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G8 Should Thank Protesters
Published on Friday, July 27, 2001 in the Montreal Gazette
G8 Should Thank Protesters
Demonstrations focused attention away from leaders' discussions
by Lyle Stewart
 
If I were just another corporate apologist, my belly full of spleen, I'd be thanking my lucky stars the protests at the G8 summit in Genoa last weekend had their share of blood, gore and burning cars. The violence saves having to find yet another way to repeat the old nostrums about how corporations are democracy; that the poor are that way because they haven't had enough corporate globalization. It must be tough to flesh out those arguments in the absence of supporting evidence.

So when a protester stopped a couple police bullets with his forehead - phew! - there was no need to discuss what actually happened at the summit, although a common complaint is over all the attention paid to people who protest as opposed to the world leaders. Oops, sorry, protesters aren't people; they're thugs. And who elected them anyway? The leaders inside the summit were elected, remember.

Well, Stalin was elected. So, I guess, was George W. Bush, although more Americans voted for his opponent, and a large majority of his country's citizens voted for no one at all. And, yes, Vladimir Putin was elected, too, although the Russian media weren't allowed to talk about other candidates except in the same insulting tone our national media reserve for those who attend protests.

I guess what I and many of those on the street are trying to say is that democracy is, or should be, deeper than an often-suspect ballot result. In fine Orwellian fashion, however, the more authoritarian the world's industrialized democracies become, the more the G8 leaders talk about democracy. Having actually read the final communique, I find the copious repetition of the words "democratic," or "open," or "inclusive" quite revealing, in the same way a bloody dictatorship will label itself a democratic republic. So let's examine a few of the fine phrases in the G8 communique:

- As democratic leaders, accountable to our citizens, we believe in the fundamental importance of open public debate on the key challenges facing our societies.

Except during elections. Even its most ardent defenders will agree that globalization is a key challenge facing our society. But did it face an open public debate during an appropriate period - for example, last November's federal election? No, our government never sought debate on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas or other trade agreements it has signed. Quite the opposite.

- We are determined to make globalization work for all our citizens and especially the world's poor.

This is almost an admission that globalization does not work now for all citizens or for the world's poor. Indeed, globalization has been around for centuries, but the gap between rich and poor has never grown as great as in the last decade or two when globalization has been encoded in pseudo-constitutional treaties. The idea there is one cookie-cutter template that must work for all national economies - no social programs, a restrictive concept of democracy, weak labor rights and environmental laws - is a recipe for ensuring the poor stay that way.

- The situation in many developing countries - especially in Africa - calls for decisive global action.

True, but global action to help developing countries has never been decisive, but rather timid and halting. The vaunted but so far ineffective Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative is a good example of this timidity. The global war chest to fund the fight against AIDS is another. Officially launched by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Genoa last Friday, it has barely managed to reach 10 per cent of its target of $10 billion U.S. for 2001.

- Open, democratic and accountable systems of governance, based on respect for human rights and the rule of law, are preconditions for sustainable development and robust growth.

The above are preconditions for a rising standard of living among all parts of a country's population, but, as China shows, are not necessary for robust growth. In fact, multinational corporations act as if the list above is inimical to robust growth, and, for fat corporate profit margins, that can be true. After all, if one actually had the right to organize trade unions in China and other sweat-shop states, corporations employing their almost-free labor would have to make do with smaller profits. But as China prepares to join the World Trade Organization and host the 2008 Olympics, it knows the G8 leaders will not be overly insistent on these points.

The upshot of all these delicate-sounding platitudes is that, yes, the protests are having their effect. Much to the consternation of those who never used to worry about gestures to concepts like "open public debate," the mantra of globalization is producing some useful hypocrisy. Someone much wiser than myself once pointed out that progressive social change almost always begins in hypocrisy. If that is true, then one Italian protester might not have died in vain last weekend.

Lyle Stewart is a Montreal writer. His E-mail is l.stewart4@sympatico.ca

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