Autumn Reflections
Boris Kagarlitsky - TNI Fellow

Znet, 21 November 2002

First came the fear. For several months most of the Italian newspapers had been telling their readers about the terrible antiglobalists who were about to gather from all Europe to destroy Florence. The day before the European Social Forum opened, the journal Panorama appeared with a cover depicting Michelangelo's David, his face concealed behind an anarchist bandanna.

The headline screamed, "Florence Invaded". It went on to relate in detail how extremists and hooligans were planning to reduce the continent's most beautiful city to ruins, and how the police were readying themselves for the inevitable catastrophe.

Not surprisingly, the main sensation of the European Social Forum was the complete absence of violence. Everything passed off smoothly, peacefully and happily. Otherwise, it could not have happened at all; in Florence, as in Porto Alegre, the radical youth were assembling not in order to wreck some government event, but to hold their own.

The owners of Florentine restaurants and shops were divided into those who shut down in a panic, and those who continued operating. The former suffered losses, while the latter made a good deal of money. On the shutters of the closed s

hops the demonstrators left ironic and sometimes childish inscriptions ("If you think we're bad - that's what you are!").
It was as though virtually all the energies of the forum organisers had gone on preventing provocations, and ensuring that the demonstration would be peaceful. This succeeded brilliantly. A vast mass of people (by the most cautious estimates, more than a hundred thousand), marched successfully through the city. Not only did they not smash anything, but they did not leave even accidental damage behind them.

This was no mean feat; as one of the participants noted, for a column of many thousands of people to pass through a medieval city was barely possible, because these cities were specially built to make sure that columns of people could not march through them. As it happened, there was no need for concern, since the route was chosen so as to bypass the historical area of Florence.

For the whole evening after the end of the forum, the Italian television was talking about the success of the demonstration. Unfortunately, this was the only achievement. The organising of the forum's activity was striking for its confusion. In the program distributed to participants, the organisers contrived to designate two days, the Friday and Saturday, as 8 November.

This immediately reminded me of the American Film "Ground Hog Day", in which the hero, on waking up in the morning, continually finds the same date on the calendar. The sessions began late, since not only the audiences, but sometimes the speakers as well, could not find the venues. Almost all the participants were crammed into a little medieval fortress next to the railway station, Fortezza da Basso.

Finding our way around in it was hard, since there was no guide. The registration of the participants was chaotic. Topping off everything, however, was the decision to close the gates of the fortress during the afternoon of 9 November. The organisers had decided that too many people were packed into the fortress, and that no-one else should be admitted. As a result, some people could not enter, while others could not leave.

Swearing blue murder, people swarmed over the fortress wall. The journalists and camera operators were in hysterics. Appointments and prearranged interviews fell through.

These would have been minor annoyances, if the organisational muddle had been redeemed by interesting and substantial discussion. Unfortunately, the discussion at the forum never happened. People who had gathered in Florence to talk about the prospects for the movement found that they had come to a three-day rally.

General statements were delivered from the podiums. Successive speakers voiced delight at how many of us there were, and how young and good-looking we all were. Initiating serious debate in the halls full of thousands of people, warmed up by mass-meeting rhetoric, was impossible.

Meanwhile, about the youth. The average age of the participants in the movement is in fact no more than 22 or 23 years. This is the generation that grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and came to maturity under neoliberal regimes. In itself this is a judgment on these regimes.

The youth of the movement, however, is by no means always its strong side. The participants often lack elementary maturity and experience. They lack traditions and historical memory, and can only very dimly imagine the revolt of 1968, with which their actions are constantly compared.

Of course, there are contrary examples as well. The most impressive of them are the left youth from Sweden and the socialist youth from Norway. The few dozen serious Scandinavians, however, were lost in the mass of enthusiastic young Italians. Meanwhile, the movement faces a serious problem in the shortage of middle-aged activists and leaders. In the early 1990s members of the left were worried because they were almost unable to attract young people to their side. Now there are more than enough youth, but the losses of the past decade are not so easily made up.

The shortage of trained and experienced people, however, is not the main thing. The movement is faced with serious political problems, which went practically undiscussed at the forum. The demonstrations are becoming increasingly massive, but this is in no way equivalent to political success.

The growth of the movement is in fact being accompanied by a decline in its effectiveness. Seattle and Prague were real victories for the movement, as even its opponents were forced to admit. A new round of talks on the liberalization of world trade was postponed for several years because of the huge protests in Seattle. Politicians and business people began trying to excuse and justify themselves. However, the other side is learning too.

The authorities are reacting less and less to the protests. In the very heat of the forum, the United Nations Security Council unanimously supported the American resolution on Iraq. Not only Russia, but even Syria sided with the US. For the peace movement this was unquestionably a huge defeat - if, of course, we take seriously the statements to the effect that we do not merely want to criticise the war, but also to stop it. This development, however, simply went unnoticed at the forum, and did not darken the mood of the pacifists at all.

The speeches were full of ambiguities. If we are right in asserting that the leaders of the US are irresponsible adventurists, that they are indifferent to people's fates and to democratic values, then we can hardly expect that protest marches will be able to stop the war. Even enormous protest marches. The antiwar movement has accumulated a considerable arsenal of methods of civil disobedience (including the closure of roads, blockades of military bases, and so forth).

All this was already happening in Western Europe in the late 1970s. This experience, however, has not yet been called into play.

The delight at the election of Lula as President of Brazil is also premature, to put it mildly. The sympathy of the new Brazilian president and his party for antiglobalist ideas is one thing, but the policies they will implement in practice are another. If these policies are to correspond in any way at all to the proclaimed ideals, serious work is needed. But no-one said anything about this at the forum.

Over two years the movement has accumulated a good deal of experience, and not all of it positive. This experience needs critical analysis. If the movement can claim the victory of Lula in Brazil to its credit, in Europe the situation is much less impressive. In most countries right-wingers are in power, or the kind of social democrats who in their devotion to capitalism and neoliberalism perhaps go even further than the rightists.

Moreover, the victories of the right in France and Italy were gained after mass antiglobalist actions had begun taking place. Do the movement and "big politics" exist in isolation? How can we change this situation? What can movements achieve, and what is there that requires a party? How can we build these parties and movements, so as to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? At the forum there was no time and no place to discuss this.

In fact, mass street protests can play a decisive role only when the authorities are already wavering. This seemed to be happening in Europe when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder publicly criticized the Bush administration. And the mutiny within British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party showed that Schroeder's position enjoyed support outside Germany. But Schroeder's anti-war rhetoric was little more than a way to get the voters' attention.

Now that elections are over and the ruling coalition has settled into its posts, the Social Democratic chancellor is daily less eager to quarrel with conservatives in the U.S. administration. And Blair has already proven on many occasions that the mood of activists in his own party means far less to him than Washington's approval.

In the final analysis, issues of this magnitude are decided not on the streets, but in military headquarters, ministries and, in the best case, elected assemblies. These institutions have developed an immunity to "pressure from the streets" unless, as happened in Buenos Aires in December 2001, the events unfolding on the streets directly threaten the stability of the institutions themselves.

As Russia's recent history shows, authorities can go for years without heeding public opinion while still retaining the appearance of democratic "legitimacy." The West is not Russia, of course. Western politicians have to pay more attention to what their people have to say. But in the past two years, the West has started to look a lot more like the East. The political establishment senses its independence and invulnerability.

This change has not just affected the public at large; the mass media have also discovered that their ability to influence those in power is increasingly limited. An iron logic is at work here: the more war, the less democracy.

The anti-war movement in Russia and the West has little choice but to take up the banner of civil rights and liberties as well. It would be naive, however, to think that issues of this magnitude could be resolved by parading around the streets of a few European cities. The anti-war movement must prepare itself for a long, hard fight.

It must figure out how to cooperate with various organizations and agencies, political parties and the press. It must not only win the support of a disorganized public, but the backing of the majority -- people who realize that their very freedom is at stake.