Activists must follow the money
Protestors in Cancun understand that neo-liberalism is a form of war
Friday September 12, 2003
On Monday, seven anti-privatisation activists were arrested in Soweto for blocking the installation of prepaid water meters. The meters are a privatised answer to the fact that millions of South Africans cannot pay their water bills. The new gadgets work like pay-as-you-go mobile phones, only instead of having a dead phone when you run out of money, you have dead people, sickened by cholera-infested water.
On the day South Africa's "water warriors" were locked up, Argentina's negotiations with the International Monetary Fund bogged down. The sticking point was rate hikes for privatised utility companies. In a country where 50% of the people live in poverty, the IMF is demanding that multinational water and electricity companies be allowed to increase their rates by a staggering 30%. At trade summits, debates about privatisation seem wonkish. On the ground, they are as clear and urgent as the right to survive.
After September 11, rightwing pundits couldn't bury the globalisation movement fast enough. In times of war, they said, no one would care about frivolous issues like water privatisation. Much of the anti-war movement fell into a related trap: now was not the time to focus on divisive economic debates, but to come together to call for peace.
All this nonsense ended in Cancun this week, when thousands of activists converged to declare that the brutal economic model advanced by the WTO is itself a form of war. War because privatisation and deregulation kill &emdash; by pushing up prices on necessities like water and medicines, and pushing down prices on raw commodities like coffee, making small farms unsustainable. War because those who resist are routinely arrested, beaten and even killed. War because when this low-intensity repression fails to clear the path to corporate liberation, the real wars begin. The global anti-war protests grew out of the networks built by years of globalisation activism. And despite attempts to keep the movements separate, their only future lies in the convergence represented by Cancun.
Past movements have tried to fight wars without confronting the economic interests behind them, or to win economic justice without confronting military power. Today's activists, experts at following the money, aren't making the same mistake. Take Rachel Corrie. Although engraved in our minds as the 23-year-old in an orange jacket who faced down Israeli bulldozers, Corrie had already glimpsed a larger threat looming behind the military hardware. "It is counterproductive to only draw attention to crisis points &emdash; the demolition of houses, shootings, overt violence," she wrote in one of her last emails. "So much of what happens in Rafah is related to this slow elimination of people's ability to survive. Water, in particular, seems critical and invisible." The 1999 "battle of Seattle" was Corrie's first big protest. She had already trained herself not only to see the repression on the surface but to dig deeper, to search for the economic interests served by the Israeli attacks. This led Corrie to the wells in nearby settlements, which she suspected of diverting water from Gaza to Israeli land.
Similarly, when Washington started handing out reconstruction contracts in Iraq, veterans of the globalisation debate spotted the underlying agenda in the familiar names of deregulation and privatisation pushers Bechtel and Halliburton. If these guys are leading the charge, it means Iraq is being sold off, not rebuilt. Even those who opposed the war exclusively for how it was waged (without UN approval, with insufficient evidence of WMDs) now cannot help but see why it was waged: to implement the same policies being protested in Cancun &emdash; mass privatisation, unrestricted access for multinationals and drastic public sector cutbacks.
The Bush administration has let it be known that if the Cancun meetings fail, it will simply barrel ahead with more bilateral free trade deals, like the one just signed with Chile. Insignificant in economic terms, the deal's real power is as a wedge: already, Washington is using it to bully Brazil and Argentina into supporting the Free Trade Area of the Americas. It is 30 years since Pinochet, with the help of the CIA, brought the free market to Chile "with blood and fire". But that terror is paying dividends to this day: the left never recovered, and Chile remains the most pliant country in the region.
In August 1976, Orlando Letelier, a former minister in Allende's overthrown government, asked how the international community could profess horror at Pinochet's human rights abuses while supporting his free-market policies: "Repression for the majorities and 'economic freedom' for small privileged groups are in Chile two sides of the same coin," he wrote. Less than a month later, he was killed by a car bomb in Washington, DC. The greatest enemies of terror never lose sight of the economic interests served by violence, or the violence of capitalism itself. Letelier understood that. So did Rachel Corrie. As our movements converge in Cancun, so must we.
? A version of this article appears in The Nationwww.nologo.org