The man at the Socially Responsible Banking stall has his head in his hands.
Business for him is slow to non-existent. He looks glumly across at the stall opposite, which sells Che Guevara merchandise. It is five-dash;deep with customers. Anti-capitalism is good for business here. If he didn’t know this before, he certainly does now.
His story repeats itself right across the great hall of Alexandra Palace in London, the nerve-centre of the European Social Forum 2004. There are lines of stands and stalls as far as the eye can see: selling books, giving away leaflets, urging the signing of petitions, offering membership, promoting parties or religions.
Here is the Trotsykist Fraction, presumably some mathematically-correct splinter group, competing with the nearby Bolshevik Tendency for the largest number of unreadable pamphlets distributed over the course of the weekend. Over there is War on Want, nearby is the Turkish Communist Party and in a far corner are the shiny-eyed and only faintly sinister people from Share International, devoted to spreading the word about the imminent emergence of Maitreya, the World Teacher, who is coming to save us all. I feel like asking them why he didn’t emerge on Friday and save us all this bother, but I worry that I might never escape.
This is not my first social forum, and certainly not my first activist gathering. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for half a decade now, and it’s all very familiar. There are an estimated 100,000 people here from all across Europe, all keen, all busy, all trying to get somewhere. There is a world to be saved, and there’s no time for messing about.
I fight my way through the throng, waving off the billions of Socialist Worker-sellers who throng every available space bellowing “Blair Must Go!” and “End The Imperialist Occupation!” to make themselves look busy while everybody ignores them. The run-up to this year’s forum saw a good deal of disturbing hard-left power play. One result is that it’s impossible to turn a corner without competing gangs of Trots thrusting aggressively red-topped newspapers in your face. After a few hours they all merge into one. I find myself almost admiring their enthusiasm, in a mournful kind of way. All that energy and commitment devoted to something so pointless. Why don’t they give it up and do something useful, like lend a hand cleaning the floors? It’s a dreadful mess in here. There are discarded leftie newspapers everywhere
I’m trying to get to a speaker session on climate change. There are thousands of events on over the three days of the forum: workshops, plenaries, speaker sessions, cultural events, fringe events and plenty more. Many of them are here in the great hall, which has been subdivided for the purpose with sheets of black cloth, which together create ten crude meeting spaces. The overall effect of ten speaker meetings, all electronically amplified, all being held at once in the same huge space is brain-scrambling. Whoever came up with this idea is very unpopular this weekend
I give up. I can’t find what I’m looking for and I’m just getting overwhelmed. To get the best out of a social forum you need an unquenchable, boundless optimism. Yes! Another world is possible! And it starts here! With me! Try as I might, I just can’t muster this today.
Still, in the absence of optimism there is always beer. Over in the far corner of the great hall I can see a sign that says “bar”. My heart leaping I head towards it, pushing my way through the melee. I am assaulted on all sides by flags, banners, t-shirts and yet more newspapers. I am urged to be outraged about Palestine, Turkey, Colombia, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, women prisoners, capitalism, Tony Blair, rail privatisation, capitalism, Islamophobia, capitalism and Iraq in the space of ten yards. Now I really need a drink.
I reach the bar. Disaster! It’s playing host to a Badly Drawn Boy lookalikes convention and the crowd at the bar is ten woolly-hats deep. The barstaff have harassed glints in their eyes. I’ll never get there before I die of thirst.
I plunge back into the crowd and head for the exit. In the absence of alcohol, I will settle for fresh air. The main door is perhaps fifty metres away but reaching it is a major expedition. Back through the crowds I battle, the stalls merging into a melange of red, green and black. Voices from all sides assault me as I struggle on.
“Local organic apples!”
“End the imperialist occupation!”
This is not good at all. I came here to be inspired and now I’m just grumpy. It’s a badly-organised mess of wild-eyed commie beardies, religious maniacs, flaky students, NGO time-servers and ranting demagogues. If this is life after capitalism, give me Starbucks any day. At least you can get served in there.
In short, I am now in a foul mood. But then, just as I’m about to head to the media centre and write a furious article about how everything is going horribly wrong, something happens: one of those moments that only an event like this can give you, when everything seems to change for no real reason at all.
Outside, it has been raining all day. It must have stopped because now sunlight begins to fall through the huge, round stained glass window at one end of the great hall. I catch it as I am standing, fuming, in the vast crowd, looking for the easiest way out. It opens up the space, floods it with light, and suddenly I can see beyond my mood to what this is, and why. I can see it as I’ve seen it before, and as how thousands of others must be seeing it right now. I can see it as a vast, chaotic and remarkable example of what people can do when something matters to them enough. People have come from all across Europe to be here, simply because they want something better from the world. And what will come of it? A lot of hot air, sure, and lot of used paper cups and cigarette butts too. But with any luck, something else as well.
Five years ago, after all, social forums hadn’t been invented. Now they are taking over the world. I wish there were more seats, fewer Trots, and cheaper tickets at this one. But maybe it’s all worth putting up with, for the end result: a space in which new ideas can be born which someday soon might be more than ideas, and which may help change the world for the better after all. That’s got to be worth holding out for.