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2000: The Year of Global Protest against Globalization


Walden Bello*

The

last year will probably go down as one of those defining  moments in the

history of the world economy, like 1929. Of course, the  structures of

global capitalism appear to be solid, with many in the global  elite in

Washington, Europe, and Asia congratulating themselves for  containing the

Asian financial crisis and trying to exude confidence about  launching a

new round of trade negotiations under the World Trade  Organization (WTO).

What we witnessed, nevertheless, was a dramatic  series of events that

might, in fact, lead to that time when, as the poet  says, "all that

is solid melts into thin air."

For

global capitalism, the year began a month early, on Nov. 30-Dec.  1, 1999,

when the Third Ministerial of the WTO collapsed in Seattle. It  ended

earlier this month with an equally momentous event: the  unraveling of the

Climate Change Conference in the Hague.

Seattle:

the Turning Point

The

definitive history of the Seattle events still needs to be written,  but

they cannot be understood without the explosive interaction between  the

militant and unrelenting protests of some 50,000 people in the streets  and

the rebellion of developing country delegates inside the Seattle  Convention

Center. Much has been made about the different motivations  of the street

protesters and the Third World delegates and the  differences within the

ranks of the demonstrators themselves. True,  some of their stands on key

issues, such as the incorporation of labor  standards into the WTO, were

sometimes contradictory. But most of  them were united by one thing: their

opposition to the expansion of a  system that promoted corporate-led

globalization at the expense of  social goals like justice, community,

national sovereignty, cultural  diversity, and ecological sustainability.

Still,

the Seattle debacle would not have occurred without another  development:

the inability of the European Union and the United States  to bridge their

differences on key issues, like what rules should govern  their

monopolistic competition for global agricultural markets. And the  fallout

from Seattle might have been less massive were it not for the  brutal

behavior of the Seattle police. The assaults on largely peaceful  demonstrators

by police in their Darth Vader-like uniforms in full view of  television

cameras made Seattle’s mean streets the grand symbol of the  crisis of

globalization.

When

it was established in 1995, the WTO was regarded as the  crown jewel of

capitalism in the era of globalization. With the Seattle  collapse,

however, realities that had been ignored or belittled were  acknowledged

even by the powers-that-be whose brazen confidence in  their own creation

had been shaken. For instance, that the supreme  institution of

globalization was, in fact, fundamentally undemocratic and  its processes

non-transparent was recognized even by representatives  of some of its

stoutest defenders pre-Seattle. The global elite’s crisis of  confidence

was evident, for instance, in the words of Stephen Byers, the  UK Secretary

for Trade and Industry: "The WTO will not be able to  continue in its

present form. There has to be fundamental and radical  change in order for

it to meet the needs and aspirations of all 134 of its  members."

Seattle

was no one-off event. Bitter criticism of the WTO and the  Bretton Woods

institutions was the not-so-subtle undercurrent of the  Tenth Assembly of

the United Nations Conference on Trade and  Development (UNCTAD X) held in

Bangkok in February. Indeed, what  brought an otherwise uneventful

international meeting to the front pages  of the world press was the

pie-splattered face of outgoing IMF Managing  Director Michel Camdessus,

who was on the receiving end of a perfect  pitch from anti-IMF activist

Robert Naiman.

From

Washington to Melbourne

Naiman’s

act helped set the stage for the first really big post-Seattle  confrontation

between pro-globalization and anti-globalization forces: the  spring

meeting of the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, DC. Some  30,000

protesters descended on America’s capital in the middle of April  and found

a large section of the northwest part of the city walled off by  some

10,000 policemen. For four rain-swept days, the protestors tried,  unsuccessfully,

to breach the police phalanx to reach the IMF-World  Bank complex at 19th

and H Sts., NW, resulting in hundreds of arrests.

The

police claimed victory. But it was a case of the protestors losing the  battle

but winning the war. Just the mere fact that 30,000 people had  come to

protest the Bretton Woods twins was already a massive victory  according to

organizers who said that the most one could mobilize in  previous protests

were a few hundred people. Moreover, the focus of the  media was on

Washington, and the first acquaintance of hundreds of  millions of viewers

throughout the world with the World Bank and IMF  were as controversial

institutions under siege from people accusing them  of inflicting poverty

and misery on the developing world.

From

Washington, the struggle shifted to Chiang Mai in the highlands  of

Northern Thailand, where the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a  multilateral

body notorious for funding gargantuan projects that disrupted  communities

and destabilized the environment, held its 33rd Annual  Meeting in early

May. So shaken was the ADB leadership by the sight of  some 2000 people

asking it to leave town that soon after the conference,  ADB President

Tadao Chino established an vice presidential level "NGO  Task

Force" to deal with civil society. Fearful of even more massive  protests

in 2001, the ADB also shifted the site of its next annual meeting  from

Seattle to Honolulu in the belief that the latter would be a secure  site.

Chiang

Mai had significance beyond the ADB, however. With a  majority of the

protesters being poor Thai farmers, the Chiang Mai  demonstrations showed

that the anti-globalization mass base went  beyond middle class youth and

organized labor in the advanced  countries. Equally important, key

organizers of the Chiang Mai actions,  like Bamrung Kayotha, one of the

leaders of the Forum of the Poor, had  participated in the Seattle protest,

and they saw Chiang Mai not as a  discrete event but as a link in the chain

of international protests against  globalization.

The

battle lines were next drawn Down Under, in Melbourne,  Australia, in early

September. The glittering Crown Casino by  Melbourne’s upscale waterfront

had been chosen as the site of the Asia- Pacific Summit of the World Economic

Forum (Davos Forum) which had  become a leading force in the effort to put

a more liberal face to  globalization. The casino, many activists felt, was

a fitting symbol of  finance-driven globalization. In nearly three days of

street battles, some  5,000 protesters were at times able to seal off key

entrances to the  Casino, forcing the organizers to bring some delegates in

and out by  helicopter, again in full view of television. And again, as in

Seattle, rough  handling of demonstrators by the police, many of them

mounted,  magnified the global controversy over the event.

The

Battle of Prague

Later

that month came Europe’s turn to serve as a battleground.  Some 10,000

people came from all over the continent to Prague,  prepared to engage in

an apocalyptic confrontation with the Bretton  Woods institutions during

the latter’s annual meeting in that beautiful  Eastern European city in the

most beautiful of seasons. Prague lived up  to its billing. With

demonstrations and street battles trapping delegates at  the Congress

Center or swirling around them as they tried to make their  way back to

their quarters in Prague’s famed Old Town, the agenda of  the meeting was,

as one World Bank official put it, "effectively seized" by  the

anti-globalization protesters. When a large number of delegates  refused to

go to the Congress Center in the next two days, the  convention had to be

abruptly concluded, a day before its scheduled  ending.

As

important as the protests in Prague was the debate held on Sept.  23 at the

famous Prague Castle between representatives of civil society  and the

leadership of the World Bank and the IMF, an event orchestrated  by Czech

President Vaclav Havel. Instead of bridging the gap between  the two sides,

the debate widened it, since, in response to concrete  demands, World Bank

President James Wolfensohn and IMF Managing  Director Horst Koehler were

not prepared to go beyond platitudes and  generalities, as if worried that

they might overstep the bounds set by  their G-7 masters. George Soros, who

defended the Bank and Fund at  the debate, said it all when he admitted

that Wolfensohn and Koehler  had "performed terribly" and had

blown their most important encounter  with civil society.

After

Seattle, much talk about reforming the global economic system  to bring on

board those "being left behind" by globalization was emitted  by

establishment personalities like Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair,  Kofi

Annan, and Nike CEO Phil Knight. The Davos Forum, in fact, placed  the

question of reform at the top of the agenda of the meetings it held for  the

global elite.

A

year after Seattle, however, there has been precious little in the  way of

concrete action.

The

most prominent reform initiative, the Group of Seven’s plan to  lessen the

servicing of the external debt of the 41 Highly Indebted Poor  Countries (HIPC)

has actually delivered a debt reduction of only $US 1  billion since it

began in 1996 – or a reduction of their debt servicing by  only 3 per cent

in the past four and a half years!

One

year after the Seattle collapse, talk about reforming the  decision-making

process at the WTO has vanished, with Director  General Mike Moore, in

fact, saying that that the non-transparent,  undemocratic

"Consensus/Green Room" system that triggered the  developing

country revolt in Seattle is "non-negotiable."

When

it comes to the question of the international financial  architecture,

serious discussion of controls on speculative capital like  Tobin taxes has

been avoided. An unreformed IMF continues to be at  the center of the

system’s "firefighting system." A preemptive, pre-crisis  credit

line at the Fund (which no country wants to avail of) and a  toothless

Financial Stability Forum – where there is little developing  country

participation – appear to be the only "innovations" to emerge  from

the Asian, Russian, and Brazilian financial crises of the last three  years.

At

the IMF and the World Bank, similarly, there is no longer any talk  about

diluting the voting shares of the US and European Union in favor  of

greater voting power for the Third World countries, much less of doing  away

with the feudal practices of always having a European head the  Fund and an

American to lead the Bank. The much-vaunted consultative  process in the

preparation of "Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers"  (PRSP) by

governments applying for loans is turning out to be nothing  more than an

effort to add a veneer of public participation to the same  technocratic

process that is churning out development strategies with the  same old

emphasis on growth via deregulation and liberalization of  trade, with

maybe a safety net here and there. At the Bank, strong  resistance to

innovations that would put the priority on social reforms led  to the

resignation of two reformers: Joseph Stiglitz, the chief economist,  and

Ravi Kanbur, the head of the World Development Report task force.

Debacle

in The Hague

The

protests throughout the year had a strong anti-TNC strain, with  the World

Bank, IMF, and WTO regarded as servitors of the  corporations. A strong

distrust of TNCs had, in fact, developed, even in  the United States, where

over 70 per cent of people surveyed felt  corporations had too much power

over their lives. Distrust and opposition  to TNCs could only be deepened

by the collapse in early December of  the Hague Conference on Climate

Change, owing to US’s industry’s  unwillingness to significantly cut back

on its emission of greenhouse  gases. At a time that most indicators are

showing an acceleration of  global warming trends, Washington’s move has

reinforced the conviction  of the anti-globalization movement that the US

economic elite is  determined to grab all the benefits of globalization

while sticking the  costs on the rest of the world.

Assessing

the post-Seattle situation, C. Fred Bergsten, a prominent  advocate of

globalization, told a Trilateral Commission meeting in Tokyo  last April

that "the anti-globalization forces are now in the ascendancy."  That

description is even more accurate now. With the global elite itself  having

lost confidence in them, a classic crisis of legitimacy has  overtaken the

key institutions of global economic governance. If  legitimacy is not

regained, it is only a matter of time before structures  collapse, no

matter how seemingly solid they are, since legitimacy is the  foundation of

power structures. The process of delegitimation is difficult  to reverse

once it takes hold. Indeed, what we might call, following  Gramsci, as the

"withdrawal of consent" is likely to spread to the core  institutions

and practices of global capitalism, including the transnational  corporation.

2001

promises to be an equally trying time for the globalist project.

*

Executive director of Focus on the Global South in Bangkok and  professor

at the University of the Philippines.

 

 

 

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