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European Social Forum


John O’Farrell • 24 October 2004

Alexander Palace was built in 1851 as the venue for that year’s Great Exhibition, a showcase for the industrial wonders of the Victorian age and the spoils of the largest empire then known. Last weekend, the glass halls of the North London venue echoed to the hubbub a different throng, as over 20,000 activists from across and beyond Europe participated in the third European Social Forum. The high grandeur of the Palace became a backdrop for discussion and debate on the quandries of the post-industrial world, and its hyper-power, the Empire of America reborn and on the march.

This gathering of trots, anarchists, trade unionists, pacifists, ecologists, nationalists and interest groups was quite unlike anything ever seen on the British political scene. Over 500 meetings, seminars and workshops on most concerns of the international left were matched by a similar number of cultural events, screenings, plays, gigs and readings. Naturally, it climaxed with a demo against the Iraq war, which was attended by almost 70,000 people, according to the organisers.

The prospect of squeezing 20,000 active or dogmatic minds in one venue often led to chaos and not a little confrontation. However, it should be emphasised that 99% of events went off without much bother, an amazing statistic when one considers that this enormous political event was organised by a troupe of volunteers. When one compares the micro-management of ‘proper’ political party conferences, such as Fianna Fail or New Labour, with their platoons of full-time organisers, the openness and efficiency of the ESF stands in sharp relief.

The ethos of the ESF is totally at variance with the ‘control freakery’ of New Labour. Events are structured so as to ensure that the views of the lowliest activist are treated with the same regard as the superstars of ‘the movement of movements’, as one book describes the process. Nevertheless, one of the main attractions for many of the delegates was the appearance of high-profile international political figures.

Star speakers included Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the Algerian resistance to French rule, Dr Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che, George Galloway, the de facto leader of the UK anti-war movement, and Dr Mustapha Barghouti, spoken of as the next leader of Palestine after Arafat’s imminent departure. Activist writers such as Susan George, Jon Pilger and George Monbiot were prominent, and Gerry Adams was one of many Irish figures speaking. Eamonn McCann, Inez McCormack of the ICTU, Bairbre de Brun MEP, Andy Storey of AfrI, and Richard Boyd Barrett of the Irish Anti-War Movement all spoke at sessions dealing with issues as diverse as the Iraq war, European citizenship, the EU Constitutional Treaty and the treatment of prisoners in the ‘War on Terror’.

Adams was asked at his 90-minute talk and questions session (perhaps the only one to feature a single speaker) about the treatment of suspected Al-Queda internees at Belmarsh prison, and he moved many by describing the psychological effects of imprisonment, particularly under solitary confinement, and urged listeners to build support groups for the families of detainees.

This being the ESF though, Adams did not get too much of an easy ride, and was asked pointed questions about the value of nationalism in an age of globalisation, and had to mount a defence of Sinn Fein’s pragmatism in power, in particular the backing of bin charges by SF councillors in Sligo, and Martin McGuinness’ use of public/private funding for schools in the North. Adams was also using the ESF as cover for talks in Downing Street with Jonathon Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff. This was innocently given away by Dr Mary Hickman who chaired the session, explaining the delay in proceedings as “Gerry is trying to get through London traffic from Downing Street.” It transpires that Martin McGuinness had slipped into Number 10 as well, past the prying eyes of the Westminster lobby.

Adams kept his audience happy by talking in the common language of “another world is possible”, of the “”importance of practical as well as symbolic acts of international solidarity.” Third World debt should be cancelled, the environment should be protected, private corporations should be kept out from the public sector, diversity should be respected and equality defended, the US/UK troops should be pulled out of Iraq now, and the resistance should be backed without question or sentiment. George Galloway made the last point as simply as possible: “It’s not our job to analyse the resistance – it’s our job to defeat imperialism. Don’t be seduced into some third camp – that camp is part of the first camp, the imperialism of Bush and Blair.” The foes of the movement, the imperialists, are losing the war at home as well as the streets of Fallujah, he assured his cheering followers, being crushed between “the hammer of the Iraqi resistance and the anvil of the international solidarity movement.”

Richard Boyd Barrett asserted his unequivical support. “People have the right to take up arms and resist”, he told the same audience. Accusing those who question the suicide bombing of Iraqi children queueing for sweets as fostering “anti-Islamic racism”, Boyd Barrett asserted that “people have the right to resist in what ever manner they choose”, bringing in the language of multiculturalism to real life and death. Despite being specific about the forces behind the new imperialism – the Washington neoconservatives and the Project for a New American Centiry – all speakers were coy about the specifics of the ‘resistance’. There was no specific mention of the Shi’ite cleric Al-Sadr and his Madhi Army, nor Zaquari and his fellow kidnappers and decapitators, not even Al-Queda, with their own take on the rights of women and the existence of gays.

Similarly, the great bugbear ‘neo-liberalism’ was oft decried but never defined. Sessions were held on all the right humanitarian causes (Palestine, Chechnya, Nepal, Colombia, Northern Ireland), but Sudan and the ongoing atrocities in Darfur did not merit a single mention. Perhaps the idea of an Islamist government raping and murdering an Islamic ethnic minority did not fit the picture.

The prospect of simple solutions to every problem is tempting, but can lead to intolerance for those with a more nuanced message. One such messenger was Subhi al Mashadani, the leader of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, set up in April 2003 to help build civil society and protect the rights of workers and women. He never got to speak. For an hour he was barracked by a handful of English and Turkish trots, who surged towards the stage when he attempted to address the 2,000 strong audience. After being attacked on his arrival at Alexander Palace earlier that day, the ESF’s security took no chances and dragged a furious Mashadani from the stage for his own protection. The ‘End the Occupation’ session was stopped, a first in the history of the ESF.

Mashadani was being hectored as a ‘scab’ and a ‘collaborator’ for working with the Iraqi interim government, and a ‘murderer’ for no other reason than believing that pulling occupying armies out now would simply open up a power vacuum that would be filled by the most reactionary Islamist forces of al-Sadr and Zaquari. Although the other four speakers on the panel disagreed with his analysis, they all agreed that he should have been heard. However, all said he should not have been allowed to speak in the first place. “Mashadani should not have been invited”, said Richard Boys Barrett, after condemning those who stopped the debate. “It plays into the hands of Tony Blair and Mashadani and the occupiers.”

That shambles, and the later occupation of a stage by anarchists to prevent London Mayor Ken Livingstone from speaking against fascism, shows the limitations of the ESF. At its worst, it exlempifies the sort of easy and irresponsible gesture politics that made the left so unattractive to voters. Livingstone donated £400,000 of local taxpayers cash to host the event, and prised hundreds of thousands more in donations and help-in-kind from the trade unions. He turned the Millenium Dome into a giant hostel for over 5,000 participants. In turn, he was accused of control freakery.

The other side of the coin is the genuine sense of altruism that emanated from the 20,000 participants, the desire to contribute to politics in an age when no party can get people like these to join them or even vote, the willingness to fight for a freer and fairer world, the complete absence of ethnic or racial superiority, the sense of real internationalism, the hunger for knowledge about how the world works and how it can be changed.

The immediate consequences of the ESF on European politics will be minimal. The activists will feel emboldened, and plans are afoot for another international Day of Action on Iraq, probably on Febuary 19th 2005. And one left with the distinct impression that some twentysomething participant at the Palace will, in two or three decades, be running things in Italy, Germany, Britain, Palestine, Poland or Ireland.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

25 October 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

European Social Forum
John O'Farrell

Democracy and the Internet
Mick Hall

Resistance And Survival: The Case Of Education And Free Software
Toni Solo

Jacques Derrida
Anthony McIntyre

'The Impact of the Middle East Conflict on Palestinian Children'
Queens University Friends of Palestine and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC)

21 October 2004

Think Tanks, Reunions and Medals
George Young

Tribute to George
Bernadette McAliskey

Aspects of British Propaganda during the War of Independence
Mags Glennon

Born Iron, Living Free
Marc Kerr

Arise Ye Bored and Read Again
Anthony McIntyre

Blame Orange Order But Buck Stops with British Crown
Father Sean Mc Manus

Capt. Kelly Campaign Update
Fionbarra O'Dochartaigh

None of the Above
Fred A. Wilcox

Reflections On Swift Boats and Slow Wits
Peter Urban

Street Seen, Making the Invisible Visible
Press Release

Paying Our Condolences in Salem
Daphne Banai

The Israeli Invasion of North Gaza
Jennifer Loewenstein



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