[OPE-L] Athenian democracy

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon May 22 2006 - 13:38:44 EDT

Athenian Democracy: A Report on the European Social Forum

Athenian democracy

Hilary Wainwright

The fourth European Social Forum, held in Athens in
May, outstripped the modest expectations of the Greek
organisers. Hilary Wainwright reports on the key themes
of the Athens forum -- and what might come next

In the build up to the European Social Forum (ESF) in
Athens, the fourth since Florence in 2002, the Greek
organisers were modest in their expectations of its
political significance. ‘It will be a well organised
event; but that'll be it,' said Panayotis Yulis from
the ESF social and political rights network on the eve
of the gathering that took place in the abandoned
airport next to the almost abandoned Olympic village
from 4-7 May.

The political context of the left in Greece helps to
explain this somewhat fatalistic approach. The left
there has long been weighed down by the strength and
the heavy dogmatism and sectarianism of the most
orthodox communist party in Europe. The anti-Stalinist
Synaspismos party, strongly influenced by the social
movements of recent years, receives just a few per cent
of the vote. An autonomous social-movement left has had
no identity whatsoever.

By the Monday after the ESF, however, members of the
Greek Social Forum, the main grouping behind the event,
could not believe what had happened. The forum's
80,000-strong demonstration was ‘the largest
demonstration ever called independently of the
Communist Party', said Sissy Vovou, one of the
organisers of the forum's women's assembly. ‘Most
notable were the many young people who were not members
of any political organisation. It's a sign of a
subterranean radicalisation.' The positive aftermath
was spoiled only by the taste of tear gas after a group
who call themselves anarchists tried to provoke a
reaction from the police by chucking Molotov cocktails.

It wasn't just the size and composition of the
demonstration that made the concept of social movements
likely, at last, to become a potent part of the
language of public debate in Greece. It was also the
forum itself, which was organised very consciously to
illustrate that it is possible to run a 30,000-strong
extravaganza of political discussion and cultural
experience in a participatory, egalitarian and
pleasurable way.

Out were big plenaries with endless lists of celebrity
speakers; in were focused seminars involving networks
whose roots were first put down in the previous forums
in Florence or Paris and are now coming to maturity.
Out were corporate sponsorship and high price entrance
fees; in were solidarity funds, low entrance fees and
thorough international organising work, leading to over
1,000 participants from Turkey and 3,000 from eastern

A generally good-humoured social movements assembly at
the end of the forum heard of focal points for action
over the next year. These include a Europe-wide week of
action to campaign for complete withdrawal of troops
from Iraq and Afghanistan, against the threat of a new
war in Iran, against the occupation of Palestine, for
nuclear disarmament, and to eliminate military bases in
Europe; and a day of mobilisation across Europe and
Africa in favour of an unconditional legalisation and
equal rights for all migrants, and the closure of all
detention centres in Europe.

There was a mood of satisfaction with the three days of
intense, almost sleepless, international planning.
‘It's been more focused than ever before. More new
ideas have come up than ever before,' said Alla
Glinchikova, one of 100 Russian participants from the
Moscow Social Forum.

The flow of new ideas coming from the ESF is something
even Le Monde remarked upon in its leader on ‘Europe
Day' -- a few days after the Athens forum. It pointed
to the ESF as a source of alternatives at a time when
the European elites are at an impasse. I found a
widespread insistence on the importance of deepening
our analysis. ‘It's not enough just to be against
Bolkestein [the EU directive introducing market forces
to essential services]. We need specific analyses of
how neo-liberalism is being carried through in
different countries, the impact of enlargement and what
can be learnt from the UK,' commented Kenny Bell,
deputy convenor of the northern region of Unison. To
this end the network of public service trade unions is
organising not just action but a Europe-wide seminar in

This conscious connection between action and analysis
was also indicated by a new seriousness towards the
knowledge of the movements. ‘An aspect of the power of
the movements is the fact that as they act and organise
they are generating knowledge from below,' said Mayo
Fuster, one of a group of researchers, media and techno
activists working to systematise the collective
knowledge of the ESF.

But along with these signs of maturity went a sense of
the need for innovation within the innovation. A few
years back the focus was on breaking up hierarchy,
creating decentralised, autonomous forms of
organisation, ensuring space for the multiplicity of
initiatives, projects and organisations that made up
the movements. The concept of the network expressed the
idea of coordination without a centre. But now there is
a search for new ways of interconnecting the

The search comes out of practical needs, felt after
taking decentralisation to its limits. For Yannis
Almpanis, the human ‘hub' at the centre of the process
of merging the hundreds of seminar proposals into a
manageable list, the need is for ‘more open collective
decision making with clear rules to overcome the
problem of informal power'. For example, techno-
political tools, using the web as a means of
interactive communication and collaborative work, are
playing an increasing role in the development of the
ESF. They are vital to extending decision-making beyond
those who can afford the airfares and the time to
attend organising meeting -- a recurring source of
informal power.

For the next ESF gathering the talk is of holding it
somewhere like Brussels and organising it on a Europe-
wide basis, rather than it being nationally hosted as
in the past. As indicated by the Eurotopia survey
discussed on the following pages, there are still many
tensions and disagreements and very uneven growth. How
the social forum process responds to these challenges
will determine whether it can build something of
lasting influence on the foundations laid in the past
few years.

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