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Attacking Goliath

As anti-capitalist protesters claim they'll take to London's streets, Isabel Hilton sees their point

The prediction is that today's anti-capitalist demonstration in the City of London will be the biggest to date in the series of protests provoked by globalisation. At the time of writing, it's too early to tell if this is an inflated prediction by police and organisers, each with an interest in boosting the anticipated numbers.

But more interesting than crude numbers will be the composition of the demonstrations. Will it be the familiar anarchists, bolstered by a few kids out for a bit of amusement, or will it, as the organisers also predict, be a more rounded crowd, professionals as well as unemployed, the anxious middle-aged alongside the rebellious teens? My bet is there will be a fair sprinkling of civilians among the class warriors. To expect otherwise would be to pretend that only the perennially disaffected have a grievance against global capital to determine what kind of lives we will live in the 21st century.

Multinational corporations have been a bogy for the left since Karl Marx first chewed the end of his pencil. Never have they offered more cause for concern than 10 years after the collapse of the socialist bloc and five after the establishment of the Word Trade Organisation. According to Corporate Watch, 51 of the world's 100 largest economies are corporations and the combined revenues of just two of them - General Motors and Ford, exceed the combined GDP for all of south Saharan Africa. Here in the UK we seem to be deeply attached to the idea of national sovereignty. Without such an attachment in the wider population, the Europhobes would find it harder going than they do.

But why are the British so easily aroused by the suggestion that sovereignty has been lost to the European Union when they are so much less moved by globalisation? After all, the steps towards integration in the European Union were clear. They were subject to exhaustive parliamentary debate and, on occasion, referendum. The extent of the powers vested in the institutions of the EU is described in exhaustive detail in volume after volume of acquis communitaire . And though there is general agreement that there is a democratic deficit in the structures of the EU, there is at least an elected parliament that is steadily acquiring powers. It may be full of defects, but at least it is there.

The anti-European lobby's favourite epithet - faceless - is unfair. If you want to complain or protest about the conduct of matters in the EU, it is possible to find out where you should do so. A far more convincing symbol of a powerful, faceless process that not only attacks national sovereignty and weakens democratic institutions but invades every aspect of daily life is the WTO.

Since it was set up in 1995, the WTO and the globalisation that it is there to promote, has impacted on our lives on every level. The advocates of untrammelled global free trade argue that this is all to our benefit. The demonstrators in Seattle last year and today on the streets of London - and those who quietly cheer them on - say that's not the whole story. We are wealthier, better fed, better housed and longer lived than at any time in history. And the last two decades have delivered an extraordinary rate of growth that has lifted millions out of poverty. Free market purists argue that all the ills the process has produced can be cured by further liberalisation.

The counter argument was thoroughly made at Seattle: that the cost of this economic growth in environmental terms is unpayable, that the political price is too high, that the power of the global corporations that are the prime beneficiaries of the system is too great, that the huge disparities in wealth the process has produced are immoral. For most people the argument is not whether there should be capitalism or not. It is: what kind of capitalism? What degree of rapacity can I accept in return for the benefits I enjoy?

If I want to say yes to capitalism but not on the terms proposed under the WTO millennial round, to whom do I say it, short of joining the protest on the street? If I want to say yes to trade, but only if the workers in south China's free trade zone factories can get some modicum of labour protection, whom do I lobby? If I want to say yes to internationalism but no to a world in which international institutions are a thin disguise for dominating US corporations, to whom do I address my postcard?

And today's protesters have their answer, as the protesters in Washington and Seattle had theirs. Their presence in Seattle and since has focussed the unease felt by many who would not join them. But protest has its limitations and one of them is that protest is not a negotiating position. Even if negotiations were offered, it is hard to see a coherent alternative vision in the many positions on the street.

Lucy Parsons, of Reclaim the Streets, told the Financial Times that the protests were aimed at "taking power away from the politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats" and forcing "radical social and ecological changes". But taking power from the politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats does not of itself make power disappear. My limited experience of moments when nobody was in charge (in countries that were in the throes of disintegration) suggests that they are more dangerous and unpleasant than even the most rapacious forms of capitalism are able to be in a society that has not broken down.

Last century's alternative to capitalism was voted out by history. Since overthrowing capitalism is not really an option, what we are faced with is the much more complicated challenge of fashioning capitalism into a garment that we can live with. We are unlikely to find contentment where we are valued mainly for our ability to produce and consume; when the planet we inhabit in common is being depleted in pursuit of profits that enrich an ever smaller group; when global capitalism overrides democratic mechanisms and reaches ever deeper into our lives; trying to shape our societies down to the smallest detail, using our selfishness and greed as its main weapon. The global market delivered growth, but what is the purpose of this growth? The only acceptable answer is that it is to enhance human welfare, a standard by which we are entitled to measure the damage to the environment, health, dignity and family life.

The WTO has given globalisation a huge boost, but where are the international bodies parallel to the WTO that can regulate and control the corporations - or even force them to pay tax? Where is the democratic body that corresponds to the WTO, where then objections of the citizens can be heard? These are all concerns raised by the protesters and echoed by a much wider group, but nowhere does the political conversation reflect them. We are in the grip of an orthodoxy that tells us not only that there is no alternative to further globalisation, but that it is all for the best.

Yet in the last few months, the IMF and the World Bank, pillars of that orthodoxy, admitted that the liberalising prescriptions that they have dispensed for 20 years may not have done any good - staggering admissions, which have produced almost no political debate. Globalisation of trade has generated the globalisation of protest - the internet allows movements to build critical mass - as they fight against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment or Monsanto's terminator gene. But so far it has failed to create a global political ground on which the terms and conditions of capitalism can be negotiated. Until it does, the discussion will stay in the streets.

Updated
01 May 2000

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