An Attack from the Seams

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On the first day of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, thehallways were buzzing with rumours of defections from the North. Topdelegates were jumping ship from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in New York City and coming to Porto Alegre instead: a European prime minister, World Bank directors, even corporate executives.

Some never showed up, others did. But debates raged nonetheless about what it all meant. Was it evidence of the forum’s new strength (it attracted some 60,000 participants, after all) or a sign of imminent danger?

The World Social Forum was founded last year as an alternative to the annual gathering of the top 1,000 corporations, world leaders and opinion-makers who usually meet in Davos, Switzerland, but this year met in New York City.

But with these new high-powered arrivals, the WSF now risked turning from a clear alternative into a messy merger: teams of photographers trailedpoliticians; market researchers from PriceWaterhouseCoopers trolled hotellobbies, looking for opportunities to “dialogue,” students threw a cream pie at a French minister.

It was much the same muddle in New York, with non-governmentalorganizations (NGOs) acting like corporations, corporations re-branding themselves as NGOs, and pretty much everyone claiming they were really there as a Trojan Horse. The tone — if not the times — has certainly changed.

The World Economic Forum used to be a place for the rich to be utterlyunapologetic about their wealth, and for the elite to be absolutely defiantabout their elitism. But over the course of only three years, Davos hasbeen transformed from a festival of shamelessness to an annual parade ofpublic shaming — a dour capitalist sadomasochist parlor.

Instead of gloating, the ultra-rich now attempt to outdo each other with self-flagellating speechesabout how their greed is unsustainable, how the poor will rise up and devourthem if they don’t change their ways. Again and again, delegates willinglystrap themselves in for whippings from their critics, from AmnestyInternational to the pop band U2’s outspoken lead singer Bono.

This year, when the conference fell off its alpine perch and landed in therubble and rabble of New York City, the abuse climbed to a peak higher thanDavos itself. “The reality is that power and wealth in this world arevery, very unequally shared, and that far too many people are condemned tolives of extreme poverty and degradation,” said chief Davos S&M dominator, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “The perception, among many, is that this is the fault of ... the people who attend this gathering. ”

Ouch! As one protester’s sign put it on the streets outside, “BadCapitalist! No Martini.”

So, are these public floggings, from the WEF to the Enron hearings, a signof actual progress? What, to borrow a phrase more often directed at those ofus who gathered in Porto Alegre, are their alternatives? Do they have clearideas about how better to distribute wealth? Do they have concrete actionplans for ending the AIDS crisis or slowing climate change? Sadly, no.

The core economic policies governing globalization have only accelerated in the past year (fresh tax cuts, plans for new oil pipelines, deeper privatizationprograms, weaker labour protections ...)

No wonder so many young people have concluded that it is not the individualpolicies or politicians that are the problem, but the system of centralizedpower itself.

For this reason, much of the appeal of the World Social Forumis its host city, Porto Alegre, has come to represent a possible challenge to this trend. The city is part of a growing political movement in Brazil that is systematically delegating power back down to people at the municipal level, rather than hoarding it at the national and international levels.

The party that has been the architect of this decentralization in Brazil is the Workers Party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), now in power in 200 municipalities, with its leader ahead in the polls federally.

Many PT cities have adopted the “participatory budget,” a system that allowsdirect citizen participation in the allocation of scarce city resources. Through a network of neighborhood and issue councils, residents vote directly on which roads will be paved, which health-care centres will be built.

In Porto Alegre, this devolution of power has brought results thatare the mirror opposite of global economic trends. For instance, rather thanscaling back on public services for the poor, the city has increased themsubstantially. And rather than spiraling cynicism and voter drop-out,democratic participation increases every year.

The participatory budget is far from perfect, and it was only one “livingalternative” on display at the WSF. It is, however, part of a pattern of arejection of what Portuguese political scientist Boaventura dos Santos calls“low-intensity democracy” in favour of higher-impact democracies — fromindependent media activists creating new models of participatory media tolandless farmers occupying and planting unused land all over Brazil.

Many remain unimpressed, still waiting for a new top-down ideology to chartthe course. One reporter attending the forum told me that all the focus onlocal power represented “a Maoist retreat to countryside.” The New YorkTimes declared in one headline, “Brazil Forum More Local Than Worldly.”

In fact, with simultaneous mass events in New York and Porto Allege, lastweek was a truly global moment for this movement.

For me, the crystallizing moment came late one night at the youth campsite in Porto Alegre. Around 1,000 young people were gathered in front of a loudspeaker. It was broadcasting live news from the street demonstrations in New York outside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The news was coming from an Indy Media Center reporter who was on her cellphone in the crowd.

Her voice was being streamed live on the Internet. It was picked up by a micro radio station set up in the camp, where her words were translated into Portuguese and then broadcast. At one point, the United States server went down, and was immediately replaced by a back-up in Italy.

Pretty much everyone agreed that the heart of the World Social Forum wasn’ t really in the official events. It was in unscripted moments like when my Italian friend Luca Casarini tried to sum up the summit over dinner. “It’sabout — how do you say it English? — this,” he said. And using the forum’sactivist Esperanto of butchered second languages and mime, he tugged at hist-shirt sleeve and showed me the seam.

Right, the seams. Maybe change isn’t really about what is said and done inthe centres, it’s about the seams, the in-between spaces with their hiddenstrength.

In Porto Alegre last week, much of the talk was about nearby Buenos Aires, where some say a revolt from the seams is already taking place. Street demonstrators aren’t calling for a changing of the political guard, but have instead adopted the sweeping slogan “Get rid of them all.”

They have concluded that it’s not enough to overthrow one political partyand replace it with another. They are instead attempting somethinginfinitely more difficult: to topple an economic orthodoxy so powerful, itcan withstand even its strongest advocates whipping and kicking it from thecentre.

The question is: can it sustain an attack from the seams?

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