It was big news in most parts of the world when 70,000 people gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, recently to discuss alternatives to the present system. Disgracefully the British press, including the Guardian, barely noticed the event and the debates. I
The demonstration was supposed to begin at 5pm in Porto Alegre's market square. There were groups with banners at various corners, but they seemed dispersed and separate. But at seven that evening, when the summer showers had ended, 40,000 people flowed into a single column. They were young, old, black, white, men, women, Latin Americans, Africans, and a European contingent that included 1,500 Italians full of the enthusiastic spirit of Genoa.
That was how the World Social Forum began. For the next four days leading figures of the anti-capitalist movement debated and discussed the big questions. When Noam Chomsky spoke to a couple of thousand the enthralled silence was palpable. The roped-off central section of the hall contained the bigshots and the guests-and the mob of photographers who didn't seem to be listening. But everyone else was concentrating on the quiet delivery that concealed a withering denunciation of a US imperialism that had destroyed millions of lives-set out in the compelling lists of facts and numbers that Chomsky always offers to support his consistent denunciations of capitalism worldwide.
There were lots of young people in the hall too. They had come from the youth camp where 15,000 people had a temporary home. They were staying in conditions that were a universe away from the gold, mirrored halls of the Plaza San Rafael Hotel. This was where the European politicians and international bureaucrats who had decided there was political capital to be made by attending were staying. In the youth camp there was plenty of political debate going on.
The Indymedia network had set up a radio station, and the loudspeakers perched in the trees boomed out political discussions day and night. At one point we set out a little literature table there. Immediately people came to talk, in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese. The questions were usually the same. Do we need political parties? How can you fight the system? What happened in Genoa? Where do we go from here? The camp-originally called Harmony Park-had been renamed by its new occupants. They had named it after Carlo Giuliani, who was murdered by the police on the Genoa protest against the G8 summit. Nearly 1,000 people turned up to watch a video of the Genoa demonstrations on an improvised screen.
It would be wrong to give the impression that the social democrats and the radicals were living in separate places. All the debates and dilemmas were rehearsed in one way or another in the huge halls, cafes and open spaces at the bright new Catholic University. All through the four days there were workshops, organised by a whole range of organisations.
But a young Brazilian woman complained that in many of them the atmosphere was a bit forbidding at worst and schoolmasterly at best. She said there wasn't enough time or space for what one speaker called 'the dumb questions'-which turned out, of course, to be the most important ones. As the days passed it seemed that there were two kinds of conversation going on. The first was underlined by the presence everywhere you looked of the flags and symbols of the PT, the Brazilian Workers Party, and of the state governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Olivio Doutra.
There were times when the whole thing began to feel like a series of election campaign meetings. The PT was born out of the extraordinary industrial struggles of 1979-80. The man who emerged as its leader, Lula, was a socialist and a leader of the metalworkers' strikes.
At the time many people saw the PT as a new kind of socialist organisation-broad, tolerant, containing lots of political currents, and with a real chance of electoral victory.
Lula came very close to winning the presidency of his vast country in 1988. There were PT mayors in several major cities, and deputies and senators in state and national assemblies. One of those cities was Porto Alegre. For many people, and for some sections of the revolutionary left, this seemed to suggest a possibility of power through the ballot box.
The PT's flag is very red, and it numbers a whole range of revolutionaries among its members. But it is still an organisation that runs things according to the rules of the system in which they have to survive-the realities of global capitalism.
That's not to say that they haven't achieved a great deal-the people's budget, for example, where the allocation of city funds in Porto Alegre is determined by a popular vote.
But these are reforms, not the root and branch transformation that more and more voices at Porto Alegre were clamouring for. There was a very different argument going on in the cafes or as people wandered through the impromptu market selling Che Guevara T-shirts, hand painted cards, a thousand varieties of organic food, baseball caps carrying any number of (good) logos, and a variety of political programmes and manifestos. That argument was represented by a blue and white Argentinian flag. Here, at Porto Alegre, it came to represent not a history of empty patriotism but the forces which were gathering in towns and cities across the crisis-ridden country to the south, and rehearsing a different kind of power.
Every now and then groups of people carrying red flags and chanting in impressive unison would trot past us. They were everywhere, these competing groups beating their drums. The young people here sometimes complained that they were intimidating and exclusive, proclaiming that they were the representatives of an Argentinian revolution on the very threshold of victory. The reality was, and is, much more complicated and confused-but it is full of extraordinary possibilities, as well as dangers.
We met a range of people who had experienced the popular assemblies and the revolt from below that began on 19 December. The 'cacerolazo', the noisy saucepan protests, were becoming symbolic of that resistance. Important connections were also being made at the forum.
Activists linked the water protests in Bolivia, the popular movement that overthrew a government in Ecuador in 1999, the 15 kilometre long caravan of protest against neo-liberal economics that travelled through Uruguay in January and was cheered every inch of the way by crowds lining the route.
The World Social Forum ended with music, appropriately enough, as 10,000 samba-ed their way out of the final meeting. Some (a minority) of those who had been there would move on to other conferences in search of solutions that could reconcile Porto Alegre with the corporate executives and bankers meeting in New York. Most of those who left Porto Alegre, however, want to take their lead from the popular assemblies in Argentina.
In many ways it is a fragile movement in search of a political direction. Yet it shows the possibility of a very different kind of power-one that responds most closely to the banner unfurled at their final meeting by Brazil's Landless People's Movement (the MST). 'Another world is possible,' it said, 'but only under socialism.'