What Happened to the New Left?
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
Published on Thursday, January 30, 2003 by the Globe &
What Happened to the New Left?
by Naomi Klein
The key word at this year's World Social Forum, which ended
Tuesday in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was "big." Big attendance:
more than 100,000 delegates in all! Big speeches: more than
15,000 crammed in to see Noam Chomsky! And most of all, big
men. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the newly elected President
of Brazil, came to the forum and addressed 75,000 adoring
fans. Hugo Chavez, the controversial President of Venezuela,
paid a "surprise" visit to announce that his embattled
regime was part of the movement.
"The left in Latin America is being reborn," Mr. Chavez
declared, as he pledged to vanquish his opponents at any
cost. As evidence of this rebirth, he pointed to Lula's
election in Brazil, Lucio Gutierrez's victory in Ecuador and
Fidel Castro's tenacity in Cuba.
But wait a minute: How on earth did a gathering that was
supposed to be a showcase for new grassroots movements
become a celebration of men with a penchant for three-hour
speeches about smashing the oligarchy?
Of course, the forum, in all its dizzying global diversity,
was not only speeches, with huge crowds all facing the same
direction. There were plenty of circles, with small groups
of people facing each other. There were thousands of
impromptu gatherings of activists excitedly swapping facts,
tactics and analysis in their common struggles. But the big
certainly put its mark on the event.
Two years ago, at the first World Social Forum, the key word
was not "big" but "new": new ideas, new methods, new faces.
Because if there was one thing that most delegates agreed on
(and there wasn't much), it was that the left's traditional
methods had failed.
This came from hard-won experience, experience that remains
true even if some left-wing parties have been doing well in
the polls recently. Many of the delegates at that first
forum had spent their lives building labor parties, only to
watch helplessly as those parties betrayed their roots once
in power, throwing up their hands and implementing the
paint-by-numbers policies dictated by global markets. Other
delegates came with scarred bodies and broken hearts after
fighting their entire lives to free their countries from
dictatorship or racial apartheid, only to see their
liberated land hand its sovereignty to the International
Monetary Fund for a loan.
Still others who attended that first forum were refugees
from doctrinaire Communist parties who had finally faced the
fact that the socialist "utopias" of Eastern Europe had
turned into centralized, bureaucratic and authoritarian
nightmares. And outnumbering all of these veteran activists
was a new and energetic generation of young people who had
never trusted politicians, and were finding their own
political voice on the streets of Seattle, Prague and Sao
When this global rabble came together under the slogan
"Another world is possible," it was clear to all but the
most rigidly nostalgic that getting to this other world
wouldn't be a matter of resuscitating the flawed models of
the past, but imagining new movements.
The World Social Forum didn't produce a political blueprint
-- a good start -- but there was a clear pattern to the
alternatives that emerged. Politics had to be less about
trusting well-meaning leaders, and more about empowering
people to make their own decisions; democracy had to be less
representative and more participatory. The ideas flying
around included neighborhood councils, participatory
budgets, stronger city governments, land reform and
co-operative farming -- a vision of politicized communities
that could be networked internationally to resist further
assaults from the IMF, the World Bank and World Trade
Organization. For a left that had tended to look to
centralized state solutions to solve almost every problem,
this emphasis on decentralization and direct participation
was a breakthrough.
At the first World Social Forum, Lula was cheered, too: not
as a heroic figure who vowed to take on the forces of the
market and eradicate hunger, but as an innovator whose party
was at the forefront of developing tools for impoverished
people to meet their own needs. Sadly, those themes of deep
participation and democratic empowerment were largely absent
from Mr. da Silva's campaign for president. Instead, he told
and retold a personal story about how voters could trust him
because he came from poverty, and knew their pain. But
standing up to the demands of the international financial
community isn't about whether an individual politician is
trustworthy, it's about the fact that, as Mr. da Silva is
already proving, no person or party is strong enough on its
Right now, it looks as if Lula has only two choices:
abandoning his election promises of wealth redistribution or
trying to force them through and ending up in a Chavez-style
civil war. But there is another option, one his own Workers
Party has tried before, one that made Porto Alegre itself a
beacon of a new kind of politics: more democracy. He could
simply hand power back to the citizens who elected him, on
key issues from payment of the foreign debt, to land reform,
to membership in the Free Trade Area of the Americas. There
is a host of mechanisms that he could use: referendums,
constituents' assemblies, networks of empowered local
councils and assemblies. Choosing an alternative economic
path would still spark fierce resistance, but his opponents
would not have the luxury of being against Lula, as they are
against Mr. Chavez, and would, instead, be forced to oppose
the repeated and stated will of the majority -- to be
against democracy itself.
Perhaps the reason why participatory democracy is being
usurped at the World Social Forum by the big men is that
there isn't much glory in it. A victory at the ballot box
isn't a blank check for five years, but the beginning of an
unending process of returning power to that electorate time
and time again.
For some, the hijacking of the forum is proof that the
movements against corporate globalization are finally
maturing and "getting serious." But is it really so mature,
amidst the graveyard of failed, left political projects, to
believe that change will come by casting your ballot for the
latest charismatic leader, then crossing your fingers and
hoping for the best? Get serious.
Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and Fences and Windows,
resumes her monthly column in The Globe and Mail.
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
All my fiction through 2001 and more. Intro by S.T. Joshi.
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