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Taking on Big Brother

By Hasan Suroor, The Hindu, Sunday 29 July 2001

The way the anti-globalisation protests have been handled reflects the governing elite’s increasingly adversarial attitude towards the people.

THEY HAVE been hailed as revolutionaries, denounced as hooligans and are generally seen as a confused lot using wrong means to make a legitimate case against laissez-faire globalisation. They are the anti-globalisation protesters who nearly wrecked the recent G-8 summit at the Italian port town of Genoa, prompting calls for a review of the way in which leaders of the affluent world conduct their business. But significantly even those who have called them ugly anarchists and likened them to football hooligans have stopped short of questioning the protest itself.

There has been a remarkable agreement on the need for arguing against the way the industrialised world has been pushing its social and economic agenda in the name of globalisation. The way the demonstrators—or at least some of them—behaved might have seemed like turning democracy on its head as the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, complained, but to quote his own Europe Minister, Mr. Peter Hain, democracy demands that the voices of the people outside the institutions also be heard.

A democratic deficit is widely believed to be at the heart of globalisation which is seen to be taking place increasingly without any reference to the people. Commentators have underlined the growing disconnection between the people and those who presume to represent them. The embarrassingly low turnout for the recent British general election—so much so that no MP represents more than four or five of the ten voters in his constituency—confirms that people feel disengaged from the political processes that they see as supporting the powerful elite, according to analysts.

The manner in which such protests have been handled, particularly at Genoa, itself reflects the governing elite’s increasingly adversarial attitude towards the people. ...their (people’s) sense of disengagement (was) confirmed by leaders evading the protesters this weekend, commented The Independent on Sunday in an editorial. The Guardian, reacting to Mr. Blair’s condemnation of the protesters, urged him to pause and reflect why so many people—the overwhelming majority of them peaceful—feel so angered by these international powwows that they travel huge distances, at their own expense, to protest...

Mr. Donald Macintyre, a self-confessed old peace protester, shares Mr. Blair’s anger over violent protests and says that to an extent he is right about democracy being turned on its head but then adds:to prevent itself being turned so easily on its head democracy needs to plant its feet a little more firmly on the ground.

There is an overwhelming sense of frustration among the people that they have no control over the decisions, presumably taken on their behalf and that corporate structures—whether international financial institutions or giant multinational companies—are rapidly taking over areas of local governance in which people once had a voice. A letter in The Times said people resent the paternalistic stance of world leaders that globalisation in all forms is good and is here to stay regardless of what those people who put them in power want.

What happened at Genoa is a culmination of the refusal to read the signals. When the anti-globalisation protest first erupted in Seattle two years ago, few anticipated that it would take the form it did. Even when it happened again—this time at Prague—its significance was still not sufficiently recognised and the temptation was to shrug it off as a nuisance which could be seen off with a bit of show of force. The penny really dropped after the May Day disturbances in London last year and the chaos witnessed at the E.U. summit in Gothenburg last month despite massive security and pre-emptive tactics.

For the first time, the message began to sink in that the protestors, whatever be their motive, meant business; even if the business meant no more than causing a few sleepless nights to some of the world’s most powerful men. Genoa became the ultimate test of endurance for the two sides. The entire might of the Italian state, now run by Mr. Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing regime, was deployed to protect the First World’s leading lights from the wrath of a ragtag mob whose bark seemed to be vastly out of proportion with its capacity to bite.

Much has been made of the weapons the protestors allegedly carried—pick axes, petrol bombs, stones—but clearly they were no match for the Italian carabineri who came armed to their teeth; whose intimidating presence was an action of provocation itself,’ as one British newspaper noted. At no other summit has the divide between protesters and world leaders been so stark..., commented another newspaper in a report detailing how Genoa buzzed with armoured cars, anti-missile batteries and hundreds of soldiers and police officers. Genoa was turned into a fortress with leaders alternating between a luxury liner, protected by cruise missiles, and the conference centre ringed by a no-go red zone.

In the end, however, none of this worked. If anything, what Genoa witnessed was by far the worst anti-globalisation rioting since Seattle and for the first time someone got killed in police shooting. If it were a test of who would blink first—the largely unarmed, if temperamentally violent demonstrators or the heavily armed machinery of the state—there was no doubt who failed the test. By shooting dead a young protester, the Italian police betrayed a nervousness that invariably comes upon the agents of the state when confronted with the masses. The father of 23-year-old Carlo Giuliani, who was shot dead by a young police officer, put it in old-fashioned marxist terms describing both his son and the officer who killed him as victims of an unjust system. The only difference, he said, was that while one was fighting against the injustice the other was defending it by wearing a police uniform.

None of this, of course, detracts from the mindless violence which a group of protestors indulged in, much to the embarrassment of the majority whom claim that their intentions were peaceful. Only one of the four major groups which took part in the Genoa protests openly believes in anarchy. It calls themselves the black block and its declared objective is to convey an anarchist critique of anti-state protests. Its tactics are markedly more militant than those of other groups most of whom have condemned violence.

It is estimated that nearly three million people have participated in anti-globalisation protests since the mayhem in Seatttle two years ago and in a remarkably short period the movement has grown hugely representing a variety of interests—environmentalists, third world campaigners, charities, women’s groups, anti-capitalism activists.

But it still lacks a clear direction and is yet to evolve into a politically coherent platform, though some believe that its very looseness and informal approach is its biggest strength. This is said to be the first time that diverse interest groups from different countries are trying to evolve a shared agenda, and this itself is seen as a major achievement.

But an unstructured movement with no common vision or agenda except a vague sense of frustration and anger with the system runs the risk of ending up as a refuge for every johnny-come-lately with his own agenda as happened at Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg and now Genoa. And that can only udermine the movement’s credibility.