November, 2004
The social and solidarity-based economy at the London European Social Forum
Laurent Fraisse

Following the previous events in Florence and Paris, the third European Social Forum was held in London from 14 to 17 October 2004. Obviously, it is always difficult to assess an event when you have only participated in one small part of it. However, the general reaction is mixed to say the least, and the prevailing feeling is that the Social Forum formula needs renewing if we want the alter-globalization movement to bear fruit.

The London event posed a considerable challenge, since the Anglo-Saxon world is generally underrepresented in the Social Forums, and in comparison with France and Brazil, the alter-globalization movement does not hold much influence in the English public arena.

With around 20,000 delegates, participation was down from Florence and Paris, partially due to the cost of registration and accommodation in one of the most expensive cities in the world; it was also a result of the difficulty of the English coalition, dominated by Socialist Workers Party militants and the anti-war movement Globalise Resistance, in widening the base of movements to take into account their ideological diversity and mechanisms for taking action. To take only the social and solidarity-based economy as an example, the English cooperative movement only agreed to participate and intervene in the ESF at the last minute.

Aside from a drop in numbers, several delegates returned with the feeling that the London ESF did not have enough impact on English society. Media coverage of the event was poor compared to coverage generated by the Paris-St Denis ESF. The impact on the English political class seemed marginal, despite the financial and logistical support of the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston. More generally, the average Londoner did not know that the European alter-globalization movement was holding a major event in the capital.

In terms of the social and solidarity-based economy, four seminars were organised on solidarity finance, social movements, sustainable development and economic alternatives, allowing participations to further develop discussions begun in Florence and Paris. I will limit myself to talking briefly about the seminar co-organised by the Movement for the Solidarity-based Economy and the Ile-de-France production cooperatives on the democratisation of the economy. Born of a networking action within the alter-globalization movement, the debate was aimed at decompartmentalising movements and bringing together the viewpoints of unionists, alter-globalization partisans and ecologist militants with the positions adopted by social and solidarity-based economy actors. The debate was fruitful and animated.

In addition to a common agreement rooted in criticism of the neo-liberal concept that wants to make people believe that the economy is a sphere independent from politics and far removed from democratic principles (the right to vote, public and properly argued debate), Eve Durquety (UR SCOP IDF) and John Goodman (Cooperative UK) reminded us that historically, the cooperative movement, just like the union movement, originated in the workers’ movement. Starting from the late 19th century, the paths taken by the two movements have diverged. As Christophe Aguitton pointed out, in the 20th century the nation state has progressively become the framework for regulating or breaking away from capitalism depending on your point of view: reformist or revolutionary.

Despite the apparent desire for internationalism, there is no denying that the national arena provides the platform for organising social movements and the outlet for their claims. Neo-liberal globalisation forces social economy businesses and solidarity-based initiatives, unions and NGOs to reposition their campaigns on the European and global level. On the one hand, cooperatives feel the pressure of competition from capital businesses and risk losing their character if they forget the political aspect of their activities. The micro-economic success stories and organisational democracy remain fragile if there is no change to economic regulations. On the other hand, unions and social movements risk locking themselves into a purely protest-based position if their programmes do not incorporate existing economic alternatives that propose different ways of producing, consuming and saving. Building a fairer and more united world does not depend solely on acts of resistance to the damaging effects of globalisation, but also on modifying daily economic acts in the role of worker, consumer or saver. In a nutshell, as Alberto Zoratti (Roba dell’ altromondo) put it, it involves proposing a concrete utopia that allows people to act here and now.

The activities of the solidarity-based economy and fair trade have the specific benefits of combining a commercial activity (sales of fair trade products) with a project for popular education and political actions, such as the campaign for ethics in labelling for Artisans du Monde (France) or the campaign against the WTO for Roba dell’ altromondo (Italy). There is a definite meeting point between initiatives seeking to relocate certain productive activities to communities by building short distribution chains and the claims of the ecologist movement. On this subject, Eve Mitchell (Friends of the Earth UK) denounced the ecological non-sustainability of the development model for international trade that too frequently undermines the know-how and revenues of smallscale farmers in the South.

There are still many areas for debate. Faced with the risk of social enterprises being replaced in the public services, notably in Great Britain, Jean-Michel Joubier (CGT) called into question the social and solidarity-based economy, whose position seems ambivalent in this area. Similarly, respect for social rights and working conditions for social and solidarity-based economy employees do not always correspond with the stated values. Other participants asked questions about the fragility of distribution networks for fair trade products and the potential for breathing new life into consumption cooperatives in countries such as Great Britain where they still exist. Conversely, the unions can no longer restrict themselves to sanctioning the division between the economic and the social and refusing to take up a position on entrepreneurial and management questions. In a globalisation context where corporate social responsibility is an issue, alliances between unions and international solidarity and ecologist NGOs need to be built.

Laurent Fraisse