Is true democracy being undermined by its most vocal minority?

First Published by Peace News, Issue 2457 – December 2004

Labelled hierarchical and undemocratic during the organising process, the third European Social Forum took place from 15 to 17 October[2004] in London amidst the storming of stages and the deepening of a 100plus-year-old schism. Nicolas Lalaguna offers a perspective.

During the weeks and months leading up to the London European Social Forum (ESF) there was much controversy as to whether a minority had managed to undermine the democratic nature of the forum itself. The history surrounding the ESF, the World Social Forum (WSF) and the World Economics Forum (WEF) needs to be understood to see clearly how serious a de-democratisation of the ESF could be.

The WEF has been running for over thirty years in different forms, but always acting as a think-tank come engine room for the ProGlobalisation agenda. At the very core of the disillusionment and antipathy towards the WEF and other such bodies is the unrepresentative and anti-democratic nature of them.

The WEF’s “Strategic Partners”, the ones that “strongly support the Forum’s commitment [and] are actively involved in the Foundation’s endeavours at the global, regional and industry levels” are corporations such as Accenture, Boeing, Bombardier, BP, CocaCola, Ernst & Young, Microsoft, Nestle’, Nike, PepsiCo and Sara Lee. While its Annual Meeting Partners “are member companies that are deeply committed to the World Economic Forum, to its mission and to the Annual Meeting in particular” – companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Credit Suisse, Du Pont, Fluor Corporation, MasterCard International, Reuters, Time Warner, Unilever and Visa International (i).

These global super-companies come together under the banner of the WEF once a year to further their separate and shared agendas at the picturesque and exclusive ski-resort of Davos in Switzerland. This meeting is more than just another skiing weekend, after all just to attend and take part costs US$20,000 per delegate (ii). It is far more than a corporate “jolly”. “The Davos Symposium” has been described as a place where “chief executives of 1000 TNCs [Trans-National Corporations], Trade and Economic Ministers or even Prime Ministers, top political and corporate decision makers and big media representatives”, meet informally to discuss global trade (iii). Davos has been cited as being influential in launching the Uruguay round of GATT that actually brought the World Trade Organisation into being.

No party, no government

In response to the growing power of organisations like the WEF, the World Social Forum was convened. The organisations that make up the WSF Organising Committee approved and issued a Charter of Principles in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 9 April 2001.

In this Charter, which was intended to guide the continuation of the initiatives agreed at Porto Alegre in January 2001, was a very clear and unequivocal set of parameters for insuring against a de-democratisation of the forum’s underlying structure. They knew in Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo that truly democratic and progressive movements have an historical preponderance towards being either subsumed or co-opted by hierarchical and unrepresentative political groups.

In the charter it clearly states that the forum is a “plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context that, in a decentralised fashion, interrelates organisations and movements engaged in concrete action at levels from the local to the international to build another world” (iv). Ten-metre high fluorescent tube lighting couldn’t be clearer, “non-governmental and non-party”. If government representatives or party-affiliated activists are allowed undue influence or control over any aspect of the forum then by the very nature of government and party hierarchies the movement will find itself being shepherded in step with the agendas of a minority. This is bad because it is going to be unpalatable to the vast majority of the unaffiliated, which in turn would most likely create fragmentation, breaking the new-found solidarity that is the very strength of the forum itself.

The usual splitters?

There has been criticism in the past of the way the old left in each host country has attempted to pack the organising committees with the intention of subverting the WSF to its own agenda. But this sort of criticism has never been as overwhelming as it was in the run up to the London ESF’04, the regional forum for Europe.

In the months leading up to it, there was much criticism aimed at the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Socialist Alliance (SA), Globalise Resistance (GR) and Ken Livingstone and The Mayor of London’s Office at the Greater London Assembly (GLA) for specifically overwhelming the democratic process.

The criticism was coming primarily from certain communist and anarchist groupings within the UK. Whilst the criticisms were coming from what is generally perceived as being the very far left, it was easily brushed off by the parties in questions as the usual ranting from the usual splitters. This defence is a playground defence. Politically, certain ideologies are opposed fundamentally to all hierarchical structures, for which there are strong intellectual arguments both for and against. But the vast majority of those criticising the setting up process for ESF’04 were not attacking hierarchies in general, but this case of subverting what is meant to be a transparent and democratic process in particular.

Transparency and openness

In the lead up to October the arguments gathered pace, culminating in an open letter to the ESF from British Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The NGOs that had sent the letter would number some of the biggest names in the development and charities movement.

The criticisms were very specific. In relation to the meetings held to agree on chairs of the plenary sessions the letter said, “The method chosen to select the UK quota did not include any deliberative element to ensure that all sections of the movement were represented and was entirely based on the number of votes secured. Numerous members of small political groups who had packed the room with their supporters dominated the voting for the UK quota. This falls well short of the charter of the World Social Forum to which we have all subscribed. We must now face the facts that our work and our members will be sorely under-represented by the UK ESF.”

Perhaps one of the most damning criticisms levelled in the letter was aimed at the credibility of the organising process, “Many British NGOs are keen to get involved in the ESF but have found it difficult to do so because of the lack of transparency and openness in the UK process.” Far from being a small but vocal minority of “basket cases” the signatories to the open letter were Action Aid International UK, ACTSA, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Jubilee Debt Campaign, Oxfam GB, Trade Justice Movement, Traidcraft, War on Want and World Development Movement (v). Without stating specifically in the letter who the signatories felt were to blame, in the ensuing reports names were being bandied about by different journalists. The SWP and the GLA – in relation to the setting up, invitations and choice of speakers – were firmly in the spotlight.

Critical masses

In the various seminars and conferences I attended at the ESF certain groups managed to either control the doors, the top table or the most vocal proponents of the audience, and sometimes all three.

In one seminar on Climate Change, a puzzlingly unrepresentative but excessively vocal minority of the audience did everything they could to draw the arguments away from educating the public to their stake and therefore their economic support for the carbon economy to joining certain political parties to take to the barricades in a class war.

One can argue both the plusses and minuses of that proposal, but historically a critical mass of the unaffiliated taking both positive and negative direct action can make very real changes to corporate policy, whether the politicians follow or not. Equally, these steps allow people to communicate and come together in much larger numbers, which may very well be the opening sorties of a class war, but this sort of war can only be won by a critical mass of the people, in other words a democratic majority representing itself.

Sharing agendas

Political parties argue that by the nature of their membership and their ability therein to tactically pack an audience they are democratically justified and mandated to shepherd the unaffiliated flock. But this does beg the question, in light of the supposedly liberal and egalitarian nature of the audiences at these meetings, how can it be right for a minority group to co-opt a larger collective to their own political ends.

One of the complaints levelled at the organisation of the London European Social Forum was in its lack of transparency. It is precisely in this that the mass will of the people can be used, unknowingly, to swell the ranks of a minority political party and its very real hunger for power over them.

The 1.5 million-plus anti-war march in London in February 2003 may have been called by the Stop The War coalition, the Muslim Association of Britain and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), but it was far larger than their entire membership. The motives of the anti-war groups and the people in Britain who opposed the war coincided and so they all converged on London on 15 February with a similar agenda.

It was not the convenors of the Stop The War coalition who created the anti-war sentiment in the UK: they simply gave a vehicle for that outpouring of antipathy towards government policy. It is surely the scope and the depth of that anti-war march that must teach us that the only way for the people to stand against the power of the few is to avoid at all costs the covert subversion of the mass movement.

Unity in desperation?

The WSF and the ESF have shown us that disparate people in similarly desperate times can join forces to confront their common oppressors. As soon as a hierarchical structure becomes apparent then the uncommon agenda will divide the movement. We can march together for what we agree, but if we allow the takeover of the many by the agenda of the few we will once again find ourselves divided.

If people choose to affiliate themselves to organisations then we need those people to pressure their organisations to better represent them, the right-wing and the left-wing, the greens and the anarchists, the faithful and the faithless all have a role to play.

We need the rank and file of all the political parties to go and make the failing democracies more representative if that is where they choose to fight, but first and most importantly we the people must represent ourselves, and we do this by realising the power, responsibility and stake we have in the wider society, in the economy and in the class struggle.

ii Francisco Whitaker, World Social Forum: origins and aims. English translation by Peter Lenny. Article was published in Correio da Cidadania – December 2 to 9, 2000, no. 222. Downloaded from
iii Myriam Vander Stichele, Towards a world transnationals’ organisation 30/4/98 c/o see
iv World Social Forum Charter or Principles, See
v An open letter to the ESF process from British NGOs, signed by Action Aid International UK, ACTSA, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Jubilee Debt Campaign, Oxfam GB, Trade Justice Movement, Traidcraft, War on Want and World Development Movement.