On 16 April in the year 2000, a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Prague, a small group of activists met in Old Town Square to protest World Bank/IMF policies.
It was a small gathering, hardly decipherable from the surrounding sea of happy tourists, and the subsequent march was quickly dispersed by a gratuitous caravan of Prague's finest, giving the afternoon a slightly pathetic tinge.
Meanwhile in Washington, about ten thousand people had already begun a second day of mass protest and direct action, with nothing pathetic about it.
Anyone who remembers the World Bank/IMF protests of the 1980s can't help but be stunned by last month's turnout. They used to be such puny affairs. You might see photos of the protesting Grim Reaper puppet in internal Greenpeace literature, but not on the nightly news, where neither the conferences nor their opposition received any coverage.
The institutions were sort of vaguely there-and still are-for most Americans, but nothing to exert over. To the extent that people in the North think about these institutions, the thinking process probably goes something like this: these big institutions are in the news a lot and are run by very smart people and are in charge of stabilizing the world economy, which is very important, and I don't understand these things so I can only defer to them.
How is my mutual fund doing, anyway?
Most citizens probably don't even get this far. Poor people have more important things to think about, like tomorrow's meal, and rich people have more important things to think about, like expanding and protecting their fortunes, and so it is the children of the middle class that have not surprisingly taken the lead in pushing the World Bank/IMF into the light of day.
The middle-class is fortunate enough to have a college education without the social indoctrination that accompanies being raised as part of the ruling elite. Many non-rich aspire to join this elite, but just as many despise it; for its stupidity, its arrogance, its power.
And so they sniff out the trail of radical movements, seeking a redemptive b*tch's brew of revenge, self-satisfaction and justice. The West isn't as postmodern as it thinks, and good old fashioned middle-class morality still puts butts in the streets more than the high priests of Greed would like to admit.
So: are the protestors right? Or is the World Bank/IMF power nexus and the system it propagates good for the world's poor? The short answer is that the protestors are right.
Yes the World Bank funds education and vaccine projects, and yes the IMF keeps economies from completely collapsing. The problems arise when you go beyond the press releases to examine both the contexts within which these programs operate, and the fine print which darkens the underbelly of the official claims.
When the IMF helped 'save' South Korea in 1998, for example, it was on the condition that it "restructure" or privatize/sell off the very industries that provided good jobs for millions of Koreans; it also demanded that the state cut social spending and the safety net according to the more 'advanced' western (US) model. But don't these corrupt Asian economies deserve some 'tough medicine' to get them back in line with the capitalist rigors of the 21st century?
Actually, it was exposure to these rigors that caused the collapse in the first place, as heavy pressure from the US Treasury forced Asian nations to liberalize capital flows and financial markets, which later made the run on the currency possible.
And then there's Russia where everybody basically agrees that 'shock therapy'-a clinical relic of the 1950s-was all shock and no therapy, resulting in 50 million Russians thrown into poverty.
And then there is the current plan for the Balkans, where a total slashing of the safety net and state subsidies is in the works - if only we can keep 'our guys' in power - to make cheap labor safe for Western corporations. There will be mass poverty in the wake of these 'adjustments' of course, but boys will be boys, and global capitalist institutions will be global capitalist institutions.
Nobody said the tyranny of the market was fair.
True, but then nobody said it would go unresisted, either. And indeed it won't. The meeting of less developed countries in Havana, which coincided with the Washington protests, made clear that the nations of the South are allied with anti-global capitalist activists in the North.
Official pronouncements by African, South American and Asian leaders gave lie to the oft repeated claim that these nations 'want the IMF/World Bank to continue their work' of privatizing everything and rewarding foreign capital and domestic elites at the expense of local communities and workers. That line just doesn't hold.
The only ones who 'want' the current system to continue in anything resembling its current form are the wealthy people in the wealthy countries - the corporations who get IMF contracts to build nuclear power plants and highways to transport luxury export crops out of the country.
But don't take my world for it.
I'm no economist, just a concerned humanist. Everyone should seek out the available information and judge for themselves. Check out the World Bank website, and then check out that of the Mobilization for Global Justice.
Assemble your own conclusions. The facts are out there, and with those facts come responsibilities that aren't always fun, but nonetheless constitute the rent we pay for being part of the human race.
-See you in the streets.