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This Is What Democracy Looks Like

by Kenny BrunoSpecial to CorpWatch
January 28th, 2001

Protesters at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Photo: IMC
Protesters at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.IMC

"Um outro mundo possvel."-- Another world is possible.

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- That's the slogan of the World Social Forum underway here. Or, as they said in Seattle, "This is what democracy looks like."

While thousands chanted that slogan in Seattle, Washington D.C., Chiang Mai, Melbourne and Prague, they were being tear gassed, preemptively arrested, harassed and generally denied their rights by an enormous show of state force on behalf of undemocratic international institutions.

In Porto Alegre, this is what democracy looks like: During a march of thousands against neo-liberalism I counted 10 police officers. When 200 Brazilian anarchists broke off from the march to throw white paint on a McDonald's, about six police stood by.

The next day, an ex-cop explained it this way, "We police were instructed to form partnerships with the social movements." By comparison Davos, Switzerland, where the World Economic Forum is meeting this week, has become a fortress.

Porto Alegre is an appropriate setting for the World Social Forum, while authorities have shut down the roads to Davos, deported activists, and banned marches. In Porto Alegre, the Governor of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, gave the opening speech. In fact, his government was a major funder of the Forum.

  • In Porto Alegre, this is what democracy looks like: Hundreds of young people are camping nearby -- apparently without ever sleeping -- virtually without police presence.

  • This is what democracy looks like: Participatory budgeting. For 12 years, Porto Alegres budget has been decided made by hundreds of well-organized community and worker groups.

  • This is what democracy looks like: There is no corporate sponsorship of the World Social Forum. No ads telling us how sustainable Shell is, or how clean Dow is, or how concerned for the poor Philip Morris is. No Nike swooshes. Just a few banners for the national bank of Brazil, saying "It's better because it's ours." The most ubiquitous logo around is that of the Workers' Party, on flags everywhere.

  • In Porto Alegre, this is what democracy looks like: Lots of meetings and lots of talking. The humid rooms, over-packed with people, listening for the umpteenth hour to plans to stop new free trade agreements and models for local economic democracy.

  • This is what democracy looks like: There are lots of unionized workers present. The state of Rio Grande do Sul has twice as many union members as the national average.

  • This is what democracy looks like: The entire state of Rio Grande do Sul has been declared GMO-free, although some Roundup Ready soy has been smuggled in from Argentina, according to one knowledgeable government official from Brasilia. Two days ago activists traveled with French farmer/activist Jose Bove four hours out of Porto Alegre to tear up a few illegal acres of Monsanto's Roundup Ready Franken-soy.

The World Social Forum is the first significant post-Seattle gathering where the goal is not to disrupt the meetings of undemocratic institutions, in what has become a series of traveling protests. Rather it is a space for activists to think, talk and imagine another world -- a more just, democratic world.

The anti-corporate globalization movement has come to "an important stage in the counter-offensive that began in Seattle," says Walden Bello, Executive Director of Thailand-based Focus on the Global South.

Naturally, the rhetoric of democracy in Porto Alegre cannot be transferred everywhere, especially not to the U.S. In the opening ceremony, during introductions of the 120 countries represented by delegates, Cuba received the loudest ovation, while the U.S. and Israel got a smattering of boos. There is occasionally a flavor of old-style leftism that sounds irrelevant to most U.S. ears.

And, as one should expect in a gathering as large and diverse as this one, there are significant differences of opinion on policy and strategy. For example, some participants are working to incorporate social and environmental clauses into the WTO, others insist there must be no new round of the WTO.

Nevertheless, the overall feeling here is of fresh air coming into the debate over globalization, especially compared with the stale rhetoric in Davos. From Porto Alegre, the concept that a gathering of the rich and powerful is the answer for the poor and dispossessed, that the World Economic Forum has somehow transformed itself into a global poverty program, seems too absurd to bother debunking.

Yet neither is the Social Forum a poverty program. And that is one of most refreshing aspects of the gathering. It is not about money. It's not about growth, "sustainable" or otherwise. It's not even really about development -- a concept that has perhaps been hopelessly perverted by institutions like the World Economic Forum and the World Bank. Still, economic issues are prominent in the discussions here.

Rather the Forum is about democracy. Not the democracy that comes from more money and therefore more choices of things to buy, but rather the democracy of participation in local and society-wide economic decisions. This is the democracy that corporate globalization gazes so harshly on.

Even the most ardent supporters of the current form of globalization acknowledge that it is a web of powerful and unaccountable forces. They say the best we can do as individuals and as nations, is to prepare ourselves to flourish in this lightening-fast, hyper-competitive world, grabbing what we can for ourselves -- mobility, wealth, markets, computers.

The folks here would not be interested in this individualistic and competitive vision of society, even if the powerful institutions controlling globalization were to reduce the inequities and provide a safety net for those left out.

There are many challenges for the World Social Forum. Midway through the gathering, participants had not decided where, when and if there will be another one (it seems likely). Nor had they settled on producing a statement or manifesto (it seems unlikely). Activists must stay alert to the cooptation of our language and ideas by the World Economic Forum, by the WTO and World Bank. We must improve the democratic process within the Social Forum -- to include more students, more non-Brazilians, more indigenous people, and others. We must make sure to keep the momentum that started with the explosion in Seattle.

Seattle was the pivotal moment in the first plank of this complex movement -- protest and resistance. Porto Alegre will, I believe, come to be seen as an important step in moving forward the second part - innovation and alternatives.

It is important that many protestors have gone to Davos to continue to expose the injustice of the World Economic Forum. But I'm glad I came to Porto Alegre. As Walden Bello, a veteran of Davos meetings, says, "Davos is the past. Porto Alegre is the future."

And the present is a collective dream of the thousands gathered here: Um outro mundo possvel.

Kenny Bruno is a CorpWatch Research Associate.