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A Cool Fascismo?
Zaid Hassan, 1 Aug 04

Greetings from Barcelona! It's a hot, humid and steamy Spanish summer and I've come across an interesting story. I'm at Forum 2004, which, on the face of it, is a textbook perfect Worldchanging event - a series of events over 141 days hosted under the mighty moniker of a "Universal Forum of Cultures." From May 9, 2004 to September 26, 2004 Barcelona is hosting a number of events & exhibitions around three core themes:cultural diversity, sustainable development and conditions for peace. Digging a little deeper into this dream ticket I discover darker controversies.

The brainchild of Barcelona City, the Forum site has 40 dialogues and "4 major exhibitons and another 22 smaller shows, more than 400 concerts, 170 music groups, upto 60 street performances...and lots more." Some of the speakers listed include Joseph Stiglitz, Vandana Shiva, Paul Krugman, Gilberto Gil, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Romano Prodi, Salman Rhusdie, Mohammad Yunus and a lot more. Musicians include Lenny Kravitz, Bob Dylan, Dido...You get the idea. This is supposed to be a big deal, with big names.

This being a 141 day "event" it's a little difficult to get a feel for the whole thing in a few days. I spent two days popping in and out of a dialogue on "Ethics and the Wealth of Nations" and visiting the permanant exhibitions on the site. I notice there is also something curiously flat and unexciting about the air at the Forum - even though it's clear that these are issues very close to my heart. I walk around the Forum with an odd sense on unease rumbling through my head and my gut. What's going on here?

On a website called "Fucked 2004" Barcelona activists have published (in Spanish) a long manifesto against the Forum. The arguments are summed up in an essay titled "El Fascismo Postermoderno" (A Postmodern Fascism). The introduction to the manifesto is "Ten Reasons Not to Participate..." Among the many claims are that the Forum is so far from being environmentally sustainable as to make a mockery of the idea, that due to funding from the Spanish government it refuses to take a stance against the war on Iraq even though one of its themes is peace, that it exploits its workers and has high costs of entry. Finally the big objection is that the Forum's corporate funders are simply trying to buy some green kudos and do not demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the ideas the Forum claims to champion.

We can learn a lot from the Forum. If we're going to argue the case for sustainability and new ways of organising then we need to be able to demonstrate our case and ensure that it manifests in everything we do. If we're going to run dialogues then we need to ensure they're genuinely dialogues and not monologues. "Walking the talk" may sound like a simple message to draw from the Forum but my feeling is that this matters a lot. All our intentions, ideas and energy are worthless unless we can actually demonstrate them in everything -- from transportation to labour relations. We need a set of design principles around what it means to run events around sustainability. What's required is an almost anal attention to detail. The Forum fails to do this and lays itself open to broadsides of critique.

I thought it was interesting I was at Forum 2004 while worldchanging folks were gathering in SF. I wonder, how we might have designed the Forum differently? What are the principles that will allow us to design events congruent with our beliefs?

(Thanks Roger for all your help!)

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"All our intentions, ideas and energy are worthless unless we can actually demonstrate them in everything -- from transportation to labour relations. We need a set of design principles around what it means to run events around sustainability. What's required is an almost anal attention to detail. The Forum fails to do this and lays itself open to broadsides of critique."

The most sustainable event that I know of is total inaction. Does this mean that dead sustainability activists are the only ones whose intentions and ideas are worth anything?

Sustainability theorists have been decrying the whole of capitalism as unsustainable, and this event is clearly capitalistic in nature: someone has to fly these hundreds of people to barcelona and stage events and pay artists/handlers/speakers, etc. There are sponsors, but still a price of entry. I can't read spanish so I don't know the exact notions of their unsustainability (maybe you could tell the rest of us anglophones?), but any time you have a series of events this size, with a bureacracy of corporate / governmental funding, that is what you are going to get.

Does that mean it is hypocritical of the conference to introduce people and exhibits about how there might be better ways to organize things?

I would decry the idea that we (ANYONE!) are either pure or the filth, good or evil. I don't see anything negative about this conference, especially in the context of Spain in the last few months, 2004.

Posted by: Ben Hunt on 1 Aug 04

"All our intentions, ideas and energy are worthless unless we can actually demonstrate them in everything."

Oh, please!

This can only lead to endless introspection, purity tests, and stasis.

Meanwhile, people who are even a little less anal will be out there actually DOING something.

There's a great line by Stewart Brand buried in The Last Whole Earth Catalog that I'm fond of:

"We're kind of down on utopian solutions around here, preferring a more fiasco by fiasco approach to perfection."

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 1 Aug 04

"All our intentions, ideas and energy are worthless unless we can actually demonstrate them in everything."

Ok so maybe this was a bit of an extreme statement on Zaid's part, and I agree with both of you that the solution is not to do nothing. But I don't understand the link from there to a statement like "I see nothing negative about this conference".

I really don't believe that it is inevitable for this kind of event to be hypocritical and passionless. I also visited the forum, and my feeling of it, without knowing anything about the organisation behind it, was that someone had a vision and hired consultants to implement it, who did the work because they were getting paid to do it. I contrasted it with something like the constitutional court in South Africa which Zaid posted an article about back in April. That project has passion through and through, and you walk through feeling like there is an enlightened and enspirited approach behind it, even though it is implemented by a government that is both bureaucratic and capitalist.

I find the question of how we would organise something like this interesting - not in the sense of being purist and thinking we would do perfectly and not get criticised by the activists, but how would we deal with the balancing acts of having to make it financially viable, partnering with government and corporations, etc...? How would we solve this equation differently? For one, organising what you choose to call 'dialogues' as genuine dialogues and not monologues is a no-brainer to me. As is creating exhibits that turn people's brains and hearts on and shift their paradigms as opposed to appealing to their guilt, shame, and fear (that said, the forum exhibits were the better part of it).

I think it's important for us to continue innovating and to be conscious of when events around sustainability, corporate responsibility become routine - there is a risk of losing passion, insight, and consistency at this stage and doing it in autopilot. That doesn't make for a world changing event.

Posted by: Mille Bojer on 2 Aug 04

Spain has just remembered 25 years of democracy - after the fall ofthe dictatorship of General Franco- being a diverse and outspoken country, and as a way of celebrating, Barcelona - a very diverse city and the capital of Catalonia, a very "walk the talk" region in Spain- decided to do the Forum... I think to title your article as Cool Fascismo was an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Catalonians and Spanish people that died 25 years ago defendind democracy ago against the real fascismo my dear Zaid.

President Zapatero promised before March 11th to return to troops from Iraq, and he complied. Thanks for playing to the American Right making show Spain and Catalonia as loosers...

"The Forum ... lays itself open to broadsides of critique..."

Thank God it does. What Spain loves is to be open to critique, and that Zaid, is not cool fascismo.

Posted by: Alfredo Narváez on 2 Aug 04

Please be clear, I did not label the Forum "fascist" - Barcelona activists did. I'm reporting this fact and I feel there is a grain of truth in the claim - even if it might seem overblown. My reporting this fact is an insult to all of those who died in the Spanish Civil War ONLY if you define freedom as simply being the freedom to sell and consume.

The many Spaniards and Catalans who fought against fascism did not fight in order to simply allow the city of Barcelona to turn itself into a commodity and then sell itself to those with money and power.

Finally, please do not presume to tell me what it means to fight fascism. Ask your questions, cast doubt but please don't lecture me.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 2 Aug 04

For the sake of clarity:

1. The title implies an asumption, that I think most Catalans and Spaniard dont share...

2. Of course I dont define freedom as just a market freedom, but the Forum Žs not just about capitalism. I mean every similar event, like an Expo, as the last one in Hannover, sells the entries, and that is not a mortal sin. To so somework for money isnŽt bad on itself, the question that I agree with you is, how to make capitalism sustainable -socially and environmentaly... but I insist that the title is an insult for Barcelona and Spain. To call a movie theater fascist because it is a business seems over rated for me.

3. Barcelona as a commodity? Please, overated again. Barcelona is a vibrant city, and to see it as a "commodity" is just another insult Zaid.
Commodities are democracy and justice right now I think, being sold and purchased like at an auction, but thatŽs another issue...

4. And no, I dont defend abstract ideas, but I think is honorable to call things by their name, and Spain and Barcelona have nothing to with being commodities or fascism right now. Spaniards and Catalans deserve better.

5. LetŽs return to the deep question: how can we make capitalism and democracy sustainble?

Cheers Zaid,

Posted by: Alfredo Narváez on 2 Aug 04


Thank you for your take on the Forum. I heard about it and was curious so it was very nice to see a review.

Sounds pretty normal to me, good things and things to improve. A feedback mechanism of record keeping and evaluation, consulted next time in the planning phase, would slowly move things in the desired directions. There is no perfect. Every system has flaws. Published reviews like yours are a vital part of that process. It's all good.

Posted by: Lauren on 3 Aug 04

Next edition will be improved and things will take a different approach. They just said that next edition that might be in Monterrey in 2007 is already considering not charging to get in. Apparently substantial changes will be made.

But here in Barcelona we have been hearing and talking about the Forum for quite some time (maybe since 2000?). Personally I think that some changes could have already been made during the planning process and it wasn't necessary to wait until the next edition. There's been loads of feedback from the beginning but most of it was unheard. Only small changes were introduced when the pressure was too high e.g. they eventually allowed people to enter with food (which wasn't at the beginning partly due to agreements with restaurants). I would say that the main reason for many local groups that are not taking part in the Forum is precisely because of that: it was thought as a flow in just one direction (link this also to the fact that it seems that the dialogues might be more similar to monologues).

Personally, I was really excited when the Forum was taking shape, really energised and willing to take part and collaborate. But little by little my expectations diminished. Since I couldn't afford the season ticket I eventually decided to volunteer for a few days and I had the chance to visit the Forum after my volunteering. Just another visitor since I can't see the channels through we all can truly become part of it.

Posted by: Roger on 5 Aug 04



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