It may be inexorable and championed by some, even many, but to others, globalization is a juggernaut that needs to be stopped, if not reversed. Those “others” are the critics and demonstrators who, over the past few years, have come to variously protest, disrupt and destroy the calm, official proceedings of meetings to further the advance of globalization. But, as the author points out, leaders need to listen to and accommodate those voices of protest. As he maintains, dissent is virtually synonymous with democracy, and organizations like the World Trade Organization must not only uphold the democratic tradition but also carefully consider the criticism that protesters from trade unionists to peace groups voice.
WHAT ARE THESE TALKS ABOUT
The elected leaders of almost every country in the world—developed, developing or underdeveloped—agree that freer trade and investment will lead to improvements in their economic status. Rich, mature economies see the possibility of greater growth by exporting more to less-developed countries; those less-developed countries see access to the markets of the developed economies as critical to their growth. While trade and investment disputes are frequent, they are symptomatic of the desire to move toward freer trade, and they are, increasingly, being resolved by formal, bilateral and multilateral resolution processes.
What the leaders of these countries recognize is that free trade and investment are the mechanisms that allow a country to pursue what economists call “the theory of comparative advantage.” The theory holds that each country will be better off if it is allowed to maximize its opportunity cost. Put simply, if it is more cost-effective for Canada to produce wheat rather than large commercial aircraft, it should produce wheat—exporting what is surplus to its requirements—and import Boeing 747s and Airbuses. France may be better off buying wheat from Canada and selling Airbuses to Canada.
Greater globalization also creates the need for more intervention in national economic policies. When a major country’s economy is in trouble, help is needed from institutions such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. As a result, these institutions are increasingly active and involved in what is seen as the globalization movement.
WHAT DO THE DEMONSTRATORS WANT?
Anyone who watched the television coverage of the riots in Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa could be forgiven for being totally confused about who was demonstrating about what. Alongside protestors from conservative church groups were young and not-so-young thugs out for a rumble. Serious, established anti-poverty groups were marching along avenues filled with tear gas aimed at small groups of militants throwing concrete blocks and stones at police officers, with a clear intent to maim or even kill them. Trade unions demonstrating to protect high-paying jobs in industrialized countries marched alongside nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) wanting to forgive debt in Third World and developing countries and open up the industrialized markets, without reciprocation, thereby threatening the jobs of those same trade unionists.
If leaders of democracies support these talks, and their motivation is the pursuit of the economic well-being of their citizens, they may have a reason to be surprised when opposition to increased globalization grows more intense, ferocious and even violent. When Tony Blair says, “These demonstrators are not doing anything in the interests of the poor,” and Jean Chrétien complains that “We are the elected leaders in democratic societies,” they reflect genuine frustration with the intensity of the opposition and the manner in which it is expressed.
In some ways, it is easy to dismiss the critics of globalization as a collection of special interest groups such as trade unions who fear for the jobs of their members, nationalists opposed to any transnational influences on economic or social policies, or pure xenophobes.
These groups are often “single-interest.” Many are not generally opposed to free trade and investment, but they see some threat to what they believe in or seek to promote. For example, environmentalists have long held the belief—right or wrong—that under free trade and investment, companies from countries with tough environmental protection laws will shift their investment and operations to lesser-developed countries with either lax environmental protection laws or poor policing of those laws. They may see some advantage in encouraging free trade, but they want to see any such deals accompanied by toughened protection for the environment. International labour organizations may also agree that free trade is good in principle, but only if it is accompanied by stringent conditions that prevent work from being moved from high labour-cost countries to ones with lower costs.
It is important for business and governments to keep these sessions in the public eye as much as possible. After Seattle, Washington, Quebec City and Gothenburg, one would have thought that the authorities in Genoa would have known what was likely to happen and would have been prepared to handle it. Certainly the Italian police and security forces seemed, at the most charitable, to have been incompetent in failing to discriminate between hooligans and peaceful demonstrators. Night raids on sessions of the Genoa Social Forum seem to have been accompanied by acts of intolerance and brutality toward demonstrators that shocked Italians and non-Italians alike. However, better training in riot control, better intelligence about the hooligans, and perhaps some toughening of laws controlling the travel of identified riot-tourists will help reduce the level of violence or at least confine it to small patches of turf and separate it from legitimate protest. If the actions of soccer hooligans can be minimized or even neutralized in this way, why not the same for globalization goons?
NGOs must also take a lead in dealing with this situation. In many respects, they have the most to lose. Coverage of these events gives them a forum. If heightened coverage because of riots takes away that forum, because meetings are no longer held at all or are moved to extremely secure areas, then they are the losers. They also lose because so many people are turned off by the apparent joy that certain NGO leaders manifest at the riots while, at the same time and totally ingenuously, rejecting violence as a legitimate tool of protest. If the NGOs cannot dissociate themselves from the ragtag mob of anarchists, nihilists and terrorists that represent those one percent of the demonstrators who garner 90 percent of media attention, they will have effectively forsaken a valuable platform for their views.
WHITHER THE PROTESTORS
Governments would be naïve to think that the granting of insignificant concessions to the NGOs and other social protestors will make them go away. There would have to be real, major changes in the globalization process and outcomes for many of the groups to be appeased. High on the list is a reduction of Third World indebtedness, increased aid from “haves” to “have-nots,” and labour and environmental standards protection with real teeth. There will have to be some subordination of corporate interests to national interests and recognition of the social obligations of businesses in the societies within which they operate.
But even if there are changes, these protests will not go away. As one group’s needs are satisfied, other needs will emerge from the same or different groups. The social needs of the world—from starvation in Eritrea to AIDS in South Africa—are inexhaustible. As protests become more visible, protestors will be emboldened to keep up the pressure and new claimants will join the barricades.
We should not be surprised by this unfolding reality. Protest and civil disobedience have always been a part of democratic societies. Many of us who joined in acts of civil disobedience, from ban-the-bomb marches to anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Grosvenor Square or on university campuses, grew up to be law-abiding members of society.
Democracy is about much more than one-person, one-vote. Democratic societies demand effective democratic institutions, including those that may well protest, vehemently and antagonistically, the actions of government. They may be wrong, they may not have widespread public support, and they may indeed represent the views of only a few. But democracy demands that they be allowed to protest and that their voices be heard.
It remains to be seen just how much the opponents of globalization will be constrained or even limited in their protests by the increased security resulting from the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. One danger, while so far unrealized, is that heightened security and anxiety will force leaders to paint all critics of globalization—even terrorist groups who denounce the West’s pursuit of materialism and globalization—with one brush. Another danger is that a chill will descend on dissent and those who practise it, brought on by world leaders calling for national and global unity in the fight to eradicate terrorism. But while this call is laudable and desirable, so too are dissent and criticism voiced by informed, reasonable citizens, acting and protesting in groups. Perhaps their voices will be muted in the months and even years ahead, but silencing those voices will in itself be a terrible blow to the public and global good.