Not Like a Deadhead Odyssey

April 11th, 2001
By Naomi Klein

As soon as I wrote the sentence, I deleted it: "Is this really what we want—a movement of meeting stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats like they’re the Grateful Dead?"

It could be taken out of context, I thought; better take it out. Then I put it back in: The context was clear, and I was being paranoid. If you let your critics steal your sense of humour, they have already won. Paranoia, I’ve since learned, can be a healthy impulse.

That sentence, which was first published almost a year ago in the U.S. magazine The Nation, has been following me around like . . . oh, forget it. In The Economist, on CBC Radio, in The Globe and Mail just last week, it has been used exactly as I’d feared: to paint anti-corporate protesters as a roving band of thrill-seekers, in it for the party, not the politics. (On the upside, Deadheads are now convinced that I alone understand them: "Duuude," they say to me. "It’s so true what you wrote because Dead shows were all about community.")

In fact, the sentence never referred to the culture of the protests (though I can’t deny the presence of drumming circles and veggie burritos).

What I wrote was that there were so many protests being planned that activists who wanted to keep up essentially had to go on tour. After the World Trade Organization shutdown in Seattle, it seemed as if "a next Seattle" was called every time world leaders got together for any sort of meeting.

And trade bureaucrats and world leaders get together an awful lot. So as activists tried to mobilize tens of thousands of people every couple of months, the effort absorbed almost all their energy and resources.

The protests themselves, meanwhile, were in danger of seeming remote, cut off from the issues that affect people’s lives.

Which is precisely why those dedicated to challenging the expansion of corporate power have already changed strategies. The focus has largely shifted from "summit hopping" (as some took to calling it) to narrowing in on specific and ambitious new trade agreements — such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, coming to the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City next week.

The goal of these campaigns, rather than simply having big protests, has become to systematically connect these arcane agreements with urgent, local issues such as health care and homelessness—to localize globalization.

Like NAFTA before it, the creation of the largest free-trade zone in the world is being sold based on the cure-all powers of trickle-down economics.

The reasoning goes like this: The FTAA is designed to create optimum business conditions for multinational corporations—lower tariffs, more privatization opportunities, extended protections on patents, the power to sue national governments for lost profits, barriers to governments tying investment to job creation, and so on.

These incentives to trade and investment, we are told, will do much more than increase corporate profits. They will also fix every woe in the hemisphere, from environmental degradation to political corruption; from mass poverty to overproduction; from backbreaking work to the U.S. economic downturn.

For opponents of the FTAA, the goal is not to shut down a single meeting for its own sake. It is to expose this faulty logic, to show how the granting of the multinational wish list is actually playing out on the ground, not as abstract economic theory but in people’s day-to-day lives.

The protests planned for Quebec City are important, but they are only the most visible face of less glamorous but ongoing local campaigns, ones grounded in cities and towns across the Americas.

Globalization may seem abstract, but it’s not. It is thousands of local stories—about energy deregulation in California, and water privatization in Ontario. It is about the social safety nets that won’t be there to catch the newly jobless as the boom turns to bust.

Globalization is also about export-oriented industrial farming that has created the multiple threats of genetic engineering, food scares, landlessness and mass migrations of people desperate for any jobs they can get, anywhere they can get them.

Which is why a simultaneous anti-FTAA protest will take place next week on the border between San Diego and Tijuana. The goal is to expose the flip side of globalization: the sweatshop factories and crackdowns on immigrants at the U.S.-Mexican border.

Recently, police have taken to patting themselves on the back for learning to "control" mass demonstrations with rubber bullets, border blockades, and fences. But how will they adapt to a global movement that is already transforming itself into thousands of local mini-movements, all internationally linked?

They’re going to need a pretty big fence.