Movement is still going up
By Alex Callinicos
"PROTESTS CANNOT stop free traders." This was how the Guardian sought to dismiss the mass demonstrations at the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City a fortnight ago. That's not how it looked from inside the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund at their annual spring meeting last weekend. The bank's president, James Wolfensohn, admitted last week that staff morale was low and denied he was thinking of resigning.
Newsnight twisted the knife by interviewing Joseph Stiglitz, who was forced out as chief economist of the World Bank in November 1999. He said that trade liberalisation was making the rich even richer, and compared the imposition of neo-liberal policies on Third World countries to Britain's Opium Wars with China in the 1840s.
The international protest movement that has been battering away at the doors of international capitalist institutions since Seattle is gaining strength. The Canadian International Socialists (IS), who played a central role in the protests, share this judgement. They write: "The size and composition of the events shows that the 'Teamster-turtle' alliance of workers and activists that appeared in Seattle was not an aberration. After the Washington protests last spring, there were pessimistic analyses of the movement that complained that since the labour participation was much weaker in Washington than in Seattle, the movement was in decline. Quebec City shows the opposite. There was more labour participation in Quebec than in Seattle (68,000 compared to between 40,000 and 50,000). More people were involved in direct action (15,000 to 20,000 compared to between 7,000 and 10,000). And far more union members were prepared to challenge the marshals and join the youth in direct action. There is a dialectic of action and reaction which is radicalising the movement. The fear of Seattle prompted authorities to construct a fence to keep the delegates away from protesters. But the existence of the fence provided a focus for the anger of thousands of people, many thousands more than would normally be expected to participate in direct action."
In a very similar appreciation, Christophe Aguiton of ATTAC, the French movement against international financial speculation, wrote, "The demonstrations made one think very much of the days of May 1968 in Paris...
"A real solidarity united the inhabitants of the old city, the students-nearly 15 universities were on strike-and the participants, mainly trade unionists, in the big official march." The backbone of the protests was provided by a massive mobilisation of the organised working class and of students from the French-speaking province of Quebec.
GOMM (Group Oppos la Mondialisation des Marchs) played a particularly important role among Quebecois students. The direct actions against the fence surrounding the conference on Friday 20 April, initiated by GOMM and the anarchist CLAC (Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes), were joined by about 2,000 mainly English-speaking trade union activists.
IS Canada describes the GOMM and labour marches meeting: "The euphoria of the two marches coming together-francophone students and anglophone steel workers-swept through the crowd and swept the whole crowd toward the fence. It laid the basis for the much bigger labour participation on the Saturday."
This unity reflected the efforts of the IS to bring student and trade union activists together: "Without us, there would have been many united front type formations across the country. Without us, there would have been thousands engaged in direct action. But without us, the steps towards labour/anti-capitalist unity would have been smaller and much weaker.'
The Toronto Star conceded, "With each protest, the ties among activists have become stronger and their determination to bring about change has grown." Quebec City was a big step forward for the anti-capitalist movement. It also represented the failure of the official strategy designed to isolate the more militant protesters.
In a discussion of Quebec City on CNN, the reporter John King outlined this strategy. Government leaders are trying to develop a dialogue with some of the demonstrators' leaders so that when the minority "engages in violence" they won't have tens of thousands of peaceful protesters giving them legitimacy. King made it clear that Western governments want to stop protesters from coming to future anti-capitalist protests.
We have seen another version of this strategy in the lead-up to May Day in London this year, with the police creating a climate of fear to scare people away. Building more protests like Quebec City will mean beating these divisive tactics.