The US Social Forum: Creating an Alternative World

The first US Social Forum occurred this past week, meeting in Atlanta, Georgia from June 27th to July 1st. Approximately ten thousand people participated in hundreds of events addressing all kinds of issues, concerns, strategies, and visions. Immigration rights and Gulf Coast rebuilding were obviously major topics. Indigenous rights, movement building, and US imperialism received much attention. And issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender (particularly transgender) were very notable. These are all important and necessary for creating a different, more humane United States. But from my personal perspective, the US Social Forum cut across issues and highlighted something else: the possibility of creating an alternative world within the already existing world.

The slogan, “Another World is Possible!” probably seems cliché by now. We are all too familiar with this ear-popping phrase and its evocation of local-and-global justice. But is another world really possible? Does this phrase really point to something different? Are we really capable of creating something new, fresh, and exciting? After attending the US Social Forum, I say yes, yes, and yes.

It was on the third day of the Forum when it hit me: this Forum points to something different. But in that moment I also realized something else — that changing the entire world is probably not possible. The world seems too big, too complex, and too far away to change entirely. But creating an alternative world within the already existing world does seem possible. My realization is not really new or original. Plenty of people have made similar arguments throughout the ages: We are capable of creating our own separate world, of creating a fully functioning alternative society, of creating an autonomous community within a larger community. The US Social Forum affirms this possibility and that’s why it was so powerful for me personally. It allowed me to sense the future, to see the alternative, to touch the intangible.

In the span of a few days, thousands of people from across the country came together under a common goal — to discuss the state of the world and strategize for change. But this common goal did not erase or negate our diversity. While we talked, shared, and communicated with one another, we also argued and debated. Forum operations were often criticized, workshops got heated, and one prominent organizer was even cream-pied (for something she allegedly did eight years ago). All this unity/and/friction highlights our individual and collective ties. We are individuals with particular biases, concerns, needs, wants, and visions. But we are also part of a collective, bound together by an inter-communal vision of a better day: a day when the world is no longer controlled by war, profit, competition, occupation, exploitation, narrow minded “isms,” top-down paternalisms, and deeply ingrained fears of a truly open, planetary existence.

The US Social Forum stands in contradistinction to such unpleasantries. We seek to usurp this empire of empires and implant new realities. Sure, we all have our own agendas and our own ideas about the best approach. But there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it seems natural to the human species. Our personal experiences cultivate our personal concerns. But our individual views do not have to compete with one another. We can stand side by side and co-exist peacefully … even as we argue. We can have dialogue and debate. And we can even help one another achieve our goals and dreams. There is political space for all of us.

That’s the message of the US Social Forum: we are capable of creating mutually shared space even as we disagree over the specifics of our politics. Rather than having one world, we can have many worlds. And these many worlds can link up, crisscross, and create networks of people, places, ideas, and ways of life. In doing so, we give birth to a twenty-first century, global alternative. Does this change the whole world entirely? No, not necessarily. But does it create an active, self-creating world of participatory values and agendas? Yes, and this new world can exist (antagonistically) within the already existing world.

The US Social Forum occurred in Atlanta amongst all the capitalism, consumerism, apathy, indifference, and personal and cultural tensions of any major city. But it occurred nonetheless, and successfully so. We came together amidst the world we are against and still affirmed not only our vision but also our ability to create an alternative reality. For five days we systematically practiced our values of open, inclusive, participatory democracy. The Forum was far from perfect. But such imperfection is part of the twenty-first century alternative. We no longer look for a perfect world. Instead, we actively move toward a better world, one in which each individual is given the opportunity to contribute to our collective creation. That was achieved (however imperfectly) in Atlanta.

I realize that my description may suffer from romanticization. But a vision without romance is lifeless, hopeless, and boring. I also realize that my description is not very instructive. What else needs to be done? What more must we do? What’s the next step? Such questions are far too complicated for this brief essay. But I can say this: I know what I experienced and I know that I’m hopeful about the future. In the days and years to come we will understand the US Social Forum as another episode of liberation — Zapatismo, Bolivarianism, the Battle of Seattle, Genoa, the other Forums, etc. We will then understand these brief and fleeting moments as the building blocks of our newly created world of interconnected participatory democracies. We will then realize that the future was already created and it only took time for it to become reality.

Jason Del Gandio is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008) and an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University in Philadelphia. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Jason, or visit Jason's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. David A. Smith said on July 9th, 2007 at 1:36pm #

    The current world system is very good at allowing dissent to exist (the neo-con backed evangelicals not withstanding). This is primarily because outside of the primacy of the growth ethic and the profit motive, not much else matters. Not religion, not nationalism, not any “alternative” politics. Even those opposed to growth and profit can be tolerated to a certain extent. Because these primary values are so well established they are not threatened by a handful of ne’r do wells. If you establish an “alternative world” within the current world system, it is necessarily enveloped in that world system, the root values remain those of growth and profit. Think co-opt.

  2. Steven Sherman said on July 10th, 2007 at 6:34pm #

    David–It is all very well to make glib pronouncements about the world system allowing dissent. The real question is, how does the left–globally, nationally, etc. get back on its feet and renew itself? The US Social Forum brought together a genuinely fresh coalition–broadly speaking, the (predominantly white) global justice sorts associated with Seattle and the (predominantly non-white) activists associated with ‘community organizing’. These two groups were not symbolically gathered on paper–they showed up in large numbers, indicating a real commitment to giving the social forum model a chance in the US. No formation like a party could conceivably gather a similar coalition at this juncture. Modelling another world is of course only a step, one which can be co-opted if it is not deepened. But it is also a necessary step for a left that still well remembers authoritarianism, puritanism, etc all invoked for purposes of ‘revolution’ and ‘the left’. In other words, we have to have a sense of the sort of world we want before we can be confident about moving towards it. That cannot simply be developed on paper, but must be experienced, as I think Jason captures so well.

  3. David A. Smith said on July 11th, 2007 at 1:07pm #

    Steven, If you think that my comment was glib, than you missed the point. Consider that when you fly to that “alternative” conference, you participate in the current global economic system by paying the airline (presumably with money you have earned at a job). When you book that hotel room, pay for your restaurant food while on that trip, and so on, you participate in the current global economic system. That system doesn’t care what you talk about at that conference, as long as you hold it. When you figure your way out of that conundrum, you’ll have gone a long way toward ending that system. Believe me, I’m sympathetic with Jason’s value’s. But long involvement in attempts to envision and then create a better world has given me a certain realism about the ability to disengage with the global economic system.

  4. Steve Sherman said on July 12th, 2007 at 12:28am #

    David–The US Social Forum was not an attempt to disengage from the system. It was an attempt to bring together a variety of US social movements, on the sort of terms we wish to get together. I suppose ‘the system’ didn’t care that we held it, or that ‘a handful of ne’r do wells’ (i.e. probably the largest, most varied gathering in the history of the US left) got together, or feel that there was much to fear from it taking place. There was little talk at the USSF about abolishing capitalism, either globally or within the US. There was no real alternative to participating in the usual economic institutions in order to eat and stay in Atlanta. But this is strikes me as an absurd bar to assess the event. The USSF brought the movements closer together, highlighting commonalities, and facilitating participation on terms of the movements. That was, I think , about all that could be achieved at this point. If the social forum process (or something similar) continues to work effectively over the next few decades, ‘the system’ may have something to worry about (much depends also, of course, on the relationship between US movements and global ones). But the social forum is a slow, uneven process, one that can’t be judged by whether there was some sort of impossible break with the entirety of contemporary social relations in five days in Atlanta.

  5. David A. Smith said on July 12th, 2007 at 8:47am #

    Steve – I can’t argue with anything you say. Only observe that such reformism isn’t going to accomplish that “alternative” that Jason was after.

  6. Steve Sherman said on July 12th, 2007 at 3:24pm #

    I don’t think the Social Forum was in any meaningful sense ‘reformist’. It was not an effort to steer movements into the Democratic party, and, to the extent that it had a political focus (and social forums, do not, exactly, have one), it was highly critical of the ‘nonprofit industrial complex’ that contains movements in the US today. If revolutionary politics in the US are to have any relevance, they will blossom organically from movements, rather than from the fantasies of isolated activists or academics. The social forum opened up space for such blossoming. But things do not happen in an instance, or over four days. Perhaps even forty years from now it will be ‘too soon to tell’, in the wise words of a Chinese revolutionary discussing the French revolution, whether the US social forum made the impact desired.

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