Notes from the Social Forum

by Bill

The recent U.S. Social Forum in Detroit brought together some 10-15 thousand people, a lot of them young, to have conversations and participate in workshops and assemblies devoted to changing the existing rotten capitalist system. The USSF generated much enthusiasm, for the Forum was a huge opportunity for folks for the first time to meet others who were doing similar work in other places. These projects included issues like fighting foreclosures and evictions, school and hospital closings, police brutality and prisons, fetus fanatics, immigration xenophobia, and union givebacks; and building alternative institutions, environmental justice, transformative justice, participatory cultures, radical bicycling, &c. (Altogether there were well over 1000 workshops and assemblies over four days).

However, despite the excitement, the Forum fell far short of what’s necessary to address the current economic and political crisis of capitalism.

Why? First, in my view the crisis is much more than an increased level of attacks on working class and oppressed people. (Capitalism attacks them every minute of every day anyway—that’s the nature of the system). Rather, it’s a crisis of the system itself, graphically illustrated less than two years ago by the collapse of such corporate giants as Bear Stearns, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, General Motors, Chrysler, Washington Mutual and others. The capitalists exposed themselves as being incapable of managing their own system. (And we don’t want to manage it, either).

A mere increase in attacks merely mandates an increase in resistance; but a breakdown crisis calls for revolutionary solutions. Groups standing for this, at least in words , were clearly visible at the USSF. But the thrust of the Forum itself went in another direction.

This is not surprising given that the initial major seed money for the Forum came from prime players in the social democratic-non-profit-financial complex, including the SEIU and the American Friends Service Committee. In addition, the Forum’s use of Detroit’s main convention center, Cobo Hall, had to be approved by the Detroit Common Council. Locally major movers included the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA—a descendent of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers), and the Boggs Center, a 501.c.3, which pushes urban gardening as a major strategy for capitalistically bombed-out Detroit, and which has for sale T-shirts emblazoned with the vague but unambiguously centrist slogan of ‘(r)evolution’.

A major component of any revolutionary strategy is mass direct action. There were several opportunities for this in Detroit. One was a symbolic blockade of the tunnel to Canada under the Detroit River to protest the Arizona law legalizing the profiling of Latinos. Another was a march-and-something to a massive incinerator. Both were squashed by Boggs Center/LRNA people who were on the local organizing committee. This was rather easy since the proponents of the actions were largely white out-of-towners in the Black city of Detroit. However, not so easy was the derailing of any protest over the assassination by the FBI of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah last year in nearby Dearborn or the recent killing of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones by the Detroit Police Dept. Apparently the local players and their allies have been satisfied with Attorney General Holder’s promise of a federal investigation of the former and the Michigan State Police’s inquiry into the latter. As a result both killings were non-issues at the Forum. The RCP did try to organize a march over Aiyana, I don’t know the outcome, but I doubt it was very successful given the group’s wacky Bobism and the fact that almost none of its members are from Detroit.

One of the promises of the Social Forum was that it was supposed to be an example of direct democracy—or at least as direct as possible—in action. However, social democracy and reformism have time and again proven themselves to be virulently anti-democratic when presented with the choice of upholding capitalism or siding with angry masses of workers and oppressed people. This latter dynamic played itself out in muted form in the one People’s Movement Assembly which I attended, that on political prisoners and prison issues. Four and a half hours were allotted to the assembly, during which time it would divide into two separate sessions of breakout groups, the first for the participants to lay out what they wanted to get of the assembly, and a second later one in which each group would. work out three ‘vision proposals’ and three ‘action proposals’. These would then be given to a pre-selected committee to merge into a final resolution to be presented to the Social Forum as a whole. There would be no discussion except in the breakout groups and, as one member of the assembly’s organizing committee said at the outset, ‘you will have to trust the committee’ doing the final editing. As one of two members of the New York Free Mumia Coalition, I wanted to make sure that an endorsement of the call for a Dept. of Justice civil rights investigation got into any resolution in addition to a call for the freedom for all political prisoners; and I wanted the Social Forum go go on record as condemning the recent actions by some major players in the anti-death penalty movement to cut Mumia’s case from the campaign to end capital punishment. These never made it into the merged resolution. In part this was because of some confusion in our breakout group. But in any case that didn’t matter because near the end of the assembly a woman came around handing out copies of a pre-packaged resolution which had already been written by the organizing committee. The breakout groups were in fact a waste of time and constituted only a charade of democracy. Although maybe not intended that way by some of the organizers, the process was in fact a slick bureaucratic game.

Instead of pretenses, could not the organizing committee have selected one member to receive any resolutions other than its own and made that fact known in advance? Couldn’t the committee have selected, say, three members, to meet before the assembly to make recommendations, if necessary, on the resolutions, and to clear any which may have been received after any deadlines which had been set? And most important, couldn’t the whole breakout group thing have been scrapped in favor of discussion, amendment and votes by the entire assembly on the resolutions? I’ve heard that the organizing committee wanted action proposals instead of mere resolutions, and that was part of the resoning behind the breakout group setup. This makes no sense. Action plans could just as easily have been proposed as well as resolutions. Also, I’ve picked up that the committee wanted to build a sense of unity and it felt that floor discussion turned off a lot of people. But what kind of unity is this? ‘Unity’ based on non-participation is no real unity at all. However, this is what reformists, social democrats and Leninists like, which is to keep people powerless and use them as a battering ram for their own ends.

I also gave a presentation both as a representative of NEFAC and speaking for myself at a workshop titled ‘Class Struggle Anarchism in the 21st Century: Re-centering on People’s Movements’. The workshop attracted about 50 people to a site over a mile from the main center at Cobo Hall. It was put together by Common Action of Seattle and featured speakers from that group as well as Class Action in Buffalo and myself. In addition a representative from Solidarity and Defense gave a rap from the floor. Before speaking I passed out copies of the Nature of the Period document which we passed at the March conference. Taking off from that I emphasized what I wrote at the beginning of these notes in regard to limitations of the Social Forum. Moreover, I went on to argue that capitalism cannot provide a decent standard of living for the mass of people, and in particular offers no future of freedom and comfort for youth. I also said that the exposure of the capitalists’ inability to manage their own system has opened peoples’ minds to alternatives, including anarchism.

From there I predicted that there will be resistance. We don’t know where, when, how, what, &c., but as our document states, it will come. Most likely, I said, it will be reformist in character because that is where most peoples’ thinking is at today (and very possibly will be led by some of the very people attending the Social Forum).

The question next becomes, where will it go? I agreed with other presenters who styled themselves as especifistas that we need a separate political organization, but that is insufficient in itself. We also need a social program which reflects what working class and oppressed people need and which capitalism is unable to give, such as jobs, housing, health care, and education for all, and reparations for Black people, paid for by taxing the banks, corporations, hedge funds and private equity vehicles which have grown fantastically wealthy off our work. Such a program makes concrete the idea of revolution which otherwise is a forbidding abstraction to most folks.

I also brought up the question of leadership. That is, people look to us as anarchists for it. We need to recognize this and be able to lead in a democratic manner. Otherwise we cede the political ground to the reformists, nationalists, Leninists and others who, as I wrote above, want only to use the masses as a tool for their own authoritarian ends.

Finally, I spoke on the need to get next to rank and file working class and oppressed people. It is insufficient to break out of anarchist-lifesylist ghettos if one is only going to a union staff position or a 501.c.3. One needs instead to be on the worksite and shop floor in order effectively to organize in a revolutionary manner.

My recollection of the specifics of the discussion on the floor is a little fuzzy, but the overall flavor was bland. First, despite the Class Action panelist’s talk centered on the especifista nature of his group, there was no discussion on the floor around the concept itself. Was this because everyone agreed? Or did they think it irrelevant? Second, there was no discussion of the economic/financial/political crisis which I outlined. I felt as if I could have heard the same floor discussion at the height of the postwar boom 45 years ago. Instead there was some talk of race and gender issues, and an easy-to-refute comment from a possible ISO plant who argued that anarchists were moralistic (bad—they need a strategy, but on the other hand, isn’t being moral good?) and anti-organizational (wrong room—the place was full of pro-organizational people).

Despite the efforts of the organizers probably little concrete will come from the Social Forum. If the political prisoner/prison workshop is any guide, its call for actions around juvenile justice and other prison issues around Human Rights Day in December will remain just that. Some groups may do something, but there was no mechanism set up by the Forum to make it happen. This may be just as well for our interest is in building a radically democratic revolutionary movement and organization rather than a social democratic-non-profit bureaucracy.

7 July 2010