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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : What are they protesting about?

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Sunday, October 08, 2000


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What are they protesting about?


Massive street protests against globalisation have become a common feature of global economic summits. From Geneva in May 1998 to Prague this September, the demonstrations by young activists have put globalisation under the spotlight. What have they achieved and where next? An analysis by C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY.

ON May 16, 1998 some 2,000 demonstrators wound their way through Geneva shouting slogans against globalisation. The occasion was the second ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the city. The marchers were almost all young, European and represented a diversity of concerns. Some were against free trade, some were for environment protection, some were radical feminists, some campaigned for the rights of the Third World, some for indigenous peoples and all were against "corporate globalisation". During the procession some shops and cars were trashed.

If a date has to be put to the beginning of mass street action coinciding with summits/conferences, directed in particular against international institutions like the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, then May 16, 1998 is as good as its birthday. The high point of the protests was in Seattle in November-December 1999 during the third WTO ministerial when close to 50,000 protestors representing greater diversity than ever before (trade unions were, for the first time, present in strength) were able to shut down the WTO conference briefly. In less than a year since Seattle, the world has seen two more such "summit protests". More than 25,000 demonstrators marched in central Washington last April during the Spring Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank. And in Prague last month, close to 10,000 young people sufficiently inconvenienced delegates to the 2000 annual meetings of the Bretton Wood institutions so that the conference was more or less closed a day before its scheduled end. This followed the marches on the opening day of the conference when small groups of vandals among the marchers needlessly battled police and stunned the Czechs with their mindless destruction of shops in the centre of the city.

By Indian standards, the numbers involved in the marches are not very large. But for perhaps the first time since the anti-Vietnam War campaigns of the 1960s, young people in the developed countries are marching the streets, their dramatic forms of non- direct action are making headline news and the protests are causing consternation among the establishment. Who are these protestors? What motivates them? What have they achieved so far and where are these events leading to, if anywhere? The answers have to be as amorphous as the demonstrations themselves, though their very striking symbols have not prevented governments, financial institutions and media commentators (including this writer who reported from Seattle) from making sweeping generalisations based on selective interpretations.

There is no one organisation behind these protests. Groups of activists either independently converge on the city holding the summit, or an umbrella organisation plays the role of a facilitator putting groups in touch with one another and co- ordinating action. In Prague, the co-ordinating role was performed by the Initiative Against Economic Globalisation (whose Czech name had the acronym INPEG) while in Seattle there was no organisation co-ordinatng the street action. The power of the Internet is harnessed in the organisation of these protests and is also used to build up support across the world for the planned "direct action". The issues that the protests highlight are varied - Third World debt, consumerism, environmental degradation, job losses in the advanced countries, IMF-World Bank intervention, power of the multinational corporation and more. "Anti-globalisation" or "Anti-capitalism" is the best broad description of the protests.

The groups who take part in the demonstrations are not the same at each venue. In Seattle the largest were United States trade unions and ecologists of different hues. In Prague, the mass environment organisations, like Greenpeace, were absent while the trade unions were present only in small numbers, with some representation from Greece and Italy and none from the Czech Republic. The largest number of marchers were small groups of ecologists, feminists and socialists/communists in Europe or were individuals concerned about globalisation. A few of the many groups present in Prague: Ya Basta! from Italy (Association for the Dignity of All People Against Neo Liberalism), the Support Network for Indigenous Peoples, the Workers Alliance Against Multinationals (from Greece) and Rainbow Keepers (an environmental group from Russia).

The funds for the protests come almost entirely from the groups themselves. At times they are supplemented by grants, as INPEG was with funds from one Dutch and one U.S. foundation. Since the biggest summit protests have so far all been in either North America or Europe, it is natural that Third World groups have had only a small presence. In Prague for instance Ms. Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was present for a day.

We have here then no single organisation planning action and no single set of demands that are articulated from summit to summit. Instead, a loosely-knit coalition is formed for the occasion and individual groups have the autonomy to initiate direct action on the street. A new organisation is formed for the next summit protests, with a new set of participants and even a different agenda of protest.

A unique feature of these summit protests is that before the violent elements take over and the police retaliate, they resemble more a carnival than angry marches. At Prague, the protestors, dressed in a variety of clothes and colours, danced to music, demonstrated puppets and held up banners that caught the eye ("International Misery Fund" said one on a horizontal pole carted around by a dog. "More World Less Bank" was another). There is intellectual debate too. In Seattle and Prague (as also Washington), the events were accompanied by seminars where speakers debated the issues of globalisation. Over the months the protesting groups have also set up their own media outlet on the Internet - Indymedia - which is staffed entirely by volunteers for the occasion.

Even as the organisers and participants in the summits themselves have been confused, embarassed and rattled by the protests, their reactions have often been dismissive:

They are bored rich kids out on a lark: A common observation which is a convenient way of refusing to engage with the issues raised by the protestors. To give just two representative examples of the true composition of the protestors: Stefan from Germany who was in Prague and is a full-time activist working with students is no bored kid. Nor is Steve Codiey an American working with human rights groups in the U.S. for a decade whose concern about global poverty was sparked by a visit to Nicaragua years ago. A slightly more valid comment is that many groups are "marginal" associations. Yes, this is true to a certain extent. Yet, that they can coalesce into such a large number and so frequently must make governments and institutions aware that there could be something in the issues they are raising. A few of the protestors may wear Levi jeans or wear Nike shoes, but that does not detract from their arguments. (Incidentally, a small and growing "no logos" movement is building on opposition to the most visible symbols of global consumerism).

They are confused critics of the World Bank and the IMF: There is a mark of injured innocence in the response of the two institutions (and of the WTO) when they claim that they are working to reduce poverty and not worsen it, as the protestors claim. Some of the arguments that the protestors offer may not be very sophisticated and there is some truth in the argument that if they are really concerned about globalisation the activists must target the multinational corporation and their governments rather than the two institutions. Viktor Piorecky, a Czech activist of INPEG, on the eve of the September 26 protests said, "Our campaign is against capitalism, but we are focussing now on the IMF and the World Bank because they are instruments of capitalism." Chelsea Mozen, an American who was spokesperson from INPEG, offers another rationale: "Only by putting pressure on the two institutions can we get the U.S. Treasury to think differently."

They have benefited from globalisation and yet want to deprive the Third World of the same benefits: Most of the European and U.S. protestors oppose greater liberalisation of world trade and do not always make the connection between trade and the average incomes their societies enjoy. Sometimes as in their opposition to environmental destruction, employment of child labour and cruel treatment of animals in the Third World they come dangerously close to missing the wood for the trees and do not see that livelihood issues are involved in what they are decry. But when these critics question trade-led growth they are also questioning a form of development, for both the rich and poor countries. The fear about job security among the less skilled workers in the West mirrors this concern about globalisation.

They have no alternative to offer: This is perhaps the most valid argument, though the criticism of globalisation by activists remains valid even if they have no solution to offer. Some of the protesting groups speak of alternatives in the form of a "return to nature", others offer equally simplistic arguments about "basic needs and livelihood issues", and yet others speak the language of communism/ socialism. The more sophisticated arguments can be just as confusing or simplistic. Mr. Walden Bello, a sociologist from the Philippines, spoke at an INPEG "counter-summit" in Prague about the need to make the corporation obsolete and move towards "deglobalisation" (more autonomous and national economy-led development in the Third World). How this would be possible in an era when the market is all powerful is another matter. And in the same speech, Mr. Bello came back to discussing "plurality" in terms of reducing the powers of the WTO, IMF and the World Bank while strengthening the United Nations' organisations. Perhaps, a better observation of the state of the anti-capitalism protests on the streets is one made at the counter-summit by Ms. Naomi Klein, an author of a recent book, No Logos, that has studied these new movements: "We are still talking about what we are against. We do not know what we want."

In spite of all the criticisms that the protestors have had to endure, they have managed to stir if not shake the established order. But the big problem they now face, especially after the violence in Prague, is that they are in danger of losing their way.

Where do the anti-globalisation protests go next?

It is more than two years since the first of the summit protests took place.

What impact have they had on the discourse on globalisation and the policy agenda?

The first change they have brought about is in the language that policy-makers use about globalisation. A couple of years ago nobody in governments and international financial institutions spoke about the downside of international economic integration. Yet, the spurt of protests in the West alongside the economic crises in East Asia has meant a rethinking of sorts - at least in the language.

From Davos to Washington, everyone now speaks about either "globalisation with a human face" or "managing globalisation". Mr. James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, spoke at last month's Prague meetings of the IMF and the World Bank of the issues being raised by protestors "outside the walls of these meetings". But this is only a change in language which could also be seen as an appropriation of the language of the protestors.

The anti-globalisation groups on their part would even take credit for the collapse of the WTO conference in Seattle last year, though much as the protestors rattled the WTO the meeting broke down more because of the differences between governments than because of the street demonstrations. And there was pure exaggeration when one speaker at a counter-summit in Prague spoke about "billions of people" around the world being involved in the protests. The impact that the summit demonstrations have had is perhaps best described by Mr. Bello, who in Prague spoke about the "crisis of legitimacy" in the system. The international institutions are now forced to be far more circumspect about globalisation and in very small ways global corporations too have had to watch over their shoulder about non government organisations that are quick to lobby consumers and governments.

The larger impact that the protestors have had is outside the summit demonstrations. The Jubilee 2000 coalition, for instance, with its own marches and campaigns, has been able to organise world-wide support for cancellation of the foreign debt of the poorest countries. The actual amount of debt that has been waived by the IMF, World Bank and governments may not have been as much as the campaigners hoped for, but it would have been far less in the absence of the campaigns.

The demonstrators see the summit protests as a new massive anti- capitalism movement that has the potential to change the system. That is exaggerating the phenomenon. Undoubtedly, the summit protests have grabbed media attention with their success in mobilisation, their colourful marches and increasingly, unfortunately, with the violence that now seems to accompany these protests. The "spectacle" of the summit protests, which it surely is what it is, may even contain the seeds for the dissolution of this phenomenon.

More recently, some of the critics among the protestors raised questions about these events. Ms. Klein spoke in Prague about "the tactics becoming the agenda". The organisational effort that goes into these summits, Ms. Klein said, is "sapping energies". A more thoughtful critique ("What moves us?") posted on the Net by a member of a Dutch collective has caused ripples within the movement. "Summit Hopping" - the process by which all the energies of the activist groups go into organising one summit protest after another, leaving them little time for grass-root work - is now under attack from within. The summit protests attract media attention but that they have no other impact is the substance of this critique. Some activists agree that it is time to go slow on the summit protests and build on what is achieved. Others like Ms. Alice Dvorska, a Czech who was active in the Prague protests, spoke about the need now to build alliances with groups in the Third World and to focus on development experiments that have already succeeded in rich and poor countries. Yet, even before the Prague protests against the IMF and World Bank had taken place, plans were being discussed on the Net for the next summit protest - "A Summit of the Americas" in Quebec next year.

The spectacle that these summit protests have become are posing the biggest danger to this kind of anti-globalisation movement. Because these protests are so loosely organised it is possible for anyone and anybody to participate - opening the door to protestors who have no interest other than to battle police, set fire to cars and smash shop windows. This happened in Geneva in May 1998, in London in June 1999, in Seattle in November 1999 and now in Prague in September. Although such vandals may be a miniscule minority - in Prague they numbered no more than 100 out of the 10,000 who gathered there - their actions provoke strong police action, the protestors are all tarred with the same brush, the media focus is only on the violence and perhaps most important they attract condemnation, not support, from the local population.

"It is clear that we have to rethink our strategy," said a Britisher who had travelled to Prague for the marches and was disappointed that all the work of organisation had been destroyed by a few violent protestors who had no agenda other than to perpetrate destruction. "The violence on the streets detracted from the issues we were campaigning about," said Ms. Mozen. "All he work we put in over a year was pushed aside by a few violent protestors," said a disappointed Ms. Dvorska, one of the main Czech organisers of INPEG. Mr. Bello spoke ahead of the Prague demonstrations of "Prague giving birth to a critical mass of the anti-globalisation movement". After the Prague violence, the movement instead finds itself at a different kind of cross-roads. Will it renew itself or degenerate into violent spectacles that become smaller and smaller as support from outside and inside disappears?

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