Free Trade Is No Freedom

John Pilger, 16th July 2001ce

The young people who have had the courage to take to the streets on every continent, and were among the 20,000 protesters at the EU summit in Gothenburg, should take satisfaction from the panic of new right politicians like Blair and Berlusconi. Abuse and repression have become the stock response to a growing worldwide movement that has deep and wide-ranging support among millions of ordinary people, especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where violent and rapacious capitalism comes under the banner of 'free trade'. The right of these people to a decent life is dismissed by Blair as a 'spurious cause'.

The managers of globalisation are worried. A critical stage has been reached in the imposition of a centralised, bankers-run European 'superstate'. The Euro is about to be introduced without a single popular vote approving it. A great many Europeans understand the dangers posed to real democracy: thus the rejection by Irish voters of EU expansion. At the same time, the World Trade Organisation, the most predatory of the international capitalist institutions, is set to impose its General Agreement on Trade and Services, known as GATS, on impoverished, resource-rich countries.

The scope of GATS is breathtaking. Almost every human activity is designated a 'service', from transport and tourism to water, health and education. Foreign corporations will be allowed to take over almost any public service on the basis of a secret 'agreement' that is irreversible. The EU website describes GATS as 'first and foremost, an instrument for the benefit of business'. A prototype is well underway in Britain with the coming privatisation of the London Underground, air traffic control and sections of the health service and education.

The enduring disaster of Railtrack is magnified many times in Africa and Latin America, where the privatisation has been imposed by diktat of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In Bolivia, the sale of the water supply to foreign companies caused prices to rise 200 percent, consuming more than a quarter of people's income; even rainwater was privatised. A mostly Indian protest movement forced the government to take water back into public ownership. No doubt Blair would call them criminals and their cause 'spurious'.

The violence of a few protesters at Gothenburg or anywhere else is trivial compared with the violence of the economic apartheid promoted by Bush and Blair and the supporters of 'free trade'. Unrepayable debt is their essential weapon. Debt has allowed the World Bank and the IMF to destroy local agriculture and dismantle public services. This has entrenched poverty, as the World Bank now admits. In the Philippines, says the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, 'we have calculated that one child dies every hour because debt repayments consume vital services like health care'.

Despite a fanfare of promises by Gordon Brown and the other G8 governments, cancellation of the debts of the poorest countries has not happened. Instead, £40m ($US 65m) is transferred every day from poor to rich countries. The G8 is to meet in Genoa and Berlusconi says he is sealing off the city: no trains, planes, cars. How frightened they are. In Blair's plutocracy, the criminalising of protest is a clear aim, limiting political opposition to the ineffectual activity of parliament and other establishment bodies and to a specious 'debate' generated by an obedient media.

Because it represents the tip of an effective political opposition, the anti-capitalist movement, in all its forms, is being tarred as a subversive 'threat', with government and the media seeking to alienate the public from the demonstrators by representing them collectively as violent, and by suppressing the issues that find public support. Propaganda orchestrated by the police before the MayDay demonstration in London concentrated on 'wanted' activists, even associating them with the Real IRA.

This backfired, thanks to the ridiculous seven-hour detention by police of a bemused crowd in Oxford Circus. In Gothenburg, justification for the use of live ammunition by police was promoted by The Guardian's writer Ian Black, who reported that 'the shootings [were] apparently in self-defence'. Did the protesters have guns? No, they did not. Later Black further distinguished himself with a piece that would have delighted the spinners of Downing Street with its prominent use of Blair's specious remark that the protesters were 'a travelling anarchists circus', as if that was a fact.

Berlusconi's plans for a fortress in Genoa will also backfire. From Italy to Ireland, Britain to Bolivia, too many people, who do not demonstrate, are asking why they have no say in the decisions that have brought insecurity and hardship to their lives. In the UK, the 'booming economy' is a façade behind which foreign-owned factories are allowed to sack thousands of workers and one in four children grows up in poverty: treble the child poverty rate in most of Europe.

Certainly, let us discuss violence. Blair runs a violent government. He knowingly attacked civilians with cluster bombs in former Yugoslavia, killing children caught in the open. His devotion to 'free trade' involves selling weapons, including handguns, to countries with repressive regimes and internal conflict. Supported by only 25 percent of the British public, his government barely has legitimacy. The anger and frustration of non-voters and voters alike is shared across the world and by the young on the streets. Thanks to them, real politics are back.