Global Policy Forum

Don't Fence Us In


By Naomi Klein

October 6, 2002

A few months ago, while riffling through my clippings searching for a lost statistic, I noticed a recurring theme: the fence. The image came up again and again: barriers separating people from previously public resources, locking them away from much needed land and water, restricting their ability to move across borders, to express political dissent, to demonstrate on public streets, even keeping politicians from enacting policies that make sense for the people who elected them.  Some of these fences are hard to see. A virtual fence goes up around schools in Zambia when an education "user fee" is introduced on the advice of the World Bank, putting classes out of the reach of millions of people.

There is a real if invisible fence that goes up around clean water in Soweto when prices skyrocket owing to privatization and residents are forced to turn to contaminated sources. And there is a fence that goes up around the very idea of democracy when Argentina is told it won't get an International Monetary Fund loan unless it further reduces social spending, privatizes more resources and eliminates support to local industries, all in the midst of an economic crisis deepened by those very policies. These fences are as old as colonialism. "Such usurious operations put bars around free nations," Eduardo Galeano wrote in Open Veins of Latin America. He was referring to the terms of a British loan to Argentina in 1824.

Fences have always been a part of capitalism, the only way to protect property from would-be bandits, but the double standards propping up these fences have become increasingly blatant.

Expropriation of corporate holdings may be the greatest sin any socialist government can commit in the eyes of the international financial markets. But the asset protection guaranteed to companies under free trade deals did not extend to the Argentinean citizens who deposited their life savings in Citibank and HSBC accounts and now find that most of their money has simply disappeared.  Meanwhile some very necessary fences are under attack: in the rush to privatization, the barriers that once existed between many public and private spaces - keeping advertisements out of schools, profit-making interests out of healthcare - nearly have been all leveled. Every protected public space has been cracked open, only to be re-enclosed by the market. Another public-interest barrier under serious threat is the one separating genetically modified crops from crops that have not yet been altered. The seed giants have done such a poor job of preventing  their tampered seeds from blowing into neighboring fields,   taking root and cross-pollinating that, in many parts of the world,  eating GM-free is no longer even an option - the entire food supply has  been contaminated. The fences that protect the public interest seem to be fast disappearing, while the ones that restrict our liberties keep multiplying.

The past decade of economic integration has been fuelled by promises of barriers coming down, of increased mobility and greater freedom. And yet 13 years after the celebrated collapse of the Berlin Wall we are surrounded by fences yet again, cut off - from one another, from the earth and from our own ability to imagine that change is possible. The economic process that goes by the euphemism "globalization" reaches into every aspect of life, transforming every activity and natural resource into a measured and owned commodity. As the Hong Kong-based labor researcher Gerard Greenfield points out, the current stage of capitalism is not simply about selling more products across borders. It is also about feeding the market's insatiable need for growth by redefining as "products" entire sectors that were previously considered part of "the commons" and not for sale.

The invading of the public by the private has reached into categories such as health and education, of course, but also ideas, genes, seeds, now purchased, patented and fenced off. With copyright now the US's single  largest export (more than manufactured goods or arms), international trade  law must be understood not only as taking down selective barriers to trade  but more accurately as a process that systematically puts up new barriers  - around knowledge, technology and newly privatized resources. These Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights are what prevent farmers from replanting their Monsanto patented seeds and make it illegal for poor countries to manufacture cheaper generic drugs to get to their needy populations.

Globalization is now on trial because on the other side of all these  virtual fences are real people, shut out of schools, hospitals,  workplaces, their own farms, homes and communities. Mass privatization and deregulation have bred armies of locked-out people, whose services are no longer needed; who's basic needs go unmet. These fences of social exclusion can discard an entire industry, and they can also write off an entire country, as has happened to Argentina. In the case of Africa, essentially an entire continent can find itself exiled to the global shadow world, appearing only during wartime when its citizens are looked on with suspicion as would-be terrorists or anti-American fanatics.  In fact, remarkably few of globalization's fenced-out people turn to violence. Most simply move: from countryside to city, from country to country. And that's when they come face to face with distinctly unvirtual fences, the ones made of chain link and razor wire, reinforced with concrete and guarded with machine guns.

Whenever I hear the phrase "free trade", I can't help picturing the caged factories I visited in the Philippines and Indonesia that are all surrounded by gates, watchtowers and soldiers - to keep the highly subsidized products from leaking out and the union organizers from getting in. I think, too, about a recent trip to the South Australian desert where I visited the infamous Woomera detention centre. At Woomera, hundreds of Afghan and Iraqi refugees, fleeing oppression and dictatorship in their own countries, are so desperate for the world to see what is going on behind the fence that they stage hunger strikes, jump off the roofs of their barracks and sew their mouths shut. These days' newspapers are filled with gruesome accounts of asylum seekers attempting to make it across national borders by hiding themselves among the products that enjoy so much more mobility than they do.

All these fences are connected: the real ones are needed to enforce the virtual ones, the ones that put resources and wealth out of the hands of so many. It simply isn't possible to lock away this much of our collective wealth without an accompanying strategy to control popular unrest and mobility. Security firms do their biggest business in the cities, where the gap between rich and poor is greatest - Johannesburg, Sao Paulo, and New Delhi - selling iron gates, armored cars, elaborate alarm systems and renting out armies of private guards. Brazilians, for instance, spend $4.5bn a year on private security, and the country's 400,000 armed rent-a-cops outnumber actual police officers by almost four to one. It now seems that these gated compounds protecting the haves from the have-nots are microcosms of what is fast becoming a global security state - not global village intent on lowering walls and barriers, as we were promised, but a network of fortresses connected by highly militarized trade corridors.

The West rarely sees the fences and the artillery. The gated factories and refugee detention centers remain tucked away in remote places. But over the past few years some fences have intruded into full view - often, fittingly, during the summits where this brutal model of globalization is advanced. When Quebec City hosted the Summit of the Americas in April 2001 the Canadian government took the unprecedented step of building a cage around not just the conference centre, but the downtown core, forcing residents to show official documentation to get to their homes and workplaces. Another popular strategy is to hold the summits in inaccessible locations: the 2002 G8 meeting was held deep in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and the 2001 WTO meeting took place in the repressive Gulf state of Qatar.

The "war on terrorism" has become yet another fence to hide behind, used by summit organizers to explain why public shows of dissent just won't be possible this time around or, worse, to draw threatening parallels between legitimate protesters and terrorists bent on destruction.

But what are reported as menacing confrontations are often joyous events, as much experiments in alternative ways of organizing societies as criticisms of existing models. The first time I  participated in one of  these counter-summits, I remember having the distinct feeling that some  sort of political portal was opening up - a gateway, a window, "a crack in  history",   to use subcomandante Marcos's beautiful phrase. This opening was a sense of possibility, a blast of fresh air. These protests - which are actually week-long marathons of intense education on global politics, late-night strategy sessions, festivals of music and street theatre - are like stepping into a parallel universe. Urgency replaces resignation, strangers talk to each other, and the prospect of a radical change in political course seems like the most logical thought in the world.

Other kinds of windows are opening as well, quiet conspiracies to reclaim privatized spaces and assets for public use. Maybe it's students kicking ads out of their classrooms or setting up media centers with free software. Maybe it's Thai peasants planting organic vegetables on over-irrigated golf courses, or landless farmers in Brazil cutting down fences around unused lands and turning them into farming cooperatives. And once reclaimed, these spaces are also being remade. In neighborhood assemblies, at city councils in community-run farms, a new culture of vibrant direct democracy is emerging.

It is not clear what will emerge from these liberated spaces, or if what emerges will be hardy enough to withstand the mounting attacks from the police and military, as the line between terrorist and activist is deliberately blurred. The question of what comes next preoccupies me, as it does everyone else who has been part of building this international movement. As I look again at these article clippings, I see them for what they are: postcards from dramatic moments in time, a record of the first chapter in a very old and recurring story, the one about people pushing up against the barriers that try to contain them, opening up windows, breathing deeply, tasting freedom.



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