The mid-April Washington demonstratons
against the IMF, World Bank, and WTO are imminent. Are you going? If not,
will you be discussing the issues with co-workers, relatives, and schoolmates,
even though far from Washington?
The reason to demonstrate and to organize folks to demonstrate in the future
is to impact policy. It isn’t that demonstrations educate policy makers
so they then change their choices. It isn’t that demonstrations awaken
a moral sensibility in policy makers, so they then change their choices. Either
of these could happen, but the most likely outcome for a policy maker whose
comprehension or values changed dramatically would be dismissal, not
So how do demonstrations affect policies? They coerce change. At any given
moment, policy- makers have a whole array of priorities. There is the issue
folks are demonstrating about—in this case the existence and role of
the IMF, World Bank, and WTO—and there are others as well. Change in
policy occurs when policymakers decide that not changing it is not in their
interest. Change occurs when movements raise costs that policy makers are
no longer willing to endure and which they can only escape by relenting.
When we raise the social cost to elites, they either eventually succumb or
successfully undercut our efforts before they become too successful.
So what constitutes a social cost for elites? What actions of ours bother
them? What actions have more impact?
If receiving lots of critical letters and email messages doesn’t bother
elites, and if they don’t lead to other actions that will bother elites,
then writing letters is not useful. If, on the other hand, tons of mail does
bother elites by making them nervous about their base of support, or for any
other reasons, then letter writing is a good choice for dissent. The same
goes for holding a rally, a march, a sit-in, a riot, or whatever else.
If these choices either in themselves or by what they promise in the future
raise costs for elites in position to impact policy, or if they organize and
empower constituencies to do other things that raise costs, then they are
good tactics for dissidents to choose. Reciprocally, regardless of how militant
or insightful, if a protest diminishes costs over time, say by reducing the
number of dissidents or causing them to fracture and in-fight, it is not a
good tactical choice.
When talking about matters as important to elites as world trade and international
economic institutions, the offsetting costs that will cause them to change
their agenda have to be very high, to be effective. That means that they have
to threaten to disturb things that elites care about even more than global
trade, the IMF, etc.—and the only thing the qualifies for that is their
own elite status via the institutional and ideological underpinning of their
material and social advantages.
The specter of more and more people not only being upset about the IMF and
World Bank and WTO, but upset about unjust economic relations per se, and
not only upset about these, but being willing to voice their anger and to
act on it—is disturbing to elites. If dissent has no trajectory, on the
other hand, it is very weak. For example, continuing to protest current global
economic policies will result in a large subgroup of critics who, however,
do not become steadily angrier, do not grow in number, do not tend to broaden
their concerns from global to domestic economics and from symptoms to underlying
causes, then the price for elites is relatively easy to bear.
This tells us that we need to demonstrate a trajectory of dissent in which
there are not only growing numbers who reject a policy we want changed, but
also that there are more people willing to demonstrate more militantly each
time around, and more people who are making broader connections and becoming
not just world trade dissidents, but permanently annoying opponents of elite
rule and wealth per se.
We need movements that are congenial to new participation, welcoming as many
people as possible into dissent, and which propel folks to become ever more
conscious and aware, ever more militant, and ever more diverse in their priorities.
If our dissent about the IMF has a component that goes beyond world trade
to talk about corporate power per se, that is good. If it has a component
that goes beyond taking a visible but passive stand to being civilly disobedient,
that is good. If it can link-up concerns of gender, race, ecology, and economic
poverty and disempower- ment here in the U.S. with its global economic concerns,
that is good. If it can stretch its members’ focus to encompass other
priorities of other movements, that is good.
Because growing numbers plus broadening consciousness and deepening commitment
and militancy says to elites, look at this trajectory. You keep on with this
global economics agenda you favor and not only will there be steadily more
opponents of that, but there will also be steadily more folks questioning
your elite position in society and the conditions that give you your power
and wealth. If we hold demonstrations that convey that message, you can bet
they will hear us. Z