The Global Empire Strikes Back
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Mon May 8 19:56:58 MDT 2000
The Global Empire Strikes Back
Sunday Herald [Glasgow, UK]
May 7, 2000
Last week's riots in London didn't just upset Middle England. The
multinationals who were the targets of demonstrators' anger can no longer
dismiss such action as the deeds of the lunatic fringe. Big business is
retaliating with touchy-feely gestures, but will all its talk of a new
eco-capitalism placate the movement against it?
It wasn't the lecture you might have expected from the chief executive of
one of the world's largest and richest petro-chemical companies. When
BPAmoco's Sir John Browne took to the rostrum for his Reith lecture in
Edinburgh last month, at the top of his agenda was the fight against world
poverty and the need to preserve the world's natural resources.
Browne isn't the only global capitalist to apparently discover a new social
conscience and an interest in green concerns. American coffee giants
Starbucks, for instance, last month agreed to sell brands which guarantee a
fair price to coffee bean farmers.
Not everyone, however, is convinced. The thousands who took to the streets
in London's anti-capitalist demonstrations last week, and others who took
part in smaller marches in Glasgow and Man chester, are in no doubt that
BPAmoco, Starbucks and McDonald's are the enemy.
While Middle England was outraged by violence at the demonstrations, and
particularly by the image of Sir Winston Churchill's daubed statue, don't be
fooled into thinking the guardians of capitalism dismiss such actions as
those of a harmless lunatic fringe.
"Capitalism is running scared and big companies are desperately trying to
change their image," says Mark Lynas of Corporate Watch, which investigates
the less salubrious activities of multinational firms such as BP,
McDonald's, Gap and Nike. "BP, for example, which is one of the main
corporations causing catastrophic global climate change, is now putting a
device on top of petrol stations to generate solar power in order to put
petrol into the car. That's a joke if ever there was."
Sir John Browne's speech certainly raised hackles throughout the growing
dissident movement. But for Dr Iain Ferguson, a lecturer in the department
of applied social studies at Paisley University, the choice of subject
matter was highly significant. "The fact BP feel obliged to stand up and say
they'll fight poverty and tackle environment damage shows they are indeed
very sensitive to pressures," says Ferguson. "Com panies such as BP are
concerned and are trying to change their image and make minor adjustments to
the way they do business. But there is also a concern that people are
beginning to ask questions about the conditions under which goods are
Anyone who doubts how seriously corporations are taking the threat posed by
the anti-capitalist movement need look no further than a book produced by
Burson-Marsteller, a leading public relations firm in Washington DC. The
publication, which was distributed to the firm's clients less than three
months after violent demonstrations at the World Trade Organisation's
Seattle summit last year, included profiles of dozens of groups who took
part. It named leaders, gave website addresses, and outlined the aims and
methods of individual organisations and sold itself as a "must have" for
company executives with an eye on future world developments.
"I don't believe this is simply another youthful movement which is here
today and gone tomorrow," says Ferguson. "There is a real sense of pessimism
in Britain at the moment. You only have to look at Ken Livingstone's victory
in the London mayoral elections to realise people are looking for
alternatives." Ferguson adds, though, that the absence of the trade unions
in Britain from the anti-capitalist movement is still a significant feature.
"If you look at the demonstration in Birmingham a few weeks ago and you link
this with what happened in London on Thursday, what you have is a very high
level of discontent. Trade unionism and the wider anti-corporate movement
have not come together yet the way they did in Seattle, but all the elements
are there. And if they do come together, that will be a very powerful force
The majority of the people who took part in the protests were young. Some
were students, some unemployed. Some belonged to environment groups such as
Reclaim the Streets and Friends of the Earth, and, of course, some were
anarchists intending to cause trouble.
Their anger may have shocked political leaders and left the police looking
unprepared, but it shouldn't have come as a surprise. The anti-capitalist
movement is far from its infancy. Experts believe its roots lie in the
Zapatista rebellion of January 1994 in southern Mexico. The rebels, who took
over six towns and declared war on the Mexican government, which they
accused of genocidal policies, were eventually defeated by the army.
A year later, the remaining rebels were joined by representatives of the
movement for landless peasants in Brazil to form the People's Global Action,
and from there the message denouncing multi national companies along with
the World Bank, the WTO and the Inter national Monetary Fund spread
throughout South America and filtered into the USA. The World Bank, the WTO
and the IMF had, they argued, propped up corrupt Third World regimes by
lending billions of pounds to untrustworthy dictators. Not surprisingly, the
elites failed to pay back the money, meaning that the debts were inherited
by the population.
When the movement arrived in North America it tapped into a zeitgeist of
anti-consumerism. Third World debt still stands at more than $2 trillion,
and paying the interest has become the single largest budget expense for
dozens of poor countries, despite a high-profile campaign of debt
cancellation backed by rock stars Bono, Sting and Bob Geldof.
The Jubilee 2000 campaign persuaded the G8 to draw up a package reducing
debt payments. But Oxfam described the initiative as something that would
make little difference to countries faced with IMF austerity measures
forcing debtor countries to cut public spending on health, education and
welfare, devalue their currencies and lower barriers to foreign ownership of
industries, land and assets.
Throughout the late 1990s, opposition to the corporate world developed
further, attracting a wide range of single-issue groups including small
farmers, environmentalists, animal rights activists and trade unionists.
By 1999, dozens of organisations dedicated to exposing multi nationals
exploiting workers in the developing world and damaging the environment had
sprung up across the US. They included Public Citizen, Global Exchange and
the Direct Action Network, which led last year's demon stra tions. Through
the internet and months touring the USA spreading the word, the groups
managed to get 50,000 people on to the Seattle streets and claim a
significant victory. An agreement cutting tariffs and trade barriers failed
to materialise as negotiations broke down between developing countries and
the world's wealthier nations.
The movement is already thinking about its next course of action, planing to
target the World Bank's annual meeting in Prague in September. There are
also those who hope to show their power by shutting down a single
corporation. Some businesses are retaliating. Yesterday, Nike announced
withdrawing its sponsorship from American universities because of the
activities of anti-capitalists.
But why should people in Britain share the concerns about the WTO and World
Bank felt by South American peasants and students, environmentalists and
trade unionists in the USA? For Mark Lynas the answer is clear - the world
is becoming a smaller place. He believes a growing inequality of wealth in
Britain coupled with unease over GM foods and fears over BSE have fuelled
distrust towards the government and made people more able to identify with
the world's poor.
"The gap between rich and poor is growing. In 1890, the pro portion of
wealth divided between the developing world and the West was one to two, in
1965 it was one to 30, now its one to 65," he says."I believe there is a
growing awareness in Britain of people seeing themselves as part of a
collective global movement. And they realise that if there is going to be an
alternative to capitalism, it's got to be practised globally."
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