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Ahmed Shawki

Birth of a New Movement

Shifting the terms of debate

(June 2000)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 12, June–July 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE IMPACT and significance of the week of action and protest in Washington, D.C. against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) has not yet been fully felt. But it was clear to those involved in building and organizing in the weeks before the protests – and clearer still on April 16 – that, above all, the protests represent the birth of a new social movement.

This, of course, is not the picture painted by the mainstream media – they were quick to declare the April 16 (A16) protests a “failure” because they didn't succeed in making good on the call to “shut down” the IMF/World Bank joint meeting. Typical was David Frum, the conservative columnist writing in the New York Times about the young people and students in the smaller, rain-drenched demonstration on April 17. “How could they be expected to trundle through the cold and wet to listen to some Andean Marxist dude rail against the privatization of the Bolivian waterworks in whatever language it is that they speak in Bolivia?” he sneered.

The answer to that question is, thankfully, the more than 1,000 protesters who converged near the White House at the World Bank headquarters on 20th and Pennsylvania in downtown D.C.

On April 16, some 20,000 took part in two demonstrations – one a permitted rally, the other a combination of direct action and civil disobedience.

It is true that April 16 was not a repeat of Seattle. The police in Seattle were caught off guard by the protests, their violent response caught on news clips across the world. The police in D.C. were better prepared, and there were more of them. Far more than several thousand would have been necessary to disrupt the World Bank and IMF meetings that day.

But while the protests didn't succeed in shutting down the meetings of the World Bank and the IMF, this is really not how their success or failure should be judged.

What is much more important is the clear impact that the mounting pressure, of which the protests were only the most visible part, is having on the Bank and the IMF. As Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange put it: “The protests were definitely effective in shifting the terms of the debate.”

The impact on the Clinton administration was to further underline the message of Seattle. Last year in Seattle, Bill Clinton was forced to do a rhetorical about-face expressing sympathy for the protesters while his trade representatives worked overtime to push a hard free trade agenda. The administration once again adopted a sympathetic “we-feel-your-pain mode.”

World Bank President James Wolfensohn also reacted to the protests. He defended the Bank, saying it is doing “a great job,” and blamed the problem on a mistaken public perception of what the Bank does. “I think there is a general fear of instability and globalization ... and I would like to feel that it is not totally related to the World Bank.” Wolfensohn felt he had to praise the “enormous contribution” of groups that rallied for debt relief for poor countries.

“While that kind of rhetoric might be dismissed as talk-is-cheap pandering,” writes Vince Beiser in Mother Jones, “the protesters' pressure does seem to be bolstering those bureaucrats inside the IMF and World Bank who want to genuinely reform the institutions. Echoing another of the protesters' variegated concerns, officials at the April 16 and April 17 meetings pledged to devote “unlimited money” to combat AIDS in poor countries. And as the Washington Post noted, “without the people in the street, it's unlikely that the word 'poverty' would have cropped up quite so often at the meetings.”

The week-long series of teach-ins and meetings leading up to April 16 found the IMF and World Bank officials hard-pressed to defend their case of privatization, deregulation and free trade. For example, at a debate at George Washington University, the World Bank's chief economist for Africa declared that he was proud that the Bank had never made loans to apartheid South Africa – only to be proven wrong with a quote from a book available in the Bank's own bookstore.

The measure of success

The success of A16 should also be measured in how it involved and has continued to radicalize a layer of new activists, as well as advancing a whole new set of debates.

First, it advanced the political debates flowing from the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) about how to take on capitalist globalization.

And these debates are being had all over the country. Discussions about strategy, tactics, aims – in short, politics – are becoming a feature of activists' meetings.

The A16 protests highlighted issues that must be taken up in the future for struggle to go forward – issues such as economic nationalism and protectionism. But by bringing together 20,000 people on far shorter notice than for the Seattle protests, the A16 demonstrations ensured that the debate will take place in a nascent movement that is radical, activist and that sees organized labor as a key part of the struggle.

The major difference is that where 30,000 trade unionists turned out to protest the WTO in Seattle in parallel with the direct action protests, the AFL-CIO this time put its weight behind a nationalist demonstration against the normalization of U.S. trade relations with China. Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO endorsed both the April 9 demonstration for global debt relief as well as the permitted demonstration held on April 16. Thus the Washington protests marked a further step in the reconciliation between U.S. labor and the political left – a split that has endured in the half-century since the McCarthy anticommunist witch hunts.

But labor's opening to the left is certainly not a linear process. The AFL-CIO's focus on the “No Blank Check for China” demonstration on April 12 meant that it did not provide the same social weight – and, in view of the mainstream media and politicians – the same political legitimacy – as the demonstrations in Seattle.

At one level, of course, labor leaders were being perfectly consistent: both demonstrations were designed to pressure the White House to change its trade policies. But where the November 30 rally and march in Seattle featured representatives of unions from around the world, labor leaders' rhetoric at the April 12 rally on the Capitol steps was highly nationalistic. United Steelworkers of America President George Becker, whose union has been most responsible for seeking out and forging alliances between labor and other forces like the student anti-sweatshop campaigners, gave an openly anticommunist speech against normalization of China trade to about 6,000 members of several different unions.

But even Becker was outdone by the decision of the Teamsters Union to hold a separate anti-China rally specifically in order to feature ultra-right conservative Pat Buchanan. He shared the platform with Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, United Auto Workers (UAW) President Stephen Yokich and Representative Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), among others. Buchanan finished his xenophobic speech by saying, “If the Chinese communists came to the White House and came to my office and said we want Permanent MFN, we want permanent NTR, I'd tell ’em, you stop persecuting Christians, you stop threatening our country, or you've sold your last pair of chopsticks any more in the United States.”

This reflects real political tension and contradictory development within the leadership of the labor movement. For alongside the China-bashing, the AFL-CIO now endorses immigrant rights and stresses international solidarity. The Becker who railed against Chinese “communism” was the same man who brought 1,000 Steelworkers to a conference with the United Students against Sweatshops held in conjunction with the A16 protests. The labor movement's future lies not in China-bashing, but in Sweeney's 1998 praise of “AFL-CIO member unions joining together with Mexican and American workers in California's strawberry fields to organize unions, to bargain collectively, to strike – without fear of deportation or dismissal – a new internationalism.” Such a labor movement can have no place for a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-union bigot like Pat Buchanan.

What makes Washington so important was that there was a clear mood among the demonstrators that A16 represented an ongoing struggle – not just a week of demonstrations in D.C. There was a clear sense that what was unfolding was the birth of a new movement. One of the elements that stood out was the involvement of a new generation of college students. As a writer for The Nation magazine observed, “College students are increasingly engaged in well-organized, thoughtful and morally outraged resistance to corporate power. These activists, more than any student radicals in years, passionately denounce the wealth gap, globally and in the United States, as well as the lack of democratic accountability in a world dominated by corporations.”

The fact that most people who attended effectively mobilized themselves to April 16 is obviously a weakness when compared to the numbers brought to Seattle by the labor movement and the NGOs (non-governmental organizations). But the growing self-consciousness of a new generation of activists is also what was most inspiring and promising.

And unlike the movement of the 1960s, this movement begins with labor as an integral part of it. And, critically, a socialist left – which has a responsibility and possibility of substantial advance.

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