People probably smash windows out of testosterone-driven, juvenile anger. The reasons other people destroy countries' and even entire continents' economies are more obscure. Which should concern us more?
Yesterday, I was among more than 700 protesters in Montreal who marched in opposition to meetings of the World Trade Organization. We were blocked by hundreds of well-armed riot cops in our attempt to disrupt what we regard as an undemocratic institution.
Frustration mounted as police read the riot act and then attempted to encircle the demonstration. Fortunately, most protesters were able to escape. When some protesters smashed a few windows of certain global companies in the area, it disappointed those of us who want to keep the focus on the violence of the world economic system, rather than marginalized acts of anger.
Most protesters consider such destruction to be a misguided form of rage that hinders the broadening of the global social-justice movement.
This rage would be more aptly directed at political officials who advocate the system the WTO represents and implements. We protesters see the WTO as part of an agenda of economic transformation, which for the past 25 years has reshaped the world economy in the interests of transnational corporations and investors.
Ideologically, this agenda is underpinned by neo-liberalism, a political option whereby trade and investment is liberalized, state-owned companies are privatized, and social spending is reduced. Countries are supposed to find their niche selling goods into the world market.
To see this system's limitations, one need only look to Mexico -- a country that has implemented far-reaching neo-liberal reforms through the 1994 North American free-trade agreement.
After the 1982 peso devaluation, Mexico, under pressure from foreign investors and governments, began to reorient its economy toward attracting foreign investment. A central component in this process was the expansion, through tax subsidies and infrastructure development, of Mexico's export processing zones, called maquiladoras.
The underlying logic of these maquiladoras was to attract foreign capital by using a "cheap," compliant labor force. The problem is that if labor costs increase beyond what the companies could pay elsewhere, they would move elsewhere -- which they have now done.
Since 2000, with the entrance of China into the WTO, 250,000 maquiladora jobs have disappeared. While some of this job loss is a result of the downturn in the U.S. economy, most of the work has simply moved to China. Mexican workers make about $1.47 (U.S.) per hour, whereas Chinese workers can be paid a third of this.
When Mexico signed the NAFTA, proponents both within and outside the country claimed Mexicans were set to join the ranks of the world's wealthy. Instead, Mexicans are now fleeing to the U.S. in record numbers. Recent estimates put the number of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. at 4.8 million, most working in extremely low-wage jobs. Last year, Mexicans in the U.S. sent home more than $10-billion, which many regard as the lifeblood of the Mexican economy. A decade after joining NAFTA, and after two decades of neo-liberal reforms, Mexico's economy is dependent upon people sneaking across the U.S. border to work.
That's the result of the WTO agenda, and it's the true root of the rage of we protesters feel.
Yves Engler, a member of the popular mobilization against the WTO, is writing a book about student activism at Concordia University.
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.