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Porto Alegre. In the waning days of any large anti-globalization event, talk turns naturally to accomplishments: what is it we’ve done here and where do we go next? To this end, reams of documents (fondly referred to as “documentados”) have been produced, proposals proposed, methodologies reviewed and offical texts released. But the real accomplishment of this, the third World Social Forum, is not to be found in these words, translated into multiple languages. The magic of this gathering has been far more ethereal, the kind of spark and energy produced when some 100,000 people come together around an idea.
What was created here was a kind of civil society, a term so often bandied about–abused really–but rarely experienced. The overwhelming majority of people who came to Porto Alegre were not seasoned veterans of the anti-globalization circuit (most were attending their first social forum). Nor were they political movers and shakers. They came here out of curiousity and to explore a possibility. People packed into theaters to hear streamed testimony from newly-freed death row inmates in Illinois. They crammed into classrooms to learn about the war on Iraq, the privatization of water, and what globalization will mean for them.
It may sound vague (“simpleminded” was the description that one American lent to the event) ; far more time was devoted to talking about demands than to figuring out how to make them. But for once, the phrase “another world is possible” seemed like more than trite globo talk; we were watching it unfold here. As in the US, much of public life in Brazil has been eroded by privatization, income inequality and a relentless process of malling. There are few places where ordinary Brazilians of all walks of life can simply go to mingle together. “Public life has moved behind walls and gates,” explained my friend Gianpaolo, a sociologist who grew up in Porto Alegre and now lives in the US. For five days, though, Brazilians and the people who’d traveled from countries all over the world to join them took that world back.
Not everyone in attendance was satisfied with the breezy solidarity that ruled the day. Some in the crowd wanted rigor, lots and lots of rigor. On the Brazilian left, the award for “best display of militancy”goes to the PSTU, or the United Socialist Workers Party. The party held hourly rallies during the forum condeming Bush and Sharon and effectively utilizing the march as just another means of transportation. The PSTU also had one of the best chants of the entire event, roughly translated as ‘Bush, assassin, go back to the place where your whore of a mother gave birth to you.’
From the North American left, the demands for diiscipline came from the Life After Capitalism contingent, a forum within the forum organized by Michael Albert and Z Magazine. While elsewhere in Porto Alegre, attendees were preoccupied with merely describing the world, Life After Capitalism was intended to present the way forward: a systematic exploration of what we want and how we can get it. The highlight of the gathering was to be a debate amongst political perspectives including socialism, anarchism, participatory democracy, and something called “par polity.” I sided with that, having never heard of it before.
But due to organizational snafus–namely that official forum information included nothing on the Life After Capitalism confab–few seemed to know how to find the way forward. Early sessions took place in cavernous auditoriums, while the sessions on political visions and the much anticipated debate took place in a location no one connected with official event seemed ever to have heard of.
Meanwhile, life during capitalism continued apace. Tens of thousands of forumistas milled about on the campus of Porto Alegre’s Catholic University, temporary home to perhaps the world’s single largest collection of leftist swag. Che’s visage could be seen everywhere, adorning tiny t-shirts and halter tops, buttons and berets. Lula was just as popular. Beautiful women tied their hair back with PT headscarves; their boyfriends wore the number 13, signifying the PT’s spot on the electoral ballot.
“There are so many attractive people on our side here,” mused one labor activist friend, taking in the scene. I nodded and pointed out that it wasn’t just the model good looks shared by so many of the “juventud” that distinguished the crowd from a left gathering in the US, but that so many people were smiling. “Do you think another left is possible?” he asked as we prepared to head north. “I hope so,” I said. “I really hope so.”
Jennifer Berkshire can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.