In Case You Missed Seattle, Heeere's Washington

April 12th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

My friend Mez is getting on a bus to Washington, D.C., on Saturday. I asked him why, and he said with all this intensity: "Look, I missed Seattle. There’s no way I’m missing Washington."

I’ve seen people speak with that kind of unrestrained longing before, but the object of their affection was usually a muddy music festival where Beck shares a stage with the Beastie Boys, or a short-run New York play such as The Vagina Monologues.

I’ve never heard anyone talk that way about a political protest. Especially not a protest against groaner bureaucracies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And certainly not when they are being called on the carpet for nothing sexier than a decades-old loan policy called "structural adjustment."

And yet there they are: university students and artists and wage-free anarchists and lunch-box steelworkers, piling onto buses from all corners of the continent. Stuffed in their pockets and shoulder bags are fact sheets about the ratio of spending on health care to debt repayment in Mozambique (21/2 times more for debt) and the number of people worldwide living without electricity (two billion).

All are heading to Washington for the big "A16" protests this Sunday and Monday. Four buses are going from Toronto alone. On the e-mail listserves, giddy posts are predicting "Seattle: The Sequel." Kevin Danaher, one of the protest organizers, has been visiting schools promising "Woodstock Times Ten."

Four months ago, this same coalition of environmental, labour and anarchist groups brought a World Trade Organization meeting to a standstill. In Seattle, an impressive range of single-issue campaigns—some focused on controversial corporations such as Nike or Shell, some on dictatorships such as Burma—broadened their focus to a more structural critique of the regulatory bodies playing referee in a global race to the bottom.

Caught off guard by the strength and organization of their opposition, the proponents of accelerated free trade immediately went on the offensive, attacking the protesters as enemies of the poor. Most memorably, The Economist put a picture of a starving Indian child on its cover, and WTO chief Michael Moore got all choked up: "To those who would argue that we should stop our work, I say: Tell that to the poor, to the marginalized around the world who are looking to us to help them."

The desperate recasting of the WTO, and of global capitalism itself, as a tragically misunderstood poverty elimination program is the single most off-putting legacy of the Battle in Seattle. To hear the line coming out of Geneva, barrier-free trade is a giant philanthropic plot and multinational corporations are only using their soaring shareholder returns and executive salaries to disguise their real intentions: to heal the world’s sick, to raise the minimum wage and to save the trees.

But, see, they were hoping no one would find out because they are shy. Nothing does a better job of putting the lie to this specious equation of humanitarian goals with deregulated trade than the track record of the World Bank and the IMF. When the Seattle-ites move to Washington this weekend, they will be making the case that the World Bank and the IMF have exacerbated world poverty with a zealous and near mystical faith in trickle-down economics.

The World Bank has loaned money to the poorest and most desperate nations to build economies based on foreign-owned mega projects, cash-crop farming, low-wage export-driven manufacturing and speculative finance. These projects have been a boon to multinational mining and agribusiness companies around the world, but, in many countries, they have also lead to environmental devastation, mass migration to urban centres, currency crashes, and dead-end sweatshop jobs.

Which is where the World Bank and IMF come in with their infamous bailouts, always with more conditions attached. In Haiti, it was a frozen minimum wage, in Thailand the elimination of restrictions on foreign ownership, in Mexico a hike in university fees was urged. And when these latest austerity measures fail once again to lead to sustainable economic growth, these countries are still on the hook for their layers of debts.

As international attention turns to the World Bank and IMF this weekend, it will go a long way toward countering the argument that the protesters in Seattle were greedy North American protectionists, determined to keep the fruits of the economic boom to themselves. When Teamsters and Turtles took to the streets to complain about WTO interference in environmental and labour regulation, they weren’t trying to impose "our" standards on the developing world. They were playing catch-up with a movement for self-determination that began in the southern nations of the world, where the words "World Bank" are spat, not said, and where "IMF" is parodied on protest signs as short for "I M Fired."

Will the weekend measure up to the hype? I’ll tell you when I get back. Look, I missed Seattle. There’s no way I’m missing Washington.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.