Day Three

A bitsy day today. Overcast all day with rain later at night, which made for more comfortable walking weather. We spent the morning at UFPA. The Christian group organised by my brother was going to be doing something at 10am but this seemed to be taking a long time to come together so I went wandering. English-language sessions seemed extremely few and far between today; I eventually found the ‘Network Politics’ session at 12pm which appeared to be talking about use of the Internet as an organising tool but wanted to break into workgroups to get perspectives on it from the members, which wasn’t at all what I was looking for (a short, punchy presentation *saying* something I hadn’t already heard in eight years of activism). Since it seemed like the group leaders were more confused about the role of the Internet than I was, I left to look for more signs of life.

(Edit: After tracking down the web site, I still can make out nothing through the swarm of verbiage.)

Possibly I’m more cynical four years after Porto Alegré, or possibly Belém is smaller, but I’m finding interesting groups very thin on the ground this time around. (Specific examples from 2005 that are missing this year: the Interaction Council and their Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities; the World Wildlife Foundation; a Japanese anti-war group campaigning against repeal of Article 9, the ‘Japanese Peace Constitution’. )

The most interesting thing I’ve seen so far at the 2009 Forum is Economia Solidária, which as far as I understand is a network of cooperative businesses throughout Brazil. It’s interesting because unlike many of the other large displays (which often fall into the category of ‘government ministry or huge NGO bragging about their contribution to world peace’ or ‘loud aggressive Marxist group declaring eternal war on the capitalist system with no actual other platform’), Economia Solidária appears to be putting cooperative economics into practice, quietly, successfully, and with a human face.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that my political alignment may puzzle many who attend a forum such as the WSF. It certainly confuses me. I’m not at all a Marxist, except in so far that I agree with Marx that capitalism as a basis for building a society doesn’t really work. When I look at the historical results of Marxism, I see authoritarianism collapsing into dictatorship, and it baffles me why anyone still gives Lenin any credit; granted, Adam Smith seems pretty much discredited too, but since we now have two known bad alternatives, shouldn’t we be looking for a third? Yet what we so often get at venues like the WSF is lots of self-proclaimed ‘theorists’ who are simply repeating 19th century Marxist confusions. This is not going to work for the future; we don’t necessarily need perpetually ‘new’ ideas, as if political theory were a fashion show where ideas get ‘tired’ from overexposure; but we do need *true* ideas, and the history of both actually-existing capitalism and socialism show that both in their pure forms have failed; they both fail to describe reality accurately enough. And I’m not convinced that ‘centrist’ compromises work either. What we need is a new *principle*, not a compromise.

So what I am politically, I’m not sure; I’m not Left in the Marxist-Leninist sense, not Right in the Bush-neoliberal sense, but something else which hasn’t yet emerged. I get the closest sense of recognition of my idea of ‘political self-evident common sense’ from some aspects of the Green movement, such as E F Schumacher; I also strongly identify with the open source / libre software movement.

Both of these movements have a strong sense of *both* ‘individual responsibility’ *and* of ‘self-organisation’ – which when you think about it are really the same, but often seem to be constructed at odds with each other, with the Right picking ‘reponsibility’ and the Left picking ’empowerment’.

The old-school, nineteenth-century Left, which is sadly still far too much in evidence even at the Social Forum, tends to construct the world in terms of a grand apocalyptic war: the People vs the Power, the Masses versus the Classes. This is, putting it charitably, a mistake. The world is not a war, and turning a movement into a war-fighting machine distracts it from creating actual social change.

Instead of talking about (and demonstrating) what *we’ve* done to make the world a better place, and inspiring by example, leftist-war rhetoric takes every opportunity to strut and fluff its feathers and pretend to be big, bad and above all *dangerous*. Just look at the words used by the old-school Left and they reveal the war-based thought-forms: an obsession with ‘power’, ‘demands’, ‘militancy’, ‘victory’, ‘struggle’, ‘mobilisation’, ‘tactics’. This is so far wrong it’s coming out the other side and wrapping round again; it hurts me to even think about it.

The world is not a war. I can’t emphasise that strongly enough. Whenever we think it is, we destroy the soul of a movement. We start to think in terms of capturing and seizing power, rather than creating beauty and truth. We put one class of people up against another, and construct heroes and villains. We abandon creative work for destructive, short-term compromises. All of the world-destroying shortsightedness that the capitalist system incurs (because it constructs the world as a war between enterprises), we inherit and double if we try to use the same mistake on a larger scale in service of a ‘socialist revolution’. Look at the environmental crimes of the Soviet Union and you can see just how dangerous the war mentality is.

More insidiously, creating a revolutionary war means deconstructing democracy in the act of ‘struggling for’ it. Externally, wars are predicated on the existence of winners and losers, of the imposition of political control by coercion up to and including the point of literal torture and death; internally, they import this structure into a command-and-control system of absolute leaders and unquestioned authority. Both are evils and both are totally destructive of democracy.

Fighting a war in foreign lands for imperial conquest is stupid, but fighting a total, civil war (which is what a revolution is) for democracy is insane. Even the metaphor corrupts your brain.

Just don’t do it. Please. I see what you’re trying to do. I agree with many of your goals: a world at peace, where wealth is shared, where the environment is respected. But you won’t get there with raised fists, angry rhetoric, militant images, marches, drums, bandannas and guerilla-chic combat boots. You won’t get there by standing on a stage and ‘demanding your rights’ without a plan for how you, personally, are going to *provide* those rights to others. You have to start with responsibility first, because we can all do *something* creative, but if we present a list of ‘demands’ to a faceless other, we don’t even know if what we’re asking is possible (and some things aren’t), let alone how it’s going to be paid for, and how we’re going to measure whether it gets done or not.

Lots of politicians exploit this ‘demands’ posture by making promises in return. But promises are worth nothing unless the person promising is in a position to fulfil them. Many of the things we want in the world, no politician has the power to provide; *we* have to make them happen.

Which is why I like Economia Solidária: they do real, constructuve things; they do small, human-scale things; they present a model of a way of doing business which *might* potentially be able to be scaled up in the face of the world economic crisis. I say might because I’m aware that the history of cooperatives and communes shows that they are devilishly tricky things to make work on the large scale and the long term; even though theory shows they ‘ought’ to be great little hotbeds of democracy, but in actual fact they very often break apart for a number of reasons both social and economic. It’s those ‘oughts’ versus ‘actuals’ that we really, really, need to study and test and debug before we start talking large, state-sized systems; and networks of cooperatives seem like they are good ways of giving us that desperately needed practical experience in building alternate economies, if it’s not already too late.

AND FOR GOODNESS SAKES quit it with the military imagery. It’s wrong, it’s stupid, and it teaches you to think stupid.

Which is why tomorrow I’ll be trying to get to the only English-language Economia Solidária meeting I can find, by a Canadian cooperative hub.


Later in the afternoon, we took the free bus to UFRA campus, where we bought a book of Amazonian herbal recipes, planted trees to reverse global warming, ate acaí (a purple mush made from local berries; a faint leafy taste a little like cabbage; with sugar it’s oddly like pudding) and discovered the Red Cross and photography exhibits hidden deep in the campus.

(And we discovered the best comida á kilo place in all Belém, the Filet and Filhos Restaurant under Hotel Ipé, in São Braz, around from the Almirante supermercado. Filet mignon steaks! And cheap. A huge plate for less than a McDonalds burger.)


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