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Attack from the Seams: Lessons from Porto Alegre

On the first day of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre Brazil, the hallways were buzzing with rumours of defections from the North. Top delegates were jumping ship from the World Economic Forum in New York and coming to Porto Alegre instead: a European prime minister, World Bank directors, even corporate executives.

Some never showed up, others did. But debates raged nonetheless about what it all meant. Was it evidence of the Forum's new strength (it attracted some 60,000 participants, after all) or a sign of imminent danger? The World Social Forum was founded last year as an alternative to the annual gathering of the top 1,000 corporations, world leaders and opinion-maker who usually meet in Davos, Switzerland but this year met in New York City.

But with these new high-powered arrivals, the WSF now risked turning from a clear alternative into a messy merger: teams of photographers trailed politicians; market researchers from PricewaterhouseCoopers trolled hotel lobbies, looking for opportunities to "dialogue"; students threw a cream pie at a French minister.

It was much the same muddle in New York, with NGOs acting like corporations, corporations rebranding themselves as NGOs, and pretty much everyone claiming they were really there as a Trojan Horse. The tone—if not the times—has certainly changed.

The World Economic Forum used to be a place for the rich to be utterly unapologetic about their wealth and for the elite to be absolutely defiant about their elitism. But over the course of only three years, Davos has been transformed from a festival of shamelessness to an annual parade of public shaming, a dour capitalist S&M parlor. Instead of gloating, the ultra-rich now attempt to outdo each other with self-flagellating speeches about how their greed is unsustainable, how the poor will rise up and devour them if they don't change their ways. Again and again, delegates willingly strap themselves in for whippings from their critics, from Amnesty International to Bono.

This year, when the conference fell off its alpine perch and landed in the rubble and rabble of New York City, the abuse climbed to a peak higher than Davos itself. "The reality is that power and wealth in this world are very, very unequally shared, and that far too many people are condemned to lives of extreme poverty and degradation," said Chief Davos Dominatrix, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. "The perception, among many, is that this is the fault of ....the people who attend this gathering."

Ouch! As one protester's sign put it on the streets outside, "Bad Capitalist! No Martini."

So, are these public floggings, from the WEF to the Enron hearings, a sign of actual progress? What, to borrow a phrase more often directed at those of us who gathered in Porto Alegre, are their alternatives? Do they have clear ideas about how to better distribute wealth? Do they have concrete action plans for ending the AIDS crisis or slowing climate change? Sadly, no. The core economic policies governing globalization have only accelerated in the past year (fresh tax cuts, plans for new oil pipelines, deeper privatization programs, weaker labour protections...).

No wonder so many young people have concluded that it is not the individual policies or politicians that are the problem, but the system of centralized power itself. For this reason, much of the appeal of the World Social Forum is that its host city, Porto Alegre, has come to represent a possible challenge to this trend. The city is part of a growing political movement in Brazil that is systematically delegating power back down to people at the municipal level rather than hoarding it at the national and international levels. The party that has been the architect of this decentralization in Brazil is the Workers Party, the PT, now in power in 200 municipalities with its leader ahead in the polls federally.

Many PT cities have adopted the "participatory budget," a system that allows direct citizen participation in the allocation of scarce city resources. Through a network of neighborhood and issue councils, residents vote directly on which roads will be paved, which health care centers will be built. In Porto Alegre, this devolution of power has brought results that are the mirror opposite of global economic trends. For instance, rather than scaling back on public services for the poor, the city has increased them substantially. And rather than spiraling cynicism and voter drop-out, democratic participation increases every year.

The participatory budget is far from perfect and it was only one "living alternative" on display at the WSF. It is, however, part of a pattern of a rejection of what Portuguese political scientist Boaventura dos Santos calls "low-intensity democracy" in favour of higher-impact democracies, from independent media activists creating new models of participatory media to landless farmers occupying and planting unused land all over Brazil.

Many remain unimpressed, still waiting for a new top-down ideology to chart the course. One reporter attending the Forum told me that all the focus on local power represented "a Maoist retreat to countryside." The New York Times declared in one headline, "Brazil Forum More Local Than Worldly." In fact, with simultaneous mass events in New York and Porto Allege, last week was a truly global moment for this movement. For me, the crystallizing moment came late one night at the youth campsite in Porto Alegre. Around a thousand young people were gathered in front of a loudspeaker. It was broadcasting live news from the street demonstrations in New York outside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The news was coming from an Indy Media Centre reporter who was on her cell phone in the crowd. Her voice was being streamed live on the internet. It was picked up by a micro radio station set up in the camp, where her words were translated into Portuguese and then broadcast. At one point the U.S. server went down and was immediately replaced by a back-up in Italy.

Pretty much everyone agreed that the heart of the World Social Forum wasn't really in the official events. It was in unscripted moments like when my Italian friend Luca Casarini tried to sum up the summit over dinner. "It's about—how do you say it English?—this," he said. And using the Forum's activist Esperanto of butchered second languages and mime, he tugged at his t-shirt sleeve and showed me the seam.

Right, the seams. Maybe change isn't really about what is said and done in the centers, it's about the seams, the in-between spaces with their hidden strength. In Porto Alegre last week, much of the talk was about nearby Buenos Aires, where some say a revolt from the seams is already taking place. Street demonstrators aren't calling for a changing of the political guard but have instead adopted the sweeping slogan "Get rid of them all."

They have concluded that it's not enough to overthrow one political party and replace it with another. They are instead attempting something infinitely more difficult: to topple an economic orthodoxy so powerful, it can withstand even its strongest advocates whipping and kicking it from the center.

The question is: can it sustain an attack from the seams?

This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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