Global Policy Forum

Anti-Capitalist Protests:

The Economist
September 23, 2000

The threat of renewed demonstrations against global capitalism hangs over next week's annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank. This new kind of protest is more than a mere nuisance: it is getting its way.

N30, A16, S11, S26. If you are part of the anti-capitalist resistance, these terms will need no explaining. Each denotes a day of protest against "corporate-led globalisation". First came the World Trade Organisation's ill-fated ministerial meeting in Seattle in November 1999; then the spring meetings of the World Bank and the IMF in April this year; next, the World Economic Forum's gathering in Melbourne on September 11th; and, coming to Prague next week, the main annual meetings of the Bank and the Fund. Each term also connects you to a website where the plans for the demos, and other useful information for would-be protesters, are posted.

The approach is the same every time. A variety of ill-defined and sometimes spontaneous "radical" groups—environmentalists, feminists, anarchists, neo-communists, and assorted non-aligned malcontents, to name only some—join to march on the streets. A "convergence centre" is proposed, usually a disused warehouse. (As The Economist went to press, the Prague venue had not been announced.) This is where protesters are housed and fed (vegan food preferred); and where they receive medical and legal advice, plus training in "non-violent" civil protest.

The lack of hierarchy is ostentatious. The protesters have no leaders. They join small "affinity groups". Despite this, the events are well organised. Possible activities include colourful puppets, street theatre, catchy slogans and lots of noise, and for some (to quote the S26 site) "pickets, occupations of offices, blockades and shutdowns, appropriating and disposing of luxury consumer goods, sabotaging, wrecking or interfering with capitalist infrastructure, [and] appropriating capitalist wealth and returning it to the working people". The immediate aim is to shut down, or at least badly disrupt, the meetings of the global elite. Afterwards, the movement evaporates into cyberspace.

Seattle saw both the birth and, to date, the high point of this new mode of activism. There had been isolated days of anti-corporate protest before, notably in Britain, but the disruption of the WTO gathering, amid street scenes reminiscent of the 1960s, confirmed Seattle's standing as the birthplace of the "backlash against globalisation".

Onward and eastward

If the protest websites and the elite's contingency planners can be believed, Prague may not be far behind. Organised almost exclusively by European activists—the Ruckus Society and other veterans of America's protests do not plan to attend—demos there could prove more disruptive and more violent than anything so far. There will be around 18,000 delegates, financiers and assorted hangers-on; the Czech interior ministry is expecting some 20,000-25,000 protesters (other estimates say 5,000-10,000). Many would-be protesters have already been denied entry at the border. Even so, this could be the biggest invasion of foreigners since the Russian army arrived in 1968. All these elitists and anti-elitists will be crammed together into Prague's warren of narrow winding streets—a tricky situation for the authorities. The Czech police have been co-operating with the FBI and the British police. Not noted for restraint, they are inexperienced at dealing peacefully with large-scale protest. Some errant officers have reportedly sent death threats to protest organisers. Meanwhile, some of the organising websites sound an ominous note. One of them,, promises a "mass working-class protest", dismissing Seattle as a "passive ideological showpiece". Neo-Nazi skinheads may turn up as well, to fight on one side or the other.

As a result the town is preparing for siege. Schools and theatres have been told to close. Officials have advised those without business in Prague, as well as the old and those with small children, to leave. Hospital beds have been set aside. One bank has asked its top people to declare their blood group. Other bigwigs have been advised to leave their spouses at home (usually the annual meetings are an occasion for heavy-duty socialising). Many bankers have just decided to give this year's gathering a miss.

Even if all this preparation and anxiety turn out to be overdone, this is far from business as usual—so, whatever happens, the protesters have won a kind of victory. Protest groups are already planning next year's events. These include action in April against the Summit of the Americas gathering in Quebec; a global May Day rally (codeword, M12K01); and, yet again, protests at the next IMF/World Bank annual meetings, this time in Washington in September 2001.

What, if anything, does all this signify? Is it, as some claim, the start of a global citizen-activist movement? (If you took that view, you might see Europe's current fuel-tax "revolt" as part of the trend, despite its anti-green, middle-class character.) Or is it, in the words of Naomi Klein, an anti-corporate sympathiser and author of a recent book deploring the power of corporate brands, merely "a movement of meeting-stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats as if they were the Grateful Dead"?

The protesters are certainly not part of an intellectually coherent movement. They represent a diverse set of groups, often with very differing agendas, and sometimes with mutually contradictory ones. Almost all they have in common is a loathing of the established economic order, and of the institutions—the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO—which they regard as either running it or serving it. The League for a Revolutionary Communist International sums up the all-encompassing disaffection pretty well in a 19-page manifesto demanding an end to debt, poverty and capitalist exploitation; for good measure, it also wants to liberate advances in genetics and pharmaceuticals from the tyranny of patent rights and to "eliminate the meaningless and harmful marketing of useless products".

Blinkered, as yet

Many of the protesters know little about the organisations they are attacking—but not all of them, by any means, are in it merely to vent incoherent rage or have a fun day out. The more thoughtful among them recognise that street protests are only a convenient tactic in a larger war, and that if their movement is to grow it will need a vision—positive proposals, that is, as well as a list of things it hates. So far, this vision is lacking, though a few ambitious types are working on it. The International Forum on Globalisation, based in San Francisco, has been preparing a document that it hopes will win the support of a wide range of activist groups. According to John Cavanagh, head of the Institute for Policy Studies, a radical think-tank based in Washington, DC, this manifesto would outline a new "global democracy" based on human rights and ecological sustainability. It would also define new rules for globalisation. (For instance, certain goods and services, such as bulk water and living things, should not be subject to patents and trade rules.) And it would demand new bodies. The Fund, the Bank and the WTO should be shrunk or shut down. The UN—which is deemed more accountable and democratic—should be souped up.

Whether any agenda, even one so general, could be adopted by such a rag-bag of protesters is unclear. An effort by Vaclav Havel earlier this year to broker a meeting between the protesters and the boss of the World Bank foundered because the activists could not agree on whether such negotiations were a good idea: in fact, they had no way of actually making any decision. Who should represent a disparate collection of websites, all of which take pride in their lack of leaders? (Mr Havel has since managed to set up a forum on September 23rd that will be attended by Bank and Fund officials and by assorted opponents of globalisation.)

Nonetheless, it would be a big mistake to dismiss this global militant tendency as nothing more than a public nuisance, with little potential to change things. It already has changed things—and not just the cocktail schedule for the upcoming meetings. Protests organised through the Internet succeeded in scuttling the OECD's planned Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998; then came the greater victory in Seattle, where the hoped-for launch of global trade talks was aborted. It is still unclear when, or whether, that round will start.

Also, many of the groups have already swayed the decisions of firms and official institutions. Global Exchange, for instance, is an outfit of 40 people based in San Francisco, and an avid believer in street protest. It reckons it bullied Starbucks into promising to sell "fair trade" coffee beans in its cafés, starting next month. ("Fair trade" coffee is supposedly bought at a price that offers peasant producers a "living wage", rather than at the "exploitative" price paid for commercial coffee.) Starbucks says it had been thinking about doing this anyway.

Similarly, "anti-sweatshop" campaigns, mostly in America and mostly student-led, have had effects well beyond the university campus. A coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), student groups and UNITE, the textile workers' union, for instance, recently sued clothing importers, including Calvin Klein and Gap, over working conditions in the American commonwealth of Saipan in the Pacific. Faced with litigation and extended public campaigns against their brands, 17 companies settled (others, including Gap, are still fighting the case). The deal includes promises to improve working conditions. The factories will be monitored by yet another group, Verité, based in Massachusetts, and part of a growing industry of organisations dedicated to inspecting labour conditions in third-world factories.

Activist groups have been just as successful in causing big international agencies to bend. A World Bank project in China, which involved moving poor ethnic Chinese into lands that were traditionally Tibetan, was abandoned after a political furore led by a relatively small group of influential pro-Tibetan activists. Similarly, the Bank had a tough fight to fund an oil pipeline through Cameroon because of activists' efforts.

Technology of complaint

The Internet has proved a crucial tool in organising these groups for protest; it has also directly furnished the protesters, once organised, with a potent weapon. E-mail makes it much easier not only to gather activists and disseminate information, but also to bombard a target with protests from around the world. As Debra Spar of the Harvard Business School points out, the activists have globalised faster than the firms they target. Global Exchange's online anti-Gap campus-organising kit has pro forma letters to send to the company, anti-Gap flyers and suggested slogans and chants. All are easily downloaded. It is hardly surprising that firms are often wrong-footed. The activists have also raised the profile of "backlash" issues—notably, labour and environmental conditions in trade, and debt relief for the poorest countries. This has dramatically increased the influence of mainstream NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Oxfam. Such groups have traditionally had some say (albeit less than they would have wished) in policymaking. Assaulted by unruly protesters, firms and governments are suddenly eager to do business with the respectable face of dissent.

In the Bretton Woods institutions, in particular, the shift is striking. Public protest has accelerated change on several fronts, notably debt relief. The rallies, human chains and petitions for debt cancellation organised by the Jubilee 2000 campaign applied enormous political pressure for debt write-downs. As a result, groups such as Oxfam were all but co-opted into designing the debt-relief strategies. Next week is likely to see more measures announced to speed up the process, so that governments can say they will keep the promise they made in 1999 that at least 20 poor countries will see their debt burdens lifted this year.

The IMF, long regarded as impermeable to outsiders, now runs seminars to teach NGOs the nuts and bolts of country-programme design, so that they can better monitor what the Fund is doing and (presumably) understand the rationale for the Fund's loan conditions. Horst Kí¶hler, the IMF's new boss, has been courting NGOs. Jim Wolfensohn, the Bank's boss, has long fawned in their direction, but in the Bank too the pace of bowing down has been stepped up.

In Prague this year a programme of meetings has been designed for non-government, non-corporate groups. At last count well over 300 had signed up. This raises the interesting possibility that radical groups will try to prevent slightly less radical groups from attending their meetings. Mark Malloch Brown, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, has gone further. He has a board of NGOs (including some fairly radical ones) to advise him, and he explicitly wants to position UNDP as an honest broker, arbitrating the interests of firms, government and civil society in individual developing countries.

Presuming too much?

The increasing clout of NGOs, respectable and not so respectable, raises an important question: who elected Oxfam, or, for that matter, the League for a Revolutionary Communist International? Bodies such as these are, to varying degrees, extorting admissions of fault from law-abiding companies and changes in policy from democratically elected governments. They may claim to be acting in the interests of the people—but then so do the objects of their criticism, governments and the despised international institutions. In the West, governments and their agencies are, in the end, accountable to voters. Who holds the activists accountable? Some politicians are beginning to press this point. The Foreign Policy Centre, a think-tank sponsored by the British government, recently proposed a code of conduct for NGOs that would include certification by a regulator. For now, though, governments and international institutions would rather bend at least part of the way to the NGOs' demands than question their credentials.

There could be no objection, of course, to the influence of NGOs and protesters if they were merely stating their case. Many protesters are out to do more than that—up to and including "sabotaging, wrecking or interfering with capitalist infrastructure". When they get their way, that looks likes a defeat for democracy rather than a victory. Then again, even this might be all right if the concessions won by protesters genuinely advanced the cause of the world's poor, whose interests most protesters claim to defend. This too is very much in doubt.

Forcing higher labour standards on factories in Saipan, for instance, may simply cause the "sweatshops" to move on, leaving the workers without jobs. Poor countries cannot afford rich-country standards of labour regulation; people in poor countries will bear the cost of denying this fact. Similarly, the furore over Tibet simply led China to withdraw its loan request. The Chinese decided to fund the project themselves, presumably with less regard for the environment and human rights. Even debt relief is capable of doing more harm than good—as when it channels new capital to countries whose economic policies are in disarray.

A more complicated issue is the World Bank's thinking on poverty and development. Recently, the organisation has undergone a pronounced shift, clearly visible in its latest World Development Report, the Bank's flagship publication. Poverty is now described as a "multidimensional" problem that includes powerlessness, voicelessness, vulnerability and fear—as well as mere lack of food, shelter and other economic necessities. Combating poverty therefore requires not only economic growth, it is argued, but also "security" and "empowerment".

Empowering poor people, says the Bank, means strengthening their ability to shape decisions that affect their lives—by removing discrimination, promoting equity (for instance, between the sexes) and ensuring that government institutions are more open, accountable and oriented towards the poor. The Bank reckons it should no longer impose reform strategies on its clients. They should be designed mainly by poor countries themselves on the basis of a national dialogue with various civil groups.

In part this "fuller" account of development reflects a shift in thinking that was under way before the backlash began. Some economists were already becoming more sympathetic to the view, almost universal before the 1980s, that growth by itself is not enough to reduce third-world poverty; and a consensus (broader than the one on growth and poverty) was already forming around the idea that the Bank's traditional lending conditions are not the best way to promote economic reform. But the NGO critics, scores of whom were invited to discuss the new report while it was in preparation, gave these intellectual tendencies a mighty push.

Again, whether the developing countries will benefit is very much in doubt. Empowerment, supposing the idea is taken seriously, may distract governments and the Bank alike from the simpler pro-growth tasks that they already appear to find impossibly difficult. And it seems odd for the Bank to demand that third-world governments, often these days democratically elected, should design their reforms alongside civil groups that are unelected, unaccountable and very often unrepresentative.

But these are not points to worry the protesters as long as they enjoy the sympathy of many people in the West, as they appear to. Many of the issues they raise reflect popular concern about the hard edges of globalisation—fears, genuine if muddled, about leaving the poor behind, harming the environment, caring about profits more than people, unleashing dubious genetically modified foods, and the rest. The radicals on the streets are voicing an organised and extremist expression of these widely shared anxieties. Along with mainstream NGOs, the protesters are prevailing over firms, international institutions and governments partly because, for now, they do reflect that broader mood. If their continuing success stimulates rather than satisfies their appetite for power, global economic integration may be at greater risk than many suppose.

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