As we here in the U.S. prepare for our President’s annual State of the Union address tonight, we can safely assume that we will hear another round of his ritualized, Orwellian invocation of freedom and liberty, which, in his mind, are racing around the world under cover of the U.S. military.
The work we do at Grassroots International to support local democratic social change movements around the world has shown us — no surprise — that democracy seldom flourishes under artillery barrages. Building democracy, unleashing freedom, is slow, hard work that requires patience and determination, not righteous fury and firepower. But the work of building a better world is also inspiring and exciting, and I think it’s worth taking a second to acknowledge that there are signs that real freedom is afoot, and that another world is possible.
Last week, the fifth World Social Forum took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Thousands of activists from social movements, NGOs, and other progressive groups from around Brazil and around the world got together to exchange ideas and energy, to build international movements and solidarity, and to make concrete plans for how to change the world for the better.
Most of the major media here in the U.S. completely ignored the peaceful, productive meeting, except when word got out that Brazil is considering moving all 300,000 of its government-owned computers from Microsoft’s license-based Windows operating system and Microsoft Office applications to free, open source Linux-based systems. (For a behind-the-curtain look at what information technology insiders think this might mean to Microsoft and to the world software markets, check out this thread on the uber-cyber message board, Slashdot. The political analysis and level of understanding of poverty and hunger in Brazil is… uneven, but the discussion of how and why this might make financial sense for Brazil, and what it might mean to international technology markets is fascinating.)
The question of what kind of software Brazil’s bureaucrats run is ultimately not the most important issue that will come out of the World Social Forum, but it’s an interesting example of what we might see as a kind of globalization in reverse. Instead of buying the expensive software that a giant multi-national is trying to force feed them, Brazil is saying, hey, maybe we can make our own. It’s the same instinct that’s driving the fisherfolk and farmers around the Indian Ocean to mount their own, community based recovery efforts that aim to not only re-build their homes and livelihoods, but do it in a way that doesn’t put them further into the pocket of international finance, and that at the same time, builds local, independent capacity to organize and mobilize themselves. It’s the same instinct that drove women in Palestine to run for political office, and that drives people everywhere to work for control of their own lives.
The exciting thing is that these things aren’t happening in isolated communities that are struggling on their own. They’re starting to happen all over the world, and the communities — from Linux programmers to landless workers — are coming together.