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Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate
Fences and Windows
No Logo articulated the concerns of a generation and chronicled a new movement. In doing so it became an international bestseller and was translated into twenty-three languages.
Since its publication Naomi Klein has tirelessly contributed to the contemporary debate on globalization, its impact and its future. Fences and Windows brings together two years of commentary written at demonstrations and summits around the world — eyewitness reports from the front lines of the globalization debate. It brings us up-to-date on the protests and possibilities, the hopes for change and the barriers raised against it.
Fences and Windows collects Naomi Kleins most notable articles and speeches, many of them never before published, on such issues as NAFTA, genetically modified organisms and economic fundamentalism. This book also reflects on the nature of resistance: the street protests that have shocked and energized millions, the purpose of carnival-style subversion, and the apparent disorganization that is the movements great strength.
Preface: Fences of Enclosure, Windows of Possibility
This is not a follow up to No Logo, the book about the rise of anti-corporate activism that I wrote between 1995 and 1999. That was a thesis-driven research project; Fences and Windows is a record of dispatches from the front lines of a battle that exploded right around the time that No Logo was published. The book was at the printers when the largely subterranean movements it chronicled entered into mainstream consciousness in the industrialized world, mostly as a result of the November 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Overnight, I found myself tossed into the middle of an international debate over the most pressing question of our time: what values will govern the global age?
What began as a two-week book tour turned into an adventure that spanned two and a half years and twenty-two countries. It took me to tear-gas-filled streets in Quebec City and Prague, to neighbourhood assemblies in Buenos Aires, on camping trips with anti-nuclear activists in the South Australian desert and into formal debates with European heads of state. The four years of investigative seclusion that it took to write No Logo had done little to prepare me for this. Despite media reports naming me as one of the “leaders” or “spokespeople” for the global protests, the truth was that I had never been involved in politics and didnt much like crowds. The first time I had to give a speech about globalization, I looked down at my notes, started reading and didnt look up again for an hour and a half.
But this was no time to be shy. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of people were joining new demonstrations each month, many of them people like me who had never really believed in the possibility of political change until now. It seemed as if the failures of the reigning economic model had suddenly become impossible to ignore — and that was before Enron. In the name of meeting the demands of multinational investors, governments the world over were failing to meet the needs of the people who elected them. Some of these unmet needs were basic and urgent — for medicines, housing, land, water; some were less tangible — for non-commercial cultural spaces to communicate, gather and share, whether on the Internet, the public airwaves or the streets. Underpinning it all was the betrayal of the fundamental need for democracies that are responsive and participatory, not bought and paid for by Enron or the International Monetary Fund.
The crisis respected no national boundaries. A booming global economy focused on the quest for short-term profits was proving itself incapable of responding to increasingly urgent ecological and human crises; unable, for instance, to make the shift away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy sources; incapable, despite all the pledges and hand-wringing, of devoting the resources necessary to reverse the spread of HIV in Africa; unwilling to meet international commitments to reduce hunger or even address basic food security failures in Europe. Its difficult to say why the protest movement exploded when it did, since most of these social and environmental problems have been chronic for decades, but part of the credit, surely, has to go to globalization itself. When schools were underfunded or water supply was contaminated, it used to be blamed on the inept financial management or outright corruption of individual national governments. Now, thanks to a surge in cross-border information swapping, such problems were being recognized as the local effects of a particular global ideology, one enforced by national politicians but conceived of centrally by a handful of corporate interests and international institutions, including the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The irony of the media-imposed label “anti-globalization” is that we in this movement have been turning globalization into a lived reality, perhaps more so than even the most multinational of corporate executives or the most restless of jet-setters. At gatherings like the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, at “counter-summits” during World Bank meetings and on communication networks like www.tao.ca and www.indymedia.org, globalization is not restricted to a narrow series of trade and tourism transactions. It is, instead, an intricate process of thousands of people tying their destinies together simply by sharing ideas and telling stories about how abstract economic theories affect their daily lives. This movement doesnt have leaders in the traditional sense — just people determined to learn, and to pass it on.
Like others who found themselves in this global web, I arrived equipped with only a limited understanding of neo-liberal economics, mostly how they related to young people growing up over-marketed and underemployed in North America and Europe. But like so many others, I have been globalized by this movement: I have received a crash course on what the market obsession has meant to landless farmers in Brazil, to teachers in Argentina, to fast-food workers in Italy, to coffee growers in Mexico, to shantytown dwellers in South Africa, to telemarketers in France, to migrant tomato pickers in Florida, to union organizers in the Philippines, to homeless kids in Toronto, the city where I live.
This collection is a record of my own steep learning curve, one small part of a vast process of grassroots information sharing that has given swarms of people — people who are not trained as economists, international-trade lawyers or patent experts — the courage to participate in the debate about the future of the global economy. These columns, essays and speeches, written for The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times and many other publications, were dashed off in hotel rooms late at night after protests in Washington and Mexico City, in Independent Media Centres, on way too many planes. (Im on my second laptop, after the man in the cramped Air Canada economy seat in front of me pressed Recline, and I heard a terrible crunching sound.) They contain the most damning arguments and facts I could get my hands on to use in debates with neo-liberal economists, as well as the most moving experiences I had on the streets with fellow activists. Sometimes they represent hurried attempts to assimilate information that had arrived in my inbox only hours earlier, or to counter a new misinformation campaign attacking the nature and goals of the protests. Some of the essays, especially the speeches, have not been published before.
Why collect these ragtag writings into a book? In part because a few months into George W. Bushs “war on terrorism”, a realization set in that something had ended. Some politicians (particularly those who have had their policies closely scrutinized by protestors) rushed to declare that what had ended was the movement itself: the concerns it raised about globalizations failures are frivolous, they claimed, even fodder for “the enemy.” In fact, the escalation of military force and repression over the past year has provoked the largest protests yet on the streets of Rome, London, Barcelona and Buenos Aires. It has also inspired many activists, who had previously registered only symbolic dissent outside of summits, to take concrete actions to de-escalate the violence. These actions have included serving as “human shields” during the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as well as attempting to block illegal deportations of refugees at European and Australian detention centres. But as the movement entered this challenging new stage, I realized I had been witness to something extraordinary: the precise and thrilling moment when the rabble of the real world crashed the experts-only club where our collective fate is determined. So this is a record not of a conclusion but of that momentous beginning, a period bookended in North America by the joyous explosion on the streets of Seattle and catapulted to a new chapter by the unimaginable destruction on September 11.
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Something else compelled me to pull together these articles. A few months ago, while riffling through my column clippings searching for a lost statistic, I noticed a couple of recurring themes and images. The first was the fence. The image came up again and again: barriers separating people from previously public resources, locking them away from much needed land and water, restricting their ability to move across borders, to express political dissent, to demonstrate on public streets, even keeping politicians from enacting policies that make sense for the people who elected them.
Some of these fences are hard to see, but they exist all the same. A virtual fence goes up around schools in Zambia when an education “user fee” is introduced on the advice of the World Bank, putting classes out of the reach of millions of people. A fence goes up around the family farm in Canada when government policies turn small-scale agriculture into a luxury item, unaffordable in a landscape of tumbling commodity prices and factory farms. There is a real if invisible fence that goes up around clean water in Soweto when prices skyrocket owing to privatization, and residents are forced to turn to contaminated sources. And there is a fence that goes up around the very idea of democracy when Argentina is told it wont get an International Monetary Fund loan unless it further reduces social spending, privatizes more resources and eliminates supports to local industries, all in the midst of an economic crisis deepened by those very policies. These fences, of course, are as old as colonialism. “Such usurious operations put bars around free nations,” Eduardo Galeano wrote in Open Veins of Latin America. He was referring to the terms of a British loan to Argentina in 1824.
Fences have always been a part of capitalism, the only way to protect property from would-be bandits, but the double standards propping up these fences have, of late, become increasingly blatant. Expropriation of corporate holdings may be the greatest sin any socialist government can commit in the eyes of the international financial markets (just ask Venezuelas Hugo Chavez or Cubas Fidel Castro). But the asset protection guaranteed to companies under free trade deals did not extend to the Argentine citizens who deposited their life savings in Citibank, Scotiabank and HSBC accounts and now find that most of their money has simply disappeared. Neither did the markets reverence for private wealth embrace the U.S. employees of Enron, who found that they had been “locked out” of their privatized retirement portfolios, unable to sell even as Enron executives were frantically cashing in their own stocks.
Meanwhile, some very necessary fences are under attack: in the rush to privatization, the barriers that once existed between many public and private spaces — keeping advertisements out of schools, for instance, profit-making interests out of health care, or news outlets from acting purely as promotional vehicles for their owners other holdings — have nearly all been levelled. Every protected public space has been cracked open, only to be re-enclosed by the market.
Another public-interest barrier under serious threat is the one separating genetically modified crops from crops that have not yet been altered. The seed giants have done such a remarkably poor job of preventing their tampered seeds from blowing into neighbouring fields, taking root, and cross-pollinating, that in many parts of the world, eating GMO-free is no longer even an option-the entire food supply has been contaminated. The fences that protect the public interest seem to be fast disappearing, while the ones that restrict our liberties keep multiplying.
When I first noticed that the image of the fence kept coming up in discussion, debates and in my own writing, it seemed significant to me. After all, the past decade of economic integration has been fuelled by promises of barriers coming down, of increased mobility and greater freedom. And yet twelve years after the celebrated collapse of the Berlin Wall, we are surrounded by fences yet again, cut off-from one another, from the earth and from our own ability to imagine that change is possible. The economic process that goes by the benign euphemism “globalization“ now reaches into every aspect of life, transforming every activity and natural resource into a measured and owned commodity. As the Hong Kong — based labour researcher Gerard Greenfield points out, the current stage of capitalism is not simply about trade in the traditional sense of selling more products across borders. It is also about feeding the markets insatiable need for growth by redefining as “products” entire sectors that were previously considered part of “the commons” and not for sale. The invading of the public by the private has reached into categories such as health and education, of course, but also ideas, genes, seeds, now purchased, patented and fenced off, as well as traditional aboriginal remedies, plants, water and even human stem cells. With copyright now the U.S.s single largest export (more than manufactured goods or arms), international trade law must be understood not only as taking down selective barriers to trade but more accurately as a process that systematically puts up new barriers — around knowledge, technology and newly privatized resources. These Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights are what prevent farmers from replanting their Monsanto patented seeds and make it illegal for poor countries to manufacture cheaper generic drugs to get to their needy populations.
Globalization is now on trial because on the other side of all these virtual fences are real people, shut out of schools, hospitals, workplaces, their own farms, homes and communities. Mass privatization and deregulation have bred armies of locked-out people, whose services are no longer needed, whose lifestyles are written off as “backward,” whose basic needs go unmet. These fences of social exclusion can discard an entire industry, and they can also write off an entire country, as has happened to Argentina. In the case of Africa, essentially an entire continent can find itself exiled to the global shadow world, off the map and off the news, appearing only during wartime when its citizens are looked on with suspicion as potential militia members, would-be terrorists or anti-American fanatics.
In fact, remarkably few of globalizations fenced-out people turn to violence. Most simply move: from countryside to city, from country to country. And thats when they come face to face with distinctly unvirtual fences, the ones made of chain link and razor wire, reinforced with concrete and guarded with machine guns. Whenever I hear the phrase “free trade,” I cant help picturing the caged factories I visited in the Philippines and Indonesia that are all surrounded by gates, watchtowers and soldiers-to keep the highly subsidized products from leaking out and the union organizers from getting in. I think, too, about a recent trip to the South Australian desert where I visited the infamous Woomera detention centre. Located five hundred kilometres from the nearest city, Woomera is a former military base that has been converted into a privatized refugee holding pen, owned by a subsidiary of the U.S. security firm Wackenhut. At Woomera, hundreds of Afghan and Iraqi refugees, fleeing oppression and dictatorship in their own countries, are so desperate for the world to see what is going on behind the fence that they stage hunger strikes, jump off the roofs of their barracks, drink shampoo and sew their mouths shut.
These days, newspapers are filled with gruesome accounts of asylum seekers attempting to make it across national borders by hiding themselves among the products that enjoy so much more mobility than they do. In December 2001, the bodies of eight Romanian refugees, including two children, were discovered in a cargo container filled with office furniture; they had asphyxiated during the long journey at sea. The same year, the dead bodies of two more refugees were discovered in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in a shipment of bathroom fixtures. The year before, fifty-four Chinese refugees from Fujian province suffocated in the back of a delivery truck in Dover, England.
All these fences are connected: the real ones, made of steel and razor wire, are needed to enforce the virtual ones, the ones that put resources and wealth out of the hands of so many. It simply isnt possible to lock away this much of our collective wealth without an accompanying strategy to control popular unrest and mobility. Security firms do their biggest business in the cities where the gap between rich and poor is greatest — Johannesburg, São Paulo, New Delhi — selling iron gates, armoured cars, elaborate alarm systems and renting out armies of private guards. Brazilians, for instance, spend US$4.5 billion a year on private security, and the countrys 400,000 armed rent-a-cops outnumber actual police officers by almost four to one. In deeply divided South Africa, annual spending on private security has reached US$1.6 billion, more than three times what the government spends each year on affordable housing. It now seems that these gated compounds protecting the haves from the have-nots are microcosms of what is fast becoming a global security state — not a global village intent on lowering walls and barriers, as we were promised, but a network of fortresses connected by highly militarized trade corridors.
If this picture seems extreme, it may only be because most of us in the West rarely see the fences and the artillery. The gated factories and refugee detention centres remain tucked away in remote places, less able to pose a direct challenge to the seductive rhetoric of the borderless world. But over the past few years, some fences have intruded into full view — often, fittingly, during the summits where this brutal model of globalization is advanced. It is now taken for granted that if world leaders want to get together to discuss a new trade deal, they will need to build a modern-day fortress to protect themselves from public rage, complete with armoured tanks, tear gas, water cannons and attack dogs. When Quebec City hosted the Summit of the Americas in April 2001, the Canadian government took the unprecedented step of building a cage around, not just the conference centre, but the downtown core, forcing residents to show official documentation to get to their homes and workplaces. Another popular strategy is to hold the summits in inaccessible locations: the 2002 G8 meeting was held deep in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and the 2001 WTO meeting took place in the repressive Gulf State of Qatar, where the emir bans political protests. The “war on terrorism” has become yet another fence to hide behind, used by summit organizers to explain why public shows of dissent just wont be possible this time around or, worse, to draw threatening parallels between legitimate protesters and terrorists bent on destruction.
But what are reported as menacing confrontations are often joyous events, as much experiments in alternative ways of organizing societies as criticisms of existing models. The first time I participated in one of these counter-summits, I remember having the distinct feeling that some sort of political portal was opening up — a gateway, a window, “a crack in history,” to use Subcomandante Marcoss beautiful phrase. This opening had little to do with the broken window at the local McDonalds, the image so favoured by television cameras; it was something else: a sense of possibility, a blast of fresh air, oxygen rushing to the brain. These protests — which are actually week-long marathons of intense education on global politics, late-night strategy sessions in six-way simultaneous translation, festivals of music and street theatre — are like stepping into a parallel universe. Overnight, the site is transformed into a kind of alternative global city where urgency replaces resignation, corporate logos need armed guards, people usurp cars, art is everywhere, strangers talk to each other, and the prospect of a radical change in political course does not seem like an odd and anachronistic idea but the most logical thought in the world.
Even the heavy-handed security measures have been co-opted by activists into part of the message: the fences that surround the summits become metaphors for an economic model that exiles billions to poverty and exclusion. Confrontations are staged at the fence — but not only the ones involving sticks and bricks: tear-gas canisters have been flicked back with hockey sticks, water cannons have been irreverently challenged with toy water pistols and buzzing helicopters mocked with swarms of paper airplanes. During the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, a group of activists built a medieval-style wooden catapult, wheeled it up to the three-metre-high fence that enclosed the downtown and lofted teddy bears over the top. In Prague, during a meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Italian direct-action group Tute Bianche decided not to confront the black-clad riot police dressed in similarly threatening ski masks and bandanas; instead, they marched to the police line in white jumpsuits stuffed with rubber tires and Styrofoam padding. In a standoff between Darth Vader and an army of Michelin Men, the police couldnt win. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, the steep hillside leading up to the conference centre was scaled by a band of “pink fairies” dressed in burlesque wigs, silver-and-pink evening wear and platform shoes. These activists are quite serious in their desire to disrupt the current economic order, but their tactics reflect a dogged refusal to engage in classic power struggles: their goal, which I began to explore in the final pieces in this book, is not to take power for themselves but to challenge power centralization on principle.
Other kinds of windows are opening as well, quiet conspiracies to reclaim privatized spaces and assets for public use. Maybe its students kicking ads out of their classrooms, or swapping music on-line, or setting up independent media centres with free software. Maybe its Thai peasants planting organic vegetables on over-irrigated golf courses, or landless farmers in Brazil cutting down fences around unused lands and turning them into farming co-operatives. Maybe its Bolivian workers reversing the privatization of their water supply, or South African township residents reconnecting their neighbours electricity under the slogan Power to the People. And once reclaimed, these spaces are also being remade. In neighbourhood assemblies, at city councils, in independent media centres, in community-run forests and farms, a new culture of vibrant direct democracy is emerging, one that is fuelled and strengthened by direct participation, not dampened and discouraged by passive spectatorship.
Despite all the attempts at privatization, it turns out that there are some things that dont want to be owned. Music, water, seeds, electricity, ideas — they keep bursting out of the confines erected around them. They have a natural resistance to enclosure, a tendency to escape, to cross-pollinate, to flow through fences, and flee out open windows.
As I write this, its not clear what will emerge from these liberated spaces, or if what emerges will be hardy enough to withstand the mounting attacks from the police and military, as the line between terrorist and activist is deliberately blurred. The question of what comes next preoccupies me, as it does everyone else who has been part of building this international movement. But this book is not an attempt to answer that question. It simply offers a view into the early life of the movement that exploded in Seattle and has evolved through the events of September 11 and its aftermath. I decided not to rewrite these articles, beyond a few very slight changes, usually indicated by square brackets — a reference explained, an argument expanded. They are presented here (more or less in chronological order) for what they are: postcards from dramatic moments in time, a record of the first chapter in a very old and recurring story, the one about people pushing up against the barriers that try to contain them, opening up windows, breathing deeply, tasting freedom.
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