I'm sure I'm only one of many thousands of anti-capitalist activists who bitterly regret having missed the World Social Forum (WSF) at Porto Alegre. At the end of last month 12,000 people from all over the world packed the capital of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul to attend this event. It was planned as an alternative to the bosses' shindig in Davos, the World Economic Forum.
The highpoint seems to have been a live television debate through a satellite hook-up between George Soros and other bigwigs at Davos, and leading critics of neo-liberalism in Porto Alegre. Walden Bello, the Filipino writer and activist, declared, 'We live on two different planets-Davos, the planet of the super-rich, and Porto Alegre, the planet of the poor, the marginalised, the concerned.
'Here in Porto Alegre we are discussing how to save the planet. There in Davos the global elite is discussing how to maintain its hegemony over the rest of us. In fact, the best gift that the 2,000 corporate executives can give the world is for them to board a spaceship and blast off for outer space.'
The fact that the debate took place is an indication of how far the apologists of global capitalism have been thrown onto the defensive by the movement that began at Seattle. The Financial Times described how shaken Soros was by the drubbing he got: 'Such uncomfortable experiences seem temporarily to have scrambled his ability to deliver pithy soundbites.'
But there are also major political differences within the movement against capitalist globalisation. At one extreme there are those who take seriously the promises of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank-under pressure from the protesters-to reform themselves.
These include the so-called Congos, or Co-opted Non-Governmental Organisations, which have taken up the IMF's and World Bank's offers of 'dialogue'. They also embrace some of the key forces behind Porto Alegre. For example, Bernard Cassen of the French left wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique now wants to organise a debate in which Soros will champion the idea of the Tobin Tax on international financial speculation against an unconditional defender of the free market.
Cassen is a leading figure in the ATTAC anti-globalisation campaign. ATTAC has developed into a mass movement against neo-liberalism in France by taking up and popularising the call for the Tobin Tax. This demand is a good starting point for challenging global capitalism, but clearly people like Cassen see it as a finishing point as well.
Simply regulating financial markets isn't on its own going to undo the power of the global corporations. The late French president Franois Mitterrand, whose former foreign minister is currently on trial for corruption, supported the Tobin Tax. Two French government ministers were at Porto Alegre, along with the left-nationalist ex minister of the interior Jean-Pierre ChevŽnement, despite the fact that the Socialist Party government in France has privatised far more than its right wing predecessor. For them, going to Porto Alegre was a way of maintaining some contact and credibility with a new and growing left.
Rio Grande do Sul is controlled by the left wing of the Workers' Party (PT), the main party in Brazil seeking to reform capitalism. The state governor opened the WSF.
At the opposite end of the spectrum represented at Porto Alegre was the coalition of far left groups based at the WSF's youth camp that issued a manifesto denouncing the event. They accused the PT state government of strike-breaking, continuing to repay the foreign debt, and harassing street traders and landless squatters. 'Humanising capitalism is utopian and reactionary,' the manifesto declared. 'Capitalism kills. We will kill capitalism.'
A South African participant commented, 'I personally agree with the memo of the youth camp. But it would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The WSF did create space for radical organisations and individuals to meet and discuss possible joint programmes. Furthermore, symbolically it represents an alternative to Davos.'
This seems a sensible judgement. Anti-capitalism is still an embryonic movement, within which wide-ranging divergences of opinion and strategy are to be expected. Indeed, the impression of a movement united despite its diversity is a positive attraction.
All the same, the differences are real. For some within the movement, the aim is to create a more humane version of capitalism. For others, among them revolutionary socialists, the enemy is global capitalism itself. This is an argument whose implications will have to be put to the test of practice.