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Protests put global capital on defensive

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Issue 1721


Protests put global capital on defensive

By Alex Callinicos

THE MOVEMENT against global capitalism that started in Seattle is less than a year old, but its echoes around the world are growing louder all the time. Most recently we have seen “1020”-the demonstration on 20 October against the Asia-Europe economic summit in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Twenty thousand protesters, the overwhelming majority of them workers belonging to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, took part.

This was all the more remarkable because, despite the fact that President Kim Dae-jung has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the South Korean state continues to persecute political activists. The emergence of this movement has forced the international capitalist institutions onto the defensive.

The most bizarre scene I witnessed in Prague was a debate convened by the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, between Horst Khler and James Wolfensohn, respectively bosses of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and their critics, headed by Walden Bello, the Filipino academic and activist. Bello wiped the floor with Khler and Wolfensohn, who were reduced to pleading that they really care about the world’s poor.

Despite this, Khler in particular made it clear that they would continue with the same neo-liberal policies that had provoked the protests in the first place. There is now a debate in big-business circles about how to respond. Some favour taking a hard line. Thus the Financial Times argued that the protesters in Prague should be treated “with contempt” and criticised Wolfensohn for being too accommodating to his critics.

“What is required instead are leaders willing to state that bringing the world’s peoples within the market economy is the unique opportunity afforded to this generation,” the Financial Times argues.

The latest issue of Business Week offers a different approach, with a special report entitled “Global Capitalism: Can It Be Made To Work Better?” The magazine argues, “It would be a great mistake to dismiss the uproar witnessed in Seattle, Washington DC and Prague. Many of the radicals leading the protests may be on the political fringe.

“But they have helped to kick-start a profound rethinking about globalisation among governments, mainstream economists, and corporations.” Business Week concedes, “The plain truth is that market liberalisation by itself does not lift all boats, and in some cases it has caused severe damage to poor nations.”

The magazine warns, “If the world’s poor see no benefit from free trade and IMF austerity programmes, political support for reform could erode.” Given the euphoria about market capitalism that prevailed through most of the 1990s, these are remarkable concessions. But it’s hardly a surprise that the “reassessment” Business Week proposes is a modest one.

It wants “a global capitalism with rules”. For example, the United Nations launched a programme in May called Global Compact, under which multinational companies adopt a code of human rights, environmental, and labour standards.

Yet Business Week’s reports from individual countries show how easily these codes are subverted both by the multinationals themselves and by their partners in the Third World. But this isn’t where the biggest danger lies. Many of the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) that helped get the protest movement going are now involved in the efforts to devise and monitor codes of corporate responsibility. They thereby run the risk of being incorporated. At the end of the debate in Prague Havel had laid on a buffet in the grounds of his official residence, Hradcany Castle.

Those of us planning to take part in the S26 demonstration left immediately, but the NGO representatives charged the food and drink en masse. There is, in other words, a debate developing inside the anti-capitalist movement between the more moderate and militant elements. The issue is a familiar one-can capitalism be reformed?

Such differences are an absolute and inevitable feature of a growing movement. It is a sign of the impact we have had that one section of big business wants to incorporate us. Meanwhile the protests continue-next stop the demonstrations at the European Union summit in Nice on 6-7 December. As they said in 1968, this is only a beginning.

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