And then it was all over, and Alexandra Palace was littered with rainlashed leaflets, and everyone dispersed. What did we learn? First, the size problem. The various Social Forums have tended to measure their success by the number of people and organisations who attend. This was greater than ever before. Obviously, if you want to "build a movement" you need more people. But the ESF often seemed suffocated by numbers. Its structure (or nonstructure) is based on layers of workshops, seminars and plenary sessions. If these terms mean anything, it is that the delegates first meet in plenary for opening remarks, then break out into seminars/workshops to discuss real details, before joining up in plenary session to agree the results. This never happened, though. There isn't really any reporting-back, and there were simply so many events that you couldn't realistically do it yourself, especially as the smaller group events tended to happen some distance from the plenaries up at Alexandra Palace. Because of this, plenary meetings tend to become lectures by the podium speakers to a heaving mob packing in to see the stars, unrelated to any substantive debate. Apparently, the organising committee for the next World Social Forum intends to give up on plenaries for this reason.
Secondly, there was the peculiar London problem that the ESF's centre was accessible only by one bus route. Also, it didn't permit of holding such numbers on one site, so going from plenaries or the big seminars up the hill to detailed discussions involved a long trip across London. Further, the activists kipping in the Dome were even more remote both from Alexandra Palace and Bloomsbury. Oh yeah, and Network Rail managed to schedule an engineering work weekend for the weekend of the Big Event. Good work lads.
Thirdly, there was the problem that self-organising doesn't necessarily work. The blogosphere is meant to function by mutual criticism, and this is the only quality control that the ESF knows. But, just as with blogs, people tend to go to meetings they agree with. Not one forum, but several mutually ignorant camps. Not a forum on - say - the European Constitution, but two, one run by the anti-EU tendency on the Marxist left and one by the pro-EU, federalist pacifists and the trade unionists, with no interconnection. Why should anyone be forced to work with people they disagree with? you may ask. Well, without diversity of opinion you cannot debate. Just having a lot of groups who agree within themselves in the same building doesn't provide that.