How the Social Forum combats cynicism

Early on at the U.S. Social Forum, I was struck by the disjuncture between the huge ambition of the assembly and the limitations of the conference's agenda and slate of decentralized workshops. In their planning statement for the social forum, organizers declared an intention to respond to "a state of national and global emergency" by defining "a direction for what will be the great project of our generation." Needless to say, that's a big task for any convention.

Whenever the social forum speaks of itself as the future of the U.S. Left, vexing issues arise: Can any coherent political program emerge from an amorphous, multi-issue assembly? Can we formulate a vision of the Left without more serious participation from key progressive constituencies such as organized labour? Can the collection of radicals and community-based organizations that are present here become a political force with mainstream reach, or are they too self-marginalizing? The answers are not easy to come by, and non-starry-eyed attendees can easily grow wary in contemplating such imposing matters.

Where the social forum thrives, in contrast, is in smaller moments, free of grand pretense. Walking the halls and seeing a seemingly endless stream of organizers, urban gardeners, filmmakers, human rights workers, energetic students, and community activists can be subtly uplifting. Occasionally, the conversations generated within this collection of people can be transcendent.

After attending the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2005, I wrote of some of the small, gratifying encounters that the social forum process sometimes creates:

Strolling through the forum space could produce rewarding surprises. A colleague, Zeynep Toufe of the Institute for Public Accuracy, told of how, 'tired, hot, severely under slept,' she stumbled into an afternoon panel on land rights and the 'untouchable castes' of India. She was unexpectedly blown away by the testimony of homelessness and dispossession offered. 'It was so uncynical that I didn't know what to feel,' she reported. And when they burst into songs or chants, she stated, 'It was one of the most sincere, the least contrived instances I have ever encountered of people shouting slogans ... I tried to explain what a privilege it felt like to be in their presence.'

Today in Detroit, I asked many people about their experiences of the U.S. Social Forum, and I heard of some similarly worthwhile happenings. One colleague who frequently participates in street theatre spoke of attending a "creative action think tank" with other performers that was surprisingly advanced and engaging: "It was two hours full of ideas," he told me.

Several people mentioned to me that they were deeply impressed by a presentation by New York's Domestic Workers United. That group recently succeeded in passing a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State that provides a groundbreaking framework that will allow groups of employees who were previously unprotected under national labor law to organize. A wider coalition of groups working on this issue, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was formed at the last U.S. Social Forum (held in 2007 in Atlanta) and is now working to expand the New York victory.

A friend who traveled to the social forum with me and who works on anti-foreclosure initiatives was moved by a workshop organized by a Detroit-based group called Moratorium Now. The organization grew out of an anti-war coalition that had built a strong network of community relations. In recent years, they discovered that many of their members were dealing with foreclosure, and they decided that a collective response was warranted.

One of the members whose experience had been a catalyzing force for the group shared her story. A few years ago, she had taken out an unfavourable refinancing loan on a family home previously owned by her parents. After the crash, she lost the house. At the workshop, she spoke of the indignity she felt when police tore her mother's possessions out of the foreclosed home. She was ashamed that she had taken the loan, even though she desperately needed the money at the time.

Workshop participants from around the country -- tenants' rights and anti-eviction activists from Miami, Toledo, and Chicago -- nodded in recognition at the story. They responded by sharing strategies of resistance: How they had generated pressure by live-streaming video of people who were barricading themselves in their homes; how they had shamed Bank of America into backing off planned evictions of families and elderly residents; how legal strategists found a precedent for a moratorium on evictions in Great Depression-era jurisprudence that might be applied today.

My friend told me: "I went in thinking the demand would just be, ‘this is bad, we need to stop it.' Instead, the groups were incredibly well researched. They had a track record of success that they could share."

At the U.S. Social Forum, as in everyday political life, you can find plenty of things to feel cynical about. But you can also find people in whose presence it is a privilege to be. Those who live motivated by that all-too-uncommon experience will rarely regret the effort taken to find it.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via

This article first appeared in Dissent and Yes!


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