PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil—As global conferences about managing the future of the world go, this one is pretty easygoing. Sure, there are a bunch of Nobel Prize winners, a few heads of state, and experts on every subject from agricultural subsidies to zero-sum growth. The conference has drawn more than 100,000 people. They will be here for six days, making plans to alter entire societies, cultures, and economies.
And not one of them has a briefcase. OK, I’m exaggerating. Maybe six of them do. But I’ve been here more than 24 hours, seen thousands of people, and not one person is wearing a suit. Of course, it’s summer here.
I should explain. You will soon start seeing lots of news articles, which you won’t read, about the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. You will vaguely remember that it happens every year around this time at an exclusive ski resort and that big politicians and business guys like Dick Cheney and Bill Gates lecture to gushing crowds of management consultants, as-yet-unindicted chief financial officers, and magazine editors. That’s the World Economic Forum. Davos.
This is the Fifth Annual World Social Forum. Call it the left’s version of Davos. Did I mention the Vietnamese couple wearing Ho Chi Minh shirts who handed me a flyer about the U.S. government’s cover-up regarding the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Did I mention that the man sitting next to me is wearing camouflage pants, sports a compass on his belt, has lots of exposed gray chest hair, and is reading the “Dialects” of Adorno and Horkheimer?
Although what I have said is true, I should stop being snarky. There are, after all, thousands and thousands of people flooding to this smallish city in the south of Brazil for the event. Most of them are university students, almost all of whom—I’m educated-guessing—have come from Latin America and Europe. Very few Americans, but more on that later.
All these people have come to hear experts, activists, politicians, trade unionists, members of indigenous tribes, and still more activists. There are even feminists here.
Oh, cynical American, you are dismissing it already. I know you. But as a British journalist (there aren’t many Brits here either, according to him) just entreated me: Look at the numbers. Imagine if this many tens of thousands of Americans traveled all of these hundreds or thousands of miles to attend something other than a college football game or a Metallica concert. What if it was to hear a bunch of antiabortion preachers, pro-gun advocates, and advertising executives? That would be big news, right?
Wait, that happened. George W. Bush won re-election. But a guy called Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from the Workers’ Party is president of Brazil, which has 170 million people. Lefties have also been elected in Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela (whose leader, Hugo Chávez, is, admittedly, a strongman, but less so than many of the leaders being feted at Davos). So, with all these populist and reformist Latin America governments in power, the World Social Forum might be expected to be a leftist lovefest.
Or not. In a situation that might be familiar to anyone involved in Democratic politics, the left wing of the Workers’ Party is furious with Lula for enforcing fiscal austerity and economic expansion policies. True, they’ve led to an economic expansion of 6.1 percent in the last year and a record-breaking $33 billion trade surplus. But folks here are angry with their elected leader, since fiscal austerity is not much fun to live through. Lula is willing to alienate some of his supporters, as he indicated to reporters while breaking ground on a new pipeline in the Amazon: “If people want development that preserves the environment, we have to have energy,” he told reporters in April. “It’s no good people saying the Amazon has to be the sanctuary of humanity and forget there are 20 million people living here.”
Lula will attend the World Social Forum, but he will only address a select group, since a large crowd of leftists would likely be unfriendly.
And that, in a nutshell, is the dynamic—albeit perhaps unspoken—facing the global left over the next five days: how to navigate the terrain between ideology and practice.