The Counter-Summit Phenomenon – Forums for resistance and alternatives
Since the anti-globalisation movement of the late ’90s and early 2000s, wherever the political representatives and economic thinkers of capital met, they encountered protest and opposition. From Seattle to Genoa, tens of thousands turned out to demonstrate against institutions like the WTO, G8 and EU. The anti-worker and environmentally unsustainable implications of their free trade and neo-liberal agenda were exposed.
With the understanding of the limitations of the model of protests at summits across Europe, came the rise of counter-summits. Generally called Social Forums these were an opportunity for socialists, trade unionists, environmental activists and others to meet. They represented an attempt to go beyond simply protesting against these institutions and to formulate alternatives as well as to discuss strategies for resistance.
The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in Brazil which 12,000 people attended opened the process of the WSFs. It was followed with successful events in Athens, Mumbai, Nairobi and elsewhere. After playing a vital role in mobilising for the demonstrations on 15 February 2003, where tens of millions marched against a war on Iraq, the summits suffered a general decline, becoming somewhat disconnected from the real struggles happening around the world.
The model was successful in opening an important discussion, but it also contained within it an important contradiction that was always present in the anti-globalisation movement. This was the tension between an approach that was fundamentally reformist, aiming to curb the worst excesses of globalisation and capitalism and a more consistent anti-capitalist position. The formal exclusion of political parties did not keep out the various NGOs connected to Social Democracy and the reformist ideas associated with them, while revolutionary socialists were not able to openly organise.
There are currently moves to re-invigorate the counter-summits, with the Alter Summit process being started in Florence in November of last year. An Alter Summit will take place in Athens this year and the World Social Forum takes place at the end of March in Tunisia, which I will attend. Both these locations are at the heartland of revolutionary developments over the last year – in North Africa and the Middle East and in Europe itself.
These are important opportunities for discussions to take place and to draw the lessons from the previous decline of the counter-summits and the deep nature of the capitalist crisis. Central to their success or otherwise in my opinion, will be to connect these summits to the revolutionary movements that are taking place. A clear identification of capitalism as the problem and the working class as the central force to bring about change, despite the betrayal of the trade union leaders, is vital.
Counter-summit in Ireland
Now the Irish government holds the Presidency of the European Union, at a time when the EU is viciously imposing austerity. It is also at a time when a false story about the success of austerity in Ireland is being wielded around Europe as a stick to beat the peoples of Greece, Spain and Portugal with. It is essential therefore that we take our opportunity in Ireland to discuss the austerity being imposed and how to resist it.
I therefore took the initiative to host a counter-summit which will take place from 15-17 February in Liberty Hall in Dublin (www.countersummit.eu). Although this is not an event approaching the scale of the European or World Social Forum, it is a chance to have precisely those discussions that are necessary for all of us struggling against austerity across Europe and to learn from the experiences of our brothers and sisters across Europe.
There are three essential elements to these events – educating people about the austerity and anti-democratic processes that are taking place, discussing about how we build a common front of resistance across Europe, and debating and discussing the alternative. There is no contradiction between these. Sometimes people criticise the Left for having so many disagreements and debates. But these debates, which should not be a barrier to common action, are essential. They essentially come down to how we understand the processes and attacks we are facing, which is a vital starting point to deciding how to resist.
An example of this kind of debate will be that between Owen Jones (Author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class), Alex Gordon (President of the RMT union) and myself over ‘Social or Neo-Liberal? History & Future of the EU’. This is essentially about how the Left relates to the EU as a project. Although all three of us start from a similar point, which is a recognition of the role that the EU plays in driving austerity and neo-liberalism today, there are important elements of difference which will need to be hammered out, such as whether the EU could be transformed into a more accountable organisation (as Owen Jones argues). Alex Gordon and myself, I think would agree that the EU cannot be transformed into a social Europe. Instead, I would argue the need for a fundamentally different and socialist Europe to be built by working people across Europe.
On Saturday morning, Kenneth Haar, will, together with Brendan Young, discuss “EU – European democracy or market dictatorship” and bring important information and analysis that can aid our struggles. Coming from the Corporate Europe Observatory, he is in a unique position to do so. This organisation has been to the forefront in explaining the role of the EU in the crisis, producing regular reports on the implications of the Fiscal Treaty, the so-called ‘six-pack’ and the other proposals emanating from the Commission.
There will also be a unique opportunity to discuss and learn lessons from the bitter struggles waged by the Greek working class against the Troika as well as the dangers posed by the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn. Andros Payiatsos, General Secretary of the Socialist Party’s sister party in Greece, Xekinima, and a driving force behind the new ‘Initiative 1000, will speak alongside Dr. Helena Sheehan, a regular activist, visitor to Greece and author of an engaging account of interaction with the Greek movements.
Lessons for our struggles
Another good example of learning from the other struggles in Europe will be the session on Sunday about ‘Lessons from the poll tax battle’. This will feature Tommy Sheridan who was sentenced to six months in prison for his leading role in the successful battle against the poll tax in Britain, which brought down Maggie Thatcher. In Ireland, we are aiming to do the same with the battle against the property tax and this government.
Of course, all of these debates have a direct relevance to the struggles that we are facing in Ireland. On the Saturday at 6 pm, this connection will be made concrete with a debate on ‘Alternatives to Austerity’ – featuring Joe Higgins TD for the Socialist Party, together with with Richard Boyd Barrett TD (People Before Profit), Eoin O’Broin from Sinn Fein and Paul Dillon from the Campaign for Labour Policies. This will tackle such vital questions as how can struggle to resist the austerity agenda be developed and what alternative policies are necessary.
The event will conclude with a discussion about ‘Building Europe-wide resistance … the next steps’. This will be an opportunity to turn our discussion over the weekend into proposals for action. With leading trade unionists, Alex Gordon from the RMT and Carmel Gates from NIPSA speaking, we will be able to discuss how to build for common action across Europe, including common industrial action. We can also discuss the various European summits taking place in Dublin and how resistance can be organised to them.
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