Capitalism and Communism Look Equally Bad in Prague

September 27th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

What seems to most enrage the delegates to the meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Prague this week is the idea that they even have to discuss the basic benefits of free-market globalization.

That discussion was supposed to have stopped in 1989, when the Wall fell and history ended. Only here they all are—old people, young people, thousands of them—literally storming the barricades of their extremely important summit.

And as the delegates peer over the side of their ill-protected fortress at the crowds below, scanning signs that say "Capitalism Kills," they look terribly confused. Didn’t these strange people get the memo? Don’t they understand that we all already decided that free-market capitalism was the last, best system? Sure, it’s not perfect, and everyone inside the meeting is awfully concerned about all those poor people and the environmental mess, but it’s not like there’s a choice—is there?

For the longest time, it seemed as if there were only two political models: Western capitalism and Soviet communism. When the USSR collapsed, that left only one alternative, or so it seemed. Institutions like the World Bank and IMF have been busily "adjusting" economies in Eastern Europe and Asia to help them get with the program: privatizing services, relaxing regulation of foreign corporations, building huge export industries.

All this is why it is so significant that yesterday’s head-on attack against the ideology ruling the World Bank and the IMF happened here, in the Czech Republic. This is a country that has lived through both economic orthodoxies, where the Lenin busts have been replaced by Pepsi logos and McDonald’s arches.

Many of the young Czechs I met this week say that their direct experience with communism and capitalism has taught them that the two systems have something in common: They both treat people as if they are less than fully human. Where communism saw them only as potential producers, capitalism sees them only as potential consumers; where communism starved their beautiful capital, capitalism has overfed it, turning Prague into a Velvet Revolution theme park.

The experience of growing up disillusioned with both systems helps explain why so many of the activists behind this week’s protests call themselves "anarchists." Anarchism is an ideology that defines itself by being fiercely non-ideological. It rejects externally imposed rules and argues that we are impoverished, as individuals and as communities, by overwork and overconsumption.

Most of us carry a mess of negative biases about anarchists. But the truth is that most are less interested in hurling projectiles than in finding ways to lead simple, autonomous lives. They call it "freedom."

So what do the lifestyle choices of a small (but growing) radical subculture have to do with the allegations being made against the World Bank and the IMF? Everything.

Far from simply demanding debt relief, the mass protests against the Bank and Fund are now driven by more fundamental demands: the elimination of both institutions, and of the economic beliefs that drive their every decision.

Over the past decade, a critical mass of communities in poor countries have questioned the Bank’s belief that large-scale "development" always equals "improvement."

The people coming forward have been displaced by World-Bank-funded mega-dams and had their water systems polluted by World-Bank-funded mines.

Are these people Communists? A few. But most aren’t capitalists either. They are tapping into something different, and much older. The young anarchists in Prague, also gathered here from around the world, have tapped into it too.

The Indian writer Arundhati Roy put it best, writing about her crusade against a World-Bank-funded dam: "Perhaps what the 21st century has in store for us is the dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small."

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.