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Raj Patel © 2000

 

 
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Seeing my parents again after returning from Prague reminds me how absolutely normal it is to love people, to know that they have the purest, best intentions, and nonetheless to disagree vehemently with what they say and do. I feel this way about both the "Black Bloc" and the Bank bloc, for similar reasons. Both camps are myopic in their approach to "solving the problem of poverty". They fail to see how the solutions they offer are complicit in shoring up the institutions responsible for the problem in the first place.

It bears restating that pretty much no-one in the World Bank or IMF has anything but compassion for people living on a dollar a day in impoverished countries. I know they care. I worked for the World Bank, met folk there, have people I care about there, understand and respect their commitment. When James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, said earlier last week that the inequality of income between the Global North and South is the most pressing problem facing humanity in the twenty first century, I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. Similarly I don't doubt the sincerity of people in the protest movement who are so frustrated with the persistence and deepening of inequality that the only way they can see to stop it is to attack state and Bank employees, and smash the more visible capitalist high street store windows.

Take, for example, this radical militant view, extracted from a conversation I heard a couple of days ago, and only lightly paraphrased:

"Look", said a hardened British activist, "there are people in the third world who are starving. They can't fucking wait for half-arsed reforms to trickle down to them. They suffer violence everyday. They need someone to go in to the World Bank meetings and say, look, this is enough, fucking stop it.'"

A comrade from the US replied with this: "Take your best case scenario. You make it through police lines, with one or two dead, make it into the conference centre, maybe bump off a security guard or two, and spray the delegates with lead. What does that achieve?" This is a very trickle-down activism, one that would rather turn up, smash capitalist trinkets and then leave, than challenge -- through protracted, embedded, local organising -- the widespread and misplaced opinions that render these trinkets desirable in the first place.

The consequences of the Black Bloc's particular brand of militancy have been very real for activists trapped in Czech prisons. Licensed by the popular Czech distaste for the violence on 26 September, police have been torturing protesters in jail. Chris, about whom I wrote yesterday, is but one example in hundreds. (Yesterday, she was moved out of the Czech Republic to Austria, to begin her long recovery.)

The reports coming out of the Czech prisons today bruise the imagination. Recently released activists speak of disappearances, beatings, profane overcrowding, starvation and grotesque sexual assault. Singled out for particularly harsh attention have been Israelis and Czechs, while at the same time neo-nazi groups, also arrested in the post-conference round-up, have had their wallets, phones, and even weapons returned. While this brutality may have happened in any case, it is hard to imagine that the hurling of rocks at police has made them any more favourably disposed toward the activists.

"Even if we made it worse", said the British activist, "we're collecting money right now to get the people in jail whatever they need." And how. Financial support from around the world has been pouring in. One of the legal support team told me that that last weekend, she didn't have enough money to make photocopies, and today she has enough to meet the medical bills for everyone in prison, and pay for lawyers to prosecute the state.

But there's something wrong with this picture. For whatever reason, a few people have wrought havoc on downtown Prague, alienating potential supporters, missing the chance to communicate the range of peaceful non-neoliberal alternatives, and making life harder for comrades in jail. Smoothing over this mayhem by collecting money for imprisoned activists is a high form of denial. The collection wouldn't be half as urgent if the violence hadn't happened in the first place. In form, this pattern mimics the way that neoliberalism wreaks widespread social destruction, while simultaneously soliciting charitable donations to mitigate the worst excesses of the market. In both cases, "the solution" turns out to be deeply implicated in the problem.

This myopia betrays, more than anything else, a lack of imagination on the part of those in the Bank and Black Blocs. Or perhaps, more accurately, from a surfeit of the wrong kind. Some of the schemes coming out of the Bank, for example, are very imaginative. The sorts of financial instruments and capitalist technology being offered to impoverished nations is deeply creative. To take an extreme case, the idea of selling water, transforming attitudes about it so that it stops being a right and becomes a privilege, is a spectacular leap of imagination.

This, by the way, is why questions about whether to "reform or revolutionise" the Bank are moot. The Bank makes revolutions every day. Just not the right kind. And the real tragedy is that we let them get away with it, because we've not been good about communicating just how much more inclusive, loving, liberating and creative our alternatives are. Groups in Prague came with this message, but weren't able to get the message across, partly because of poor media coverage, and partly because of a disconnection, on their part, with local politics. This has to change.

If the protest movement has been about one thing -- and it's hard to argue that one thing more than any other matters in this gamut of activism --, it has been about accountability. It has been about the right to make our own mistakes, to live with the consequences of our own decisions, and not to labour under the yoke of other people's mistakes. This undermines many of the principles under which both the black bloc and the Bank operate. It means, for the activists, that we cannot waltz in to someone else's town, tear it up, send small change, and go home. Of course, the Bank does this more regularly than we, and with far more suffering as a consequence. The Bank's faults do not, however, exculpate ours.

The concern for now has to be releasing the Czech and other prisoners who have been hunted by the police, and who will suffer the consequences of this World Bank meeting longer than we can imagine. Please call the Czech Embassy in your country to let them know that they can't get away with this.

In the longer term, though, there's work to be done in learning how to see the world differently, fuller of possibility, diversity, creativity, compassion, and selflessness than we first thought. It is only when we can share this vision, and the difficult politics of equality that accompany it, that I will feel that Chris, and those like her, will not have suffered in vain.


These four missives from Prague would not have been possible without the wisdom, generosity, patience and courage of a great many people. Indebted to the People's Global Action, and INPEG for hosting me and giving me beer. I'm especially grateful to Friederike Habermann for her kindness. Thank you, too, to all the people who contacted me about Chris. It will raise her spirits to know that she's cared about in places she has never seen, by people she has never met. This is the kind of world she'd want to see, and I dedicate this Prague Quartet to her.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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