For a while now I've had a pet theory that the more you hear the phrase "the movement,' the less likely it is that you're in the presence of one. A movement -- whatever that is -- seems like it would be not so much an easily delineated physical assemblage but something felt moving through a people, like the air before a thunder storm, or the invisible sexual charge between two (or three, or four) individuals that words, after a certain point, can only dull.Nonetheless, despite the uncomfortable chairs, bad lighting, minority of young radicals and a near overload to my bombast receptors, I left Saturday's Toronto Social Forum lead-up conference at Ryerson feeling something close to inspired.
The meeting was designed to prepare activists heading to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, next month, which convenes yearly to protest the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, at the same time. In March, activists here will host the first full-fledged Toronto Social Forum.
At the Ryerson meet, we managed to sit in the same rooms and break bread together with nary an obligatory Denouncement of Other Tendencies (DOOT). There was an implied promise to actually start living up to our empty rhetoric, which is quite a change in our empty rhetoric. Only time will tell if any of the pronouncements can survive, but with typical rhetoric at least descending to a closer orbit (from "Another world is possible" to "Another activism is possible"), things looked hopeful.
The range of workshops was striking, including participatory municipal budgeting in Toronto, art and activism, the reparations movement, anti-poverty organizing and much more. I found the most invigorating workshops to be the ones that were low on lofty theory, like OCAP's John Clarke's session on squatting. Here a video on the MST -- the Brazilian landless peasants' movement -- was shown, accompanied by the experienced presence of an activist from Brazil.
Young organizers from Kitchener-Waterloo's hub for street youth, The Spot, facilitated a discussion called All Power To The People: Mobilizing Street Youth. What struck me about this session was that group leaders were doing what most self-congratulatory lefties still fail to do -- leading by example instead of credentials, and organizing themselves where oppression intersects with their daily lives.
In the final plenary, many waxed enthusiastic about the recent PT/Workers party's rise to power in Brazil, which some feel is an unalloyed source of inspiration. People are still waiting to see what the federal PT will do, but the municipal PT government of Porto Alegre has introduced an entirely participatory budget, and transit is free on weekends. It's no revolution, but it's not Mel Lastman either.
During the largely participatory closing (a discussion on how much movements should focus on engaging with those in power), rogue economist Jim Stanford likened the newborn federal PT government to this region's own stillborn New Politics Initiative, which raised, in my mind, a point of caution. I detected a real danger of continued cut-and-paste solidarity, where strategies taken from a rich culture of resistance in the southern hemisphere are unceremoniously transplanted. Why not look closer to home for inspiration more applicable to an often blizzard-beset region that hasn't recently recovered from a dictatorship?
Carlos Torres of the Centre for Social Justice offered another sobering reminder: "This [the PT] was a long-term project. We're talking over 20 years." The point being that you don't build a mass movement by saying, "Hey, we're starting a radical political network that will reach into every facet of society,' and then once the right e-mails go out, it just happens. Before we rush headlong into PT lite, why not just get everyone talking and see where we want to go from there?
A follow-up meeting Monday that reviewed the Saturday forum (activists in Toronto actually self-reflecting?) and began planning the full March forum was equally impressive. It was concrete enough for those wary of typical flighty activist rant-fests, yet open and even-handed enough to impress even the crustiest anarchist. "We're not trying to come up with a manifesto," said organizer Janet Conway. "That's contrary to what the Social Forum is about. It's pluralistic and diverse." Anathema to the typical sectarian power plays on the Toronto left, but a breath of fresh -- and hopefully not too hot -- air for the rest of us.