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Seattle, Genoa ... and now Florence
ATTAC Weekly newsletter - Wednesday 11 Dec 02

By Peter Wahl. Co-worker in the non-governmental organization World Economy Ecology and Development - WEED and a member of the coordinating group of ATTAC Germany. Translation. volunteer translators (*)

The dynamics of the antiglobalization movement continue unabated. The first European Social Forum (ESF), held from November 6th to 9th in Florence, has confirmed this quite impressively. With a demonstration of more than half-a-million people - the largest in the history of globalization criticism - Florence must be mentioned in the future in the same breath as Seattle and Genoa. Approximately two-thirds of the participants belong to younger generations.

It was expected that 20,000 participants would attend the Forum itself, a three-day marathon of events with ca. 200 podium discussions, seminars and workshops. On the second day there were already twice this number, and at the end there were as many as 60,000. Of course the organizational problems associated with this affected the quality of many events.

However, it isn't the quantitative aspect alone that makes the ESF such an outstanding event. The particular quality of Florence is to be found in the fact that:

  • the movement has emerged from the shadow of violence,

  • it has successfully built a bridge to the theme of war and peace,

  • its political pluralism and breadth have increased further.

At the same time, the ESF has made visible several problems and deficiencies of the antiglobalization movement.

Emerging from the Shadow of Violence

The new movement has emerged from the shadow of violence that lies upon it since Genoa. Florence demonstrates once again that when really large masses of people are mobilized neither provocation by the state nor the orientation of small groups toward violence have a chance.

The Berlusconi government had done everything possible prior to the ESF to generate a climate of hysteria and fear. A second Genoa would have suited it just fine, in order to divert attention from domestic political problems. Berlusconi had forecasted the destruction of art works in the Renaissance city by talibanized hordes, and spoken of the prohibition of the ESF. The neofascists of the "Forza Italia" in the government had agitated for weeks in the style of the "Stürmer", for example, with caricatures of demonstrators with hooked noses, a bottle of vodka in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other. The "Corriere della Sera" brought a hate filled contribution from the disaffected leftist, Oriana Fallaci, for the start of the Forum. Under these influences many stores in the historic old part of the city nailed their windows shut.

On the side of the demonstrators there was no sign of a "black bloc" of any kind. Other groups which tend toward militancy, such as the so called "Disobediente" ("Disobedient Ones", a mixture of Punk and anarchism) and the Tute Bianche, which had stood at the front in the confrontation with the police at the IMF/World Bank meeting in Prague, marched in a disciplined manner with the demonstration.

Finally, Florence also invalidates the argument that the attention of the media can only be gotten through scenes of violence. After the confrontations of Prague, Göteborg and above all Genoa, Florence deprives the opposition of the possibility of isolating or at least splitting the antiglobalization movement with the issue of violence.

No to War

The dominant, or even sole theme of the ESF was war. The rejection of the militarization of foreign policy in general and of a war against Iraq in particular was unanimous.

Although important and correct, this orientation also carries certain risks with it. For example, there is a danger that in the shadow of the confrontation about the war the neoliberal course will be continued relatively unhindered and the potential of critical forces will be fully absorbed. It is certainly one of the sociopolitical effects of militarization that through the construction of enemy images and other threat scenarios attention is diverted from domestic problems. This is most clearly seen in the USA, where the pressure for patriotic conformity is so strong that not much of the spirit of Seattle remains.

Meanwhile, the acceptance crisis of neoliberal globalization, which we saw in Seattle, has grown into a veritable functional crisis. The stock market crash, the inglorious end of the "New Economy", the so called accounting scandals of large company groups, the passivity of the IMF in the Argentina crisis and the deflationary developments of many local economies are only the top of the iceberg. For this reason it is important not to consider the antiglobalization movement and the peace movement in opposition to one another, but rather to make the connections between them clear.

Growing Pluralism and Breadth

The quantitative growth of the movement is matched by a growth in political pluralism. Local social fora were represented, as well as ATTAC, trade unions, the peace movement, NGOs, diverse Kgroups (communist groups, transl. note), Greenpeace, the youth organization of the Party of the Democratic Left (formerly PCI), Amnesty, Gays and Lesbians, Catholic nuns, the Italian Greens, Christian Boyscouts, the Rifundazione Comunista and last but not least, the mayor of Florence and the president of Tuskany (both DS). The latter had provided the Forum with political and logistical support.

The popularity of the movement among varying political camps signalizes the fact that the acceptance of the ruling system of politics is disappearing. At the same time there is an increased necessity for finding a productive means of dealing with the pluralism of the movement and steering against centrifugal tendencies. It appears that a political culture of dialogue, toleration of contradictions, and - except for some Trotskyist splinter groups - a conscious renunciation of avant-gardism and domination is developing.

This is seen most clearly with the Rifundazione Comunista. Although the party, with its ca. 100,000 members, played a significant role in the preparation and realization of the Forum and demonstrations, it did not attempt to force its position on others, neither in the internal preparations committee nor publically. Apparently it has been realized that self-restriction and the renunciation of the party political instrumentalization of social movements is a necessary condition for their success. The fact that the Rifundazione seems serious about leftist pluralism is also show by its renunciation of one of the holy cows of Leninism, the requirement within its own ranks to vote according to the party line. This invalidates the oftexpressed suspicion that the ESF is a project steered by the Rifundazione.

Against Privatization and GATS

The second theme that crystallized into a major focus in Florence is the privatization of public services, from education to health and pensions to water, energy and transportation. The problem is becoming more and more acute in the entire EU. The negotiations within the WTO (GATS) related to liberalizing services are closely linked to this. It was decided to launch a European campaign, oriented first toward actions during the end of March 2003, with a central initiative in Brussels. By that time the negotiating phase in the WTO in which the individual countries present their liberalization offers and demands will be ended, After that, the ministerial conference of the WTO in Cancůn, Mexico, at the beginning of September 2003 will become the next high point of the campaign.

German Presence with Low Profile

Between 500 and 700 participants arrived from the Federal Republic. Most of them belonged to ATTAC. There were flags from VER.DI, (Union of Service Workers, transl. note) and the IGMetall (Association of Metal Workers, transl. note) was also represented, NGOs, the foundations close to the SPD (German Social Democratic Party, transl. note), the Greens and the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism, transl. note) as well as the Anthroposophists and the BUKO (Congress of Development Policy Action Groups, transl. note).

Christian Ströbele appeared at a forum about the relationship of parties to social movements. He criticised his party and pleaded for the cooperation between the Greens and social movements. Frank Bsirske, chairman of VER.DI, had cancelled at the last minute on account of pressing matters related to the reform of the healthcare system, but made known his interest in participating further in the

All in all, the profile and visibility of the Germans was very low. Apparently little had been invested in preparation. This needs to be remedied. It is not a matter of presenting a national image. Rather the German critics of globalization have the responsibility for adequately integrating the social movement of the largest of the EU countries into the international movement.


As positive as the development as a whole is, there are also several problems and deficiencies which can't be overlooked:

There was scarcely any impulse at all emerging from Florence toward developing conceptual alternatives to neoliberalism. Onepoint approaches for modest reforms still coexist side to side with very generally conceived value orientations. There is still no real discussion among the points of view. A typical example is the Jubilee campaign, which seeks debt reductions for the poor countries, while others press for a complete and unconditional cancellation of the debt. Yet neither one is a solution to the crisis in Argentina. Protest and rejection as a common denominator are the initial basis for change, to be sure, but that is not enough in the long run. So the actual goal of the ESF, to meet and discuss together in peace, undisturbed by governmental summit meetings, and to advance the process of selforganization internationally, was met very incompletely.

The fact that the new movement is composed in the main of young people is one of its great strengths. This gives it a real touch of youth culture often, and for broad stretches the Forum took on the character of a happening. However, this should not disguise the fact that, in view of the demographic relationships in the industrial nations, young people are a structural minority. The movement should not be allowed to limit itself to being purely a movement of the young. Unity with the demographic center of the society is essential, if it is to have chances of success.

One facet of the youthful character of the movement is a certain tendency to verbal radicalness, which is notorious in the history of social movements. To be sure, the problems of today actually do require the testing of traditional concepts. Whether or not one-sided dialogue and lobbying strategies, such as are practiced by some NGOs, still make sense can rightly be called into question after the failure of the Rio-process. Also, the crisis of neoliberalism could make imperative alternatives, which touch deeper on the roots of the problem. It is just as necessary to discuss thoroughly the claim of Bertinotti "Who speaks of Neoliberalism cannot remain silent about Capitalism," and not in the bad sense of an abstract and historically dead opposing of "Reform and Revolution". What is needed are the innovative answers of a social critique which is current and which does not clothe itself in the costume of irretrievable past struggles. Worn out slogans such as "One Solution - Revolution" will not bring us further. On the contrary, they lead straight to sectarianism. Here a second look at the experience of the Kgroups of the '68 movement is useful.

Finally, we should be cautioned against transferring the understandable euphoria of Florence and the experiences of Italy onto the rest of the world. The success of Florence is owed mainly to the domestic constellation in Italy. Included among others is the fact that:

  • the Italian left is generally quite strong in comparison with the rest of Europe,

  • the conflict with Berlusconi had been growing for some time and had already led to a general strike,

  • the US friendly stance of Berlusconi is met with broad resistance beyond the left,

  • one day before the Forum Berlusconi rammed his law regarding the free choice of judges through parliament, which was rejected even in conservative circles

  • psychological warfare with the spook of a second Genoa led to counter reactions.

All these are factors, which cannot be transferred onto other countries. Therefore it is too early, to say the least, to attempt to rise up a German social forum. The political preconditions are not (yet?) present.

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