Published on Sunday, May 7, 2000 in the Sunday Herald UK
Growing Anti-Capitalism Causes The Global Empire To Strike Back
It wasn't the lecture you might have expected from the chief executive of one of the world's largest and richest petro-chemical companies. When BPAmoco's Sir John Browne took to the rostrum for his Reith lecture in Edinburgh last month, at the top of his agenda was the fight against world poverty and the need to preserve the world's natural resources.
Browne isn't the only global capitalist to apparently discover a new social conscience and an interest in green concerns. American coffee giants Starbucks, for instance, last month agreed to sell brands which guarantee a fair price to coffee bean farmers.
Not everyone, however, is convinced. The thousands who took to the streets in London's anti-capitalist demonstrations last week, and others who took part in smaller marches in Glasgow and Man chester, are in no doubt that BPAmoco, Starbucks and McDonald's are the enemy.
While Middle England was outraged by violence at the demonstrations, and particularly by the image of Sir Winston Churchill's daubed statue, don't be fooled into thinking the guardians of capitalism dismiss such actions as those of a harmless lunatic fringe.
"Capitalism is running scared and big companies are desperately trying to change their image," says Mark Lynas of Corporate Watch, which investigates the less salubrious activities of multinational firms such as BP, McDonald's, Gap and Nike. "BP, for example, which is one of the main corporations causing catastrophic global climate change, is now putting a device on top of petrol stations to generate solar power in order to put petrol into the car. That's a joke if ever there was."
Sir John Browne's speech certainly raised hackles throughout the growing dissident movement. But for Dr Iain Ferguson, a lecturer in the department of applied social studies at Paisley University, the choice of subject matter was highly significant. "The fact BP feel obliged to stand up and say they'll fight poverty and tackle environment damage shows they are indeed very sensitive to pressures," says Ferguson. "Com panies such as BP are concerned and are trying to change their image and make minor adjustments to the way they do business. But there is also a concern that people are beginning to ask questions about the conditions under which goods are produced."
Anyone who doubts how seriously corporations are taking the threat posed by the anti-capitalist movement need look no further than a book produced by Burson-Marsteller, a leading public relations firm in Washington DC. The publication, which was distributed to the firm's clients less than three months after violent demonstrations at the World Trade Organisation's Seattle summit last year, included profiles of dozens of groups who took part. It named leaders, gave website addresses, and outlined the aims and methods of individual organisations and sold itself as a "must have" for company executives with an eye on future world developments.
"I don't believe this is simply another youthful movement which is here today and gone tomorrow," says Ferguson. "There is a real sense of pessimism in Britain at the moment. You only have to look at Ken Livingstone's victory in the London mayoral elections to realise people are looking for alternatives." Ferguson adds, though, that the absence of the trade unions in Britain from the anti-capitalist movement is still a significant feature. "If you look at the demonstration in Birmingham a few weeks ago and you link this with what happened in London on Thursday, what you have is a very high level of discontent. Trade unionism and the wider anti-corporate movement have not come together yet the way they did in Seattle, but all the elements are there. And if they do come together, that will be a very powerful force indeed."
The majority of the people who took part in the protests were young. Some were students, some unemployed. Some belonged to environment groups such as Reclaim the Streets and Friends of the Earth, and, of course, some were anarchists intending to cause trouble.
Their anger may have shocked political leaders and left the police looking unprepared, but it shouldn't have come as a surprise. The anti-capitalist movement is far from its infancy. Experts believe its roots lie in the Zapatista rebellion of January 1994 in southern Mexico. The rebels, who took over six towns and declared war on the Mexican government, which they accused of genocidal policies, were eventually defeated by the army.
A year later, the remaining rebels were joined by representatives of the movement for landless peasants in Brazil to form the People's Global Action, and from there the message denouncing multi national companies along with the World Bank, the WTO and the Inter national Monetary Fund spread throughout South America and filtered into the USA. The World Bank, the WTO and the IMF had, they argued, propped up corrupt Third World regimes by lending billions of pounds to untrustworthy dictators. Not surprisingly, the elites failed to pay back the money, meaning that the debts were inherited by the population.
When the movement arrived in North America it tapped into a zeitgeist of anti-consumerism. Third World debt still stands at more than $2 trillion, and paying the interest has become the single largest budget expense for dozens of poor countries, despite a high-profile campaign of debt cancellation backed by rock stars Bono, Sting and Bob Geldof.
The Jubilee 2000 campaign persuaded the G8 to draw up a package reducing debt payments. But Oxfam described the initiative as something that would make little difference to countries faced with IMF austerity measures forcing debtor countries to cut public spending on health, education and welfare, devalue their currencies and lower barriers to foreign ownership of industries, land and assets.
Throughout the late 1990s, opposition to the corporate world developed further, attracting a wide range of single-issue groups including small farmers, environmentalists, animal rights activists and trade unionists.
By 1999, dozens of organisations dedicated to exposing multi nationals exploiting workers in the developing world and damaging the environment had sprung up across the US. They included Public Citizen, Global Exchange and the Direct Action Network, which led last year's demon stra tions. Through the internet and months touring the USA spreading the word, the groups managed to get 50,000 people on to the Seattle streets and claim a significant victory. An agreement cutting tariffs and trade barriers failed to materialise as negotiations broke down between developing countries and the world's wealthier nations.
The movement is already thinking about its next course of action, planing to target the World Bank's annual meeting in Prague in September. There are also those who hope to show their power by shutting down a single corporation. Some businesses are retaliating. Yesterday, Nike announced withdrawing its sponsorship from American universities because of the activities of anti-capitalists.
But why should people in Britain share the concerns about the WTO and World Bank felt by South American peasants and students, environmentalists and trade unionists in the USA? For Mark Lynas the answer is clear - the world is becoming a smaller place. He believes a growing inequality of wealth in Britain coupled with unease over GM foods and fears over BSE have fuelled distrust towards the government and made people more able to identify with the world's poor.
"The gap between rich and poor is growing. In 1890, the pro portion of wealth divided between the developing world and the West was one to two, in 1965 it was one to 30, now its one to 65," he says."I believe there is a growing awareness in Britain of people seeing themselves as part of a collective global movement. And they realise that if there is going to be an alternative to capitalism, it's got to be practised globally."
Copyright 2000 Sunday Herald