Praxis Needs Practice

Mischa Gaus

The way The World Social Forum is described in its lit­er­a­ture sounds great: an open meet­ing place for reflec­tive think­ing, demo­c­ra­t­ic debate of ideas, for­mu­la­tion of pro­pos­als, free exchange of expe­ri­ences and inter­link­ing for effec­tive action.”

On the ground, it looked more like a choir enjoying itself as one preacher after another stood up to deliver his sermon.

No won­der U.S. activists have picked up on this three-year-old inter­na­tion­al phe­nom­e­non, cre­at­ed to com­bat the World Eco­nom­ic Forum and now a counter-forum so pop­u­lar it spawned a counter-counter-forum and a Tol­stoy-length pro­gram. But where are U.S. social forums car­ry­ing the idea? Catch­ing up to cities like Pitts­burgh and Itha­ca, Chica­go got its first taste of prax­is-build­ing Jan­u­ary 31 in what is sup­posed to be the future of social forums, de-empha­siz­ing the mas­sive world gath­er­ing for inter­na­tion­al­ly linked local and region­al meet­ings. Turnout was triple what orga­niz­ers expect­ed — upward of 500 by day’s end.

But like its inter­na­tion­al coun­ter­part, Chicago’s forum was essen­tial­ly a talk­ing shop, where so many top­ics were pre­sent­ed it was impos­si­ble to attend more than a frac­tion of them or to find out what hap­pened. Teach­ing peo­ple to work togeth­er and share strate­gies is great — the mohawked anar­chokid spot­ted talk­ing with the elder­ly nun was just one exam­ple — but are the new peo­ple who come to these events leav­ing com­mit­ted to action and con­nect­ed to new groups, or do they just leave?

For an event designed to inspire the grass­roots, the gaze was cast rather dis­tant. Work­shops about nation­al or glob­al issues beat local and state ones by almost a 4‑to‑1 mar­gin. The inevitable dron­ing-pan­elist syn­drome choked off debate and even dia­logue at some points, and white guys seemed to be out front an awful lot (case in point: speak­ers at the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion sem­i­nar includ­ed zero women and one Lati­no, who got shut up halfway through his intro­duc­tion). Social forums pro­mote a per­ma­nent process” of build­ing alter­na­tives to cor­po­rate mod­els, but on the ground it looked more like a choir enjoy­ing itself as one preach­er after anoth­er stood up to deliv­er his sermon.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the hard left seems to like this kind of event almost as much as their scarf-like Pales­tin­ian kaf­fiyehs, as much a stan­dard-issue item for them as a steam­ing Star­bucks cup is for the yuppie. 

A pro­fes­sor stood up in the morn­ing ple­nary to ask a decent ques­tion, about the missed oppor­tu­ni­ty to orga­nize the thou­sands of peo­ple awak­ened to activism dur­ing the lead-up to the Iraq war. His mis­take was to sug­gest it may well have been the dom­i­neer­ing pres­ence of ossi­fied ide­ol­o­gists that turned peo­ple off. After the snort­ing died down, sev­er­al of the next speak­ers denounced him. Coul­da been a Com­intern meet­ing. The forum’s demo­c­ra­t­ic struc­ture can be its down­fall, like so many activist projects before it, unless non-dem­a­gog­ic groups swal­low the dem­a­gogues with their numbers.

Chica­go activism seemed a small world by day’s end. Ghosts from cam­paigns past drift­ed through the hall­ways and stair­cas­es of Jones Prep High School, a curi­ous choice itself. Perched on State Street at Har­ri­son next to the giant Pacif­ic Gar­den Mis­sion, the loca­tion served up a lit­tle slice of real­i­ty — walk­ing out of a room of do-good­ers into bunch­es of home­less men has a way of adding some urgency to the discussion.

I don’t want to tear down the very con­cept of forums, which if done well are tem­plates for the coun­cils and assem­blies at the core of a demo­c­ra­t­ic, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry soci­ety. Orga­niz­ers want the forum to be an annu­al event, so in the inter­est of being con­struc­tive, here are some sug­ges­tions, com­piled from peo­ple smarter than me who attended:

  • Focus on the local. Pri­or­i­tize local issues and invite more com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers and pro­gres­sive neigh­bor­hood groups. If we are to shape pol­i­cy, the best chance we have is here at home, and these are the peo­ple to know.
  • Get some action. An inte­gral part of most sim­i­lar day­long events includes paus­ing the chat­ter to hit a pick­et line, leaflet and gen­er­al­ly stop traf­fic. With such a mas­sive crowd, heads turn and a local fight gets some oxygen.
  • Cre­ate a cen­tral space to share. With so many peo­ple and top­ics, a lot gets lost, and grasp­ing the entire­ty of what is out there becomes impos­si­ble. Chica­go is already a mas­sive, dif­fi­cult place to under­stand, but a free­wheel­ing job-fair-like room dis­play­ing the gamut of local grass­roots action would help.

I was still in car­toons-and-nap­time land dur­ing Harold Washington’s tenure as Chica­go may­or, but as I under­stand it, his admin­is­tra­tion suc­ceed­ed because it bridged the divide sep­a­rat­ing com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and pro­gres­sive whites. There is no doubt we need a new, true inter­na­tion­al, but not at the expense of home.

Mis­cha Gaus is an edi­tor of Labor Notes mag­a­zine, the largest inde­pen­dent union pub­li­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States.
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