The Big Hug

By Isa Fremeaux, 13 July 2004

True to previous form, the process of organising the forthcoming ESF in London later this year has generated serious disagreements between its different factions around process, structure and objectives. Isa Fremeaux, a proponent of horizontal organisation, describes the moment when the fighting stopped and looks at some of the issues foreclosed by the conflict over procedure

This March an unusual political spectacle occured in London. Cheering, clapping and slightly astonished, two hundred anti-capitalists who had gathered at the European organising meeting for the next European Social Forum (ESF) watched as a Spanish libertarian embraced a British Marxist in a gesture that could signify the beginning of a new way of doing politics.

In the footnotes of (unofficial) political history, this may become known as ‘the hug’ – one of those seminal moments which seem to encapsulate a shift in the zeitgeist. For this curious event was not only unexpected, it indexed a shift in some historically deep-rooted political antagonisms. The initial attempts to collaborate on the ESF had lead to participants splitting into two opposed groups which had become known as ‘the verticals’ and ‘the horizontals’1. (The verticals are organisations, mostly from the old left, with formalised and apparently hierarchical structures – political parties, trade unions, etc. – while the horizontals are a mix of individuals, anarchists, NGOs, and other loose networks without such rigid structures, generally adhering to non-authoritarian principles). After months of tensions, distrust, accusations of manipulation, tyranny and/or sabotage, the two groups finally agreed to discuss the most pressing issues and disagreements rather than shouting each other down via microphones or emails. Out of this unforeseen meeting came the even more unlikely hug.

That this occured during the preparations for the European Social Forum is itself significant. These conferences, which originated in 2001 with the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, attempt to maintain the new alliances that have characterised the alter-globalisation movement. Since the celebrated rapprochement between ‘Turtles and Teamsters’ at Seattle in 1999, much has been said about this movement’s novel ability to unite historically disparate political groups: the old left; libertarians and anarchists; autonomists; environmentalists, and many others that would place themselves somewhere between such over-rigid categorisations.

Yet if a new process of cooperation is taking place, it is inevitably trying to (sometimes painfully) overcome decades, if not centuries, of rivalry and conflict. If there is some general agreement on who the enemy is (i.e. capitalism and its latest degenerate child, neo-liberalism), it often seems that pretty much everything else, from tactics to the nature of the social change that is being fought for, is subject to dispute. It should thus be no surprise that the organisation of a Social Forum, which in many ways embodies the ethos of this new movement, should lead to such tensions, for a whole spectrum of political traditions and modes come into play and need to be accommodated.

Indeed there is no doubt that these anti-capitalist congregations have taken on an important symbolic dimension, so much so that they have become the stake of many political games, as much within ‘the movement’ as in mainstream politics. Thus the second ESF, which took place in Paris and its suburbs last year, became the theatre of rather shameful attempts to ‘recuperate’ the event by political factions, especially on the centre left, which suddenly discovered themselves as altermondialistes de toujours (‘Alter-globalists from the start’). The appellation alter-globalist really took off at the Paris ESF, and for many is preferable to ‘anti-globalist’, reflecting this transnational movement’s will to be positive rather than only negatively reactive.

The resonance that anti-neo-liberal arguments have found in public opinion have transformed Social Forums into potential flagship projects for regional and city governments, which see them as opportunities for boosting their local economies through tourism ‘with a conscience’. The urgent interest in the ESF shown by representatives of the Greater London Assembly – a ubiquitous and domineering presence in organising meetings – could indicate an attempt to revive Ken Livingstone’s image as a ‘radical’. At the same time, turning youthful rebelliousness into polished signs of ‘cool’ is a familiar marketing technique that would certainly fit into the GLA strategy of advancing London in the competition between world cities, giving a community-conscious edge to its ruthless image as a financial capital.

While there is a large convergence of opinion in the movement that the ESF is, despite all this, important and should be a success, its proponents’ divergent political visions have led to disagreement over what the ESF should be and what success might mean. At the core of this lies the question of whether the Social Forum should be an event or a process. This is not just a semantic quibble: it actually reflects much of what divides the political scene involved in the movement more generally. The deep logic of the (vertical) old left organisations is that they represent a large number of members who provide them with legitimacy and funds, but who are mostly passive and silent recipients of decisions made by those above them. Their traditional tactic consists of demonstrating strength through the organisation of impressive events, whether they are marches or rallies or, for that matter, Social Forums. The (horizontal) activists who question the hierarchical nature of such organisations, acting in flourishing and effective non-membership based groups necessarily see the Social Forum differently, as a process through which the participating networks are enlarged and strengthened.

During the debate over the ESF, the sacred principle of representativity has been strongly questioned. The horizontals are keen to emphasise, in the words of activist and political analyst Massimo de Angelis, the difference between ‘organisations’ and ‘organising’, a distinction intended to express the need to recognise those who are active outside constituted organisations. As with previous ESF’s, a number of problems have flowed from this discrepancy in principles. For example, the old left’s resistance to allowing individuals to affiliate to the organising committees, pushing for access to be restricted to paying representatives of organisations (as was the case in Paris), became the source of immense tensions. Similarly, issues regarding the moderation of meetings and consensus decision making instead of voting – profoundly counter-intuitive for many involved in trade unions and other traditional organisations – were flashpoints. A die-hard culture of secret negotiations (there are now gagging orders regarding the ESF’s financial and legal issues), bullying methods for imposing unpopular decisions and unceasing political games of micro-alliances are undoubtedly still rife despite the numerous efforts of many horizontals.

Such technicalities are crucial, because on them hinge the openness and transparency of the process. Yet excessive focus on these tensions leads to the risk that other, eventually more important, questions such as the real inclusiveness of the Forum are overshadowed. The tendency of the movement in general to be excessively male, white, and middle-class in constitution should be addressed at the Forum itself. The focus on organisational principles and problems has resulted in more heated debates about the venue or the invitation of high-profile guest speakers than of the problems that asylum seekers or refugees will face in coming to London or discussion of ways to involve more widely those whom the capitalist system alienates most (unemployed people, homeless, asylum seekers, etc).

If the struggle against neo-liberalism is in constant need of fresh thinking and opportunities to consolidate and enlarge its networks, what it probably doesn’t need is yet another talking shop for privileged, transnational, professional activists. There are certainly voices trying to assert this at the moment, and it is urgent that the Organising Committee for the London ESF should make an effort to listen to them.

Isa Fremeaux <isafrem AT> a lecturer in Media Studies at Birkbeck College and horizontal anti-capitalist