Who Elected the Anti-Capitalist Convergence?

April 23rd, 2001

I admit that up until recently I’ve had trouble taking seriously the violent protesters and tear-gas throwers who nowadays show up whenever a meeting of one of our great globalizing, multilateral institutions takes place. Mostly, I am highly suspicious of the fact that they only seem to appear in large numbers when the multilateral meeting in question is taking place somewhere cool. Angry protesters showed up at the WTO meeting in Seattle, home of Starbucks. Why were there none at a subsequent WTO meeting in Frankfurt? Picketers also showed up when the WTO met in Prague, the new Mecca for Americans on their junior year abroad. Why didn’t they make it to the G8 meeting in Okinawa?

By this standard, Quebec City might be a turning point. OK, it’s small and cute, but it is in Canada, which means that by definition it isn’t cool. If the international anti-capitalist movement can drag itself away from its moccachinos and its double decaf lattes and its Thai chicken lemon grass spicy noodle wraps, and haul itself all the way up to the land of the Mounties and maple syrup, then it must scent blood—and it isn’t hard to see why.
A part of the explanation of their organizational success is, of course, the Internet, as I am not the first to observe. But that is only part of the explanation. Another, often overlooked element of the newfound self-confidence of the anti-globalization rioters must also be the official encouragement they have received, by implication, from the world’s biggest promoter of global capitalism—the American government.

Tap in “Albright” and “NGO” on your search engine of choice, and you will discover, from the State Department documents that pop up on your screen, that while you thought Madeleine Albright was busy for all those years negotiating treaties and identifying targets to bomb in Belgrade, she was in fact spending hours and hours giving speeches to NGOs—nongovernmental organizations—around the world, in Albania, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and in virtually every country she visited. This was part of a general American policy of support for NGOs, one which even led (somewhat oddly, if you think about it) to the creation of some American-government-sponsored NGOs. What should the proper name be for a nongovernmental organization supported by the U.S. government? An NGOSBTUSG?

So fashionable have NGOs become that the United Nations, when it organizes big conferences on the environment, say, or women, now sponsors NGO conferences as well, which are designed to take place alongside the “official” conferences. This policy has, by general agreement, been proclaimed a big success, not least from the media’s point of view. I went to one of these, the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, and can safely say that if it hadn’t been for the NGOs—who ranged from Saudi women swathed in black to Dutch feminists in blue jeans, sandals, and tattoos—there would have been nothing to write about at all.

Of course, when Madeleine Albright was going around the world lecturing to NGOs, urging support for NGOs, she was not, we can safely say, talking about the Anti-Capitalist Convergence but rather the sort of people who provide clean water for subsistence farmers in southern Africa, or who organize battered-women’s shelters in India, or who provide technological support for finance ministries in Central Asia. It is hard to underestimate the importance of such people, and I do not intend to criticize them. Not only do they help the people who need it most, they are also an important part of that self-organizing, self-motivating civil society, without which democracy is impossible. Ditto the Sierra Club, the campaigners against child labor, and others in the Western world who have legitimate causes and argue their cases in legitimate ways.

Nevertheless, the difficulty with a policy of general and undifferentiated NGO-promotion is that it isn’t always so easy to pick and choose which NGOs will profit the most: Precisely because they are not speaking through official, governmental channels, those who are shouting the loudest, are throwing the most tear gas, and are filled with the greatest degree of hubris usually get the most attention. I noted that Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, bowed to the winds of fashion and made a valiant attempt to listen to “alternative” points of view at a round-table in Quebec City with a few NGOs, among them the extremely worthwhile Transparency International, which campaigns against corruption. He didn’t get much credit for it, at least not in the Washington Post, which quoted a “scornful” Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch, asking, “Who are these people?” of the groups meeting Zoellick. “I just left all the heads of real environmental and labor groups in the streets. These people don’t represent anyone.”

Well, no, Transparency International doesn’t represent anyone—but then, Global Trade Watch doesn’t represent anyone either, except for Lori Wallach and her friends. In particular, I would say that Global Trade Watch doesn’t necessarily represent all the people in Latin America whose salaries would go up if a Free Trade Area of the Americas really were to be created, although I’m not going to pursue that argument here. The more fundamental point is this: At least when we’re talking about democracies, governments—until we come up with some better institution—are still the legitimate representatives of their peoples’ interests abroad. NGOs have many extremely important roles to play; negotiating international trade treaties isn’t one of them. “We were elected, after all,” spluttered Jean Chrétien, the Canadian prime minister, which sounded rather pitiful, but reflected the apparent balance of power in Quebec City. With thousands of marching protesters outside in the streets, and a handful of officials skulking inside the buildings, it might have been easy to forget who had a popular mandate—and who did not.