In 1998 the World Bank notified the Bolivian government that it would
refuse to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance water services in
the Bolivian city of Cochabamba unless the local government sold its
public water utility to the private sector and passed on the costs to
consumers. Bolivian authorities gave the contract to a holding company
for US construction giant Bechtel, which immediately doubled the price
of water. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more
than food. Led by Oscar Olivera, a former machinist turned union
activist, a broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and
others created La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (the
Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) to deprivatize the local water
In early 2000 thousands of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown
with the government, and a general strike and transportation stoppage
brought the city to a standstill. In spite of mass arrests, violence and
several deaths, the people held firm; in the spring of that year, the
company abandoned Bolivia and the government revoked its hated
privatization legislation. With no one to run the local water company,
leaders of the uprising set up a new public company, whose first act was
to deliver water to the poorest communities in the city. Bechtel,
meanwhile, is suing the government of Bolivia for $25 million at the
World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment
British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation's website (www.thenation.com).
HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?
BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.
Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to
HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice
BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.
My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.
HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?
BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.
HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.
BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.
HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.
BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.
How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?
HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?
BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.
HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English, it's personal--it means different things to different
HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.
BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.
I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.
England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.
A report from Porto Alegre on the "antiglobalization" movement.
As January turned into February, the most important people in the world gathered themselves together in midtown Manhattan for the annual World Economic Forum. Normally held in Davos--the Swiss ski resort previously famous for being the site of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain--the meeting was shifted to New York this year as an act of solidarity with a city wounded on September 11.
Healing, though, wasn't much in evidence. To protect the 3,000 delegates--businesspeople, academics, journalists and random celebrities--the area around the Waldorf-Astoria was sealed off with metal fences, dump trucks filled with sand and 4,000 members of the NYPD. Of course, the intention was to keep out the thousands of activists who'd come to protest them, not to mention terrorists who might dream of taking out a good chunk of the global elite in one deadly action.
Thankfully, no mad bombers showed up. And though the protesters were kept well away from what was dubbed the Walled-Off-Astoria, their influence was nonetheless clearly felt. One attendee, Bill Gates, the richest person on earth, actually welcomed them, saying: "It's a healthy thing there are demonstrators in the streets. We need a discussion about whether the rich world is giving back what it should in the developing world. I think there is a legitimate question whether we are."
That Gates said something like that--leaving aside for a moment just what it means--is one sign of how the political environment has changed over the past few years. Another is the evolution of the WEF itself. The forum was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a Swiss professor of business, policy entrepreneur and social climber. At first it was a quiet and mostly European affair, with executives and a few intellectuals discussing the challenges of what was not yet called "globalization." But it grew over time, gaining visitors from North America and Asia, and by the 1990s had emerged as a de rigueur gathering of a global elite. In fact, it's been one of the ways by which that elite has constituted itself, learning to think, feel and act in common.
Corporate and financial bigwigs--who pay some $25,000 to come--dominate the guest list, but they also invite people who think for them, entertain them and publicize them, for whom the entrance fee is waived. Star academic economists were also on the list of invitees (bizarrely marked "confidential," so I had to swipe a copy), alongside some unexpected names: cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, columnist Arianna Huffington and model Naomi Campbell. And lots of religious figures, NGO officials and union leaders--who, to judge from their press conferences, didn't feel very well listened to. It seems not much communication goes on across the vocational lines; Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, a first-timer, theorized that "one reason that the princes of the corporate and political worlds are where they are is that they are very good at staying quiet when baited by intellectuals."
And DeLong was in the same room with them. Most journalists covering the event weren't so lucky. The WEF designated a handful of clubbable correspondents from places like the New York Times and CNBC as "participating press" and allowed them to mingle with the delegates at the Waldorf. But several hundred others, dubbed "the reporting press," were penned up in a couple of cramped "media centres" in a neighboring hotel. The terms are fascinating. Clearly the participating press participates in the inner workings of power and helps create its mystique. But the reporting press couldn't really report at all: We got to watch some of the sessions on closed-circuit TV (only the big, more formal ones--the intimate brainstorming sessions were strictly private), to read sanitized summaries distributed by the WEF staff and to view a few dignitaries at press conferences, which were generally too short to allow more than a few perfunctory questions.
Not only were we barred from newsworthy events--we weren't even told they were happening. In one of them, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill explained bluntly that the Bush Administration let Argentina sink into total crisis rather than engineer a bailout because "they just didn't reform," apparently forgetting that the country was once praised as a model of economic orthodoxy. In another, Colin Powell asserted the right of the United States to go after "evil regimes" as it sees fit--harsh language from the Administration's resident dove. Neither speech went down well with a good bit of the audience; anxiety at Washington's unilateralism was one of the recurrent themes among non-US delegates.
The gathering's mood was clearly troubled. Back in the 1990s, when the US economy was booming, trade barriers were falling and the New Economy was still new, the temper of the gatherings was reportedly pretty giddy. Now, the headlines are full of bad news--Enron, Argentina, recession, terrorism, protest. And the conference reflected it.
Businesspeople and academics mused on how to deal with new risks--you can't hedge against bioterrorism in the futures markets. Economists debated which letter would best describe the US economy--a V (sharp fall followed by a quick recovery), a U with a saggy right tail (long stagnation, weak recovery) or, most appropriate, a W (false recovery followed by a fresh downdraft). The consensus leaned away from the V toward the saggy U, with the W not to be ruled out.
But there were things more profound than the business cycle to worry about. As the Washington Post noted with apparent surprise, "The titles of workshops read like headlines in The Nation: 'Understanding Global Anger,' 'Bridging the Digital Divide' and 'The Politics of Apology.'" Most prominent among those concerned with poverty were the duo of Gates and his new friend Bono, the lead singer of U2. Bono--who identified himself on opening day as a "spoiled-rotten rock star" who loves cake, champagne and the world's poor--hammered at the need for debt relief. (It's easy to make fun of him, but activists are quick to point out that his influence is much to the good.) Gates kept reminding everyone that about 2 billion people live in miserable poverty. Of course, no one was rude enough to point out that Gates's personal fortune alone could retire the debts of about ten African countries.
It's hard to believe this is much more than talk, however. Addressing poverty and exclusion would require WEF attendees to surrender some of their wealth and power, and they're hardly prepared to do that. Stanley Fischer, formerly the second in command at the IMF and now a vice chairman of Citigroup, expressed "profound sympathy" for the people of Argentina but then worried about "political contagion"--the risk that other countries, seeing the crisis there, might reject economic orthodoxy.
Further insight into the WEF mindset was provided by Fischer's panelmate, South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. According to Manuel, during the (private) WEF discussions, "poverty was defined...as the absence of access to information," which would be news for anyone struggling to pay the rent. More urgently, he pointed out that "uprisings occur because ordinary people don't feel that they have voice and representation." To ward off that danger, policy-makers must worry about "equity"--which he carefully distinguished from "equality." When I asked him to expand on this distinction, Manuel said, "There are different conceptions of equality to start with. There's equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. But equity is about creating stakeholders. For example, both employers and employees have a stake in good labor practices." When I said that that sounded like it was more about changing perceptions rather than material reality, he said, "It's all those things. It's all those things." Manuel also revealed that the participants had "interesting, interesting debates on whether we should ask business, in the conduct of business, to act ethically or whether it's OK for business to be unethical in the conduct of business and then have some spare cash to do good with." No wonder people pay $25,000 to play this game.
And it's no wonder that on the closing day, a panel of union leaders--five out of some forty who were there, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney--gave a very downbeat assessment of the forum's dedication to a real adjustment of policy. Sweeney, the most moderate of the group, said that the world economy doesn't have an image problem--its problems are structural. Others spoke of CEOs being "in denial," of hearing but not listening.
Unfortunately, though, there were very few union people--leaders or rank-and-filers--demonstrating in the streets that weekend. That would have made quite an impression on the great and good. But Gates's appreciation of the protesters points to what was doubtless the best thing about this year's forum: The 12,000 who marched through midtown Manhattan on February 2 proved that the so-called antiglobalization movement, a global movement if there ever was one, was not put out of business by September 11. It's alive and well--so alive and well that it set much of the WEF's agenda.
On Saturday, February 2, approximately 12,000 demonstrators gathered in New York City to protest the meeting of the World Economic Forum.
The movement can seize the moral high ground and win support for change.
The challenge to global capitalism is more relevant now than before September 11.
Police are up to old tricks: disrupting and spying on legal political activities.
International solidarity is the key to consolidating the legacy of Seattle.