The thousands of protesters who danced, marched and, in a few cases, got clubbed by police as they tried to shut down the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington can claim a measure of success. The meetings did proceed, but it was by no means global-financial business as usual; the finance ministers and delegates had to be ferried to their meetings before dawn under police guard. Thanks to the protests on April 16 and 17, and to those focusing on debt relief and trade that preceded them, unprecedented public light was cast upon the deliberations and policies of two agencies that are usually allowed a free hand.
Six months ago, the establishment refused even to acknowledge that its view of the world might be flawed; it responded to all questions with a simple-minded mantra: more trade good, no trade bad. After Seattle the line shifted to sanctimonious denunciations of hooligans–labor goons, flat-earthers, Luddite wackos. That didn’t hold because it was so obvious that the “mob” was composed of informed and concerned citizens, including many young idealists. Next, the pundit cheerleaders preachily explained that, while many protesters are no doubt well intentioned, they don’t understand that they are actually hurting the poor. Lately, the new line is: Some activists are virtuous (church folks, high-minded enviros), but the rest are dangerous, self-interested protectionists. Finally, in DC, something approaching an admission of error could be heard–as for example when a committee of the IMF board of governors noted that its policies have become the object of “a growing public debate” about the direction of the international financial system and concern that the benefits of globalization “are not reaching everyone.” This is more evasion, of course, but still, it’s significant progress in tearing down the facade.
It was heartening, in the rain and military-style lockdown atmosphere of Washington, to see thousands of activists–large numbers of college-age Americans with a fair sprinkling of protesters from overseas, including environmentalists from India and Nigeria, Chinese dissidents and church leaders from Latin America–protesting the dark side of international capitalism, particularly those decisions made in the capital of the richest country in the world. It was also heartening to glimpse the possibility–although it’s a long way off and will require much more than a few days of joint protests–that the process set in motion will unite students, union members, environmentalists and the religious community into a true movement. “You are demonstrating that there is an alternative to the cruel corporate vision of the future,” AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told a rally two days before the beginning of the IMF protests. He added, “We are surprising not only the politicians and the press but also ourselves.”
Evidence of the power of that effort was not long in coming. Only days after 15,000 union members and supporters rallied on Capitol Hill to demand that lawmakers not cave in to President Clinton’s desire to see China admitted to the World Trade Organization, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt announced that he will oppose that effort. Echoing the concerns of the protesters, Gephardt based his opposition on his belief that the measure would reduce US influence on China’s behavior on human rights, religious tolerance and the environment. Whether or not Gephardt’s decision dooms a bill to give China permanent most-favored-nation status, it is being viewed as a major victory for the DC protesters. Similarly, it was clear that the announcement of a new World Bank initiative on AIDS was a response to the criticisms being raised in the streets. Seattle may have shut down the WTO, but the DC action could be said to have put global justice squarely on America’s agenda.
As the protesters descended on DC, leaders of the world’s poorest nations, the G77, gathered for a summit at which resolutions were proposed emphasizing the shared concerns of the protesters and those on the receiving end of neoliberal policies. One called for the forgiveness of poor countries’ debt; another urged that the United Nations take over some decision-making from groups like the IMF that are controlled by rich nations. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told the group that the failure to reform international aid policies that have maintained the wealth gap between rich and poor countries constitutes “a major threat to international peace and security.”
As the DC protests drew to a close, the talk was largely, Where next? Some activists were drawing up plans for another massing of forces at the Democratic convention in August; others were looking farther ahead to the September meeting of the IMF and World Bank in Prague. But it’s also important to ask, What next? Although protests are useful, they will not themselves alter global capitalism. They are a strategy, a means of helping to shatter the wrongheaded consensus and open up space for new thinking, but they are not a program for change. As the veterans of Seattle and DC plan their next encounter, they–we–must ponder the questions to which no one, right now, has all the answers: How do we strengthen and expand the blue-green alliance? How do we make common cause with working people the world over? What sort of international financial system do we want to see, and how can we insure its fairness and stability? How do we insert this agenda into campaign 2000, and what strategy do we devise to carry the battle into the next Congress? The battles of Seattle have only begun.