Friday, October 15, 2004

ESF Blogging: An International Festival of Puzzlement

The European Social Forum in London's fabulous Alexandra Palace. Yes. This is the Las Vegas of ranting, an annual chance for the broad left and in fact any freak with £30 to discuss the world's deadly serious problems with deadly serious people. I hoped to make a day of it, but then, London happened. Ken Livingstone, in a gesture to his hard left career, has given the organisers some £400,000 towards costs. And 20,000 free three-day city-wide public transport passes. Unfortunately he also gave them - perhaps in a gesture to his New Labour present - Alexandra Palace. This is a 1901-built park and exhibition centre, a monument to late Victorian kitsch, that unfortunately burned down not so long ago. In its career it also managed to be the world's first TV station and a major site for jamming Nazi radio navigation systems, but that really doesn't help if you're trying to have 20,000 people there without any public transport at all. It is one of the very few London locations without access to the Underground anywhere near. There's a railway station not very near but the trains rarely stop. There is one bus route. It took us in all: a train, a tube train, another tube train, a train, another train and a bus to get there. By that time my lover was spitting rocks and my hopes for gonzo blogging were wilting fast.

When you enter the Forum, it's like leaping into all the demos in the world. Every well meaning little .org you can imagine and some more have camped. There's a Palm Court but, littered with thin people sleeping, extremist leaflets and beer cans, it looks like the revolution just happened and failed. Despite all, though, I couldn't help but feel that slowly rising edge of angry campaigning. Here are a swag of ideals and a world of banners. Here is friendly warm chaos. Here is optimism, and extremely poor translation.

It lasted until we got into the action.

We had a couple of ideas of what we wanted to see, and maybe take part in - after all the wristbands say DELEGATE, not TOURIST. The mob at the "plenary" on Palestine was so huge and the podium yelling so offputting, though, that we ditched that one. We took a while to trace a seminar on "Ending the Occupation: Liberating Iraq". When we found it, it was in the grip of a string of manic ranters. First came a woman who turned on the panel with the mike, turning her back on the "DELEGATES!" who weren't among the initiate of her own grievance and yelling. Then, a succession of three SWP boys. No coincidence there. One railed wildly at the failings of a movement based on mass demonstrations. Strikes were the thing. His union? The National Union of Journalists. One can see the situation conference in Northwood. "..and the NUJ has refused to handle any war-related stories, sir. [Long, defeated pause] ....Well, Charlesworth, I suppose...this is the end...I think I shall telephone the Prime Minister and inform him that we must ask for an armistice." Indeed. Another found it urgently necessary to attack militarism in all its forms. Especially where we might not expect it: "We must reject the warmongers of New Labour, the Tories - and not forget the warmongering Liberal Democrats!" He was followed by a Greek whose organisation represented men supporting the global women's strike. It wasn't clear what he wanted to say about Iraq, but nothing would shut him up anyway. He was barely comprehensible but what got through seemed to be pure self promotion. At the third attempt our chairwoman finally silenced him and the next on the rant line stepped up to the mark.

It didn't get much better. A studenty girl dressed entirely in green assured us first, that the majority of Iraqis had risen up against imperialist occupation - what, 13 million of them? - and then that "Discontent is spreading in sections of the Army!" as if Bolshevik rebel tanks were about to grind down Whitehall on the final coup d'etat. I wanted to speak, but they wouldn't call me. Perhaps my "George Bush" flying jacket didn't quite fit in. A Scouser from something called "Workers' Power" bulled past me and grabbed my slot. Fucko! Then the chairwoman announced that she wanted to "encourage more women to speak". It was clear that I wasn't gonna git.

After all, no-one had actually mentioned a single fact about Iraq through all this time.

I've just been told not to be too harsh on them. It's very true that this is a fantastic event like an optimism factory. It's even more true that it is a great example of actual, real inter-cultural, international communication. Perhaps most of all, it is huge and disorientating. The timetable runs to 85 pages on the website and a sizeable tabloid paper in print. Like the internet, literally anyone can contribute and therefore you have to look very hard for anything worthwhile.

It's also true, though, that it is full of tiresome stereotype Trotskyists and stale prefabricated slogans and depressing committee goonery. Yay, let's all go to the [enter enemy here] meeting and monopolise the mike so we can shout at them. Let's put on a workshop on ecofeminist fabric alternatives in northern Finland, with Kurdish dancing. There is so much stuff at the ESF that lies beyond satire. Littlejohn couldn't make it up. Nobody asked at the Iraq Seminar how the occupation might end in the sense of who would be left in charge of Iraq. Allawi's government? Surely as illegitimate and vicious as occupation itself. What about the mercenaries? Who would trust "Al-Baathi" Allawi not to cheat in any election? Otherwise, who gets rid of Allawi's lot first? Oh right....the occupiers. The entire purpose of the Social Forums was, if I am not very much mistaken, was to get away from slogan-yelling to detailed alternative policy formation. This isn't it. But, as a pure event, it's still beautiful.

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