A Democratic Multitude

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Year: NOVEMBER 22, 2002 Published: In These Times

Any way you measure it, November’s European Social Forum was a spectacular success. After the nightmare of the G-8 meetings in Genoa a year and a half before, the prospect of any large-scale convergence of globalization activists in Italy was a matter of widespread trepidation. Almost as soon as organizers named Florence as the location, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that “police intelligence” had discovered that activists were planning to wreak widespread destruction in the ancient city. The announcement was backed up by an endless campaign of scaremongering on Italian TV and in print media, much of which is owned by Berlusconi.

The organizers—who had selected Florence partly because its citizens had just elected a radical mayor—demanded an audience with government ministers, where they presented a simple proposal: We are not intending violence or destruction, they said, but we are also determined to hold the forum in Florence, with permission or not. If police tried to shut it down by force, some activists would certainly defend themselves; it was really up to the government whether they wanted there to be violence. So the government gave in. For the moment.

One might say that the idea of a Social Forum is to create a new conception of the public, not as voters or passive spectators, but as the kind of public that might exist in a truly free society. A “democratic multitude” is the currently popular phrase in Italy (it originally goes back to Spinoza). Instead of old-fashioned talk of “the masses,” with its implications of faceless uniformity—a sea of gray faces rallying behind some great leader or glued to some giant screen—“the multitude” is inherently heterogeneous, an endless colorful array self-organized groups converging for some purposes and going their separate ways for others.

The Social Forum was a place for such a multitude to converge: In this case, to imagine what Europe might look like if the principles underlying these groups were generalized. It would be, among other things, a Europe of open borders, networks of cooperative enterprises connected by complex systems of barter or social exchange, in which a massive diminution of certain forms of ecologically destructive consumerism would be compensated by guaranteed incomes, drastically reduced hours of work and frenetically intensified cultural production.


And the forum itself? Imagine if you will something halfway between a carnival and the largest academic conference in world history, with 60,000 delegates—but the average age was in the mid-twenties, and at least half the delegates sported dreadlocks, piercings or kaffiyehs. Ancient arsenals—all part of the Renaissance fortress in which the conference was held—were packed with audiences of up to 6,000, listening to discussions of the Argentine barter economy, strategies for civil disobedience, or the relation of sexuality and revolution. The whole event culminated on November 9 with one of the largest peace marches Europe has ever seen, an enormous festival of music and costumes that even the police estimated at 500,000; organizers claimed more than a million.

Without the support of the city government, Berlusconi and his allies were unable to manufacture another Genoa, and all the scare tactics came to nothing. There are dangers here, however. The main Italian organizers of the event were political parties like the Greens and Rifondazione Comunista, along with the Disobédienti (formerly Ya Basta!), which have been criticized for their reliance on top-down organizational structures. They and reformist groups like the French ATTAC dominated the speeches and seminars; the anarchists and most other actual practitioners of self-organization found themselves exiled to the margins (the Italian Independent Media Center along with most anarchists ended up operating out of a space called the Hub half a mile away from the fortress).

Media campaigns endlessly represented them as the “violent fringe,” although these were almost the only groups in attendance that rejected any idea of imposing their views by force. But that propaganda made it much easier for some on center stage—like Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers Party—to lecture the crowds about how foolish and destructive it was to imagine there was ever something fundamentally new about the current movement (some nonsense about new organizational forms coming out of the Zapatistas, or whatever), insisting instead that the core of the movement has always been established labor unions and political parties. Those who would like to reduce us to faceless masses are never far away.

As if to highlight such dangers, almost as soon as the event was over, the government struck back, hauling off some 20 activists in raids all over Italy, accusing them of conspiring to disrupt the government during previous protests in Naples and Genoa. Organizers of events like the Social Forum must stand behind such people—and ultimately, that means not only demanding their release, but letting them into backrooms where agendas appear to be made or, better, democratizing the process altogether. No movement can survive if it allows itself to be cut off from the sources of its own creativity.