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Raj Patel © 2000


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Power may corrupt, but it also encourages schizophrenia. At least, that's the way it looks from the streets of Prague today, just before the opening of the World Bank/ IMF annual meetings.

A notable chief victim of this schizophrenia is Vaclav Havel, poet, former dissident, and current President of the Czech Republic. If not schizophrenia, then he has at least fallen prey to a peculiar set of double standards, as the spectre of his dissident past comes to haunt him. Even if he is only an executive president, he still says one thing and does another. He has welcomed the protesters here with open arms, offering the national football stadium to house the expected crowds of over thirty thousand demonstrators. At the same time, his country's government is not letting any protesters in to the country.

Yesterday for instance, a train holding over one thousand Italians was detained at the border while four activists on a list of unwelcome persona non grata demonstrators were removed. In the end the Italian ambassador ferried them from the border to the Italian embassy in his own car, before the Czech government officially expelled them from the country.

The protesters are very reasonably suspicious of Havel's offer to stay in the national football stadium. Familiar with the uses of sporting venues under Mobutu and Pinochet, most prefer to stay in local squats or with students than take up the Czech state's offer of accommodation. Yet so keen is the state to offer its hospitality to the protesters that the police have been harassing anyone who looks slightly unwashed, with frequent passport controls and arrests for jaywalking, in an attempt to fill the prison-space cleared in advance of the Bank meetings.

When I arrived yesterday, it seemed at first glance that the police needed no help in disorganising and dispersing the protesters. Trying to find out what was going on was a frustrating experience. I should have known -- we are, after all, in Kafka's town. For example, the Indymedia centre, scion of radical internet-based media at past protests, had been left with a room with only one phone connection, in a building that will be closed to the public on the day of the mass demonstration, 26 September 26.

Happily, the Czech state's schizophrenia, and possible fear of exposure for human rights abuses, has left them with moments of lucidity. Through an unofficial intermediary and former dissident comrade who prefers to remain anonymous, the state has tacitly given the largest protest group, INPEG -- the Initiative Against Economic Globalisation --, an office and information booth two minutes walk away from Prague's main square.

Perhaps predictably, it's not just the Czech state that suffers from schizophrenia. Their apologists are similarly afflicted. The Economist, bless them, put out a series of articles last week on why the globalisation protesters were wrong. You don't have to actually read it to see that something is awry. Five pages after the merits of expedited globalisation have been trumpeted, there is a special survey on the disaster that Eastern Europe has become after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Most former Soviet republics have experienced plummeting levels of health, education and security -- particularly for women and the elderly -- at the same time as crime and inequality have soared after the removal of state welfare protections. For The Economist to see this as a symptom of an insufficiency of capitalism, rather than its excess is, frankly, barking mad.

The Economist's main

Within the activist community, though, all is not well, democratically speaking. Important issues of gender and race continue to be muffled. At a press conference today at which a representative of the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme spoke, issues of gender were barely mentioned. Yesterday, at the counter-Summit, only one person mentioned race and gender, and that only in passing on the final panel. This isn't particularly happy-making.

Similarly, it is odd to go to an Activist Diversity Party and be one of only maybe ten people of colour in a room of over two thousand. There are important and sizeable communities of people of colour in Europe whose concerns aren't seen as central to the struggle, and vital gender concerns that continue to be ignored. This happens within a movement that claims the rainbow as one of its symbols. It may be that, as the resistance to globalisation becomes more powerful, its schizophrenia gets more acute. We need to be a lot more self-critical than we are at the moment.

There are also reasons to be worried about the imperial moments in the protest movement. A few German comrades here are amused by the children's-television-programme-style enthusiasm with which the US activists here (and there are really quite a few of them around) run meetings. While it is good to poke fun at puppy doggishness, there is a serious point behind it.

Many of the activists here aren't from round here. We come from Western Europe and North America. Eastern Europeans have had plenty of reason over the past fifty years to be suspicious of Things From the West (and indeed from the East), and I worry that we're not being sensitive to this. In fact, our insensitivity has meant that a lot of the activism going on has been conducted exclusively in English. The fact that we're not in Kansas, or California, or New York, or London anymore doesn't seem to have registered with us.

The fact that Czech activists are suspicious of potential comrades is no credit to them either, though perhaps more understandable. Few in either camp have found the means or motivation to cross over. The few papers I've managed to see, and the few people I've managed to talk to, tell a disturbing story: many Czech citizens are terrified of the protesters and don't understand why we're here. I worry that we're going to breeze in and out of here without touching the ground, repeating the worst mistakes of the "development set" against whom we're protesting.

So it's not even a case of 'Where is the Colour in Prague?". It's a case of "Where are the Czechs?"

Notwithstanding this, there is hope. As always.

Curiously, the best places to look for optimism aren't in Prague, but in the forty other countries around the world -- over half in the Global South -- where solidarity actions are being carried out. It has become a cliché that the Bank and its affiliates are the most obvious agents of processes that happen everywhere. Even in our home towns. The more resistance to these processes becomes embedded and democratised, linked with local class, race and other struggles, the stronger we become. So while it may be true that there is a set of activists who, in Naomi Klein's words, "follow trade bureaucrats around like the Grateful Dead" -- and I am one --, it is also true that there is a swelling corps of activists who educate, agitate, organise and transform in places and lives very far away from the conference circuit.

The Bank and its ideologues are on the defensive, and they know it. Of course they have access to state power, and are using it hard. And because there is a little less room for manoeuvre in anti-globalisation politics at the moment, it would be a little too much to expect Prague to be the turning point that perhaps Seattle was last year. But even if we can't stop these wrong-headed elites, yet we can make them run.




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