plenary sessions did not typically include a period for questions from the audience). Additionally, since each speaker was talking about the problems specific to their community, criticisms of each other was difficult.  Notwithstanding, a speaker from the Strategy Center in Los Angeles on the final day made several highly salient points (gently put, to be sure) — the discussion at the plenaries, she noted, struck some as lacking depth.  She added that the relationship of the forum to the global left, and to the historical legacy of the US left, was never broached, although both are highly relevant.  For example, it was Venezuela and Cuba that sent the first medical aid to New Orleans after Katrina.  And the bus workers she organizes often remark that we need a new group comparable to the Black Panthers.

The form of selecting the plenary speakers seemed to be heavily influenced by American notions of multiculturalism, in which everyone authentically speaks from the place of their cultural identity.  This fits uneasily with the anti-corporate politics of social forums, since the latter requires alliances.  Notably, the only alliance mentioned much during the plenaries was the “black-brown” alliance, apparently to be rooted in a joint experience of racist marginalization.  Any discussion of how marginalized groups might ally with the middle class on some issues in response to the escalating wealth and power of the top 1% of American society was foreclosed with this approach.  The concept of authenticity at work here can also obscure ways in which speakers enact power, a point made in numerous “intersectionality” and “post-colonial” critiques of multiculturalism.

Perhaps we are expecting too much of the plenaries, an opportunity for forum participants to come together to celebrate the struggles underway.  Fine.  But then the National Planning Committee should make some effort to open space up at the forum for debate about substantive issues — to mention one that is becoming particularly prominent: is the dependence of most social justice groups on foundation funding jeopardizing their ability to wage uncompromised struggles?  (The aforementioned pie-attackers of Medea Benjamin invoked “the non-profit industrial complex” in their press release.)  It is not enough to say that there was at least one workshop on this topic, and others that touched on many other relevant debates (is socialism a useful concept?  The left?).  With over 900 workshops to choose from, they simply get lost in the shuffle.  An alternative would be to have the National Planning Committee organize a handful of highlighted panels, thereby focusing the attention of Forum participants on these major issues.  Such panels might also provide an opportunity to fruitfully mix up issues and perspectives on social change (i.e., combine labor and queer activists in the same panel) to combat the tendency of practically everyone at the social forum to both organize and attend panels within our respective “comfort zones,” which at least partially contains the experience of diversity.

And these debates would greatly benefit from the participation of left academics.  I know why the organizers are so suspicious of academics.  They can be arrogant, obscurantist, competitive, oblivious to alternative ways of talking about realities (it is probably relevant here for me to mention that I have dropped out of academia and have no short-term plans to return).  Academics frequently use the experience of activists as fodder to advance their careers.  This does not, however, mean that they are irrelevant.  In fact, academia is the major institutional site in the US where one can still talk using left concepts (imperialism, marxism, exploitation, etc.) relatively freely, although in significant ways this is under attack (and the social forum should be open about solidarity to maintain academic freedom).  As a result, academia is a crucial site for the politicization of young people.  Academics can often bring to the discussion historical and theoretical perspectives otherwise lacking.  This does not mean turning discussions at the social forum into academic debates; rather it means complementing experiential perspectives of activists with those developed by academics (we should also note that many left academics consider themselves “academic activists,” often with links to the World Social Forum).

A useful model for how academics can contribute to discussions and debates at the social forum can be found in a book on a topic alluded to above, The Revolution will not be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex. The book sprang out of an a conference held at UC-Santa Barbara (among other things, academics often have institutional resources that can be redirected for such purposes).  It is edited by a group that participated in the social forum (INCITE! Women of Color against Violence) and includes contributions from several others (including Project South and Sista II Sista).  Several academics also make contributions, offering longer-term and theoretical perspectives.  In this way they deepen, rather than obscure, the argument being made.  It is precisely the sort of intellectual/activist engagement that should be central to the social forum.  I suspect that such engagements would not only amplify the political effectiveness of the social forum; they might also help to revitalize the academic left, which, when isolated from social movements, tends to pursue theoretical curlicues for their own sake.

The remarkable accomplishment of the United States Social Forum was to bring together the largely white activists whose touchstone was the direct action at the WTO protests in Seattle with community and labor activists who mostly come from communities of color.  This was all the more remarkable given the de facto racial segregation endemic on the US left for the last thirty years.  I think it’s fair to say that, by the end of the forum, the confidence of both groups that they belong together and can work with each other had increased.  This new left can only get stronger if it fruitfully engages with the academic left and foregrounds the theoretical and historical questions we must deal with to move forward.


Steven Sherman is a sociologist who lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.   He maintains the website lefteyeonbooks.org.  He can be reached at threehegemons@hotmail.com.



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