Needed: A Quarantine Against Greed
Even without our protests telling them so, it must be obvious to the finance ministers who attend the annual meetings of the IMF/World Bank that their institutions are sick. Those inside the Washington, D.C., headquarters can't feel so healthy after the year that passed. It was a year when corporations that they nurtured and nourished, like Enron, collapsed with little warning and less grace. When countries that had long swallowed their prescriptions, like Argentina, found themselves suffering from nauseous economies and rashes of popular uprising. And when a critic they cut from their innards like a malignant growth, Joseph Stiglitz, walked off with a Nobel Prize.
If they care to listen to the protests, the ministers will hear at least one diagnosis that explains their various ailments: "Infectious greed." And they will learn that, as a remedy, thousands of activists have joined a Saturday march to "Quarantine" them. Here on the streets, Greenpeace wears white sanitary garb. The scores of police present used mass arrests to overwhelm a much smaller number of Anti-Capitalist Convergence protesters on Friday. But now they are also enlisted in the pageant: Their barricades, the action suggests, are needed not so much to keep criticism out, but rather to keep the contagious delegates away from the general public.
There is no doubt that global justice chants echo through the meeting chambers. But it is equally certain that the IMF and World Bank feel less affected by our modest attempt at containment than by a global state of siege that has constrained them in the past year. I was intrigued to watch a short video on the Washington Post web site, in which Citigroup USA Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer exhibits the defensive posture of the meetings: "I think that every time there's a crisis, every time there's a global slowdown, you're bound to have a questioning of the policies that are being followed," he says. "My guess is that if we were in a situation with global growth of 5% and no major crisis in the emerging markets, you wouldn't have these questions."
What is fascinating to me is that Fischer does not need to elaborate the actual questions that compel his response. Here in Washington, D.C., questions push in from all sides. They come from private investors who hesitate to invest their confidence in IMF schemes and from economists -- even from World Bank President James Wolfensohn himself -- eager to disassociate themselves from the "Washington Consensus" that ruled development thinking for two decades. The questions come from a public distrustful of the corporate representatives that hover around the meetings. And most of all, questions come from countries in the global South, where eruptions of outrage greet any IMF and World Bank representatives brave enough to actually face the public, and where even some governments now ask, "Is there a way to break free?"
During the Quarantine march, I walk with Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "That a country like Argentina is now considering defaulting to the IMF is something that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago," he says to me. "Or look at Brazil, where the IMF tried to lock in the new government to their policies. It didn't work. They haven't committed.
"There's going to be a lot more countries trying to figure out ways to go around the IMF. It's happening slowly, but it's happening."
The prerogative of the ministers, it seems, is to prove that their malady is nothing so serious -- that it's just a bit of a cold. As we walk along amidst the drums and puppets, Mark Weisbrot and I are joined by a journalist who has just visited the official proceedings.
"Inside, they're guardedly optimistic," she reports.
"Optimistic of what?" Weisbrot asks.
"Optimistic that it won't get worse."
Three weeks ago a bulletin from the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, released to warn of potential terrorist activity in the weeks surrounding the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, devoted a full paragraph to the protests that ultimately assembled this weekend. It infuriates me to think that the individuals who write such alerts are the same people who are charged with protecting the country -- that their "intelligence" cannot distinguish legitimate threats to national security from past instances, dutifully recited in the memo, where a few protesters broke some bank windows. And yet this is not the last time that trade and terror would intermingle during the weekend.
On Friday the police, seeing themselves as defenders of "critical national infrastructure," moved swiftly against radicals who threatened to disrupt traffic as part of a direct action dubbed the "People's Strike." Those who turned out on the streets knew that a crackdown had been forewarned. "Pre-emptive" (a popular term in Washington, D.C. these days) was the word used to describe the police attitude toward arrests. Even so, few among the 650 swept up expected the authorities' response to be so nonchalant, the protections of civil liberty so thin.
The officers hand-cuffed and bussed away as many as three hundred activists who did nothing more severe than to gather in a public park and beat drums against the impending invasion of Iraq. Police Chief Ramsey was plain-spoken enough. He said simply, "The protesters put themselves in a place to be arrested." And, from a certain perspective, the logic was irrefutable. Never mind that the place in question was Freedom Plaza.
By connecting the IMF and the World Bank to corporate scandal, the protests this weekend seek to capitalize on one of the major themes in U.S. politics. But another theme haunts the demonstrations. In the press, the deliberations from Capitol Hill about how broad an endorsement Congress will grant President Bush for his invasion of Iraq dominate the front pages. Activist Maude Barlow, the chairperson of The Council of Canadians, reminds us that Bush has rarely missed an opportunity to use the war on terror to advance his trade agenda. She quotes the President from the announcement of his Administration's National Security Policy last week: "There is a single sustainable model for national success," Bush said, "Freedom, Democracy, and Free Enterprise."
For the people of the United States, this constitutes a shameless politicization of our fear. When Bush stares down "the enemy," he leaves no room for a vision of freedom based on open debate and democratic self-determination. Rather, he pledges to wield the military might at his command to enforce this "single model" -- one where "free markets" and "free trade" rule.
You are either with us or against us, he says.
"Let's face it," the writer Naomi Klein said on Friday when remembering the A16 demonstrations that took place here two and a half years ago. "Those protests were bigger."
She offers this analysis of the situation: "A lot of people aren't here this week. But they're not here not because they don't care and they're scared and they're not activists anymore. They're not here because they're squatting in their cities. They're not here because they're fighting against illegal deportations of refugees. They're not here because they're building a rooted community movement."
It is an optimistic take. And her view is no doubt true -- in part. However, it is also true that these times of war and recession are difficult ones for global justice organizing in the United States. The idea that media hype and the internet magic created the 1999 protests against the WTO is false. Seattle was not built in a day. To construct that gathering it took almost a year of caravans, coalitions, and cash advances. In its aftermath, we had the luxury of riding a wave of unusual interest and excitement. But, as organizer Mike Prokosch of Boston's United for a Fair Economy noted earlier this weekend, "That wave is over."
By returning to the long and difficult process of churning up the waters at its base, the institutions that make up the global justice movement in the U.S. -- its unions, its environmentalists, its community groups, and its collections of young radicals -- may well ride high once again. Indeed, the escalating battle against the FTAA will demand it in coming years. For now, however, the mood of our Washington, D.C., protests is less "The Whole World is Watching" than, "We Are Watching the World."
At a time when a rampant unilaterialism dominates this city, perhaps this is a good thing. This weekend we viewed videos of South Africans taking direct action to remove the filters that - like an extreme version of a "low flow" showerhead - reduce their water pressure to but a trickle. We hear stories of Brazilians defying warnings of financial ruin to assert their right to elect officials that truly represent them. And we read e-mail dispatches from London, where an awesome crowd of 350,000 reportedly rallies against an invasion of Iraq.
Oscar Olivera, a movement leader from Cochabamba, Bolivia, perhaps did best to capture the importance of this battle against provincialism. "The victories of the U.S. Government are not the victories of the U.S. people," he said. And he suggested instead that we learn about the successes of popular movements across the globe, and that we begin to celebrate them as our own.
It is a wise counsel. For even as we quarantine greed in Washington, D.C., we can hope that there exists a more potent contagion in this world. Ours is the germ of infectious solidarity.
Mark Engler, a writer and activist based in Brooklyn, New York, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay first appeared on the web site of the New Internationalist magazine, www.newint.org.