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Bad Timing 

Globalization meetings, protests called off in Washington

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
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On the morning of September 11, activist Soren Ambrose was preparing to help launch the latest in a series of growing and increasingly strident street protests against corporate globalization. Washington, D.C., police were constructing a security barrier against an anticipated 100,000 activists outside the September 29 and 30 meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and Ambrose was central to the organizing effort. But when he flipped on the early TV news and saw the World Trade Center in flames, he quickly realized that the demonstrators’ political universe had been shattered.

“I think it changes everybody‘s world, but since our world is defined by political developments, this is our whole world,” says Ambrose, a senior policy analyst at the 50 Years Is Enough Network, where he works for structural change in the IMF and the World Bank. “It changes all of our calculations.”

It also changes the context for militancy. At a Saturday council meeting in Washington, the lead organizing coalition Mobilization for Global Justice called off the demonstrations. “It’s just not safe to bring in spokespeople to go out in the street and criticize these situations as the root of our political problems,” says Mobilization spokeswoman Celia Alario.

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Two days later, IMF managing director Horst Koehler and World Bank president James Wolfensohn followed suit, announcing they had canceled their joint annual meetings. A German source revealed to the Financial Times that a meeting of top finance ministers from the “Group of 7” industrialized nations, who regularly meet before the annual IMF--World Bank meetings, would still meet but in another country.

With the protests scuttled, Ambrose and the rest of the 100-odd core activists already in Washington worried that the anti-globalization movement would suffer collateral damage from a wartime mania for law and order. “What if some idiot who says he‘s associated with us goes and does something irresponsible?” Ambrose asks.

The day after the attacks, U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK) cautioned against rushing to the conclusion that Middle Eastern terrorists were responsible, suggesting instead that the attacks could be linked to the protests against the World Trade Organization, another target of anti-globalization activists. “If you watched what happened [at past protests] in Genoa, in Italy, and even in Seattle, there’s some expertise in that field,” Young told the Anchorage Daily News.

Activists respond sharply to the insinuation. “We train people in nonviolence,” says Kevin Danaher, co-founder of the trade-monitoring group Global Exchange, which has been central to anti-globalization protest since helping to organize the “Battle in Seattle.” “Like, we‘re going to kill people? It’s ridiculous. The thing that motivates our politics is that we‘re pissed off at babies starving to death in a world of plenty.”

Movement guru Noam Chomsky writes in an e-mail that any connection between anti-globalization activists and the September 11 attack is “absurd.”

The aforementioned starving babies, however, are exactly what many people say links radical Islam to the globalization debate. Anger against the U.S. from any quarter stems in part from charges of economic exploitation. And in the confrontation with the Muslim world, it’s hard to avoid the analysis that one of the key tenets of corporate globalization is the use of military force to guarantee cheap gasoline. As globalization champion Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has said, “For the hidden hand of the market to work, you always need a hidden fist.”

Beyond the economic issues is the matter of cultural globalization. In an essay printed in the September 13 Los Angeles Times, author Yossi Klein Halevi writes: “The terrorist‘s holy war isn’t aimed ultimately at Israel but the West. Muslim nations are among the most vociferous in ideologically opposing globalization -- not just its excesses but also its blessings, like a free media and a sense of shared responsibility for international stability.”

Here, the critics of global capital beg to differ. Halevi‘s analysis assumes that the “West” is in control of all facets of globalization, says Michael Hardt, co-author (with Italian Antonio Negri) of Empire, the extraordinarily popular analysis of globalization. Published last year, this book argues that free-market capitalism and the trade bodies that support it, like the IMF and World Trade Organization, have now become “empire” unto themselves, perhaps the empire to end all empires, one without a sponsoring state.

“Our slogan is that Empire has no center,” says Hardt. “It’s really a distributed network, like the Internet. Part of the experimentation of the [anti-globalization] movement has been to grapple with that fact. These [September 11] attacks are based in an ideology or a world view that there is, in fact, a center and one can strike at it.”

The critics of world capital -- the people‘s globalization, as some call them -- had a lot of momentum going into the Washington trade talks. Since the Seattle protest of November 1999, the movement has been increasingly able to land its critiques on the front page. Two weeks ago, a poll revealed that 86 percent of Americans thought corporations had too much power.

This week, that might still be true, but the movement must find new tactics that play well in public.

“You can’t take the chance of going out with the same kind of militant mass street protest,” says Danaher, voicing the prevailing wisdom now buzzing around the movement listserves, even among anarchists.

The AFL-CIO, which listed hundreds of members either dead or missing after Tuesday‘s attack, was softening its tactics but not its beliefs. President John Sweeney, in a Monday statement, renewed the union call to create “new rules for the global economy that protect people and the planet, not just multinational corporate interests, and to work to defeat fast-track trade-negotiating authority, to win cancellation of debt for poor nations and to develop strong global HIVAIDS policies.”

“History’s changed now,” says Danaher. “But the values that we were promoting are still there. We can‘t let the warmongers on either side scare us out of our fundamental beliefs in human rights.”

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