The new century is starting in Porto Alegre. All kinds of people, each in their own ways, have been contesting and critiquing neo-liberal globalisation, and many of them will be gathering in this southern Brazilian city on 25-30 January for the first World Social Forum. (1) This time they won't just be protesting -- as they were in Seattle, Washington, Prague and elsewhere -- against the world-wide injustices, inequalities and disasters created by the excesses of capitalism (see the article by Bernard Cassen). This time, in a positive and constructive spirit, they will be working towards creating a practical and theoretical framework for a new kind of globalisation. They are fired by a belief in the possibility of a new world that is less inhumane, more inclined to solidarity.
This dissident International will be held in Porto Alegre at the same time as the World Economic Forum meets in Davos. In recent years this has been the meeting place for the world's new masters, in particular the policy-makers who set the agenda for globalisation. These people are worried. They take very seriously the citizen protests that descend on them every time there is a meeting of one of the world's major governing institutions. From Seattle to Nice, the World Trade Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Group of 7, even the European Union.
Already in 2000 events in Seattle had clearly made a big impression on the decision-makers gathered in Davos. As one journalist noted, each year a particular theme or personality is the "star" of Davos. And in 2000 that star was inescapably Seattle. That was what they talked about. (2) Aware of the lack of democracy that accompanies the process of globalisation, defenders of today's economic model are quick to point out that they are "thinking seriously" about how to modify the parameters and procedures of globalisation, in a direction of greater democracy. (3) And now we even have Alan Greenspan, president of the US Federal Reserve Bank, telling us that societies cannot succeed when "significant sectors" perceive their functioning to be unjust. (4)
The "significant sectors" who will be arriving at the World Social Forum from the four corners of the earth are opposed to the present climate of economic barbarism. They reject the ethic of neo-liberalism as a step too far. A new spirit is abroad, a spirit of renewal, and the people gathered in Porto Alegre will be looking to establish a basis for effective forms of counter-power. (5)
Why Porto Alegre? Because in recent years the city has become something of a symbol. The capital of the Brazil's southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, on the border with Argentina and Uruguay, Porto Alegre is a kind of social laboratory, and as such is being closely watched by international experts in urban planning. (6)
For 12 years now it has been governed in new and original ways by a leftwing coalition led by the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT). In a whole range of sectors (housing, public transport, highways, garbage collection, clinics, hospitals, sewerage, environment, social housing, literacy, schooling, culture, law and order etc) the city has made spectacular progress. The key to this success has been its "participatory budget" (orçamento participativo), which makes it genuinely possible for the inhabitants of any given neighbourhood to define concretely and democratically where municipal funds are to be allocated. In other words, the people of the city decide what kind of infrastructures they want to create or improve, and the system enables them to follow in detail how work is progressing and how the money is being spent. This leaves less room for corruption and the siphoning of public funds, and urban investment is more likely to match the majority desires of the city's population.
We might add that this political experiment is taking place in an atmosphere of total democratic freedom, in confrontation with a very vocal rightwing opposition. The PT does not control local newspapers or radio stations, let alone the TV channels, which are in the hands of big media companies allied to the local employers and therefore hostile to the PT. In addition, the party has been careful to respect the Brazilian federal constitution, which means that it has very limited political margins of manoeuvre. Particularly in fiscal matters, where it has not been able to legislate as it would have wished. However, citizen satisfaction has been such that in the mayoral elections of last October the PT candidate received more than 63% of the vote.
In this remarkable city -- the site of a new kind of developing democracy -- the World Social Forum will be trying to create an alternative model of globalisation -- one that is not built on principles of exclusion. For years capital and the market have been telling us that, contrary to the claims of the socialists, it is they, not the people, who provide the basis for human happiness. But at the start of this new century, the dreamers gathered in Porto Alegre will remind us that globalisation extends to more than just the economy. The protection of the environment, the crisis of social inequality and human rights are also matters of global concern. And the time has come for the world's citizens to take them in hand.
(1) For more information see the website at: http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br.
(2) International Herald Tribune, Paris, 2 February 2000.
(3) Joseph S. Nye, "Take Globalisation Protests Seriously", International Herald Tribune, 25 November 2000.
(4) Cited by Jean-Paul Maréchal in Humaniser l'economie, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 2000, p. 22.
(5) See Miguel Benassayag and Diego Sztulwark, Du contre-pouvoir, La Découverte, Paris, 2000.
(6) See Bernard Cassen, "Participative democracy in Porto Alegre", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, October 1998.
Translated by Ed Emery