The Promise of the European Social Forum


Phil McLeish


(London 30.11.03)






1. Introduction: Paris 12-16 November 2003


2. Needs of the hive mind (I) : Exchange


·                    Primacy of flows over nodes

·                    Count quantities of participation

·                    Demassify ourselves!

·                    Build a city of Difference (space)

·                    Map Strategic Proximity (content)

·                    All Power to the Database! (content)

·                    A Time of Unity (time)


3. Needs of the Hive Mind (II): Self-organisation


(i) (Direct) Action: Let’s Act together

(ii) Facilitation


4. A Democratic European Social Forum


·                    Transparency

·                    Accountability

·                    Impartiality and independence (of the committee vis a vis participant organisations)

·                    Participation


5. A Movement of Movements ?





A European public space capable of setting limits to capital is such a burning necessity that its emergence can only be a question of time. The ESF could play a critical role in this process, and become the seed crystal for a redemocratisation of European society.


Whether it chooses to move towards becoming such a ‘constituent assembly’ or whether it remains as a ‘people’s university’ – an amiable environment in which to hear some very interesting and clever people speak – depends critically on how it is organized. An organization capable of facilitating the emergence of European post-national citizens’ networks, is an entirely new beast, as different from the NGOs which emerged over the last 50 years as it is from the political parties and trade unions of the 19th and 20th centuries.


Such an organization needs to maximise political exchange (across regions, sectors, movements and natural allies) within a context of participatory collective action. This article makes concrete proposals as to how time, space, and thematic content within the forum might be structured to achieve this.


A clear constitutional framework for the ESF is required, one which makes the organising committee transparent, accountable to the assembly and committed to an overarching value of political independence and neutrality. Striving to reach agreement or unity on political principles is unimportant at best and dangerously divisive at worst. Far more important in the forum realising its potential is the provision of excellent facilitation services, and the recycling and renewal within it of past and present experiments in participatory democracy.


1. Introduction: Paris 12-16 November 2003


The European Social Forum process is without any doubt of central significance in developing a challenge to neoliberalism within Europe. Economic, political, and legal power has been progressively stripped away from national governments over the last decades and concentrated in the Central Bank, in European TNCs, in the European Commission, and the European Court of Justice. This power cannot be contested on a nation-by-nation basis. The current efforts at drawing up a European Constitution - a technocratic process to create a document distilling and synthesising neoliberalism into higher order law - only brings ever more clearly into relief the urgent need for a real European constitutional process. It is not simply that we need a better or different document;  we need to create a strong European public sphere itself, a space which functions not just as a talking shop, but which can which can impact on and democratise European political structures, hold the EU to account and take policy formation out of the hands of the narrow political class steering Europe and hand it back to all of us. Given the urgent need for this constitutional revolution in Europe, the ESF, which annually concentrates tens of thousands of activists in one place represents a unique and invaluable opportunity. It is ideally placed to become one of the central motors of democratisation in Europe.


I absolutely enjoyed the four days. I heard many thought-provoking and stimulating speeches. The dedicated and careful preparation that enabled the smooth running of a miraculous logistical feat was awe-inspiring. Mingling amongst so many comrades all looking for routes out of this mess rekindled in me a political optimism and determination lacking in recent years. And yet, despite my excitement, I believe that the potential of the event was nowhere near being realised.


To me, more than anything else, the event felt like a huge people’s university – a vast curriculum of lectures and seminars essentially comprising individuals making speeches.  Some speakers were enthralling to listen to, some were interesting and some, inevitably, were less impressive. Yet although I filled my notebook with notes, I felt a residual dissatisfaction. There were two distinct issues here.


1. On the one hand I was frustrated because, having come with a quite specific set of interests and concerns, I felt sure there must be people from other countries here that I absolutely needed to talk to. I didn’t know how to track them down, other than by simply launching into conversation with my neighbour in the lecture theatre. Sometimes this worked, though even then, that person thereafter vanished forever into the sea of people. It didn’t particularly help that I was sleeping in a nationally segregated group. So I experienced a certain promise of encounter and exchange that remained unmet.


2. On the other hand, I found it frustrating being confined to the role of consumer of ideas, even such interesting ideas as these. I wanted to become a participant in a political process. I therefore held out a lot of hope for the final day which was to be the “Assembly of European Social Movements”. This was to be the point at which we step from discussion to practice, from debating ideas to putting forward proposals for action. What kind of action proposals were these?

·        Some were simply to ask for the endorsement or approval of a particular political position. 

·        Some proposed that we all agree on a particular message eg. “lets all say no to the constitute or a yes to social rights or to an open Europe or a disarmed Europe. 

·        Some proposed in broad terms that we act on a certain issue – e.g. resist water privatisation, support peace in Chechnya. 

·        Some were to invite people to support particular events e.g. the anti Bush demo in London, or the caravan to Iraq


All the initiatives deserved support, some of them were urgently important, some powerful opportunities. Yet sorely lacking in all of the proposals was the flesh and bones of practical detail. In one case a person stood up (I no longer remember what the theme was) and started saying ‘we need to choose a date to all work towards, because otherwise things won’t move forward’. He then picked a date out of the air and proposed it! Many of the proposals were actions that had already been planned by one or other national organisation and were simply being networked at the Assembly. Very, very few bore the imprint of a novel collective, international planning process that had directly emerged out of the Forum itself.  This kind of general enumeration of campaigns and appeals for support should have taken place on the first day as part of a general brainstorming process to generate working groups. By the final day they should have been transformed into powerful international joint projects and coordinations. Yet little sustained work seemed to have been added during the Forum itself. 


In theory these action proposals emerged from the 5 streams.  Yet the streams were conceived not as political processes – for instance as participatory think tanks to generate European political projects - but rather they seemed simply convenient umbrellas to erect over a sequence of discrete panel discussions. And although on the website each meeting was assigned a number, these had been removed from the final programme, so I, like everyone else simply went to the meetings that appealed to me. Nor – as a punter - was there any particular reason to stick to meetings labelled only with one or other number. The disconnection between sessions meant there was no guarantee or even likelihood that you’d be able to work in a more focused way at a theme or build up an ongoing relationship with others working on the same topic. In some ways it just put you more at risk of getting things repeated.


Let me give two examples. From the UK, (s)G(w)R(p) (1) invited the assembly to come to London to the demonstration against Bush. Imagine instead, that this appeal had been made on Wednesday or Thursday and had instead generated a work stream during the Forum. By Sunday, an international working group of delegates has just spent three days building a European wide mobilization. UK participants have started contacting friends and allies in the UK and put together a list of accommodation sites. Boxes of leaflets translated into the various European languages stand ready for collection. Coaches and trains are booked. Funding appeals and proposals have been organised. An exhaustive mailing list of bodies and organisations across Europe has been compiled by the group targeting all those likely to be able to come on the demo at such short notice.  How much more powerful the result could have been – not just in terms of the number of people mobilised, but in the quality of the international cooperation and solidarity.


Or imagine that, having provisionally decided that something needs to be done this year regarding the constitution, the organising committee had set up 3 think-do tanks on:  (1) A peaceful Europe, (2) An open Europe, (3) A Europe of rights. Each group might consist of 200 (or 2000?) persons, subdivided into smaller working groups. These might address 1) Political and policy analysis at a European level 2) Comparison and assessment of different national conditions and terrains for the issue 3) Key existing campaigns to support, amplify and seek to link up 4) Joint action proposals 5) Ongoing communication structures, translation, administrative and fundraising services. Or – just as imaginable – rather than these being five separate groups they might be five stages in a collective process undergone by all 200/2000? in that particular think-do tank, with small groups generated according to specific projects. By Sunday imagine what creation might have been on display! Cross-national strategic consensus, new insights and long-term network growth would all have been stimulated and advanced by the work.


These twin failures, a) to maximise – from the point of view of the participant – relevant productive and potentially enduring political exchanges and b) to integrate individuals into the Forum as deliberating and creative collective agents, both drastically curtail the promise represented by the FSE. This essay attempts to identify some of the steps needed to make good that promise.




2. Needs of the hive mind (I) : Exchange


National public spheres emerged together with their respective national bourgeoisies during the 17 th and 18 th centuries. By the end of the 19th century national labour movements were important actors on these stages, and other social movements entered the fray during the course of the 20the century. In the space of a few decades, power has simply evaporated beyond the reach of all of these forces. This is now widely understood. Everyone is searching for a way to reconstitute at a European (and global) level, social movements capable of setting limits to capital. This fevered searching lies behind the hunger to meet and exchange which draws people to the ESF. This is not a fad – we stand before the imminent eruption of a European public space, the reconstitution of Europe as a process of ‘extensive post nationalist construction from bottom up (2)’. Imagine ourselves looking back from an unknown future, what kind of organisation will serve as a time machine to get from here to there?


Clear, is that we don’t need it to speak on our behalf or to build a unified political programme. The politics of representation generates pyramidal bodies in which information flows up and decisions flow down. In the network society, this kind of body is an anachronism. It can be bad enough in a particular sector – eg. bureaucratic trade unions that brake union militancy, top heavy development NGOs out of touch with those in the fields. But where the organisation’s function is to link across and between sectors, regions, and movements then something wholly different is required.


The organisation we need to run the Social Forum only needs to do one thing, but it needs to do this exceptionally well. It needs to foster, nurture and encourage the emergence of a new Europe as a ‘network of networks.’

(i) Primacy of flows over nodes


A network comprises flows moving through nodes. Moving from segmented national political fields to a European one (and generally from a society of stable institutions to a society of networks), means that vertical national flows are much less significant than the horizontal international ones. A large and influential organisation adept at operating within a national political culture may be less important than a website or email list run by one person when it comes to the import – export of struggle. An organisation critical in communicating one struggle may prove completely inadequate to communicate others.


The hive mind of the coming European revolution comprises huge flows of information, inspiration, skills, tactics, strategies, knowledges, analyses, contacts, values, symbols and memes travelling between regions, sectors, classes and movements. By contrast, existing national nodes  - organisations, identities, or parties - are simply etchings carved out or sediment left over from the great flows of the twentieth century. 


Before they are arise, the course these flows will take cannot be known. Afterwards, their memory will be repressed by the soon-hardening nodes through which the flows route themselves. Movements are rarely conscious of whence their constituent elements were borrowed or plagiarized. Organisations proudly drape themselves with these elements as indispensable badges of identity. Organisers thrown up by events, who find themselves serving or surfing these waves of history narcissistically imagine themselves their authors. Last year’s bright creative movement becomes a fossilized bureaucracy or an inert ritualistic subculture. Perhaps this has always been the case, but the turnaround simply happens faster now. 


Once we take seriously the primacy of flows over nodes, two things follow. The first is the need to maximise flows. The rest of this chapter deals with the organisational implications of pursuing this. The second is the need to make available flexible organisational mechanisms to enable flows to swiftly and efficiently stabilise themselves, ie. to throw up new nodes. This is addressed in the following chapter. 


(ii) Count quantities of participation


The first point to make about the interrelation between participation and exchanges is that, simply in crude quantitative terms, participatory rather than consumerist meeting structures make an enormous difference to the number of exchanges possible. One person addressing a crowd of 1000 people produces 1000 (univocal) exchanges. A panel of six people addressing this crowd produces 6000 (univocal) exchanges. If 1000 people break into groups of 10 in which each person addresses their group in turn, then there are 9 x 10 exchanges per group, ie. 90 x 100 = 9,000 (dialogic) interactions. If each of these groups feeds back to groups of 100, and then these back in turn to the whole group, then the number of exchanges is [9,000] + [99 x10 x 10] + [999 x 10] = 28,800 exchanges, and that is without even allowing for discussion, simply counting individuals addressing the group. 


However, if people were simply standing up and ranting demagogic gibberish, we would simply have a lot of rubbish exchanges. If the meeting packed up, everyone went their separate ways and were never again to be reconvened, we would simply have the memory of a lot of rubbish exchanges.


(iii) Demassify Ourselves!


So the second point to make is that for exchanges to be more than fleeting units of information arrival, the individuals making them need to be situated and organised rather than anonymous and massified.


A mass is not a certain quantity of people, it is a certain quality of social relationship in which the constituent individuals are powerless and behave as an amorphous, undifferentiated amoeba vis a vis the whole. People who are not a mass are organised. Organising huge numbers of people requires integrating people on multiple levels of scale. The whole needs to be experienced by each person not as a huge summation of individuals but as a richly textured ensemble of overlapping levels and scales of organisation across space, time and content.


There is a certain tension here, because, left to our own devices we tend to organise ourselves into our little (largely national) cliques, clubs and parties. This produces organisation, but where these impulses are allowed to dominate they suppress exchange. Being territorial impulses I propose they find spatial expression, leaving the organisation of time, and above all the structuring of collective work projects to be neutrally and impartially generated according to the need of maximising flow rather than accomodating pre-existent nodes. 


(iv) Build A City of Difference (space)


The space of the forum should be structured according to four principles:


·        A home for all


Channelled and directed into the organisation of space, competitive tribal political identities could generate a rich and diverse environment that goes way beyond a bunch of stalls covered with leaflets. Groups might be granted enough space to set up exhibitions, cafes, meeting spaces, notice boards all dedicated to promoting the agenda and concerns of the groups.


·        Enabling mutual recognition


In as far as it was necessary, the coordination and allocation of this identity-space should respect the need to maximise mutual recognition. The goal would be for wanderers to be blown away by the abundance and hospitality of the movement, without ever getting lost. The social semiotics of the internet, markets, fairs, festivals, the street and the agora all provide clues to the kinds of environment which maximise exchange – dormitory suburbs and the grid tell us what to avoid.


·        Separating public and private space.


With a secure identity base for everyone, the shared areas given over to work could be more ‘neutral’ to encourage a more inclusive, solidaristic and even civic attitude, where the only thing that matters is being effective together. These shared spaces should still be navigable rather than anonymous. Linking themes to spaces (say – an Open Europe in this hall) will concentrate and amplify exchanges around that theme, and prevent participants losing each other.


4. Navigability of the whole


Preferably on foot. In London this may mean the Millenium Dome. A pity that it is flat: I had imagined us all sleeping and partying on the hilltops, with meetings and work taking place in the valley. Still, it needs to be in one place. Consider ant colonies – where two lines of ants go in opposite directions, each ant touches / talks to each ant going the other way (3). Simple bodily proximity of each to all enables the assembly to add to itself a powerful and rich level of social organisation: it becomes a crowd or crowds. Crowds look after individuals - this is why being lost in a crowd is much better than being lost in a mass. Crowds act and are awesome. Masses are not.


·        For the next ESF we need to find one place where we can live and work together as closely as possible 


(v) Map Strategic Proximity (content)


I might be able to solve your problem, and you might be able to solve my problem, but neither of us - nor anyone else - yet realises this. We both need to be put in a situation where a) we will be more likely to meet, and b) we will be under pressure to assist each other and c) having made contact, we will be readily able to remain in touch. This and the next section addresses the first of these issues. People are more likely to want to network with some people than with others. These wants and needs must be respected while being given the most geographically inclusive range possible, in order to build Europe wide networks.


How can political content be carved up in such a way as to destabilise national political identities and generate maximal international flow and solidarity around the issue in question without relying on central definitions and framing of the issues? The Forum needs to remain decentred, open and navigable by all. How can we achieve this AND shrink the political universe in a way that pulls everyone closer together, without shifting one faction into the centre?


Social integration aimed at stimulating flows rather than further institutionalising existing nodes needs to occur along five separate axes, four of which are secular and one occult. The four secular ones are (1) region  (2) sector / class (3) identity / movement / keywords and (4) enemies. The first is self explanatory; the second refers to a person’s objective social location – for instance peasant, worker, youth, woman immigrant; the third identifies a person’s subjective self-understanding – eg. Trotskyist, environmentalist, local social forum member, human rights activist; the fourth identifies the policy, institution or process being combated. The underlying premise is that people will be more likely to network / exchange / cooperate with those strategically close to them. Living in the same place, experiencing the same reality, belonging to the same scene, or fighting the same thing: these are all obvious forms of proximity.


This idea simply updates the socialist ideal of solidarity that was conceived as a supersession of the split between bourgeois morality’s proclaimed altruistic virtues and the sleazy reality of individualistic greed which propelled that class to power. Fundraising for striking workers in distant lands was not a selfless act of charity, but an act of (long-term and enlightened) self-interest. We need to hold firm to the underlying idea of solidarity as mutual aid (or a reciprocal gift relationship). At the same time, instead of presupposing one universal proletarian solidarity, we need to foster and create multiple local solidarities.


Example: Loose Ties


A person securely situated along several of these axes has fantastic potential to be able to communicate across networks. The following illustration is crude, schematic, artificial and simplistic. However it seeks to demonstrate the mobile and fluid way in which struggle gets communicated way. Hypothetically assume there is a dynamic and energetic struggle against GATS in Italy, but little organised resistance to homelessness. In France housing struggles are exploding, but no one has heard of GATS. 


Say you are a (1) Parisian (2) schoolteacher (3/4) active in anti-nuclear struggles. You attend a (2) European schoolteacher meeting of 80 people, where a decision is taken to make GATS a strategic focus for Europe wide teacher activism over the next year. You take this back to your local union, and attempt to link them into this network. From the schoolteacher meeting a delegation is sent to the (4) Europe wide Anti-Gats meeting of 400 people comprising (2) health workers, and various other trade unionists (3) environmentalists, development campaigners and various marxists are present. Many of these are Italian. You end up in a working group attempting to set up a (4) anti-GATS day of action across Europe. You meet make friends with a guy from (1) Milan called Milo who is (3) active in a social centre. After the meeting you recount to him a local brilliant and inspirational campaign you know about in which homeless people and squatters came together and forced the local authority into concessions. One of Milo’s friends at the social centre, Luigi, also present at the ESF, has been trying fruitlessly with several others to organise similar kinds of campaign back in Milan. When the workshop ends Milo takes you to the (1) Milanese space, where you are welcomed warmly and fed antipastis. You invite Luigi to the (1) Paris regional meeting the next day. He makes contact with key (3) housing activists who invite him to (1) Paris to come and learn and be infected by their victories. A few weeks later he comes, bringing with him (3) a video activist from the social centre and together they make a film about the French movement which is shown (1) up and down Italy and builds momentum and energy in their housing struggle. At that (1) Paris regional meeting you also feed back on the work proceeding in the (4) GATS group, which inspires several of your number, particularly some (2) health workers to join the group. There they encounter several (2) UK health workers and gain important insights about where privatisation might lead. Also at this (4) GATS workshop, a plan is floated to organise a massive blockade of a European Commission building. You know that considerable expertise in the logistics of this kind of action has been built up by you and your comrades in the (3) anti-nuclear movement. At the European (4) anti-nuclear coordination meeting you raise this issue, and a subcommittee forms, including several (1) Germans with experience from Gorleben, who volunteer to advise and assist the GATS group in planning their action.


What is happening in all these exchanges, is that proximity on one axis stimulates flow along another. Of course all these kinds of exchanges happen organically anyway at an event like the social forum. Friendships are struck and encounters are made. Much of this happens at the bar, in the meal queue, waiting for the speakers to start. But it should not be regarded as an addendum to the important business of listening to our leaders’ important thoughts and analyses – these grassroots exchanges are the core purpose of the Forum, and it needs to be consciously structured to stimulate and multiply them. But, says the politician, how can centre stage be carved up if not through ego warfare and their resultant peace pacts in which I agree to listen to you lot as a concession to ensure everyone else has to listen to me?


(vi) All Power to the Database!


In the same way that Google is more useful than phoning the government when we seek the answer to a specific question, it should not be down to Attac, (s)G(w)R(p) or any other alliance of organisations who claim to know what our priorities are to sort us into workstreams. Relying on the arbitrary fairness of a database and our own self-descriptions, it should be quite possible to sort everybody into working groups. When registering, everyone fills in an online form. It contains four fields into which they are invited to enter terms locating them on the axes referred to above, and also supplying information as to their foreign language skills. All of this information is put through a database centrifuge which randomly “chooses or deducts metastable molecular or quasi molecular units (4),” ie. assigns participants to groups in the same way a dating agency finds you a partner.     


Based on data supplied all participants are assigned to:


·        Affinity groups: see the next section.


·        Regional groups comprising approximately 200 people. This might represent a town, a province, a country or several adjacent countries. These groups could freely decide to subdivide, or merge with other groups if it seemed worthwhile. This group will meet during day 2, once participants have got a feel for the various work streams they are going to engage in and it makes sense to coordinate approaches. They will also meet at the end of the Forum to plan how to support each other in carrying back the products to their local groups


·        The groups constituted along the other three axes would produce the bulk of the work at the forums. Subject to language barriers and interpreter availability they should all shuffle for maximum geographical diversity. Where less diversity is present in a group, it may be appropriate for representatives of those places to be given more time to speak.


·        Otherwise, these groups would seek to match participants as closely as possible depending on information supplied by them: groups would then decide to merge or divide as they needed to. A public database and notice boards would enable emergent groups to describe their plans and meet other cells for coordination. Regions, sectors, movements, enemies: probably these sessions should aim to run consecutively rather than concurrently, maximising loose ties.


·        If self-organisation is to prevail, we will need a publicly accessible and easily usable room booking system responsive to changes in the need for workspace as it arises, ie. instantly.


·        Since all of these groups would begin to emerge as soon as people registered, there is no reason why they could not begin life as email lists, which would enable an agenda to begin to be drawn up and minds to start sharpening before people arrive at the site. Given adequate computer access, they could continue during the forum as email lists which would enable other groups to post requests, and the groups to coordinate between sessions.


ü      In preparation for the London ESF we need to find someone or a group of people able and willing to develop the database, communication and information systems we need.



vii) A Time of Unity


If the organisation of space is geared towards encouraging the celebration of difference, and the organisation of substantive work is geared towards stimulating flow and the creation of new unities, the structuring of time needs to be oriented towards creating general cohesion amongst everyone. This needs to happen at two levels:


At the microlevel of individual group processes


All effective groups go through a rhythm of opening and closing circles of communication. Ideas are thrown up, key themes selected, resources gathered, certain issues prioritised and developed, outward presentation or communications finessed, ongoing communication set up. Each of these distinct stages needs to be clearly signalled and collectively experienced as a discrete moment in a process. A skilled facilitator will be able to achieve this, ensuring that any transition between stages is agreed and approved by all the members of the group, that one circle of communication is closed down before another is opened up.


At the macrolevel of the Forum as a whole


The generalised experience of the Forum that should be consciously striven after resembles that of an accident or collision. At the beginning of the event, particles / participants should be accelerated to a maximum speed and then crashed into one another. Thereafter, the bulk of the event will be experienced in slow motion, until the end, when filled with momentum, everyone will accelerate out the event back to their communities.


Day 1


The way to achieve this is to fill participants’ first day with exposure to difference, to open their minds, introduce them to new friends, help them see the world from other perspectives. In short, to practice LISTENING. Individuals need a personal way in to experiencing this world of difference and they also need to get a glimpse of the movement of movements. The former is encouraged by assignment to affinity groups generated by the database according to the system proposed above, the latter by a general assembly of gifts and needs and by a huge cultural celebration.


a) Affinity Groups


This affinity group should comprise around 12 people. It will be as geographically diverse as possible, subject to the constraints of ensuring enough people within the group are able to interpret each other. Complete comprehension is not essential in any event, since the experiences of straining to understand as well as being misunderstood are both useful ways of learning to listen. Apart from geographical shuffling the affinity group should attempt to match people as closely as possible to others like them. Participants should be able to rank keywords entered onto these three fields in order of importance to make it easier to achieve this. A fair chunk of time needs to be allotted to this group at the very beginning of the Forum, although it should also meet thereafter either at the beginning or end of every day. Its function will be to provide a strong and ongoing social anchor into difference, helping to disorientate people into their neighbours’ worlds, to provide a cross-cultural context in which consensus building from bottom up can be practiced and in which the process and procedure of the Forum can be evaluated. This group could also play games and enjoy other shared experiences going beyond language.


                        b) Assembly of Gifts and Needs


The other event which needs to occur on the first day is a general assembly of gifts and needs. This will be like a huge collective brainstorm. Each participating group should be able to present itself succinctly. Since any flow will either travel from or to this node, the group should think hard about both its gifts and its needs and supply information on both. The former might comprise an inspiring story, a cunning tactic, a piece of research or an important insight. The latter might comprise an event that needs support, an alliance that needs building, or a local political blockage that needs removing. These might be talks or short films. Such presentations will only provide small tasters, since it is very hard to accurately perceive your value to others when you do not know their needs, or the importance of others to you when you are unaware of their gifts. Still, it is a starting point enabling all participants to see what they might get from or give to others.  Being on the receiving end of such a welter of inspirational stories also opens the minds of all participants. The communistic generosity of the multitudes invites us to soften our little identity shields and petty tribalisms. This sets us up well for working together over the coming days.


                        c) Carnival of the Movements


Finally, the other event that needs to occur on the first night is a collective dreaming, a carnival of the movements.


Days 2+..


The days thereafter, individuals will set to work concentrated in the various working groups, whose results will be presented at the final Assembly of Creations.


This will also be an assembly of gifts and needs, but it will differ in two key respects from the opening assembly. First, the presentations will be made by the working groups generated by the Forum, rather than by pre-existing organisations. Their focus will therefore automatically be European rather than national. Second, the presentations will be entirely focussed on action proposals for the next year. Inspired with practical solidarity and cooperative internationalism, people will flood home to carry on the work. 



3. Needs of the Hive Mind (II): Self-organisation


The groups generated by the database in a first articulation will, in a second articulation, attempt to constitute themselves into ‘functional compact and stable structures(5) ie. an effective force. For this to happen, three things are necessary: 1. The group aspires to having a common purpose; 2. Excellent facilitation services are available to it, and 3. The group is allocated a fair share of overall resources available to the forum. The latter point is contingent on the organising group running the forum itself being open, accountable, impartial and democratic. These issues are dealt with in the next section


(i) (Direct) Action: Let’s Act together


The emphasis on flow and exchange presented this far should in no way be seen as contradicting the need for collective work. Although in any one isolated moment of exchange one party gives and one takes, it is only through undertaking WORK together that a context emerges in which general long term reciprocal gift relationships becomes likely.


The huge significance of direct action – (which is never simply direct, always mediated, always symbolic) is that it sharpens minds by focussing them on tangible objectives, on influencing the real world outside, on tactics and strategy rather than worldview: the how rather than the what. The demands of practical problem solving tend to dissolve the rigidities of defensive ideologies and identities, enabling them to interact (and conflict) as creative resources to be drawn on, rather than as static positions to adhere to. By contrast, the more the ‘common action’ reduces to simply making a statement, producing a document, or defining an identity, the greater the risk of unravelling the group into its constituent parts rather than transcending them into something wholly new.


So the group, assembled by the database, should simply be told: “Act together to change something.”


(ii) Facilitation


As important to the functioning of the Forum as translators - and more important than most politicians - are excellent facilitators. With the service of a skilled facilitator, groups of strangers can swiftly learn to work together cooperatively. A good facilitator can:

·        elicit participation from as many group members as possible,

·        assist the group in distinguishing substantive and procedural issues

·        help to identify ways of switching between plenary & small groups and vice versa

·        probe conflict and use it as the generative motor of group dynamism rather than as a mutual blocking

·        help the group to clarify and disentangle different threads in a discussion

·        let it see when decisions need to be made

·        mirror back to the group conclusions it seems to be reaching and enable it to confirm or qualify them

·        fade his or her presence from the maximum necessary to the minimum possible


ü      In preparation for the London ESF we need to recruit and – if necessary -  train large numbers of facilitators.




4. A Democratic European Social Forum


It is hardly reasonable to expect the European Union to function democratically, if we cannot practice it amongst ourselves. Nor is it likely that anyone will take seriously our critique of the lack of democracy in Europe, as long as we are organised by back room machinations. Calling for a constitutional revolution to empower citizens and set limits to capital, across Europe can only be regarded as a surreal comedy if our own organisations lack any kind of clear constitutional structure.


On the other hand, if we were to turn the ESF into a unique and historically unprecedented experiment in popular participatory democracy, it could serve as a seed crystal for the new Europe.


A democratically run ESF needs an organising committee which is: 


·        Transparent

·        Accountable to those taking part in the process

·        Impartial / independent of participating organisations

·        Participatory: ie. open for anyone to use or initiate



(i) Transparency


This is the minimum first step. It requires that

·        agendas of the organising meetings should be published in good time,

·        procedures should be in place to enable anyone to make representations to the organising committee

·        the meetings should be open to visitors

·        full minutes should be made available 

·        accounts should be made public



(ii) Accountability


The organising committee cannot really be accountable to the forum until it comes into existence.


To the participating organisations? That has been the structure so far.


If Local Social Forums can thrive, this is by far the best pillar of accountability since local is where we all live. Local forums must not be comfortable clubs or gangs or groups of private friends. They are a treasure hunt to track down anyone near here who may need to sit together with anyone from somewhere else. To the Italian Autonomia this was known as a ‘militant investigation’. They begin in a building with a map, the building is marked on the map by a thumbtack attaching a piece of string tied to a pencil. A circle is drawn and every struggle, every local social invention, every association, every community, basically every sign of life in the area is invited to help host the ESF.


(iii) Impartiality and independence (of the committee vis a vis participant organisations)


As long as organisations perceive the ESF as something that can be controlled to boost their own status, its potential will never be realised.


This idea is expressed by Principle 6 of The WSF Charter of Principles which states:

“The meetings of the World Social Forum do not deliberate on behalf of the World Social Forum as a body. No one, therefore, will be authorized, on behalf of any of the editions of the Forum, to express positions claiming to be those of all its participants. The participants in the Forum shall not be called on to take decisions as a body, whether by vote or acclamation, on declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority, of them and that propose to be taken as establishing positions of the Forum as a body. It thus does not constitute a locus of power to be disputed by the participants in its meetings, nor does it intend to constitute the only option for interrelation and action by the organisations and movements that participate in it.

How far did the ESF abide by this principle when an “Appel” was issued at the “European Assembly of Social Movements” on the Sunday? Pierre Khalfa, who introduced it, was clearly aware of some of the contradictions and tensions going on. Its central status within the ceremonial unfurling of the day suggested it was being presented as the key achievement of the ESF. It was clearly not just another simple action proposal to be allotted 3 minutes alongside 26 others. So who was the author of this document? The ESF? No – Pierre explained that it was not a question of the meeting now having a vote to ‘formally adopt or ratify’ the document. Rather, it was put forward as “a basis for discussion and to be placed at the service of the networks”. Well - by whom? A determinate list of organisations or groups taking part in the forum whose names were to be found at the bottom of the page? No names accompanied the text. According to Khalfa it was the consensual product of “an open working group’, though I was never invited to join it. In fact – I am sure – it was a product of intergroup bargaining between the various groups comprising the organising committee of the ESF.

The problem with the appeal is not that it is contentious. In fact, the opposite is true: as an expression of compromise it is bland and uncontroversial. However much Pierre Khalfa might try and convince himself that the document is to be placed at the service of the networks, it will certainly not be the first thing that activists start discussing with their comrades when they get home. In fact it will probably be swiftly forgotten. Of course the actions on March 20 against the war and the action on 9 May for another Europe will take place, though these actions needn’t have required a document to launch them. The real value of the appeal is not the product, but the process – the fact that by labouring collectively over a text the participants in the process built between them a sense of unity and common purpose. But imagine if 50,000 people rather than 20 had been invited to participate in a process of building unities and common purposes; and if that process had been not the production of one (or many) documents but the conception, planning and joint implementation of a host of political actions and campaigns?


However uncontroversial and bland, there are two big problems with the appel. The first is that it perpetuates the idea of the organising committee as a power base or fiefdom to be fought over, and rewarms the tired old game of representative politics. Organising Committee members are sidelined into attempting to advance their own identities and ideologies within the zero sum space of addition, subtraction and mutual blocking. The result is lowest common denominator campaigns. It is noteworthy that the only uncontentious and unanimous consensual mobilisations so far have been based around opposing the US war. So easy to unify ourselves against an outsider – so much harder to work together on our own problems. Doubtless this is the reason why the terms of the appeal are so much more hazy on the EU constitution.


The second - much more serious - problem is that while the Organising Committee is arguing about how best to represent ‘our’ ‘position’ on things it is not doing its job. It is sabotaging and delaying the emergence of the kind of organising committee that we urgently need, one that impartially and neutrally seeks to foment the multiplicatory self proliferation of all networks, one that aims not to build a unified ‘position’ but to enable diversity.


Allocation of time at the final day’s assembly should not be based on intergroup bargaining between participant organisations. Time should not be allocated to them at all – they spoke at the outset. It should be allocated exclusively to emergent new ESF groups according to:


·        The number of ESF participants active within it

·        The extent to which to which the action builds grassroots internationalism

·        The extent to which the proposed action or tactic is reproducible by others elsewhere

·        The extent to which the action lobbies, affects or attacks Europe wide institutions

·        The level of concrete detail supplied by the group  

·        The creativity, ingenuity and inspiration value of the means chosen

·        The strategic importance of the end pursued


6 & 7 are more subjective, 1-5 are potentially more objective. A fair and balanced panel should hear applications the penultimate evening of the Forum and weighing these factors, allot Assembly time. 


True, old habits die hard. What happens when you put thirty politicians in a room?


A: “So we’ve organised the Forum, what do we do now?”

B. “Hmm, don’t know”

C: “Well we could try and draft a joint position statement…”

D: “That’s an idea”

E: “Yeah”

F, G, H etc.: “let’s do it!”


Over time we need to persuade the Forum organisers that the piddling prestige which they can earn by speaking on our behalf is infinitely less exciting than modestly playing the role of sound engineer in unleashing all of our voices as a vibrant and deafening cacophony. 


(iv) Participation


Where a meeting is divided into speakers / producers listeners / consumers it can never be an effective deliberating, deciding, planning or acting body. It can only be a talking shop. There is a role for talking shops. However, there is also a much bigger role for Europe wide collective political agents.


Paradoxically, an organising committee that seeks to foster the growth and health of a culture of participation needs to step back itself from active political intervention.


In some ways the problem is that the kind of person that makes a good demagogic political leader is not necessarily equipped with the skills needed to run an experiment in large-scale consensus decision-making. We need people to run our event who are convenors or facilitators or curators rather than ideologues; people who can bracket and suspend their own political beliefs rather than continually seek to express them; who can mirror back the views expressed by a meeting rather than seek to influence it. In short, we need good listeners, not good speakers. I certainly developed the impression in part that the ESF was laid on by people who enjoy making speeches as a means to provide them with an audience. The kind of skill required of those who run the ESF is not familiarity with political analysis or social theory but an acute interest in the emergent properties of groups. It may sound technocratic, but I think we need to suck as much expertise as we can from those with backgrounds in IT and software development; in conference and festival organisation; in architecture and urban design; in intercultural psychology, group work, counselling and facilitation; in law, mediation, arbitration and conflict resolution.


Perhaps ‘technocratic’ is not so bad a thing anyway. After all it is the technocrats in the Commission who, (largely in the interests of European transnationals), have been quietly federalising Europe while the politicians in the Council of Ministers have remained locked in individual conversations with voters back home. Is it unfair to wonder whether some of those involved in running the ESF are more interested in using it to boost their own domestic political standing rather than actually wanting to unleash huge horizontal flows that might end up bypassing them?


But in order that the ‘technocrats’ serve the hive rather than run it, they need to reach out for and learn from all traditions of participation old and new, familiar and strange.


In my country many advanced experiments with consensus democracy arose within feminism and the peace movement and spilled subsequently into the environmental movement. My impression is that North America has been at the cutting edge of developing technologies of participation. Certainly Seattle is often held up as an inspiring example of huge self-organisation. If so, perhaps it simply reflects the fact that ethnic and cultural diversity in the New World simply aggravated the need for techniques and tools to integrate individuals into groups. More recently in the UK participatory techniques have been taken on in myriad semi-official ways at local levels though these are usually compromised by a lack of economic power deriving from the Treasury’s stranglehold over public expenditure in this country.


Across Europe, there are the assemblies born of the great insurrections, 1870, 1917-20, 1936, 1956 (…..) as well as rich local and municipal traditions and experiments in economic democracy. Then in the global present, Argentinian neighbourhood assemblies, Brazilian participatory budgets… we need to dredge through democratic traditions past present and future and find ways of letting them operate on an unprecedented scale.


ü      A participatory conference in participatory techniques and practices needs to occur before the London ESF – say next Spring / early Summer to enable the organising group to thrash out a workable framework for the Forum



5. A Movement of Movements ?


Those who push their agenda - who talk without listening - sometimes talk about unity, about the movement of movements.


It is important to say what this is not.


The movement of movements cannot be directly built. It will not be represented by a party; it is not a brand, an identity, or an ideology. It will not issue from an agreement; it is neither a rainbow coalition, nor an alliance. It will not be the result of a general convergence along the third axis.


Though it is created out of common action; and although it is always easier to unite AGAINST than to unite FOR; and though we may recognise each other as combatants against the culture of death: - the movement of movements is not a unity imposed from without. It is not a fused and embattled front, nor an identity constructed in accordance with the principle of exclusion. It is not on axis 4.


The movement of movements is a series of accelerating, overlapping, intensifying, and mutually reinforcing reciprocal gifts and circuits of identifications. Beyond a critical mass, these are experienced as tending towards the limit - towards totality, the global, the universal. A moving together that generates – in all directions - a sense of fusing, a becoming-one.


It emerges along the fifth axis of proximity: Time. Synchronization of pulse, of rhythm – this is the secret attractor whose activation will turn all nodes inside out and take us through the singularity of the coming (just?) European revolution.  


The multitudes seek each other out.  Networks grow. In the hive mind that is going to make the European revolution, neuronal pathways are flickering alight. The Babel of languages, cultures and movements is coming down. The decision for the ESF is whether it wants to block, ignore or accelerate this process. We can make another Europe – here, now. Let us…





(1) Globalise Resistance / Socialist Workers Party.  Go back


(2) Bifo, in ‘pour une Europe mineureMultitudes 14, p.27.  Go back


(3) Described in ‘we are everywhere’, Notes from Nowhere, Verso 2003. Go back


(4) p. 40 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Athlone 1987. Go back


(5) Deleuze and Guattari, ibid, p.41. Go back