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Anti-Globalisation Protests Have Succeeded - Up To A Point
Published on Wednesday, September 27, 2000 in the Guardian of London
Anti-Globalisation Protests Have Succeeded - Up To A Point
by Larry Elliott in Prague
 
It was business as usual on both sides of the barricades in Prague yesterday. Out in the streets there was the clatter of teargas rounds being fired, the whoosh of water cannons and the injured being carted off in ambulances. In the conference centre, where one of eastern Europe's nastiest communist parties used to meet in conclave, Horst Kohler of the International Monetary Fund and James Wolfensohn of the World Bank were applauded politely as they talked of the challenges ahead for globalisation.

Kohler quoted Karl Popper as he talked of how his vision was for the IMF to make the world "a little better". Wolfensohn said he "shared the passion" of the protesters, and in a series of bullet points expressed views that the protesters themselves make - that there is something wrong about a world where the richest 20% of the world's population receive more than 80% of global incomes, where 1.2bn people live on less than a dollar a day and where the average income in the wealthiest countries is 37 times that in the poorest 20.

Wolfensohn and Kohler cannot understand why they remain figures of hate when they have changed their message and now talk the language of fairness and inclusion.

They hold seminars with debt campaigners, they fund bio-diversity programmes, they accept that there can be dangers from liberalising capital flows too rapidly. And yet they - and the institutions they head - are still loathed by the protesters, who see the fund and the bank as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The problem being, of course, globalisation.

As far as the protesters advocating direct and violent action are concerned, it is clear that crunch time is fast approaching. They need to think hard about what to do next, because demonstration fatigue is already setting in.

The street riots in Seattle were effective not only because they had a novelty value but because they appeared to cause the collapse of attempts to launch a new round of trade talks. In fact, while there was a lot of sound and fury on the streets, the real problem was inside the conference centre, where the poor countries refused to be rolled over by the United States. Had the European Union and the United States been able to persuade a few of the bigger developing countries to come on board, there would have been a deal in Seattle, protests or not.

Neither the protests at the spring meetings of the bank and fund in April, nor those intended to disrupt the annual meetings in Prague, have had the same impact.

The demonstrators have not been able to stop the meetings from taking place, let alone achieve their wider objective of rolling back globalisation. Far from it. According to the fund's forecasts, global capitalism is enjoying its best year of growth for more than a decade. All the laptops and mobile phones that have been bought by the demonstrators to coordinate their protests are doing wonders for the profits of Microsoft, Intel and Nokia.

Yet from one perspective, the current state of the global economy is a total irrelevance. Globalisation, it is said, will be brought down by its own internal contradictions, just as Marx predicted more than a century ago, and direct action will be the handmaiden of the revolution.

This is a perfectly acceptable view of the world, and it may even be right. It has to be said, however, that industrial capitalism has proved to be a far more durable opponent than its enemies have expected. It also needs to be acknowledged that direct action is something of a double-edged sword, which can be used by the forces of reaction - as in the recent fuel protests in Britain - as well as by the forces of progress.

History suggests that protest groups only turn into successful mass movements when they tap into widespread discontent and offer a feasible alternative. So far, there is no real evidence that the anti-globalisation protesters have achieved either. "I know what they are against," said Trevor Manuel, the finance minister of South Africa, yesterday. "But I don't know what they are for."

This, then, is the dilemma for the anti-globalisation protests. Their action has been a limited success to the extent that it has forced many of the problems of globalisation - the inequity, the instability of the financial system, the threat to the environment, the importance of human rights - higher up the political agenda at a time when the failures of neo- liberalism and the financial crises of the late 90s were already contributing to a mood in which those at the apex of globalisation are willing to talk and debate the need for reform. But Seattle, Washington and now Prague have certainly concentrated minds and created space for the moderate wing of anti-globalisation to push for more generous debt relief and universal primary education.

But dialogue and debate do not provide the same buzz, the same instant gratification, as chucking a Molotov cocktail or throwing a smokebomb. If you're an idealistic student, the idea of cutting a deal with Jim Wolfensohn is far less attractive than calling him a fascist or a mass murderer. Jim Morrison of the Doors used to send his audience wild with ecstasy in the 60s when he bellowed "We want the world and we want it now", and, in truth, little has changed since. The grotesque imbalances - in both power and wealth - that have become ever more apparent as globalisation has developed makes the desire for instant results understandable. Foot-dragging on debt relief is costing lives in Africa every day.

The alternative to violent action is a hard slog, to persuade rich countries to speed up debt relief, to give smaller countries a bigger say in the running of the fund and the bank, to campaign for a world environment organisation with the same clout as that wielded by the world trade organisation, and to make the case for new controls on global capital.

But this will be messy, because the democratic route is always messy. Those who advocate it can be accused of lacking ideological purity or of lacking the stomach for a fight. What's more, their way may not work either.

Yet the experience of the 60s protests is instructive. As today, they emerged from a period in which the global economy - and the American economy in particular - was doing well. The desire to protest diminished when times got tough, and instead of 20 years of togetherness following a revolutionary golden dawn, we got 20 years of Thatcherism instead.

In the meantime, once the leaders of the 60s generation realised that capitalism was not about to collapse, they found a job, settled down and moved to the suburbs.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000

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