The key word at this year's World Social Forum, which ended yesterday in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was 'big.'
Big attendance: more than a hundred thousand delegates in all! Big speeches: more than 15,000 crammed in to see Noam Chomsky! And most of all, big men. Lula da Silva, the newly elected president of Brazil, came to the Forum and addressed 75,000 adoring fans. Hugo Chavez, the controversial president of Venezuela, paid a 'surprise' visit to announce that his embattled regime was part of the same movement as the forum itself.
"The left in Latin America is being reborn," Mr. Chavez declared, as he pledged to vanquish his opponents at any cost. As evidence of this rebirth, he pointed to Lula's election in Brazil, Lucio Gutierrez's victory in Ecuador and Fidel Castro's tenacity in Cuba.
But wait a minute: 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?
Of course, the forum, in all its dizzying, global diversity, was not only speeches, with huge crowds all facing the same direction. There were plenty of circles, with small groups of people facing each other. There were thousands of impromptu gatherings of activists from opposite ends of the globe excitedly swapping facts, tactics, and analysis in their common struggles. But the big certainly put its mark on the event.
Two years ago, at the first World Social Forum, the key word was not 'big' but 'new': new ideas, new methods, new faces. Because if there was one thing that most delegates agreed on (and there wasn't much) it was that the left's traditional methods had failed, either because they were wrong-headed or because they were simply ill-equipped to deal with the powerful forces of corporate globalization.
This came from hard-won experience, experience that remains true even if some left parties have been doing well in the polls recently. Many of the delegates at that first forum had spent their lives building labour parties, only to watch helplessly as those parties betrayed their roots once in power, throwing up their hands and implementing the paint-by-numbers policies dictated by global markets. Other delegates came with scarred bodies and broken hearts after fighting their entire lives to free their countries from dictatorship or racial Apartheid, only to see their liberated land hand its sovereignty away to the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a loan.
Still others who attended that first forum were refugees from doctrinaire communist parties who had finally faced the fact that the socialist 'utopias' of Eastern Europe had turned into centralized, bureaucratic and authoritarian nightmares. And outnumbering all of these veteran activists was a new and energetic generation of young people who had never trusted politicians, and were finding their own political voice on the streets of Seattle, Prague and Sao Paulo.
When this global rabble came together under the slogan "Another World is Possible", it was clear to all but the most rigidly nostalgic minority that getting to this other world wouldn't be a matter of resuscitating the flawed models of the past, but imagining new movements that drew on the best of these experiences while vowing never to repeat their mistakes.
The World Social Forum didn't produce a political blueprint—a good start—but there was a clear pattern to the alternatives that emerged. Politics had to be less about trusting well-meaning leaders, and more about empowering people to make their own decisions; democracy had to be LESS representative and more participatory. The ideas flying around included neighbourhood councils, participatory budgets, stronger city governments, land reform and cooperative farming—a vision of politicized communities that could be networked internationally to resist further assaults from the IMF, the World Bank and World Trade Organization. For a left that had tended to look to centralized state solutions to solve almost every problem, this emphasis on decentralization and direct participation was a breakthrough.
At the first World Social Forum, Lula was cheered too: not as a heroic figure who vowed to take on the forces of the market and eradicate hunger, but as an innovator whose party was at the forefront of developing tools for impoverished people to meet their own needs. Sadly, those themes of deep participation and democratic empowerment were largely absent from Mr. da Silva's campaign for president. Instead, he told and re-told a personal story about how voters could trust him because he came from poverty, and knew their pain. But standing up to the demands of the international financial community isn't about whether an individual politician is trustworthy, it's about the fact that, as Mr. da Silva is already proving, no person or party is strong enough on its own.
Right now, it looks as if Lula has only two choices: abandoning his election promises of wealth re-distribution or trying to force them through and ending up in a Chavez-style civil war. But there is another option, one his own Workers Party has tried before, one that made Porto Alegre itself a beacon of a new kind of politics: more democracy. He could simply refuse to play the messiah or the lone ranger, and instead hand power back to the citizens who elected him, on key issues from payment of the foreign debt, to land reform, to membership in the Free Trade Area of the Americas. There are a host of mechanisms that he could use: referenda, constituents' assemblies, networks of empowered local councils and assemblies. Choosing an alternative economic path would still spark fierce resistance, but his opponents would not have the luxury of being against Lula, as they are against Chavez, and would instead be forced to oppose the repeated and stated will of the majority—to be against democracy itself.
Perhaps the reason why participatory democracy is being usurped at the World Social Forum by big men and swooning crowds is that there isn't much glory in it. To work, it requires genuine humility of the part of elected politicians. It means that a victory at the ballot box isn't a blank cheque for five years, but the beginning of an unending process of returning power to that electorate time and time again.
For some, the hijacking of the WSF by political parties and powerful men 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.
is a leading anti-sweatshop activist, and author of Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate? (Picador, 2002) and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador, 2000) This article first appeared in The Nation. Visit www.nologo.org.