Special Guest Report
Geonomics at the World Social Forum
Below is a first-hand report by Geonomy Society president Jeffery J. Smith, on his recent trip to Brazil where he attended the huge World Social Forum.
by Jeffery J. SmithBigger than its capitalist counterpart in Davos (Switzerland), bigger even than the Democratic and Republican conventions combined - and certainly more entertaining - the World Social Forum (WSF) in Brazil was ignored by the US media. Yet from January 25 to 30, the WSF had over 5000 delegates, 1500 reporters, and 500 on staff (enabling the run-around, if you got it, to go on for almost ever). The opening day, over 15,000 marched in the streets. At night, overflow crowds flocked to the amphitheatre for concerts featuring major Brazilian acts. The WSF coincided with other major conferences in Porto Alegre, including one of elected officials from around the world, some of whom popped up amid the crowds at the WSF.
What made all this possible, plus a free shuttle from the airport and other perks, were funds from Nobel novelist Heinrich Böll, France's Le Monde Diplomatique, the City of Porto Alegre, and the State of Rio Gran do Sul. Both government entities are dominated by the rapidly-growing Workers Party (PT, Party of Trabajadores or Workers) which brought the participatory budget to both jurisdictions. Thus, how public funds get spent is decided largely by town-hall-type meetings; now public pavements, streetlights, schools, etc, rather than being hoarded by the well off, do reach the working class neighborhoods. The leader of the party, "Lulu" in Portuguese, is a strong candidate for president of Brazil and gave an impassioned and well-received speech at the WSF.
Outside the venue, the police chased after Jose Bove, the French farmer noted for bashing MacDonald's in Paris (try one of their hamburgers; you would, too). He and hundreds of members of the Movement of those Sin Terra (MST, Brazil's large and popular organization of the landless, the smallest landowners, and their sympathizers), monkey-wrenched a local corporate field of dreams, seeded with genetically-modified plants. Vilified by the police, Bove was lionized by the WSF crowd. People can be fired up to oppose a perceived wrong. What might motivate them to advance a deserved right?
Despite some strong crosscurrents, the overriding message of the forum was unfortunately "US bad, socialism good." Most speakers raked over old ground, lambasting neo-liberalism, free trade, multinational corporations, and the World Bank. The policies of the powerful do mainly enrich the rich and impoverish the poor (duh). Yet if politics is to have anything to do with the world getting well, all that energy and organization against something needs to be redirected for something.
While it is necessary to demand that the strong not exploit the weak, it is not sufficient. Would-be reformers must also ask how to make the weak strong. The US's ruling elite does not exploit just anybody. The US exploits those who are already exploiting themselves. Yet the word "corruption" did not appear once in the WSF schedule, a document of over 100 pages and 500 workshops. Although criticizing others is more fun, changing their behavior might be more difficult than changing one's own or that of one's own ruling elite.
To make the weak strong, the WSF did offer a sprinkling of constructive workshops. They covered such topics as land reform, some of which were presented by governmental agencies; and a social salary, showing the idea is not just for rich countries, and even one on being not reactive but proactive. Some demanded shifting debts owed to foreign lenders from the people of the South to the people of the North rather than to the elites of both and offered nothing to prevent the debts from reappearing post-cancellation. But to cut to the heart of the matter, other than the lone workshop on geonomics there was nothing on how capitalists accumulate wealth - privatize society's gains and socialize private costs.
The modus operandi of accumulation is the control of rent and of public revenue. Every entity that the Forum criticized, from the World Bank to the multinationals for whom corporate welfare worldwide totals $1.5 trillion each year, is engrossed by subsidy. A few speakers did talk taxes, not shifting taxes off goods onto bads, but creating a brand new tax, the ever more popular Tobin tax on currency transactions. It's another attempt to control the behavior of others, rather than examine how a few accumulated so much money and why some currencies are strong and others weak (hint: corruption) or what role a global currency could play.
Mark Twain would have loved it. Like most political/religious gatherings, the WSF abounded in contradiction. A diatribe against technology was interrupted by the speaker's cell phone. After demanding equality for all, speakers retired to the guarded VIP room for those more equal than the rest. Smokers forced everyone to inhale their toxic exhale, lighting up Marlboros (made in the USA) beneath "no smoking" signs. Between speeches, the anti-marketeers flocked to the temporary market of booths outside the conference hall selling food, crafts, and anti-trade T-shirts to take back to their homelands.
Some things in Latin America never change. The police force's official torturer kept his job, even though the PT captured a majority in the city and state. The host facility, the Pope's Catholic University, was next door to where the army still trained its cavalry. Some locals asked visiting gringos if they had voted for the winner, Bush, as if some patriarch were really in charge (and as if Republicans would take a vacation in the Third World). During the conference, workshops began an hour late and ended two hours late, reminding one that the revolution will not start on time. The left and ultra-left got into shouting matches, recalling the story of the leftist firing squad formed in a circle.
The WSF generated action but not direction; it boiled water but cooked nothing. The Forum, if it is to realize its slogan and make dreams real, should devote more time to trying to reach group consensus on how to make the world better, not just how to stop it from becoming worse, on our becoming pro-active, so our opponents must use up their resources resisting us, instead of our forever being re-active, letting our opponents dictate how we spend our time and energy. Imagine a growing, global movement demanding a social salary in lieu of corporate welfare.
As GB Shaw noted, "if you're not a socialist at 20, you have no heart; if you're still a socialist at 40, you have no head." To have both heart and head, reformers might investigate geonomics. It combines the efficiency of the market with the equity of real community. It would replace taxes on useful effort with the collection of rents (the annual values of sites, resources, and monopolies), and replaces subsidies beneath wasteful programs with a dividend paid to everyone. It's a non-left, non-right, third-way approach that some find worth pursuing.
The number of people at the Forum inspired by geonomics should have been greater. I had been scheduled to give two workshops, one with Vicki Robin, a leader in the simpler living movement. Because my visa had arrived late, I arrived late, missing both dates and having to scramble to reschedule. At least Vicki and I did get a chance to chat a bit later.
Trying to reschedule a workshop was a task that led me into the Kafkaesque labyrinth of WSF bureaucracy, a twilight zone from which I never fully re-emerged. The first rescheduled talk turned out to be at the same time and place as someone else's. The second had too little lead time for much advance publicity. The special flyers handed out prior to the event were garnished by Marcel Franco, police officer and husband of Luciane, publicist for the State, with a caricature portrait of yours truly. Despite this attractive decoration, only seven came, but they were enthusiastic; one even translated my talk (including the contact information for the Henry George Institute) into Portuguese and posted it on the WSF website.
Misfortune stayed doggedly at my heels. Enthused by how collecting rent has redistributed land bloodlessly, Edda Isernhagen of the MST arranged a meeting with Tarso Genro, the popular PT mayor of Porto Alegre, that fell through at their end. On the plus side, I did meet with José Eduardo Utzig, the guy in charge of raising revenue for the city.
Like cities everywhere, in Porto Alegre cars clog the streets and the architecture tires the eyes. To fund programs and spur efficient use of land, cities could shift taxes off buildings, onto locations. Intelligent and informative, Utzig, explained that Brazilian cities already have myriad different taxes and rates on land and buildings, even a very high rate for vacant land. He and his staff had recently met with, and would soon again, the Lincoln Institute, a wealthy, pseudo-geonomic outfit out of the Boston area. Operating in their shadow dimmed the message I tried to deliver - a simple high rate on all sites, not just vacant ones, could replace many counterproductive taxes.
I also met with the staff of Pro-Guaíba, the state agency in charge of sustainable development. Eloise de Moraes showed me a map of the state. The low, flat lands, the best for farming, now grow rice in huge plantations owned by descendants of the first Euro-colonists, the Portuguese. The hilly highlands are planted in a mix of crops owned by more recent immigrants, the Italians and Germans. The indigenous inhabitants did not appear on the map. Eloise was especially helpful, offering translation of articles, sponsorship of future talks, outreach to the local universities, and whatever else we can later dream up.
My message was broadcast beyond the campus. Community Radio's Denise Flores interviewed me in Spanish. Others who took an interest in geonomics included environmentalists, the representative in Brazil of the Catholic Relief Services, students, faculty and staff from a number of universities in several nations, Rosalia Paiva of the organization Women Unemployed which has a radio program said "your dreams are our dreams," and many others.
Next year's WSF will also be in Porto Alegre. I hope I'm invited back. In Brazil one meets some of the most generous and helpful people. The society retains the human qualities lost from the developed world: the laughter in their conversations, the warmth in their greetings, the mother and teenage daughter holding hands on the sidewalk, male friends with arms around shoulders in public. And if the ruling PT maintains its interest in what works, there may be a reason for geonomists to return even sooner.
Jeffer J. Smith is President of the Geonomy Society. You can find them on the WWW at http://www.progress.org/geonomy/.
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