Social forums - great gatherings of people and organisations from all continents, dedicated to thinking hard about how to make the world work better - are the great untold political story of the age. Forget the slickly straitjacketed conferences of political parties; forget the tame gatherings of hamstrung unions; forget NGO talking shops sponsored by multinationals. Social forums are increasingly where the real ideas that will mould the future of politics are coming from: radical, dangerous, far-reaching, unspun, wide-eyed and occasionally insane ideas that contain within them an optimism and a determination about the future.
The mother of them all - the fourth World Social Forum - is taking place now in Mumbai, India. It will be a huge, chaotic and fascinating event, drawing in more than 100,000 people from all continents. The World Social Forum - now an annual event - began life in the dying days of the 20th century, when a group of activists in Brazil, inspired by the rising tide of discontent that was spilling on to the streets of Seattle and elsewhere, decided to provide a space for this growing global coalition of dissidents to come together to talk about their vision for the future.
This space became the first World Social Forum, held in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001 and timed to coincide with the annual corporate/ government beanfeast that is the annual World Economic Forum at Davos.
The Brazilian organisers expected about 2,000 people to turn up to the first forum; 12,000 came. In 2002, a second event was held, again in Porto Alegre. This time 60,000 turned up from all over the world. In 2003, it was 100,000. Mumbai may well be even bigger.
Participants range from Amazonian tribesmen to Korean car workers, Palestinian refugees to landless South Africans, European trade unionists to American farmers, Argentinian economists to Australian anarchists. The Mumbai event is being organised by a coalition of adivasi (Indian tribal) groups, unions, women's associations, students, churches, and a motley crew of Indian NGOs taking in everyone from the Gandhi Peace Foun-dation to the Calcutta Leather Tannery Workmen's Union.
The World Social Forum has been - and remains - an open event, with no leaders, no strict agenda and no one political line. In fact, political parties are banned from participating, lest they try to hijack it. The defining feature is a hugely diverse outpouring of ideas and schemes for Doing Things Better. The past two gatherings at Porto Alegre, for example, have produced proposals on ideas ranging from food sovereignty and protection of cultural and biological diversity to children's rights, the abolition of patent laws and the end of monocultural tree plantations.
Linking these subjects is the way that the increasingly intertwined global economy affects every area of life, from the system of land ownership in the smallest village to the corporate takeover of the world's water. Conventional politics has failed to take any of this into account, to explain it to the world's public or even to begin proposing alternatives to it. Social forums are filling that gap.
As they do, they appeal to a growing number of people across the world. Since 2001, regional, national and local social forums have sprung up in Italy, Ethiopia, India, Argentina, Palestine, South Africa, France, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, the US . . . the list continues to grow. Coming up in 2004 are, among others, the Pan-Amazon Social Forum, the Social Forum of the Americas, the European Social Forum and the Mediterranean Social Forum.
As they grow in numbers, popularity and influence, mainstream politicians are beginning to take notice, as are those who control the levers of the global economy. In 2002, the head of the World Bank tried to invite himself to the World Social Forum but was turned away.
Questions begin to multiply, however. It is all very well, for example, being so impeccably democratic that no one represents the gathering, no agreed lines are stuck to and no final agreements or statements are issued - but does this make the gatherings any more than a talking shop? How will good ideas transform themselves into political reality?
These questions have yet to be answered. What is already clear, however, is that this forum - influential, intelligent, threatening to the established order - has become impossible to ignore.
One No, Many Yeses: a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement by Paul Kingsnorth is published by the Free Press (£10)