The crisis and the future of the ESF

By Asbjørn Wahl
European Social Forum 2010, Istanbul 1-4 July

Ten years later, the situation is much more unclear. The most
ambitious aspirations and ambitions which were developed after the
“battle of Seattle” and the development of social
forums have not been met. The social forum movement(s) has not
raised to become the “other superpower” (which this
movement was characterised by the New York Times after the
impressive mobilisation against the Iraq war in 2003). Even though
a lot of important work and mobilisations are still going on under
the umbrella of social forums in many parts of the world, the
question of decline and crisis are being discussed more and more
within these movements.

Also the European Social Forum (ESF) has experienced increasing
problems over the years and we should be honest enough to admit
that it has been on a down-ward course ever since the first and
most successful one was organised in Florence in 2002. In this
regard we can say that the ESF is in a crisis. The more we
understand of the reasons for this development, the easier it is to
avoid a situation in which this backlash turns into disillusion and
pessimism. It is therefore necessary to analyse and discuss the
current situation and possible future of the ESF/WSF.

The context
If we really want to get to
grips with the crisis of the ESF, we will have to put it in a
broader context. The ESF does not operate in a vacuum. On the
contrary, the problems we experience in the ESF do in many regards
reflect the current economic, social and political situation in
Europe – and in the World. At least the following five points
are important:

1) The ‘golden age’ of the post World War II era,
with more or less stable economic growth and progressively improved
welfare states in most part of Western Europe, came to a halt in
the 1970s, when the Keynesian accumulation model run into crises
and capitalist interests went on the offensive to restore
profitability. The subsequent deregulation and reorganisation of
the economy and restructuring of production patterns at the global
level have resulted in an enormous shift in the balance of power in
society, from labour and popular movements to capital, as well as
to a comprehensive re-composition of the working class.

2) The labour movement and the political left have not been able
to come out of its deep ideological and political crisis which they
have more or less been in since the neo-liberal offensive
(‘globalisation’) from about 1980 and the break-down of
the Soviet model of Eastern Europe as well as the social democratic
partnership model of great parts of Western Europe. The breakdown
of the alleged socialist model has created particular problems in
developing new real left forces and movements in Central and
Eastern Europe.

3) For the political left in many countries in Western Europe
the situation has rather developed to the worse. Attempts at
joining centre-left governments without sufficient direction and
strategic clarification have proved disastrous. Thus, the
parliamentary left both in Italy and France has experienced
enormous defeats. The situation with a centre-left government in
Norway is currently not very encouraging. In spite of these
experiences, the parliamentary left in countries like Germany, the
Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden is heading in the same direction
without adjusting the course on the basis of the negative
experiences in the countries mentioned above.

4) In addition to this, there is also a crisis in the trade
union movement, which has been pushed enormously on the defensive.
The traditionally strongest part of the trade union movement,
workers in the mines and in the metal and manufacturing industry,
has been strongly diminished. A lot of members have left the trade
union movement in most countries. Great parts of the trade union
movement are still deeply influenced by the social partnership
ideology of the ‘golden age’, which increasingly acts
as a barrier against a more action-oriented practice. There has
also been a backlash of other social movements in most parts of
Europe. At the same time we have seen a growth of a number of right
wing populist parties (and neo-fascism particularly in many Central
and Eastern European countries).

5) Thus, neither the political left nor the trade union or other
social movements have been able to develop a strong response or
real alternatives to the neo-liberal offensive or to the current
financial and economic crises, which increasingly also develop into
social and political crises. The same goes for the increasingly
important environmental and climate crisis.

The ESF itself
This lack of response and
alternatives is also valid for the ESF. Even though the social
forums themselves and many of the movements, organisations and
networks which work within the social forum processes, were
developed partly as a response to the crisis of the traditional
left, they have not been able to compensate much for those
weaknesses. The general set-back of social and political struggles
does of course influence the ESF strongly, and the heterogeneity
which has been a strength and an important part of the identity of
these movements, does also represent a weakness when it comes to
the current lack of theoretical, strategic and political
clarification and unity.

One of the internal effects of these developments is that the
vacuum which has been created by the lack of real movements and
struggles to a certain degree has been filled by a number of small
NGOs and full-time activists who play a disproportionate role in
the ESF planning processes. Some of them also lack roots in and
sufficient understanding of class relations, social struggle and
social power. There has therefore been an increasing tendency
towards sign-on statements, lobbying perspectives and proclamation
of European days of action which have had very little basis in
existing power relations and real on-going struggles.

It seems also as if there has been established some informal
power-structures inside the ESF processes which some participants,
particularly from Central and Eastern Europe, experience as being
excluding. This has particularly been the case in the programme
developing process. The lack of democratic structures and the
practise of basing activities on voluntary participation of
interested parties seem to produce not only activism, but also new
internal power structures and tendencies to the monopolisation of
power – where among other things availability of resources
and time is important.

In Europe, we have also faced the particular problem with a lack
of representation from Central and Eastern Europe in the ESF
processes. So far this problem to a certain degree has been dealt
with as a question of financial support for CEE representatives to
preparatory meetings and to the forums themselves. However, the
problem is much deeper and more complicated than that. First and
foremost, it reflects social and political problems within these
countries – a lack of strong and well organised social
movements and popular organisations back home. Maybe time is ripe
now to move from a narrow financial-support-approach and to deal
with these problems as the very political challenges they

The arguments above also raise the question whether or not the
ESF at all will be seen as an important tool if and when the
development of real movements and the level of mobilisation and
social struggle increase in Europe. This is far from obvious today.
One example is that in a situation in which more and more people in
Europe face multiply crises, which are strongly interrelated, the
ESF programme process is fragmented into a number of different
areas of struggle (called “axis” in the internal
language). It is probably time now to ask whether this is the best
way to meet the current challenges.

The future of the ESF
To the degree that
the ESF faces a crisis, it thus reflects an objective reality in
the world in which it works. This crisis therefore cannot be solved
by any kind of voluntarism or moralism. We have to understand the
causes as well as to identify possibilities and opportunities
– and then come up with political and organisational
proposals for change.

None of us do have the solutions of these problems today. That
is the reason why we will have to join our collective intellectual
forces in order better to understand the situation and hopefully
improve the way the ESF is working. To do that, we must analyse
external as well as internal factors at the same time as we are
able to question all aspects of the way we are working today.

Here are some questions which could guide us in the discussion
on the future of the ESF:
– How do we see the economic, social and political crises, and the
subsequent power-relations, in Europe develop in the near
– Which possibilities are there for interventions and mobilisations
from alternative left and social forces against the effects of
these crises, including the environmental and climate crisis?
– Which are the most important arenas in which we can expect social
struggles to break out, and how do we relate to these
– How can we organise an inclusive and non-dogmatic process in
order to further develop our analyses, strategies and policies in
the current situation – linked to existing struggles and
– What do we have to do with the ESF structure and process if we
want to see the ESF as a tool to unify struggles across countries
and across different sectors of society?
– How can we renew the ESF and make it more attractive to new and
other groups and movements? Included in this is also the aim of
increasing Central and Eastern European participation in the ESF

Finally, there is broad agreement among social forum activists
and participants that resistance against neo-liberal globalisation
and fight for social and democratic alternatives in the current
situation have to be co-ordinated at the regional and global level.
However, without strong social movements at local and national
level, there is nothing to co-ordinate at the international level.
The primary task for everybody who wants to build and strengthen
cross-border social movements and forums should therefore be to
build movements in their own societies. A new layer of European
activists without roots in social movements and struggles back home
will therefore have little to contribute also at the European and
the global level. What we need is a real movement of movements
– not a new group of individual activists focussing on
lobbying and petition-writing. Let the discussion go!

* This a slightly adapted version of a note which originally was
written as part of the discussion in a working group in the ESF to
prepare for a debate of the crisis and the future of the ESF at the
European Social Forum in Istanbul in July 2010.

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