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Capitalism is no Tea Party for the American left

In a week when the news was dominated by the resignation of loose-lipped General Stanley McChrystal and the seemingly endless BP oil spill debacle, a gathering of lefties in Detroit late last month wasn't likely to garner much national Press coverage.

But that didn't dampen the spirits of the 20,000 people who descended on the Motor City for the United States Social Forum (USSF), a conference devoted to exploring social, political and economic alternatives in the heart of the world's top capitalist bastion at a time of crisis.

Convened in the Cobo Center in the shadow of General Motor's headquarters, the five-day event saw 1,000 workshops on everything from environmental, labour and human rights issues, to gender and sexual identity, to critiques of the national and global economic orders.

Detroit wasn't chosen by accident. Officially, unemployment is 24%. Unofficially, it's over 40%. Walking downtown during rush hour, a visitor is struck by how easy it is to cross streets on foot. The reason: No jobs, no traffic. But, for five days, the USSF brought Detroit back to life.

The USSF is a spin-off of the World Social Forum, an annual gathering staged in Brazil since 2001.

Emily Kawano, a Massachusetts economist who helped plan the Detroit USSF, told the Belfast Telegraph that the World Social Forum "is probably the most significant gathering of progressive social movements in history."

Kawano, who attended the Irish Social Forum in Dublin while living in Ireland, directs the Solidarity Economy Network, which aims to develop alternative worker-directed economic structures, such as cooperatives.

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She said the Detroit conference exposed the bias of America's mainstream Press.

"When you see the type of coverage that the Tea Party gets, with smaller numbers, it's shocking because the Tea Party is able to seemingly sway politicians," said Kawano. She isn't just whistling Dixie. When the Tea Party held its inaugural convention in February, it drew about 600 people. Yet, they - and Sarah Palin, their lavishly paid keynote speaker - enjoyed 24/7 saturation coverage. A few right wing commentators and bloggers did take the time to fire pot shots at USSF attendees, ridiculing them as out-of-touch lefties still pining for the radical heydays of the Sixties. Gaggles of ageing hippies were indeed there.

But so too were legions of young people. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans have a dim view of their politicians, and politics.

In many cases, that cynicism breeds apathy and low turn-out at elections. On display at the USSF was another response - people dedicated to using non-political channels to effect social change. Pie in the sky? Maybe. Maybe not.

But, in a land where Tea Party right-wingers claim to hold a lock on what 'real America' is all about, the Detroit gathering served as a vivid reminder of the true diversity of America.

"It's important for other parts of the world to realise that there is a lot of organising going on in the belly of the beast, although organising is hard in the US," said Emily Kawano. "But there has been a lot of progress made."

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