Seattle, Melbourne, Prague
Global action against the phantom known as "Globalization"
[Translated from Dokumentation: GegenStandpunkt bei konkret (7), Konkret 2/2001]
Whenever the official delegates from around the world travel to the meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank, they are regularly accompanied by thousands of uninvited guests intent on disturbing the meetings of these world market agencies, or if possible preventing them from taking place. The reason: they hold these institutions responsible for the tremendous misery throughout what is truly, since the end of socialism, "one world." In the name of poverty and those afflicted with it, this anti-poverty movement protests — and is thereby proud of maintaining "no ideology" and of making no attempt to clarify its understanding within its own ranks. Its protagonists are of the opinion that any theoretical dispute over the correct explanation of the conditions they denounce would only jeopardize the breadth of the movement. Those affected by poverty ought to know best what they suffer from and what their needs are. However, anyone claiming to have no "ideology" but rather to be directly challenged by poverty and guided by the righteousness of the poor without any mediating thinking, is already following a logic, if only a false one — a real ideology so to speak.
I. Treating poverty as a scandal
The main argument of the calls for demonstrations is the accusatory pointing to the poverty in the third world, and not only there. The authors of the calls seem to consider publicizing poverty to be the same as a critique of it.
"More than 4 billion people live on a daily income of less than $2. About 17 million children die every year because of easily curable diseases. One third of the inhabitants of the Southern hemisphere will not reach the age of 40. And 250 million children in so-called developing countries have to work as slave labor for transnational corporations to support their families. Meanwhile, there are 50 million people living in poverty and 5 million homeless in the European Union. There are 30 million people in the US suffering malnutrition." (European call for global days of action against the IMF and World Bank in Prague; INPEG — Initiative of People against Economic Globalization; see www.inpeg.org)
Now these miserable conditions are not exactly unfamiliar. If what is necessary to put an end to them doesn't happen, then it certainly is not because peoples and governments haven't yet heard about them. On the other hand, if it's a matter of disapproving of these facts, then that's rather easily had — on the part of all decent persons in fact. Even when sympathetic citizens make a distinction between what Indians and Africans are entitled to, and what Europeans or Americans could claim, they aren't wishing stark hunger, dying from easily curable diseases, slave labor, etc., for anybody. According to the standards of humanity, things like this are simply not supposed to happen — in fact in the very society which with unsightly regularity brings these circumstances about. In light of such images of misery, people let themselves be stirred up to compassion and even to criticism, and that due to their very affirmative beliefs in the noble principles of this society, not at all out of doubts about them. What else could come from using pure facts as arguments? There is an implicit standard for judging these facts — actually a standard that everybody holds to.
By depicting the plight of the poor as a scandal, the demonstrators are preaching to the choir as far as church congregations, politicians and other persons of good will are concerned. But they therefore repeat the fitting verdict of these good people: if poverty appears only exceptionally and unduly in capitalistic states according to the standard of humanity, then it is really being characterized as the exception to what is usual, right and fair. In that case it counts as a lapse in the workings of the system, as a product of bad government and corrupt elites, even as a consequence of the third world still not sufficiently integrated into the world market, or lacking the stability of a mature market economy.
The protest movement has no intention of critically correcting this thoroughly honest stupidity; they would rather stick to it to attach their own variety of "causality research." If the misery of the third world is an abuse, a malfunction and a violation against everything that truly belongs to our human world, then it's clear what has to come next:
II. Searching for the guilty parties
This is quite other than a search for causes. Whoever is looking for guilty parties has already answered the question of causes: either someone has failed to do his job properly or some criminal has fiddled with or wantonly damaged the correct working of the economy, society or whatever. Such people have to be found out and removed to restore the disturbed order that therefore technically already exists. The IMF critics spare no effort to derive a malicious damage from missions which ought to do better. To do so, they confront the miserable circumstances of the poor with the ideals found in the preambles of the WTO, IMF and World Bank charters — "promotion of growth, prosperity and development of all member countries" — to conclude on the basis of the discrepancy between them, that the purposes actually pursued by these agencies must be the complete opposite of the ideals: namely, the prevention of universal prosperity.
"For over fifty years, the influence of the IMF and World Bank has destroyed people's lives. … In the framework of structural adjustment programs the IMF and World Bank impose strict conditions on the allocation of credit to the developing countries. These measures strengthen the position of capital, but they also worsen the situation of the majority of the world's population. We bare witness to a daily mass murder of tens of thousands of people and a daily crime against the human rights to live in dignity and contentment." (ibid.)
Those in the protest movement apparently don't know that there is not a single job in this society requiring misanthropism as a qualification, and that good intents are as cheap as they are widespread. The accused heads of the world market agencies honor the unmistakably legal-ethical reproaches levied by the street tribunal, to vindicate themselves. They insist that they too are driven by the best of intents. World Bank president Wolfensohn, a special object of the fury of the opponents of globalization, conveys to the movement his full sympathy for their "passion in the fight against poverty" — his bank also musters tremendous resources for the cause. In September, 2000, the movement divided a bit, particularly over this issue.. One fraction among the protesting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) accepts the invitation and holds a dialogue with Wolfensohn and Köhler (head of the IMF) about the best ideas in the struggle against poverty. They find themselves at the round table, with their demands for debt forgiveness for poor lands and easier conditions for allocating credit, right in the middle of the same questions mulled over by the heads of state of the Group of Seven (G7) in their periodic meetings.
The radicals remain on the street, insist on their reproach and thereby the difference between a suggestion for improvement and an accusation. But they still don't go beyond the level of investigating the moral conscience. They give no credence to the good intentions of the managers of the world market, and refuse to engage in the tricky conversation over the possibility of international credit and trade diplomacy making amends. They won't let their indignation over the cynical convictions of office holders be diluted. Having found them guilty of a lack of principles, they consider a critical examination of the real functions of these offices to be superfluous anyway.
They don't want to see just how off-topic their accusation is. In their partisanship for the poor of this world, they refuse to see that an agency such as the IMF, which devotes itself to the stability of the international currency and finance system, and for that purpose grants credit to states with balance-of-payment problems, simply has a mission completely other than the promotion or prevention of social progress. Likewise they energetically apply their humane measuring rod to the forum for world trade disputes (WTO) created by the competing nations in order to haggle over the trade openings and barriers that they respectively grant and erect against each other, and to check that agreements made are also observed. The question of whether such institutions were invented for the benefit of or harm to job-seekers in the First World and rice farmers into the Third World simply misses the point. And people bent on accusing the WTO and IMF don't ever realize that poverty could be caused by the operation of principles more fundamental to this world order than the misguided granting of credit and unfair trade regulations — namely in credit, trade and the purpose of production and (international) exchange itself. They just ought to notice that they are barking up the wrong tree.
The indifference to the real functions of international credit agencies gives play to a colorful confusion of reproaches that completely belie the sharp words against "the diabolical brain of world capitalism." The institutions are reproached for wrong credit policies toward developing countries, which implies that a better IMF and a World Bank worthier of the name could be envisaged. For once their allocation of credit is said to have been too generous — mostly in earlier times but still these days, with the funding of dams and similar "gargantuan projects which destroy the local ecosystem and lead to the eviction of millions of people." In these cases the World Bank is criticized for having pressed more funding on the Third World countries than could profitably be invested, and therefore repaid with interest. By this they are said to be lured into a debt trap: they have to seek refinancing for credits they can't serve, thus falling under the regime of the notorious stabilization programs of the IMF. This time the agency grants credit under all-too-restrictive conditions, i.e., firstly too little of it, and secondly with demands for the states to get out of national industries, for privatization, cutting of state expenditures for anything the least bit social, austerity policies and a greater orientation to exports. Thus growth in these countries is handicapped, and even the ability of the indebted states to serve their continually growing debts is ultimately undermined, according to the know-it-all alternative experts on credits between states. That's why debt forgiveness is supported by them unconditionally. The decision in this regard by the big funders of the international credit agencies is merrily welcomed, although the program advances too slowly for their taste. As if debt forgiveness signified something like a hopeful new start for the indebted lands so that exactly the sort of investment on the world market that led to bankruptcy could begin all over again! Instead, what is really happening is that these countries are being written off by their creditors because they don't justify the debts that had already been approved. This is tantamount to a complete, globally-public bankruptcy of almost a fourth of the world's states. In this world of capital, in which participation in the world market secured by credit has ruined countries less endowed with capital, exclusion from the world market is in no way a blessing. The IMF critics apparently don't know all that.
Instead, they reproach the IMF for having given too much and too little credit for the Third World, for having granted credit under too tough conditions, and for having promoted the wrong projects. They uncritically believe that credit, if only granted in the right amounts and invested in the right projects, could and actually would be a real means of subsistence for the poor of this world — and not what it really is, namely money capital advanced in order to flow back even bigger to the lender. The right amount that would supposedly transform the curse of indebtedness into the blessing of anticipated growth is of course not calculated by them. All the same they maintain their accusation that the IMF and World Bank deliberately push wrong policies on the developing countries — wouldn't finance capital and the world market otherwise have turned out to the benefit of all lands and peoples?
III. The true victim of globalization: the good, social, ecological state!
So much do they adhere to their belief in the better possibilities of the worldwide market economy that the slightly paranoid question naturally pops up as to why it always turns out wrong, when even finance experts at Harvard have known for a long time how to do it better. Why is an "unbridled liberalization" of the world market allowed, one that not only drives the states of the Third World into ruin, but altogether "harms the majority of the people — in the industrialized countries as well?" (ibid.)
The movement is not at a loss for an answer: such irresponsibility comes about because the technically responsible nation-states are no longer masters of the situation, but rather themselves victims of the globalization pushed on them by international agencies. Through continually lower customs barriers, national borders lose their "protective effect" and governments their ability to take care of their capitalistic public interest, an interest that apparently is (respectively was) a great thing in the eyes of the world market critics.
"The IMF claims that further liberalization of the world economy is the only solution for the problems of the world. However these problems, on the contrary, are only deepened." (loc. cit.) "Both institutions play a crucial role in curtailing the states' influence on the circulation of transnational capital. The task of the World Bank and IMF is to open the developing countries for foreign investors and their speculative interests by means of their policies. That means, e.g., the removal of all levies with which the poor countries try to protect their environment and their less competitive economy from the capital of the rich countries." (Caravan to Prague, see website above)
Do the authors of the call for protest really believe that developing countries, desperate to woo international investment, would erect obstacles to investors for the protection of forests and ground water? No matter: it just would be a good thing that has become impossible due to globalization. That only capitalistically-calculating states seeking to conquer the markets of other states with national export products are open to political trade extortion seems to be lost on the critics. The "poor countries" are spared such reproaches because they are the losers of world market competition. As losers they are exhibited as ethically perfect and convincing victims of a development that the critics apply to all states. And they credit these states with terrific good deeds vis-à-vis their citizens — simply because these deeds are allegedly no longer possible due to globalization.
"The WTO, the successor organization to the GATT-General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, functions as a virtual shadow government, in fact a Super-government, that rides roughshod over the national and state concerns seeking to protect the wages of workers, insure environmental standards, and protect collective bargaining gains. To the extent that the WTO consists of a collection of governments, it in fact protects corporate interests: the primary interest of capital, over and above all other interests." (Mumia Abu Jamal, www.zmag.org/mumiawto.htm)
Obviously, the anti-globalization movement is convinced that political power over persons is only in the world to do them good. So, when social expenditures are cut, and work and environmental protection regulations are relaxed, it must be the work of the machinations of international agencies that have "wrested away the power of national legislatures." The strongest reproach against the WTO and its sister organizations and the last proof of their inhumanity is therefore: "undemocratic!" Instead of real sovereigns they are led by "faceless bureaucrats" unaccountable to any voter. Elected holders of state power apparently can't do anything but serve the people.
With their fantasy of the emasculation of the national state, the protest movement falls completely for the legend of "globalization" as an "objective constraint" to which governments like to appeal when decreeing hard times and sacrifice for their citizens. The politicians talk about how the country has to position itself for globalization, defend the domestic economy and court a reluctant capital investment. They bemoan that social, economic and tax policies faced international competition and can no longer be regulated by national values. The movement doesn't take these maxims as expressing the will of governments to use the world market for national growth and to win international competition, but rather as weakness in the face of the powers of global capital.
The belief in this weakness suffers only little from the knowledge that it is precisely the national governments that have created the IMF, WTO, etc. for themselves, who send their national emissaries to these authoritative bodies and haggle there with other global trading nations over their own advantage. All that can't dissuade the adversaries of globalization from the notion that the ambassadors to inter-governmental world market agencies don't represent the interests of their nations but rather strive to deprive them of power. To them, this monstrous case of betrayal accounts for the national representatives departing from the standpoint of their domestic common good and prostituting themselves instead to a most particular interest: the profit of transnational companies.
The international protest community disparages national governments as puppets of capital that rule according to the firms' wishes. However if they denounce the political furtherance of the foreign economic success of capital as a violation of national duty, then they don't believe at all in an actual identity of interest between politics and capital. They won't admit that the free market community has really elected capital to be its means of existence, that in these countries nothing takes place which is not useful for national capital or is the result of its success in international competition. The protest, which attributes the emasculation of states by means of the "liberalization of markets" to the "unchecked" dominion of transnational capital, directly disputes that the success of capital is the primary goal and the main task of capitalistic states — a goal that the state pursues within its borders with all the methods of class rule, and outside them with economic and military deployments of force to open and secure foreign markets.
The critics consider the national state as nothing less than an invention to limit and hinder the "logic of capital" — as if the political power of states were not necessary to secure property as a means of production for capitalists and to subject society to their domination. Unswayed, they perceive capital to be a power remote from the state, with the state as something like a healthy counterbalance. The characterization of the evil as "pure shareholder capitalism" and an "absolute market economy" concerned "solely with profit" makes clear that the critics of globalization think of the "capitalistic system" as nothing other than an exaggeration. Not capital, its manner of calculation and laws which would account for the character of the system and its lack of compatibility with the demands of normal citizens, but a weakness of the state no longer able to limit the excessive egoism of capital-owning citizens to the proper amount. The "profit principle" that the movement holds "responsible for present-day social and ecological disasters" is for them only an expression for that ineradicable human egoism which has to be tamed.
A movement, which mourns damage to the social and economic sovereignty of the state because they consider it to be something good, and fights an alleged domination by transnational capital over national communities, notices that they are not wholly alone with this concern. Since fascists share the love of the good state, although for its power alone and not for its humanistic deeds, they can to some extent agree with such a criticism of "capital without nationality." But also democratic politicians and parties see a bit in it — not least was this approval responsible for the breadth of the protest in Seattle and for the public resonance which it aimed at. The political elite admittedly doesn't have the same fear of being hamstrung by international bodies, even if they sometimes sound like they do. Their doubts refer more to the usefulness of the IMF, World Bank and WTO for the interests of their capitalistic nation — and in this regard many Republicans in the US congress are of the opinion that while their country needs no credits from the IMF, countries which do are not worthy of American contributions. They are furthermore of the opinion that America could easily carry on trade disputes without the WTO, etc. Therefore the leftist movement, with their "stop the WTO" and intention to demonstrate as long as it takes for the IMF and World Bank to "disband," has many a false friend to reject. They certainly don't want to be making a rightist criticism of the supranational institutions, so they hasten to add, "We don't believe that globalization can be stopped through protectionism by the nation-states." However, they also don't really want to advocate that nations simply carry on their competition about national income and currencies unregulated by international forums and credit agencies, and so deny the only logical consequence that follows conclusively from a criticism of liberalization. All right, but what do they propose then?
IV. For grassroots globalization!
The victims, as the good, face the bad, mighty authorities at the international bodies, who in their national irresponsibility have to answer for the need and misery around the globe. Simply by having failed in the pursuit of their interests, the victims have every higher right to resist and get credit for having the right, forward-looking purposes. That these interests go to the dogs actually ennobles them, and predestines their bearers to global solidarity and mutual friendship. All those who see their concerns somehow damaged by cross-border profit maximization only have to join together in an international community of good-willed people.
"Like on previous occasions, people of different movements and countries will on this day combine their powers against the social, political and economic institutions of the capitalistic system — the World Bank and the IMF. Workers, the unemployed, students, union members, farmers, the landless, fishermen/women, women's groups, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, peace activists, environmental activists, ecologists and so on, will work together in solidarity, with the understanding that their various struggles are not isolated from each other." (S26 — Global days of Action against Capitalism)
To organizers of the protest, it's of no importance that this beautiful image is not correct, — and that betrays how little of practical value they actually expect from the global solidarity of the good. How else could they overlook that the victims of international competition, just as they come, are indeed not doing well, but even more, they are not doing well as defeated competitors or unused wage-workers, whose oh-so-respectable interests aim at nothing other than improving their competition the next time around. The call for solidarity with the international "victims of globalization" brings about some wonderful coalitions. There, side by side, stand the poor people of the Third World together with their "poor states" that ruin these same people by surviving as states in the world economy; then add to these some small national capitalists that lost their "local markets" to global players.
In Seattle for example, Third World activists denounced starvation wages, inadequate work and health protection in the sweatshops of the southern hemisphere, and the American companies operating these sweatshops. Co-demonstrating American trade unionists supported them: such unfair competitive advantages of Asian locations cost American jobs! They also demand higher wages and "labor standards" for Asia, because these work like tariffs, making Asian export products more expensive on the American market. By this America would remain spared from competition from low-wage countries, and American workers could thereby gain job security, while Asians at the same time would lose whatever prospects they had for earning money. Can one really imagine Asians taking pity on the American working class and staging fabulous demonstrations in Thailand to save vacation benefits and jobs in America? Ecological groups desired environmental protection and healthy living conditions for the Third World — again applauded by trade unionists and American farmers, who were counting on increased production costs at the competing sites. Delegations from the Mexican Zapatistas and other Latin-American farmer initiatives demanded solidarity for the exact opposite: credit at favorable interest for agricultural development and better conditions of access for their products to the North American market. The movement considered its solidarity quite otherwise, expressing pity that the IMF and agribusiness impose agricultural export production on them and so destroy their paltry "subsistence economy."
If for once the militants of the anti-globalization movement stopped considering the unity of the victims so self-righteously, but took it instead as an actual political front, they would have to notice that their agreement on matters concerning national borders is highly paradoxical. Together they paint the injustice that "globalization" does to them as a damage to the protection of the economy, the workplace, social security and the environment — a protection the national state is allegedly responsible for and would even take care of were it not for so long incapacitated by liberalization. However, the protection that a state offers them with its borders is nothing other than a protection from each other. What else could borders, tariffs, controls on capital and the like do, other than subject the flow of cross-border business to the point of view of the national advantage? What else could they be useful for, if not to keep away foreign commodities, foreign capital and foreign manpower as soon as these are viewed more as damaging competition than as a desired contribution to the national growth of capital? If capital uses labor internationally as it sees fit, then doesn't it make sense that capital, and not borders be the subject of critique? The activists don't seem to be bothered by such practical questions.
Instead, with their oh-so-international and supportive demonstrations, the adversaries of globalization implore all states to free themselves from international entanglements and thus dedicate themselves anew to their "true" tasks, the welfare of their respective peoples. The "struggle against global capitalism" proceeds accordingly.
V. The protest culture
The activists are content to gather the good (the victims), or more precisely: to represent in and through their activities this completely non-existing collectivity, and to reproach the bad (the irresponsible mighty powers) for their irresponsibility. They push this neglect of duty into the spotlight, documenting nothing but the goodness of the good. By no means do they want to appear in public as resolute — crotchety apparently — adversaries of the system. Why else does a fight against political and economic power have to be "as global as capital is — and much more creative." So they creatively stage an appearance that gives voice, not to enmity against the global economic order, but to their own responsibility. Contrary to the martial mode of expression, the protest aims not to gather comrades for a necessary fight, but rather to beguile democracy's "fourth estate," the free press. The organizers learn from PR pros how "to produce images that the press likes," coming up with a veritable demonstration kindergarten replete with games and toys that more than anything conveys one thing, namely, that these folks couldn't possibly have anything bad up their sleeves.
"Examples for possible actions are: strikes, demonstrations, critical-mass bicycle caravans, carnivals, street parties, taking back the streets, government-owned land or office buildings for non-commercial and good activities, marches, music, dance, speeches, distributing flyers, hanging banners, distribution of community-controlled newspapers, street theaters, laying out gardens, distribution of free food, simulation of trading markets, offering interest-free credit in front of big banks buildings, solidarity actions, pickets, occupation of offices, blockades and spontaneous shutdowns, acquisition and distribution of luxury consumption items, sabotage, damage or disruption of capitalistic infrastructure, acquisition of capitalistic wealth and giving it away to the working population, declaring oneself independent of capitalistic or authoritarian regimes …" (Caravan to Prague)
Yes, it is possible to feel in global solidarity, if one abstracts from the antagonisms within which this enterprising manner of protest maneuvers people and nationalities around. Yes, one can conceive of and symbolically realize many an unreal good deed. And above all one can without further ado publicly declare that one will have nothing to do with capitalism and fascism. Into the powder-smoke of their revolutionary scenes, the fighters against poverty then hurl the most extreme threat at the high and mighty that they can imagine: if the "system" does not improve itself right away, they might almost lose the belief that it is the best one possible. "We will no longer accept this system as the way to advance society!"
© GegenStandpunkt 2001