The defining element of the 2005 World Social Forum is that the superstar of previous years was heckled off of the stage: Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) being perceived as a sell-out by the movement that helped propel him into power. Once an inspiring labor organizer who helped formulate a grassroots political party within a political system replete with corruption and instability, Lula is now perceived as just another leader in the pocket of the Washington consensus. Popular left discourse now paints him as a traitor, whose policymaking has been more in line with those discussed in Davos, and not Porto Alegre. Others have argued that Brazilian military involvement in Haiti, under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), has served to further reveal how changed Lula has become since entering power. The easy conclusion to make is that this is a case in point: power corrupts. Then it follows that our goal as a movement seeking “another world” is to embrace anarchy or, minimally, radical de-centralization of power. While not opposed to either of these concepts, I think that it’s extremely important to take away another very important lesson from Lula’s fall from grace. Aside from the fact that a movement advocating power decentralization and social justice should never have had a superstar in the first place, I find the Lula dilemma to be grounded in the core terminology: “Another World is Possible.” As Social movement activists, we should be embracing the sheer plurality of worlds that would exist if we could effectively work to remove the political and economic superstructure that now dominates world affairs. Neoliberalism is all about one world; we should, in contrast, be all about the very many histories and lives that exist in making up this singular planet.
How surprised can anyone really be in learning that Lula did not deliver humanity to the promised land upon his ascent to the presidency of Brazil? I know, we all had our moment of facile belief, and visions of an end to the domineering effect of the world market mantra: perhaps coupled with visions of George Bush and the remaining members of the Chicago Economic School having to present themselves on international television and admit that they were wrong all along, and thus now comes the time to allow for the popular masses to run the world under the banner that “Another World is Possible.” Then, CNN and McDonalds announce their official dissolution, and are effectively replaced by publicly subsidized and locally run entities that reflect the plurality of local communities that dot the globe. Suddenly, our work as political activists would become meaningless, and we could just bask in the glow of this wonderful world we had created.
The whole point of activism is that the need for it never vanishes. Unfortunately, many social change theorists through time have adopted the problematic tendencies to mirror the grand social schemes of those who have created the repressive superstructures around us. The fact of the matter is that the grand schemes are the problem and not the solution. Neo-Liberalism is a case in point: having its roots in the Breton Woods system developed on the heels of the end of the Second World War, the purpose of the international financial institutions was to help alleviate global poverty, totalitarianism, and hunger. Furthermore, there is no real reason to believe that this intent wasn’t sincere. The problem was that it was grounded in a pre-existing political hierarchy with a pre-dominant system of power hegemony that effectively rendered the welfare elements to global economics meaningless. Furthermore, the neoliberal economic model that developed and merged itself with the international financial institutions was faulty insofar as it recommended just one economic system: for all countries at all times in all continents with all types of governments and sources of natural resources. The idea behind this development was “what’s good for us developed western countries must be good for you.” Half a century of seeing this model try to work has proven this idea wrong: to argue that IMF loans have helped alleviate any poverty, totalitarianism, hunger, or debt is not only wrong, but bordering on academically delirious.
As a parallel, it would be academically delirious to argue that the Soviet Union developed anything resembling what social justice activists ought be interested in. Emma Goldman, one of the great figures of resistance from the last century, paid a visit to her former homeland after the revolution, only to find that the Bolsheviks had become the exact evil that all activists ought deplore, if not worse. While there still remain a few archaic organizations within the developed west celebrating Soviet totalitarianism and advocating a return to worker hegemony, this strand of resistance has mostly vanished. The majority of activists, especially in the United States, realize that it’s absolutely necessary to develop a model of resistance that departs from traditional Communism and Socialism. This is not to suggest that the central critiques made of Capitalism by Socialist thinkers are not appropriate and correct, but rather to say that the suggested model of change misses the mark. By situating revolution in a particular time and place, revolutionary communists effectively take all “revolutionary” elements out of it. By all means, the October Revolution represented a very institutional shift in power from one group of elite leaders to another: and finally a mere continuation of the same totalitarianism that has plagued the Russian heartland for centuries. The Bolshevik cadre had invented a specific platform for a very specific route to revolutionary bliss, somehow developed through their understanding of Marx. As with Lula, it’s very difficult to believe that anyone actually thought that the process was going to work in the interests of individual communities.
The German concept of Gesellschaft, or civil society, lies at the heart of much of Marx and Engels’ discourse. The emphasis on local communities occurred because Marx knew that the most effective way to combat the ills of the market was through de-legitimizing the national (and even international) tendency of capitalist governance. While no opponent of Communist Internationals and other such meetings of workers groups from throughout the world, Marx celebrated, first and foremost, localized workers communes that pressed for the needs of workers and their families and communities. The Paris Commune of 1871 according to Marx, was the most relevant example of what communism would look like, emphasizing that their biggest mistake was in seizing the previously existing state apparatus, and all of the baggage that went with it. Marx decried attempts to transform the sociopolitical superstructure around us: seeing it as both futile and non-revolutionary. While I believe that much of Marx’s theories are gregariously formulaic and that a distancing from Marx’s revolutionary tenets is relatively advisable, I find it important to impress upon people how opposed Marx was to the radical transformation of governance: how blatantly obvious it was to him that Socialism would not develop within the machinery of Capitalism, but rather in the ashes of Capitalism. In this sense, the opposite of Capitalist governance was not Socialist totalitarianism but Gesellschaft. The rhetoric of “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” was a polemical device Marx used because he felt that all governance was dictatorship: Democracy was just a tool to add legitimacy to governance. To organize localized communities is the most effective ways of combating the tyranny inherent in the grand social schemes that define our world political existence. To try to organize these communities into a national or transnational cadre is to commit the foul we should oppose. The latter point is where Marx needed to be stronger.
As such, there are two options that activists should now avoid: development of an overarching party doctrine, and helpless shoulder shrugging. Now is not the time to suggest that years of hard fought effort have proven that change can’t be made within the sociopolitical hierarchies, and that thus we may as well not even bother. If anything, we are fortunate to be living during a time with much more history to learn from than Marx, Engels, and Emma Goldman (et al) had to work with. While Marx knew that you couldn’t combat Capitalism sufficiently playing their electoral game, we as a movement of social activists have now learned that you cannot combat the market mantra by playing the game of “one size fits all” ideals. We know through neoliberalism that what’s good for the U.S. is not what’s good for Nigeria, and, in fact, the opposite is nearly always the case. Unfair trade relations have plagued the “undeveloped” South for a number of centuries now, and neoliberalism has only served to accelerate the pace by refusing to embrace the plurality of experiences felt by the greater than 190 nation-states that exist in this world. Likewise, as a movement, we must recognize the tense interface that exists between the core of Gesellschaft and presidential politics. Lula’s platform became decisively more and more neoliberal each time he ran and attempted to compete within the channels of mainstream press for the presidency. He couldn’t win the presidency just as a representative of workers in Porto Alegre or professors in Salvador or peasants in the Northwest, but as everyone at once. He needed to develop a superstructure that would effectively drown out these collective localized interests in embracing a “one size fits all” national agenda. As a leader of everyone, it was necessary that he become a leader of no one in particular.
The larger the playing field becomes, the less people have in common, and thus the less room there is for individualized progress. This is why international solutions, be they neoliberalism or Soviet-style totalitarianism, produce such drastic results. If the World Social Forum were really the counterweight to the World Economic Forum, then, in the spirit of Gesellschaften, it would occur in more than one place. From my home in Paris, I would be able to easily travel and participate, and likewise with a peasant farmer in the north of Chile, an indigenous Inuit in the north of Canada, a worker in St. Petersburg, Russia, a landless farmer in Mozambique, and an AIDS activist in South Africa. Then we would begin to realize that one “other world” is neither advisable nor desirable. In fact, what we should hope is possible is a planet where no one feels burdensomely excluded from some semblance of decision-making: where the prevalence of hundreds of worlds, histories, ideas and perspectives are celebrated and engaged in the process of defining the globe.
Matt Reichel is an American expatriate and graduate student in Paris specializing in international relations theory.
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