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

More sophisticated response required

While “robust” repression remained an essential tool of dealing with the movement, it was not sufficient. For, contrary to Blair’s assertion that “These guys don’t represent anyone”, it was clear that indeed they represented vast and growing numbers affected, in some cases even ruined, even within the imperialist countries themselves by the current processes. Early on, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned that “Seattle and Washington reflect how large the antagonistic audience has become, and the lengths to which participants will go in their desire to shut down or impede the spread of globalization”.6 The aggressively pro-‘globalisation’ Economist, in an editorial titled “Angry and effective”7, lamented that “The threat of renewed demonstrations against global capitalism hangs over next week’s annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank. This new kind of protest is more than a mere nuisance: it is getting its way.” It warned that “it would be a big mistake to dismiss this global militant tendency as nothing more than a public nuisance, with little potential to change things. It already has changed things”, counting the Multilateral Agreement on Investment as its first victim.

The Economist traced the effectiveness of the protests not to the methods employed but to the fact that they “enjoy the sympathy of many people in the West…. Many of the issues they raise reflect popular concern about the hard edges of globalisation — fears, genuine if muddled, about leaving the poor behind, harming the environment, caring about profits more than people, unleashing dubious genetically modified foods, and the rest. The radicals on the streets are voicing an organised and extremist expression of these widely shared anxieties…. the protesters are prevailing over firms, international institutions and governments partly because, for now, they do reflect that broader mood. If their continuing success stimulates rather than satisfies their appetite for power, global economic integration may be at greater risk than many suppose.”

A sophisticated response was required. At Melbourne, at a conference site besieged by demonstrators, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab commented revealingly that “If I have learned one thing from here, I will try in future to install a dialogue corner where some business people here and some people in the street could meet in a safe corner and just exchange ideas.” The Economist noted that the Czech president tried unsuccessfully “to broker a meeting between the protesters [at Prague] and the boss of the World Bank…. Mr Havel has since managed to set up a forum on September 23rd that will be attended by Bank and Fund officials and by assorted opponents of globalisation.”

Such efforts are not new: The Bank, Fund, U.N., and other such institutions have for some years been sponsoring parallel NGO meets at each major international gathering. Indeed, at Seattle, in December 1999, the WTO itself hosted a parallel Social Summit the day before the opening of the WTO conference, where the new International Labour Office Director-General Juan Somavia spelled out the programme: “What we need today is a more fruitful collaboration between the ILO, the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank with the objective of creating a Social Chapter within the incipient structures of world governance…. We need to create structures where the fears and anxieties of civil society can be fully aired and addressed.”8

At the same gathering, former WTO Director General Renatto Ruggiero warned that “if all actors in today’s global economy are not included to address the widening range of public concerns within this global system… they may turn to alternative solutions that could possibly destabilize the entire architecture of the global economy…. Certainly we must continue to advance trade liberalization within the multilateral system. But unless we achieve a consensus and cooperation with all the political actors, we cannot build the necessary support for trade liberalization and the global economy.”9

The efforts of the 1999 Seattle Social Summit to engage the protesters in consensus-building for trade liberalisation were, to put it mildly, unsuccessful. And through all the militant protests that followed, it was clear that those sponsored efforts at consensus-building with the protesters, organised as they were under the auspices of the same international bodies that were the targets of the protests, carried no credibility with the marchers.

World Social Forum is given shape

It was during the following turbulent year, 2000, that the “alternative” to Seattle-type confrontations took shape — with remarkable speed, starting within three months of the Seattle events.

According to a member of the International Council of the WSF, in February 2000, Bernard Cassen, the head of a French NGO platform ATTAC, Oded Grajew, head of a Brazilian employers’ organisation, and Francisco Whitaker, head of an association of Brazilian NGOs, met to discuss a proposal for a “world civil society event”; by March 2000, they formally secured the support of the municipal government of Porto Alegre and the state government of Rio Grande do Sul, both controlled at the time by the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). In June 2000, the proposal for such an event was placed by the vice-governor of Rio Grande do Sul at an alternative UN meeting in Geneva.10 The World Bank website dates the WSF to this meeting, referring to it as “a new organizational perspective launched in June 2000 in Geneva by the major organisations of civil society”.11

This political trend, which was already present within the protest movement, stepped up its efforts to influence it. A group of French NGOs, including ATTAC, Friends of L’Humanite, and Friends of Le Monde Diplomatique, sponsored an Alternative Social Forum in Paris titled “One Year after Seattle”, in order to prepare an agenda for the protests to be staged at the upcoming European Union summit at Nice. The speakers called for “reorienting certain international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO… so as to create a globalization from below” and “building an international citizens’ movement, not to destroy the IMF but to reorient its missions.” While strongly endorsing the project of the European Union (one of the central aims of which in fact is to strip the hard-won rights of European workers and their various forms of social protection), the organisers called for a Social Europe, “on the basis of a Third Way [ie neither capitalism nor socialism], that could implement policies against unemployment, insecurity, and the undermining of workers’ rights.”

The organisers had considerable success in foisting this agenda on the protest demonstrations at Nice, where the general secretary of the European Confederation of Trade Unions (ETUC) declared that “all components of civil society must play a major role in the construction of the European Union. The message of our demonstration is unmistakable: There needs to be the incorporation of the trade unions and NGOs into the decision-making structures in Brussels…. We agree that Europe must become more competitive, yes. But the new Europe must also contain a dignified quality of life for all its citizens.”12 This vision of a happy family of European labour and capital would warm any corporate chieftain’s heart.

Let us take a closer look here at the two principal authors of the World Social Forum: ATTAC of France and the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) of Brazil. It is worth looking at the background of these two forces.

ATTAC: devoted to dialogue with international financial institutions

ATTAC is an NGO platform that aims to build a coalition of diverse groups — farmers, trade unions, intellectuals — for a reform of the world financial system. Its name is the French acronym for Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens. It was originally set up in 1998 by Bernard Cassens and Susan George, the editors of Le Monde Diplomatique, to campaign for the Tobin tax. This is a tax long ago proposed by the American economist James Tobin, whereby speculative financial transactions would be taxed at the rate of 0.1 per cent in order to raise funds for productive and socially desirable purposes. (While ATTAC has broadened its concerns in the past several years, it has not abandoned its base in the Tobin tax proposal.) Tobin, a Nobel Prize-winning establishment economist who has advised US administrations, in no sense considered his proposal radical, anti-corporate or anti-globalization — indeed, he envisioned the tax revenues being administered by the IMF (ATTAC wants the United Nations to do so instead). At any rate, given the dominance of financial sector activity, and the hectic pace of speculative transactions worldwide, the Tobin tax stands nil chance of being actually enacted by any country wishing to remain in the existing world financial institutions, international capital flows and international trade; the country that made such a tax law would immediately be punished by the world financial community withdrawing capital from it. To be effective, it presumably would have to be enacted by all countries in the world, or at least the leading powers, which could then impose it on the rest of the world. The Tobin tax proposal is a mirage.

Apart from the Tobin tax, ATTAC advanced three other propositions at the World Social Forum: the reform of the World Bank and IMF; a global commission to slow down multinationals and increase competition; and “a procedure of mediation for countries of the ‘Third World’ in debt, where creditors and debtors should name their representatives and who then have to come to an agreement in regard to an arbitrator”. All this was to be achieved through “dialogue” with governments and international institutions like the Fund and Bank.13

This understanding is also reflected in the work of one of ATTAC’s leading lights, Susan George, who argues against a write-off of the Third World debt, and instead for its “creative” renegotiation. She indeed defends the institution of the IMF: “Should the South seek to replace or abolish the IMF? Even if such a Herculean feat were possible, this strikes me as the wrong goal, precisely because the Fund is supra-national and because it is an instrument. If enough pressure and political skill were applied, it could become an instrument for governments more enlightened than that of the United States under Reagan.”14 While the intellectuals of ATTAC prominently occupied platforms and press conferences at each major post-Seattle protest, their actual politics starkly contrasts that of the protesters who called for writing off the Third World debt or “smashing the IMF”.

Nor does ATTAC have much in common with the traditional trade union goal of defending jobs. In a May 2001 document (The rules of the new shareholding capitalism), ATTAC upholds the right of the sack: “Clearly, the right to capitalist property includes the right to hire and fire. The question is knowing up to what point. As far as we are concerned, we want job-cuts to be the last resort, once all other possibilities of guaranteeing the survival of the company have been exhausted.”15

For ATTAC the militant anti-‘globalisation’ protests failed in a crucial sense: they lacked the ‘constructive’ development of ‘alternatives’. According to Christophe Aguiton of ATTAC, “The failure of Seattle was the inability to come up with a common agenda, a global alliance at the world level to fight against globalisation”.16 Hence the need for WSF. Says Bernard Cassens, the first president of ATTAC, “We are not just protesters, our ambition is to propose credible alternatives to show that another world is possible by once more putting the economy and finance at the service of society.”17

To whom were these alternatives to be proposed, in whose eyes were they to be “credible”? Evidently, to those in charge of the existing world. ATTAC has been courted by various European social democratic governments: “In September last year (2001) the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, both facing closely fought elections in the near future, agreed to set up a joint working party on how to regulate financial markets. The leadership of ATTAC France have held several meetings with Jospin’s chief of staff. The French National Assembly passed a resolution in November supporting the Tobin tax on international financial speculation. Perhaps because of this courtship, the ATTAC leadership did not mobilise its considerable influence against the war in Afghanistan. This courtship will continue at Porto Alegre. Among the notables present will be Danielle Mitterrand, widow of the former French president.”18 It is alleged that at various forums ATTAC have intervened to exclude discussion of issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and prevent discussion of state racism, immigrant rights, and explicit references to fascism and Islamophobia.19

Indeed ATTAC sees no wrong in receiving funds from ruling quarters in Europe. The French business daily Les Echos (10/1/02) reported that “Last year ATTAC received 300,000 Euros in grants alone. Among the contributors were the European Commission (of the EU), the French government’s Department of Social Economy, the National Ministry of Education and Culture and a whole host of local governments.” According to the daily Le Monde (1/2/02), “ATTAC and Le Monde Diplomatique received 80,000 Euros from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help them organise the World Social Forum.” Les Echos (1/2/02) comments accurately that “The financing of the NGOs, whose role is not always transparent, often comes from multinational corporations who prefer to back them discreetly so as to be able to use them for their own purposes. It would appear that these are two opposing ideologies. In fact, more and more these ideologies are becoming intertwined.”20

Of course, ATTAC’s construction experts ignore the fact that a genuine alternative cannot merely be mounted on top of the existing structure, but must be preceded by clearing away the burden of the past.

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