It’s called S11 (September 11), the date when activists from all over the world plan to shut down the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, Australia. Then, on S26 (September 26), an estimated 100,000 people will gather in Prague to hound and surround the 55th annual conference of the IMF and World Bank. ‘Not since the collapse of Stalinism has such a gathering taken place,’ say activists from Solidarita, a group of revolutionary anarchists from the Czech Republic.
This past month has also seen actions in Nigeria, where an IMF-induced fuel price hike of 50 percent triggered mass political dissent, and in France, where sheep farmer-cum-populist anti-globalization hero Jose Bové orchestrated a ‘wrecking party’ of a half-built McDonald’s. His trial drew tens of thousands of protesters, who dubbed the event ‘Seattle-on-the-tarn.’
Activists everywhere have been fighting global financial institutions and multinational corporations for decades. But the recent battles in Seattle and D.C. Represent a kind of tipping point: the moment when years of coalition building, grassroots education, and rage at corporate greed spill into mainstream consciousness, snaring the media spotlight and throwing it on complex, eye-glazing economic issues that affect everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe. These are the moments when mall-bloated americans note, if only for an instant, that much of the world—and many Americans—are desperately poor. And it’s not just because of corruption, ignorance, or lack of resources; it’s because big corporations and the institutions that do their bidding control wealth, resources, and political power.
The World Bank and the IMF say they aim to alleviate poverty through their loan, aid, and building projects in the third world, or, as activists call it, “the Global South.” Despite being stunned by the spotlight of scrutiny, these institutions, activists charge, persist in following their one-size-fits-all economic growth formula irrespective of local communities’ concerns or cross-border cultural differences. Senegalese activist Seydina Senghor, cofounder of Jubilee 2000 (a coalition urging wealthy nations to cancel the debts owed them by impoverished countries), says these two institutions “have paved the way for foreign companies to eliminate nation states and reduce African people to another form of slavery and colonization.”
So what does it matter to nations where most people live on less than a dollar a day that Americans, traditionally mocked for their me-first mentality, are shaking the dust from their imperial slumber and confronting these harsh realities? The problem, of course, is that most Americans are not. But the activists who made headlines in Seattle and D.C. and those who are recruiting and fundraising to support protests in Mexico, Ecuador, Thailand, and elsewhere have helped reignite grassroots movements worldwide. “What was incredible was to see this movement replicated in the U.S.,” says Anuradha Mittal, Indian activist and codirector of the U.S.-based Institute for Food and Development Policy. “It’s no longer the white man’s burden to help the world. It’s in our own backyard.”
One concrete effect of the protest in Seattle, Senghor believes, was that when African delegates to the WTO trade meeting heard protesters outside chanting “Africa don’t sign,” they felt encouraged to “rebel against the global north and say, We are not signing.”
The protests have also raised doubts about the WTO among policy elites. “The WTO secretariat is having an enormously difficult time lobbying developing nations to agree to a new trade round,” says Filipino activist Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South. Many Filipino senators, he explains, regret having ratified the WTO charter in 1994 and are now taking a “hard line in negotiations for a modified Agreement on Agriculture” that would protect Filipinos against U.S. and European “dumping” of goods, which WTO trade agreements make possible.
This past June, Indian economist Ravi Kanbur, a principal author of the World Bank’s influential World Development Report, resigned after being asked to rework the “tone” of the annual document. According to Bangkok Nation, the report questioned the exportability of Western-style capitalism and referred to the “empowerment” of the poor, laying blame not just on corruption or ineffective fiscal policies, but on the absence of input from the ordinary citizen. The report seems to suggest that poverty is political. Which is what activists worldwide have been saying all along.
Networking is the heart and soul of recent global protests. It’s behind everything from the mass mobilizations of people in Melbourne and Prague to the International Forum on Globalization’s preparations for a small gathering of Mexican activists, farmers, and officials to discuss Boise Cascade’s logging excesses in Mexico.
The Web, of course, helps much of this organizing happen on the cheap (for those who have access to computers), but airfare and room and board are necessary for warm bodies to link arms. Road shows—essentially traveling teach-ins—are one way activists raise funds. Grant proposals are written, philanthropy sought. Educating the public means everything from organizing a “reality tour” (the antidote to Club Med, offered by Global Exchange, in which travelers get to work with activists in other countries) to talking to high school classes about how WTO strips away legislation designed to maintain clean air.
But can Americans really push their government to rein in corporations when the very nature of being a multinational means transcending national laws?
Legislation to regulate U.S.-based multinational corporations has been introduced by two house members. Democrat Cynthia McKinney of Georgia introduced the Corporate Code of Conduct. Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont calls for a tax on international currency transactions, creation of a global investment fund, debt cancellation, and restructuring of the World Bank and the IMF. Neither bill is likely to pass as long as both Republican and Democratic leaders persist in liberalizing trade. Nor is the UN able to rein in multinationals, though it has produced several documents that lay out viable plans for global living—the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and its Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, for instance. The problem is that they’re not enforceable. To complicate matters, notes Victor Menotti, director of the environmental program at the International Forum on Globalization, the UN “is so paralyzed by bureaucracy and lack of money that it’s now being captured by corporations.” Kevin Danaher, a cofounder of Global Exchange, hopes that a January 2001 “Social Summit” in Porto Allegre, Brazil, will create “a people’s global party that will run candidates in their individual countries.”
At all these gatherings the emphasis is both on raising a ruckus and on making connections between the global and local, among the working classes in the global north and south, between the food the world ingests and the way multinational corporations grow it. What Seattle and D.C. did was to demonstrate an effective strategy for mass protest, one that can be replicated across borders. This movement, Anuradha Mittal says, is like “a swarm of bees that can’t be cut off at the head or arm because when it attacks you are stung everywhere. That is the power of a people’s movement.”
As this issue goes to press, the G8—the seven wealthiest nations and Russia—arrives in Japan for an economic summit on the island of Okinawa. Despite the remote location, protesters plan to be there.