Return of the Anti-Capitalist Bigtop


Not getting enough bad news out of Washington? Here's some more: The International Monetary Fund and World Bankwill be holding their annual meeting in the capital beginning Sept. 28, and the anti-capitalist circus that uses big papier-mâché heads to protest IMF policies will be reconvening as well.

Both groups cancelled their D.C. activities last September following the terrorist attacks, and the protest Left appeared to fall into disarray. But now things appear to be getting back to a certain three-ring normalcy. Nobody knows if any protestors will actually show up, but in the meantime the ringmasters have been lining up their acts.

Protest organizers have announced a series of actions that they say are aimed at the huge international financial institutions, including attempts to snarl Washington traffic and even to shut down the city for a day. Of course, such actions will have no effect whatsoever on IMF policies. But playing Dada in the capital will certainly succeed in discomfiting Washington's local population, which has no say in international debt policy but is only trying to make the rent. The hardest hit sector, as always, will be the city's unskilled workers, especially the immigrant community that is still struggling to recover from the terrible economic hit it suffered as a result of Sept. 11.

Of course, the anti-capitalist left has always claimed to be aiming at the rich even as it was hitting the poor between the eyes. We know from a century of morose history how that works on a grand scale. Here is how the same process plays out in micro.

For example, one of the groups involved in the protests, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (ACC), has called for a citywide strike on Sept. 27. According to The Washington Post, organizers claim that this "People's Strike" will be "an effort to block traffic and disrupt the city."

Who does the ACC think will be sitting in downtown Washington traffic? World Bank economists? If there's a traffic disruption on Sept. 27, the economists and other lords of international finance will stay in their comfortable homes and use their laptops. The people who will have their livelihoods disrupted by snarled traffic will be people who have no choice but to try to drive in it. Most of these fall into two large groups: D.C.'s cab drivers, most of whom are from such places as Africa and South Asia, and the city's mostly low-income delivery drivers.

A different outfit, The Mobilization for Global Justice, is planning a traditional downtown rally and march. Fine. But they are also going to attempt an evening "quarantine." According to the Post, "activists plan to encircle a part or all of the World Bank and IMF headquarters Sept. 28." To what purpose? According to a Mobe organizer, to quarantine "those who would infect us with economic smallpox."

Uh huh. This kind of thing will have some results. The economic ministers and others who gather for the World Bank conclaves will, for security reasons, be sharing comfortable vans instead of renting the limousines they formerly used to get around Washington. The ministers may be marginally less comfy, but most of the city's drivers will be infected with a certain economic malady that derives from not getting work. The IMF meetings are one of the year's best driver gigs in D.C., and thanks to the protestors and their Cabaret Voltaire tactics, most of these driver jobs will be eliminated.

Exactly the same thing is true for the city's mostly Hispanic hospitality workers, the group hardest hit by the Sept. 11 aftershock. (Half of them were thrown out of work.) Here's how the process works. In response to the threatened protests, the World Bank and IMF have announced that they will "streamline" their meetings. Among other things, that means that they will centralize their activities downtown, and that foreign economic ministries will apparently send smaller contingents of participants. Smaller contingents mean fewer rooms at fewer hotels and fewer meals at fewer restaurants. There is no chance whatsoever that capitalism's overlords will go sleepless or hungry, but it is a certainty that a significant number of minimum-wage hotel and restaurant positions will go unfilled.

For example, the uptown hotels like the Wardman Park, usually a major focus of these meetings, have been cut out of the loop entirely. Now, that hotel is part of the Marriott chain, and Marriott can take the hit. But the workers who won't get hired by the Wardman Park have been scrounging for work for a year, and are going to miss out on what was once a major event for them. Some of these maids and busmen may get work at the downtown hotels, but since there will apparently be fewer bookings, there will be less work overall. As for the uptown restaurants that would have served uptown guests, they can write off these meetings entirely. These are not corporate chain restaurants, they are nearly all operated by immigrant families from such places as Afghanistan, Thailand, the Middle East, India, and Mexico.

Protest organizers are remarkably airy about the potential damage their Activities will cause. One Green Party candidate for local office told the Post that "One day of inconvenience in Washington, D.C., is a small price to pay for people living in the wealthiest country on earth." Yeah. That's a pretty cushy, bourgeois notion of what might constitute "inconvenience." Other protest spokespersons reveal the make-believe context from which they approach the city. "We're calling on all workers of the city to join us," said one, as if the city's workforce had the slightest affinity for a crowd that is trying to make their lives difficult in exchange for nothing.

None of this is in defense of the World Bank or the IMF, institutions that can be criticized for many failings, including having wasted astronomical sums of money in pursuit of mostly failed projects all over the world. If protests against these organizations were serious, and had a dream of achieving a reasonable goal, then their disruptions might well be defensible. But these protests are circuses that are intended as circuses, and it won't be surprising if their victims fail to find them very entertaining.