The Economics and Politics of the World Social Forum: Lessons for the Struggle against ‘Globalisation’

For the next one and a half years, a series of protests inspired by Seattle seriously disrupted every major gathering of the leading international powers and institutions, including the World Economic Forum (WEF) meet (a gathering of representatives of the world’s leading corporations and countries) at Davos in January 2000; the IMF-World Bank spring meeting in Washington in April 2000; the WEF summit at Melbourne in September 2000; the IMF-World Bank annual meeting in Prague in September 2000; the European Union (EU) summit in Nice in December 2000; the Davos meet in January 2001; the Quebec economic summit of the Americas in April 2001; the EU summit in Gothenburg in June 2001; the WEF meet in Salzburg in July 2001; and the World Economic Summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) in Genoa in July 2001.

Inevitably, the summit chiefs and the corporate media accused the protesters of carrying out acts of meaningless destruction.2 However, the main immediate thrust of the protesters’ actions was quite straightforward: to physically prevent the delegates gathering and thus prevent these conferences from completing their agenda.

For that agenda was, broadly speaking, to turn the screws tighter: to yank open third world economies even further to invasion and occupation by imports, foreign investment, and privatisation; to devalue labour power (directly and indirectly) further in both advanced industrialised countries and the third world; to concentrate capital even more greatly than at present; and to sort out disputes among the leading imperialist powers in this game.

Demonstrations alone have never ultimately blocked the plans of international capital, but the wave of militant demonstrations at Seattle and after was at least remarkably effective in disrupting “business as usual”. At Seattle, the conference’s inaugural session was cancelled as the delegates — including the head of the WTO, the UN Secretary-General, the US Secretary of State, and the US Trade Representative — were virtually imprisoned in their hotels on the first day; and on the following days, as demonstrators fought cat-and-mouse battles with the police on the streets, the trade talks inside broke down. During the Washington Fund-Bank meet, the US government had to shut offices in a sizeable area around the two institutions’ headquarters, and demonstrators managed to block many top officials — including the French finance minister — from reaching the venue. At Melbourne the Australian prime minister, John Howard, and the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, were trapped along with other delegates at the venue. Since the entrances and exits were blocked by 30,000 demonstrators, the delegates had to be ferried back and forth by helicopters and boats. At Prague the conference centre was completely blocked for hours, and many prospective delegates stayed away from the event. At Nice, the authorities’ attempts to keep out 100,000 protesters kept the delegates themselves in a state of siege. A NATO conference scheduled to be held in December 2000 at Victoria (Canada) was cancelled for fear of demonstrations, as was a World Bank development meet in Barcelona in June 2001. At Davos in January 2001, what the Financial Times described as “unprecedented security” (including mass arrests and a shut down of road and rail) did not prevent hundreds of protesters making it to the site. At Quebec, the entire focus of attention shifted from the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas to the demonstrators. And in Sweden, the inner city of Gothenburg was converted into a virtual battlefield.

Each successive meet attempted to place larger areas officially out of bounds by erecting legal and physical barricades. These efforts peaked in Genoa, where a four metre high iron fence protected a large deserted “red zone” near the venue. Inhabitants were not allowed to receive visitors for days, and sharpshooters manned terraces and balconies. Even this level of quarantine was insufficient for the leaders of the world’s eight most powerful countries, who stayed on the cruise ship “European Vision”, guarded by minesweepers, specialist divers, and units with anti-aircraft guns. Rail and air traffic to the city were stopped; motorways were blocked; bus, underground and tram traffic were largely shut down; and large numbers of people were turned back at the Italian border. Revealingly, the very authorities who talked of a ‘united Europe’ and were busy removing national restraints on capital flows aggressively used national borders to block the flow of protesters. Hence the slogan of the marchers in Prague: “Open up the borders, smash the IMF”.

The slogans and causes of the participants in this series of demonstrations varied greatly, ranging from the reformist to the revolutionary (and even, in the US, a few chauvinist ones). But as the Economist3 put it, by and large what the marchers “have in common is a loathing of the established economic order, and of the institutions — the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO — which they regard as either running it or serving it.” The rallies indeed became schools to their heterogenous participants: many previously non-political forces, or forces limited to single issues, were exposed to broader political perspectives and were radicalised in the course of their experience. And far from flagging, their strength appeared to be growing: at Genoa a record 150,000 protesters overcame extraordinary hurdles and managed to reach the city.

For those behind the project of a united Europe — the European corporations — the unprecedented involvement of organised labour in these protests was a particularly ominous sign. The European corporations and their political representatives, in the course of fashioning a single superpower, are moving step by step to strip the European working class of all its security and social rights. A militant working class challenge joining hands across borders would endanger their project.

The response: repression

From the start the protesters had to face considerable repression. At Seattle-1999 tear gas (canisters were sometimes fired at protesters’ faces), truncheons, plastic bullets and concussion grenades were used. Over 600 were arrested, often merely for handing out or even receiving leaflets within the giant “no-protest zone”; the national guard was called out; night-time curfew and martial law were declared. At Davos 2000 and 2001, the police used water throwers (at below-freezing temperatures), tear gas and warning shots; at Washington April 2000 tear gas, pepper gas (some demonstrators were sprayed in the eyes) and truncheons; at Nice, stun grenades and tear gas; at Quebec, water-throwers, tear gas and rubber pellets.

The Gothenburg EU summit of June 2001 marked a turning point. The Swedish police not only attacked the protesters with horses, truncheons and dogs, but, for the first time in the post-Seattle protests, fired live ammunition. Three protesters were wounded, one seriously. British prime minister Blair nevertheless asserted that people were “far too apologetic” about demonstrators who disrupt gatherings of world leaders. “These guys don’t represent anyone. … I just think we’ve got to be a lot more robust about this.”

In line with Blair’s sentiments, the repression at Genoa was unprecedented. Demonstrations were banned in a large zone. The police had the power to stop and search anyone in the city. There was a complete ban on distribution of leaflets. On the first day of the conference, police shot in the head Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old protester who allegedly threw a fire extinguisher at a police van; the van then reversed over Giuliani where he lay on the ground, killing him. On the night of July 21-22, the police stormed the school building which served as the dormitory of the protesters. Those sleeping there were beaten with steel torches, wooden truncheons and fists so badly that 72 were injured; more than a dozen had to be carried out on stretchers, some unconscious; and many had to be hospitalised. All were eventually released without charge. According to Amnesty International, detainees were “slapped, kicked, punched and spat on and subjected to verbal abuse, sometimes of an obscene sexual nature … deprived of food, water and sleep for lengthy periods, made to line up with their faces against the wall and remain for hours spread-eagled, and beaten if they failed to maintain this position.” In addition, “some were apparently threatened with death and, in the case of female detainees, rape.”4

Eighteen months later, the Italian police confessed to a parliamentary inquiry that they had fabricated evidence against the protesters: one senior officer admitted planting two Molotov cocktails in the school, and another admitted faking the stabbing of a police officer. A Guardian investigation at the time of the protests had found that certain ‘demonstrators’ who committed acts of looting and attacks on reporters were in fact provocateurs from European security forces. Not surprisingly, “few, if any” of these persons were arrested.5 This was, then, a pre-planned assault by the leaders of Europe on the burgeoning anti-imperialist movement.

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