February 17, 2002

Porto Alegre 2002: A tale of two forums

James Petras

The Social Forum (SF) which took place in Porto Alegre between Feb. 1-5, 2002 attracted nearly 70,000 participants, including over 15,000 delegates from almost 5,000 organizations. Delegates came from 150 countries to participate in 28 conferences, 100 seminars and 700 workshops. Over 3,000 journalists from radio, TV, newspapers and magazines covered the event. As the first major event since Sept. 11/Oct. 7, the SF refuted the Bush-Rumsfeld propaganda line that the people of the world had to choose between U.S. imperialism or Islamic terrorism. Porto Alegre demonstrated that the worldwide "anti-globalization" movement is alive and growing: twice as many people participated in 2002 over the previous year; there was greater coverage in the mass media (except in the U.S.), the range of groups and participants was greater than any previous forum; finally, the concluding demonstrations of 50,000 participants in the anti-FTAA (Free Trade in the Area of the Americas-ALCA, in Spanish/Portuguese) was the biggest thus far in North or South America.

Probably as important as the physical presence, of large numbers of people and movements was the spirit of the forum: the rousing hope and optimism was reflected in the main slogan, "Here,, another world is possible." There was little of the defeatism and demoralization evident in U.S. and Western European intellectual circles after 9/11. The hopes for an alternative world were tempered by a recognition that the U.S. military offensive and its unilateralist posture would heighten the barriers to socio-economic and environmental change.

In large part the increased mass media coverage and the more objective reportages (except the U.S.) was due to the presence of political notables embracing centrist positions (leading members of the French Socialist Party, representatives from the United Nations, World Bank, leaders from the moderate/social democratic sector of the Brazilian Workers Party, etc.). The political advances and achievements of SF2002 noted in the Western European media were accompanied by a particular bias in the reporting: most of the journalists and editors favorably quoted and featured the "serious ideas" of the more moderate notables and political leaders meeting at the Catholic University. Rarely were mass leaders and activists among popular movements quoted or shown in photographs. For example, the Financial Times (Feb. 5, 2002, p. 8) caricatured the differences between radicals and reformists, "Behind the theatrical expressions of protest, the forum was marked by a serious exchange of ideas and proposals, such as reforms of the WTO's intellectual property rights agreements. Most (sic) participants said they were not against globalization but for an equitable form of it with a broader international participation in decision-making." The mass media, by and large, ignored the hundreds of parallel meetings organized by activist groups and the informal and formal discussions by radical and revolutionary women, youth, peasant and Indian organizations at the camp-sites. While the mass media cited the presence of World Bank, U.N. and other officials as "adding to the forum's legitimacy", for most activists from the Third World it was the presence of strong contingents of militants from Argentina, fresh from toppling the neo-liberal regime, who gave the forum its legitimacy.

While many of the leaders cited the "diversity" of the FS, ninety percent of the participants were Brazilians (67%), Italians, Spaniards, French and Argentinians ( 23%). What was more significant than the diversity of nationalities ( which as the above percentages indicate was quite limited), was the socio-political differences among the participants among the Brazilians and Europeans.

A Tale of Two Forums

If the final unity statement issued by numerous social movements expressed a level of consensus against foreign debt payment, opposition to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and solidarity with the Palestinians, the programmatic demands reflected minimalist demands of the more reformist NGO's and notable personalities, while the calendar of mobilizations for 2002 reflected the influence of the activists.

In reality, SF2002 was divided between reformers and radicals, a division which found expression within the diverse organizations and individuals present. This division was evident even in the physical location of the discussions, as well as in the style of presentation, and composition of the audience.

Most of what has been written about the FS is based on what took placd at the Catholic University ( PUC ). The events at the PUC were not representative of the FS at least in the eyes of many movement activists. Organizers pointed out that approximately one-fifth ( 10,000) of the FS participants were at the PUC generally those above 40 years of age and largely middle-class professionals. Outside of the PUC approximately 50,000 people were involved in more politicized space, which included debated and discussions about the struggle for socialism.

At the Catholic University (PUC) mostly academics, intellectuals and NGO'ers discussed among themselves. There was only a very limited number of peasant leaders, urban activists and trade unionists. Moreover, the academics did little to communicate effectively to the few grassroots activists present, and their presentations mostly failed to articulate with the on-going political concerns of the militants. At the parallel meetings and workshops in the encampments there was greater debate and exchanges between activists and speakers, more fluid exchange of ideas and greater effort to articulate experiences between grassroots militants.

The Forum was sharply polarized. On one side were the reformers -- the NGO'ers, academics and the majority of the organizers of the Forum, ATTAC-Tobin tax advocates from France and leaders from the social-liberal wing of the Brazilian Workers Party. On the other side were the radicals from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, activist intellectuals, piqueteros from Argentina, representatives of left-wing parties, trade unions, urban movements and solidarity groups. There were significant differences in the social composition of the meetings and the public demonstrations.

At the opening inaugural march, run by the reformist officials, the marchers were from a diverse array of groups. The unofficial march of 50,000 against the Latin American Free Trade Agreement was organized by the radical groups and included a large contingent of Brazilian workers, peasants and homeless, as well as militant internationalists from ongoing struggles in Argentina, Bolivia and other countries.

What was striking about both demonstrations was the preponderance of contingents, banners and flags representing left-wing and radical movements, and the minimum visibility of the reformist/NGO contingents: there were few banners from the Workers' Party, the Central Labor Confederation (CUT) of Brazil, the global ATTAC groups, etc. The differences in the power of 'convocation' was significant. Nevertheless, the featured speakers at both events were politicians from the Brazilian Workers' Party, who are up for election this year.

The Forum was also divided about the direction it should be moving. The reformers, citing clauses of the Social Forum's constitution, justified their exclusion of the Zapatistas, the FARC and other popular insurgencies as "political movements," while on the other hand featuring leading political figures form the Brazilian Workers' Party, the French Socialist Party, etc. Moreover, the exclusion by the officials of SF2002 of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a very prominent Argentine social movement, was protested by the Brazilian MST, who sent the Madres an invitation and an air ticket to Hebe Bonafini. The reform-radical division was most evident in their definitions of the key struggle and proposals. The reformers still spoke the language of opposing globalization, adding an opposition to U.S. militarization. The radicals increasingly linked the expansion of the multinational corporations to the imperial states and increasingly spoke the language of anti-imperialism. This is not a rhetorical distinction but deeply embedded in the orientation and strategic perspectives of the competing alignments.

While the reformists speak the language of continuing mobilizations, their main thrust is toward lobbying and elite negotiations with the World Bank and other IFI to secure promises of "humanizing globalization". Many of the reformers talk and write of "another globalization", one that implies adding human rights clauses, and a place at the table among the imperial powers and their bankers and CEO's. The radicals see the mobilizations as leading to the creation of new organizations of popular power, based on the mass organization of urban neighborhoods, workers, unemployed peasants, and class based women, Indian and black movements. Their orientation is to create new class based international movements, like Via Campesina, which seek to implement radical transformations of property rights and social relations of production. The reformists, referring to "civil society" are disinterested in "state power"; they are content to pressure the existing imperialist powers to secure greater regulation, limitations on speculative capital (Tobin tax) and greater trade liberalization to help agro-export elites in the Third world secure greater market niches in the North. The radicals refer concretely to class organizations which combine gender, race and ecology and they recognize that while reforms are essential, they have not been enduring or even implemented, by the imperialist or local client states. They point to the need for a new state power, based on representative grassroots assemblies and social movements capable of socializing the means of production and democratizing social relations -- totally displacing the current corporate elite and their IFI benefactors. They reject the policies of sharing spaces at the table of the World Bank as a cooptive strategy in which the control of financing and structural ties to the imperial states and MNC makes co-participation a dead-end strategy that only enriches the NGO'ers at the expense of the people.

In their search for the lowest common denominator for "anti-globalization unity", the reformers included notables and political representatives whose political parties support the U.S. massacre of Afghanistan and who give support ("with reservations") to Bush's worldwide military offensive. The radicals described their presence as incompatible with the basic principles of the Forum and some anarchists engaged in a pie-in-your-face incident to make their point. Within the radical camp, the disciplined social movements, particularly the MST, were the dominant force in preventing provocateurs and anarchists form engaging in vandalism and in mobilizing thousands of militant rank and file activists in a massive but peaceful political show of force.

While many commentators noted the diversity of the groups and demands, few questioned the representativeness of those present. Many of the European and U.S. NGO present are paper organizations and the majority of Third World NGO'ers are members of small groups of professionals with few if any organized supporters and possess little power of convocation. On the other hand, there were a small number of representatives from mass movements in Africa, particularly South Africa, and Asia who represent hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists. Yet it was the well known intellectual notables from the NGO's which crowded the platforms and informed the public about the movements in their regions. The over-representation of grouplets and notables at the expense of the militants, certainly drew the mass media, but it did not enhance the interchange of ideas and the transmission of experiences of those in the front line of the struggle. The official plenary sessions and "testimonials" were heavily biased in favor of NGO'ers and intellectuals, while the parallel workshops and seminars were the occasional site of fruitful exchange among activists from substantial movements engaged in the significant battles against imperialism ("globalization").

In the discussion of "alternatives", the official organizers emphasized "reformed" imperialism and "regulated" capitalism, while the radical social movements opened a debate and put on the table a discussion of socialism. The final declaration of the social movements reflected a compromise between the reformers and radicals. There was a radical diagnosis of the world problems and a full calendar of international mobilizations throughout 2002, on the one hand, and on the other hand the final demands mostly reflected the reformers' penchant for piecemeal changes, leaving out any strategic demands for a participatory socialism and the defeat of imperialism.


With imperialist war clouds on the horizon, a deepening world recession and Washington actively engaged in building its neo-mercantilist empire from Latin America to the South Central Asian oil fields, there is little space and place for reformist politics. As President Bush has stated, it's either adapt to empire or perish. The right-turn of the organizers of Forum Social 2002, their minimalist program and the emphasis on featuring moderate notables is not likely to build resistance to the US imperial offensive. The new imperialism is polarizing the world in a way that fits the analysis of the radicals. The scope and depth of U.S. militarization cannot be confronted by sporadic protests by networks of NGO without organized popular support. The radical social movements building powerful local, national and regional anti-capitalist movements and engaging in direct action at the sites of state power are far more effective than the international globe-trotting NGO'ers.

The SF2003 will have a year to reflect on the new realities and hopefully will capitalize on the vast support present in SF2002 to deepen and radicalize their agenda, in line with the emerging historical realities. To do otherwise will lead to a new slogan, "Another Social Forum is Possible".