The site has been chosen. Concrete barriers are going up. A gymnasium is renamed a ”convergence space.“ Anarchists are buying new cartridges for their gas masks. All signs indicate that the respectful quiet of the post–September 11 world is about to be broken.
World finance ministers are gathering in the Canadian capital of Ottawa this weekend to hold annual high-level economic talks known as the G20. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank will also be there November 16–18, holding meetings they had scheduled for Washington, D.C., before the September airliner attacks. An estimated 100,000 anti-corporate globalization protesters had planned to confront the IMF and the World Bank there, and at least some of globalization‘s most vocal critics are planning to carry the fight to Ottawa.
Over the past two months, most of the environmental groups, trade unions, land-reform movements and anarchist direct-action cells that make up the resistance to corporate globalization agreed that there wasn’t political space for street demonstrations. But the so-called War on Terrorism has polarized the question of poverty and resentment in the developing world, and brought a new urgency to the debate.
The U.S. and Europe are touting increased free trade as the cure for poverty, and thus as a weapon against terror — in the words of Colin Powell, ”Hopelessness breeds desperate acts.“ Consequently, the Bush administration is moving to capitalize on wartime support by grabbing globalizing tools that were formerly out of reach. In particular, the administration is leaning heavily on Congress to grant the president Trade Promotional Authority, otherwise known as Fast Track, which would allow Bush to negotiate controversial international treaties, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas document, without input from Congress. Fast Track has been denied the White House since it was taken away from Bush Sr.
The current Bush initiative has Steve Kretzmann, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.–based Institute for Policy Studies, crying foul: ”Any attempt to pass something as important as Fast Track at a time of crisis like this is the very worst kind of political opportunism.“
In fact, critics of globalization say the new conflict only underscores their argument. ”The war has actually moved some analysis in our direction,“ says Soren Ambrose, senior policy analyst with 50 Years Is Enough, a group that seeks radical reform of the decision-making and lending practices of the IMF and the World Bank. ”The question of Islamic anger has brought up foreign-economic-policy issues.“
Kretzmann makes the link explicit: ”If people want to see how urgent it is to solve world poverty, they need look no further than the situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The World Bank and the IMF exacerbate poverty and make this situation worse. They help create breeding grounds for terrorists.“
Messages like this, attached to banners and flown by American protesters even across the border in Canada, certainly seem to risk flaunting the national unity generated in response to September 11. The U.S. is by far the largest stakeholder in the IMF and the World Bank, and the conditions routinely attached to loans to developing nations are designed to increase American access to those markets, and to labor and resources.
But there is already some indication from members of the IMF and the World Bank that they‘ve been listening very carefully to the anti-globalization resistance. ”There’s a kind of rethink that‘s going on right now at the Fund,“ says IMF spokesman William Murray. ”We’ve got this goal of halving world poverty by 2015, which is a new war on poverty [by] the U.N., the World Bank, the IMF and other institutions. To do that . . . the IMF and the World Bank have got to do a better job.“
But Murray is careful to qualify his remarks: ”This anti-globalization movement makes it seem like we have some kind of great, closed-door conspiracy, that the Bildenburgs of the world are taking over. It really doesn‘t happen that way.“
Nor do the activists themselves agree on what would constitute doing a ”better job.“ In the ongoing discussion about the role of global institutions in the fight against poverty and for the protection of workers, human rights and the environment, activist opinion has swung wildly between reform and abolition. Reformers believe that some of the functions of the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and other international institutions are necessary, and should be reshuffled or reassigned to the U.N. Abolitionists want these organizations dismantled.
The ambiguity hasn’t gone unnoticed. A consortium of about 60 of globalization‘s leading critics has organized the International Forum on Globalization, or IFG, which has been grinding away for years to produce a central document. So far, it remains a work in progress.
”The big change [after 911] is that we are now being challenged to put forward a more positive agenda,“ says Steven Staples, issue-campaigns coordinator for the Council of Canadians, Canada’s biggest advocacy group. ”We have to make it clear that we are not just against the IMF or the World Bank, but what we‘re for, what kind of world we envision.“
To that end, many in the coalition preparing for Ottawa have endorsed a list of four concrete demands, representing a kind of minimal consensus among the scores of opposition groups. They include:
• Open all World Bank and IMF meetings to the media and the public.
• Cancel all debt from impoverished countries to the World Bank and the IMF, using the institutions’ own resources.
• End all World Bank and IMF policies that hinder people‘s access to food, clean water, shelter, health care, education and the right to organize. (Such ”structural adjustment“ policies include user fees, privatization and austerity programs.)
• Stop all World Bank support for socially and environmentally destructive projects such as oil, gas and mining activities, and for projects, such as dams, that require forced relocation of people.
Even if the critique of globalization is still in flux, advocates say it’s been confirmed by recent events. One of the basic alternative principles, Steven Staples points out, is a return to the notion of the ”commons.“ Critics argue there should be limits on the free market — that basic services such as drinking water, seed stocks or even genetic material itself should remain the property of a people or a municipality, not an opportunity for profit-taking by transnational corporations.
Steven Staples cites the anthrax threat as a case in point. Like the U.S., Canada experienced a mad run on the popular antibiotic Cipro. The manufacturer, Bayer Canada, said it didn‘t have enough of it. This put the Canadian government in a bad spot because, as vigorous defenders of biotech patent rights, Canada had previously told governments in South Africa and Brazil they had no right making ”illegal“ generic copies of AIDS drugs that could save millions of lives. Now, faced with the same dilemma — patent protections directly interfering with the public health — Canada did exactly as South Africa and Brazil did, placing a gigantic order with a generic drug maker. Bayer raised a commotion, but averted a showdown over patents when it somehow came up with a new batch of pills at a drastically reduced price.
For Staples, this episode puts the emphasis back on public services — common services — as a matter of security.
”Governments matter again. Borders matter again,“ he says. ”Making people feel secure again requires public services. They suddenly have to rely on public-health and -safety officials, environmental agencies, immigration services, and all manner of government regulatory bodies. These are agencies that are under constant attack by economic globalizers, who see them as a hindrance to the market. But the market simply does not provide these services.
Globalization’s critics also are thinking hard about tactics. Increasingly militant street demonstrations came to a head this year in Genoa, Italy, where as many as 300,000 activists jammed the streets, and a violent police response left one protester dead and hundreds of marchers and organizers hospitalized.
“After the militancy of Genoa, a lot of people were disappointed we didn‘t get a chance to take on the IMF and the World Bank in D.C.,” says Han Shan, program director with the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which holds camps where activists learn everything from running media campaigns to lockdown techniques. “We wanted the chance to show how peaceful and pointed our critique could be.”
The Ruckus Society canceled a training camp that was scheduled for the week following September 11. “They would have shown our camp right next to footage of other kinds of training camps” — meaning terrorist camps — “and that wouldn’t have looked too good.”
Steve Staples of the Council of Canadians is also reviewing strategy. “People think activists are cold tacticians, but they were traumatized by September 11 like everyone else,” he says. “We had tremendous momentum building up to September 11 — bigger demos, better political space in which to be heard. That space is still pretty good. People are bruised right now. We stand by our analysis, but we‘ve been really accentuating the need for nonviolent action.”
The question was, and still is, how can tens of thousands of protesters bring their message to decision makers barricaded behind high walls and phalanxes of police? The actions planned around the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., were canceled out of respect and, frankly, fear for public safety. But now activists feel that the urgent need to connect anti-globalization issues to the war on terrorism is forcing them into the streets, appearances — and risk of misinterpretation — be damned.
“We grieved over the events of September 11. We thought it was a terrible, abominable act,” says Paul Smith, a volunteer with Global Democracy Ottawa. “But the grieving is over now. It’s time for us to get back to work changing the world so this won‘t happen again.”
“The march on November 17 in Ottawa is billed as a ’Peace and Justice‘ march,” says Pam Foster, coordinator of the Halifax Summit, which was set up to oppose the 1995 Halifax meeting of the Group of Seven industrial nations. “It’s universally understood that violence won‘t be tolerated, but all bets are off once people are in the streets, since the definition of ’violence‘ is still an ongoing debate.”
For most activists, nonviolence means non-aggressive marches or vigils, or mild forms of civil disobedience such as sit-ins. But vast numbers of those in the streets consider technical definitions of “nonviolence” to include property destruction, or even direct conflict with a militarized state. In other words, fighting the police.
Paul Smith explains it this way: “I’m a nonviolent activist. I won‘t use violence, even against a violent police presence. But am I into confrontation? You bet I am. It’s the only vote I‘ve got left. I’m going to use my body to stop this meeting or make them move it elsewhere.”
Not so fast says Han Shan. “It‘s time to show phenomenal discipline. We have to stop giving the media the chance to demonize us. We have to make sure that the public knows who are the good guys. It’s Gandhi time.”