[CrashList] Inequity is higher on the agenda. But that's about it
M A Jones
jones118 at lineone.net
Wed Sep 27 00:30:49 MDT 2000
Anti-globalisation protests have succeeded - up to a point
Special report: the IMF and World Bank in Prague
Larry Elliott in Prague
Wednesday September 27, 2000
It was business as usual on both sides of the barricades in Prague
yesterday. Out in the streets there was the clatter of teargas rounds being
fired, the whoosh of water cannons and the injured being carted off in
ambulances. In the conference centre, where one of eastern Europe's nastiest
communist parties used to meet in conclave, Horst Kohler of the
International Monetary Fund and James Wolfensohn of the World Bank were
applauded politely as they talked of the challenges ahead for globalisation.
Kohler quoted Karl Popper as he talked of how his vision was for the IMF to
make the world "a little better". Wolfensohn said he "shared the passion" of
the protesters, and in a series of bullet points expressed views that the
protesters themselves make - that there is something wrong about a world
where the richest 20% of the world's population receive more than 80% of
global incomes, where 1.2bn people live on less than a dollar a day and
where the average income in the wealthiest countries is 37 times that in the
Wolfensohn and Kohler cannot understand why they remain figures of hate when
they have changed their message and now talk the language of fairness and
They hold seminars with debt campaigners, they fund bio-diversity
programmes, they accept that there can be dangers from liberalising capital
flows too rapidly. And yet they - and the institutions they head - are still
loathed by the protesters, who see the fund and the bank as part of the
problem rather than part of the solution. The problem being, of course,
As far as the protesters advocating direct and violent action are concerned,
it is clear that crunch time is fast approaching. They need to think hard
about what to do next, because demonstration fatigue is already setting in.
The street riots in Seattle were effective not only because they had a
novelty value but because they appeared to cause the collapse of attempts to
launch a new round of trade talks. In fact, while there was a lot of sound
and fury on the streets, the real problem was inside the conference centre,
where the poor countries refused to be rolled over by the United States. Had
the European Union and the United States been able to persuade a few of the
bigger developing countries to come on board, there would have been a deal
in Seattle, protests or not.
Neither the protests at the spring meetings of the bank and fund in April,
nor those intended to disrupt the annual meetings in Prague, have had the
The demonstrators have not been able to stop the meetings from taking place,
let alone achieve their wider objective of rolling back globalisation. Far
from it. According to the fund's forecasts, global capitalism is enjoying
its best year of growth for more than a decade. All the laptops and mobile
phones that have been bought by the demonstrators to coordinate their
protests are doing wonders for the profits of Microsoft, Intel and Nokia.
Yet from one perspective, the current state of the global economy is a total
irrelevance. Globalisation, it is said, will be brought down by its own
internal contradictions, just as Marx predicted more than a century ago, and
direct action will be the handmaiden of the revolution.
This is a perfectly acceptable view of the world, and it may even be right.
It has to be said, however, that industrial capitalism has proved to be a
far more durable opponent than its enemies have expected. It also needs to
be acknowledged that direct action is something of a double-edged sword,
which can be used by the forces of reaction - as in the recent fuel protests
in Britain - as well as by the forces of progress.
History suggests that protest groups only turn into successful mass
movements when they tap into widespread discontent and offer a feasible
alternative. So far, there is no real evidence that the anti-globalisation
protesters have achieved either. "I know what they are against," said Trevor
Manuel, the finance minister of South Africa, yesterday. "But I don't know
what they are for."
This, then, is the dilemma for the anti-globalisation protests. Their action
has been a limited success to the extent that it has forced many of the
problems of globalisation - the inequity, the instability of the financial
system, the threat to the environment, the importance of human rights -
higher up the political agenda at a time when the failures of neo-
liberalism and the financial crises of the late 90s were already
contributing to a mood in which those at the apex of globalisation are
willing to talk and debate the need for reform. But Seattle, Washington and
now Prague have certainly concentrated minds and created space for the
moderate wing of anti-globalisation to push for more generous debt relief
and universal primary education.
But dialogue and debate do not provide the same buzz, the same instant
gratification, as chucking a Molotov cocktail or throwing a smokebomb. If
you're an idealistic student, the idea of cutting a deal with Jim Wolfensohn
is far less attractive than calling him a fascist or a mass murderer. Jim
Morrison of the Doors used to send his audience wild with ecstasy in the 60s
when he bellowed "We want the world and we want it now", and, in truth,
little has changed since. The grotesque imbalances - in both power and
wealth - that have become ever more apparent as globalisation has developed
makes the desire for instant results understandable. Foot-dragging on debt
relief is costing lives in Africa every day.
The alternative to violent action is a hard slog, to persuade rich countries
to speed up debt relief, to give smaller countries a bigger say in the
running of the fund and the bank, to campaign for a world environment
organisation with the same clout as that wielded by the world trade
organisation, and to make the case for new controls on global capital.
But this will be messy, because the democratic route is always messy. Those
who advocate it can be accused of lacking ideological purity or of lacking
the stomach for a fight. What's more, their way may not work either.
Yet the experience of the 60s protests is instructive. As today, they
emerged from a period in which the global economy - and the American economy
in particular - was doing well. The desire to protest diminished when times
got tough, and instead of 20 years of togetherness following a revolutionary
golden dawn, we got 20 years of Thatcherism instead.
In the meantime, once the leaders of the 60s generation realised that
capitalism was not about to collapse, they found a job, settled down and
moved to the suburbs.
larry.elliott at guardian.co.uk
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