Before the US terror attacks, the burgeoning movement against corporate globalisation was on the verge of changing the world. Or so it looked to those of us involved.
Consistently underplayed in the Western media, sneered at by politicians and opinion formers, it has been variously dismissed. Some see it as a bunch of rabid anarchists smashing windows for a laugh. Others as middle-class do-gooders denying the poor the benefits of trade. Others still as NGOs buoying up their bank accounts by twisting the facts about the realities of globalisation.
It is none of these things. It is, in fact, the biggest social movement in decades; a truly global, if at times frail, unity of peoples, experiences and world views bound together by an awareness that the corporate infiltration of every area of life is a process of exclusion, homogenisation, environmental destruction and, for many, death.
It is now clear that the path to our Brave New World will be much longer than it seemed. The world we are waking up to will be characterised by repression, hardened minds and an acceleration of the very process that conjured this movement into existence in the first place: corporate-driven trade.
Who destroyed those American buildings, and lives? Certainly none of us. Yet you don’t get much more anti-capitalist than destroying the World Trade Centre. It would be dangerous to pretend that it won’t somehow affect attitudes towards a movement in which anti-capitalism, however ill-defined, is a strong thread.
So where will this movement go, now that the Western world is embarking on a war with no enemy? During the last week, it has become clear to me how exceptionally powerful we are. I have been in Bolivia, attending a conference of Peoples’ Global Action (PGA), a network of grassroots activists from five continents committed to opposing the further expansion of neo-liberalism. If ever there were proof that there really is a global movement, this is it.
Over two hundred delegates attended the meeting: activists from Bangladesh, Maoris from New Zealand, ecologists from Russia, anti-privatisation campaigners from South Africa, tribespeople from Papua New Guinea, coca farmers from Bolivia, human rights activists from Chile and many more. The list is a long, remarkable and insistent piece of evidence pointing towards the real story behind this movement: that its energy comes from the Global South, the developing world where global capitalism’s sharp blade falls, far beyond the horizons of its beneficiaries in the West.
The forces ranged against us
Theirs are the stories that explain the rage against the machine currently flooding across the world. That rage is the reason why this movement is not going away. Where is it going instead? Two forces are at work in the wake of the Manhattan murders which will make it much harder for our voice to be heard.
One is the repression of dissent. For example, it took less than a week after the bombings for George Bush to announce that NGOs, could be front groups for terrorism. Governments in the West are already discussing measures which may come to prove Benjamin Franklin’s maxim: those who are willing to forfeit liberty for security will have neither. Meanwhile, here in Bolivia, activists have been searched by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, detained by Interpol and threatened with deportation for daring to attend the PGA conference, while the local governor has announced to the press that we are a gathering of terrorists.
These are the first shots being fired in a war not against terrorism, but against dissent. Can we expect to see terrorism used as Joe McCarthy used communism – a catch-all term to round up all and any who oppose the interests of the powerful, and particularly the interests of the US? It seems a real possibility. And since this movement has demonstrated, at Seattle, Prague, Genoa and all over the developing world, that it has the power to disturb the rulers and connect with the people, it will surely be one of the first targets in the witch-finders’ sights.
The second force at work is one which, far from silencing the movement, will likely increase both its determination and its numbers. You can see it in the pages of the Western, and particularly the US, press over the last few weeks. The driving forces behind the expansion of corporate globalisation have decreed that what the world now needs is more of it.
The argument goes like this: global trade is an engine not only of material improvement for the people, but of freedom itself. The US attacks appear to have come, we are told, from countries with both closed markets and undemocratic political systems. The best way, then, to combat terrorism in the future is to break open further markets; to expand the Western free trade model, and thus the Western concept of democracy, into every country on Earth even faster than is already happening.
This is breathtaking talk. A global movement against exactly this process has crystallised and grown at astonishing speed in just a few years, driven by the majority of the world’s people, who are excluded from the dubious gifts of the market when they are not actively destroyed by them. The idea that more of the same, and faster, will lead to peace rather than an even bigger, and potentially far more violent, backlash demonstrates just how out of touch the world’s political and economic leaders have become with the real results of their policies on the ground.
The US corporate global counter-offensive
Perhaps the best example of this comes from an article published in the Washington Post on 20 September, written by Robert B. Zoellick, the US’s senior trade representative. America’s might and light, he writes, emanate from our political, military and economic vitality. Our counter-offensive must advance US leadership across all these fronts.
Zoellick explains himself. Because private enterprise and open markets spur liberty around the world, US leadership is vital in promoting the international economic and trading system. He gives specific examples of how this is to be done: complete the US free trade pact with Jordan, and move on, by implication, to the rest of the Arab world. Do the same to the putative US-Vietnamese trade pact. Aggressively head up a new trade round when the World Trade Organisation meets in November. Push for Russia’s accession to the WTO. Promote more trade in Indonesia to emphasize our support for the success of democracy there. The list goes on.
This glib association of trade with freedom is not new, but it would have many of the delegates at the PGA conference spitting with rage as they compare the realities of America’s vicious pursuit of its economic interests with Zoellick’s lofty rhetoric. The fact is that US-driven corporate globalisation has been the biggest engine of repression, death and destruction in the last five decades. That is why this movement was born; it is symbiotic with the expansion of trade, which leads not to more peace and democracy but to more of the unrest that comes when people fight back against what is, in effect, imperialism.
Uncle Sam’s free market stick gets bigger
Examine some of Zoellick’s words. Take that sentence about how private enterprise spurs liberty around the world. The people of Cochabamba, the Bolivian city in which the PGA met, could tell you exactly how private enterprise has spurred their liberty. Last year, under pressure from the World Bank, the city’s water system was sold to an American company. Within a month, bills jumped by up to three hundred per cent. The resulting city-wide riots led to the first reversal of such a privatisation anywhere in the world, but it was not without costs. The US, having first spurred the Cochabambans’ liberty by pricing the water they drank beyond their reach, contributed further when a seventeen year-old protester was shot dead by a sharpshooter trained at the School of the Americas.
There are plenty of them in Latin America. Half way through the conference, the Colombian delegation learned that one of their number back home had been murdered by US-backed paramilitaries. In Mexico, where I was last month, Zapatista rebels who rose up in 1994 against the death sentence imposed on them by NAFTA are hemmed in by army and paramilitary groups. These groups have been trained by the CIA in the kind of low-intensity warfare the Americans specialised in when they were busy spurring liberty in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Bolivian coca farmers here have told us how the US war on drugs is a war on their traditional livelihoods, in which thousands of innocents have already died in the interests of consolidating America’s economic grip on this continent; a grip to be tightened further by the coming Free Trade Area of the Americas, if vast planned protests in more than fifteen countries don’t derail it first.
Meanwhile, South African poet and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Dennis Brutus told me how private enterprise has been promoting freedom in South Africa. The new World Bank-designed economic programme, which calls for the privatisation of everything that isn’t nailed down, is sparking a revolt in the townships amongst the very impoverished black people the ANC was supposed to liberate. You have to understand, says Brutus, that many of the people who now run the government in South Africa were trained at Harvard Business School and the World Bank.
In virtually every country in the developing world, the expansion of trade and open markets has meant rich pickings for Western and often American companies, accompanied by mass increases in landlessness, poverty, market exclusion, disease and environmental degradation. If this is what we are supposed to want more of, it’s not hard to see why people are rising up almost everywhere you care to look.
Promoting positive change now
We live in dangerous times. Bush’s new war, and accompanying aggressive expansion of trade, will beat many more such people even harder with Uncle Sam’s Big Free Market Stick. But it won’t work: there are too many, who are left outside the loop, more every week, and many more who never want to be in it. The question now is whether the world’s political and economic elites are going to take heed and make changes, or whether they will have one or more revolution on their hands. This is not overstating the case.
As for the movement itself, it has its own questions to answer. It is difficult to see, for example, how big street protests around major summits, with their inevitable accompanying violence, will be tolerated any longer by newly-vigilant states. Genoa saw over ninety people hospitalised and one dead. Next time – if there is a next time – it could be a lot worse.
But the big street fights are only the tip of this movement. The real work comes at a much lower level. Two tasks face us now. Firstly, making links at a grassroots level with others who share our concerns – as PGA, for example, is already doing. We need to reach out to a wider public, who, if the opinion polls are to be believed, also know there is something wrong, but may not yet know what can be done about it.
The other task is to promote and develop real, workable solutions for reinventing democracy and economics. This is not as daunting as it sounds; much of the work is already in progress. The question now is whether we can make the world listen in time to prevent an explosion of fury that could make what happened on 11 September look like just the beginning.