Moving Toward a Movement?

The IMF/World Bank protests were a strong second step for the emerging alliance of progressive forces fighting globalization. But can the activists keep up the momentum to build a real movement?

| Thu Apr. 20, 2000 2:00 AM EDT

So thousands of anti-International Monetary Fund/World Bank protesters disrupted life in the nation's capital for two days. So their marches and street blockades got enormous media coverage around the world. So what? In the end, did the protests really have any meaningful impact?

That question really has two parts, tactical and strategic. The immediate, tactical issue is whether the protesters succeeded in affecting the way the World Bank and IMF do business. No, they didn't keep the institutions' officials from meeting, as they did with the World Trade Organization in Seattle, but while that's disappointing, it's really no big deal and never was. After all, blocking access to a convention hall doesn't disrupt the flow of world trade and investment; it just disrupts a meeting.

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What's more important is the clear impact that mounting activist pressure, of which the protests were only the most visible piece, are having on the Bank and IMF. "The protests were definitely effective in shifting the terms of the debate," says Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange, one of the groups that helped organize last Sunday's street festivities. The Bank and IMF have been forced onto the defensive, with officials tripping over themselves to proclaim that they really are concerned about poverty, Third World debt, and environmentally damaging "development" projects, all of which critics say are the direct outgrowths of the institutions' policies. World Bank president James Wolfensohn himself praised the "enormous contribution" of groups that rallied for debt relief for poor countries.

While that kind of rhetoric might be dismissed as talk-is-cheap pandering, the protesters' pressure does seem to be bolstering those bureaucrats inside the IMF and World Bank who want to genuinely reform the institutions. Echoing another of the protesters' variegated concerns, officials at the April 16 and April 17 meetings pledged to devote "unlimited money" to combat AIDS in poor countries. And as the Washington Post noted, "without the people in the street, it's unlikely that the word 'poverty' would have cropped up quite so often" at the meetings.

In the end, however, the World Bank and IMF are only lightning rods. The larger issue is economic globalization itself: the accelerating process under which nations' financial, labor, and commodities markets are being integrated into one big übermarket, much to the benefit of transnational corporations but often at the expense of workers, the poor, and the environment. The strategic question is whether such an amorphous concept, with its loose-limbed collection of associated problems, can become the basis of a genuinely broad-based, ongoing movement for progressive change.

Certainly, globalization has twice now provided a focal point to bring together groups representing almost every important progressive tendency. The marches in DC, as in Seattle, were filled out by union members, environmentalists, human rights activists, prison reformers, ACT UP chapters, and anarchist affinity groups. That coalition has sparked the kind of energy not seen in the US for many years.

"It is a new movement," avers California state senator and former Chicago Seven defendant Tom Hayden, who knows a thing or two about protest movements. "Globalization is the issue that allows these multiple single issues to coalesce. Environmentalists, unions, they all have their own issues, but they all see them as the government not protecting them from the effects of globalization."

And there are many in the corridors of power who sympathize. In early April, five members of Congress released a sweeping "Global Sustainable Development Resolution" calling for a wide range of steps to protect international workers' rights and to reform the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. Joseph Stiglitz, the World Bank's own former chief economist, now denounces the IMF's role in developing countries and calls for large-scale write-offs of Third World debt. Even President Clinton at least rhetorically embraced the demonstrators' concerns in Seattle.

It's hardly surprising, then, that globalization's critics have already scored some small but significant victories. Activists can claim direct credit for recent decisions by several major universities to stop buying apparel from companies that fail sweatshop evaluations, and for pressuring Starbucks to start buying fairly-traded coffee from small growers in Latin America.

Still, none of that guarantees that a true movement will emerge. While there are plenty of globalization-bashers in Third World countries, many of whom turned out in Seattle, the bulk of the protesters both there and in DC were the usual suspects: young, middle-class white kids. "The movement is a little melanin-challenged," says Mike Dolan, deputy director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch and a key organizer of the Seattle action. "Washington is a mostly black city. It should have been easy to translate the problems of structural adjustment into terms that would resonate with the African-American community."

Nor can the protesters necessarily count on the continuing support of organized labor, the force that brought most of the bodies into the streets of Seattle, and one which wields far more clout with lawmakers than any mob of slogan-chanting students. The AFL-CIO and other major unions threw their weight into the battle in Seattle largely because the WTO's trade rulings directly impact their members. In DC, unions endorsed the main anti-IMF/Bank rally, but saved most of their energy for their own April 12 march against extending trade privileges to China.

Much as it now enables the coalition to pull in all kinds of different activists, the lack of a single, clear issue to focus around -- such as stopping a war or abolishing apartheid -- may also prove a serious hindrance to maintaining momentum. I asked one sympathetic-seeming onlooker what he thought about the DC protests. "I don't know," he replied. "They seem to be protesting a lot of different things."

These are all sizable stumbling blocks. Nonetheless, it's also true that the conditions for organizing a global movement around global issues are unprecedentedly auspicious. The Internet gives today's low-budget activists mobilizing powers that their predecessors could only dream of, providing cheap, easy, and instantaneous communication with and between huge numbers of people all over the world. The Net and ever-multiplying global TV networks, from CNN to the Discovery Channel, are also elevating (at least to some extent) First World denizens' awareness of the world around them.

The dropping cost and increasing ease of international travel has also brought a more immediate understanding of what it's like in the Third World to those who live in the First. How many more of today's activists have backpacked around impoverished countries than their counterparts of, say, 20 years ago? Just check out the latest Lonely Planet catalog to get an idea of the answer.

In some ways, signing people up to fight for global economic justice is also a far easier sell than, say, fighting against the war in Vietnam or even for civil rights. The worst thing you're likely to be called is naïve; no one's going to call you a traitor to your country or race. No one is offended by the notion of helping the poor or saving rain forests. In fact, a recent study of US attitudes on globalization found most Americans want protections for the environment, labor, and the poor.

There's been a lot of talk comparing this protomovement to that of the '60s, but a better comparison might be the first 30 years of the 1900s. The decades around the turn of the 20th century were probably the last time large numbers of union members marched in the streets with anarchists to demand controls on the exploding power of big business. Then, as now, new industries and technologies were fundamentally reshaping the world, vastly enriching corporations while doing tremendous damage to ordinary people's lives and the world around them.

In the end, despite its revolutionary trappings, that movement didn't stop the triumphal spread of capitalism, but it did tame its worst excesses. Child-labor laws, the 40-hour work week, basic workplace safety rules and other protections were only some of the fruits of that struggle. Its nascent modern-day descendant could do a lot worse than to recreate those victories on a worldwide scale. The next round of major protests, at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, will offer a clue as to whether it has a chance to.