A Movement Begins:
The Washington Protests Against IMF/World Bank

Jesse Lemisch

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 29, Summer 2000]

JESSE LEMISCH is with the History Department, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. His article "Angry White Men on the Left" appeared in New Politics, Winter 1997.


THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO almost to the day (April 17, 1965), I had gone to Washington as a participant in the first major Students for a Democratic Society demonstration against the war in Vietnam. It drew a surprising 25,000 people. Now, after many demonstrations in between, I went back April 14-16 for the protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

It was exhilarating and informative, an intensive course, somewhat like the teach-ins of the sixties (which give the lie to notions of New Left anti-intellectualism).1 Young people had mastered the complexities of "structural adjustment," the imposition by IMF/World Bank (WB) of poverty and stagnation around the world, the two institutions' functions as fronts for looting and plundering of underdeveloped economies by giant, mostly American, corporations. Scholars, activists and scholar-activists from around the world were there to offer case studies of the grim experience of country after country at the hands of IMF/WB. A British group costumed variously as pom-pom girls, Secret Service boys and others sang wittily and rhythmically of Monsanto's "Frankenfoods." Another comedian with purpose lugged through the streets a glass case containing an allegedly genetically altered giant potato. The kids, as they are condescendingly but inevitably called, are great.

Among the most extraordinary moments was the arrival during the weekend from Cochabamba, Bolivia, of Oscar Olivera, a machinist who is leader of the popular uprising against privatization of the Cochabamba public water system for the profit of a subsidiary of the American Bechtel Corporation, Aguas del Tunari.2 (A careful reader of The New York Times had found only paltry mention of Bechtel in its accounts of the uprising.3) This seizure of the very water by Bechtel for profit off the backs of the poor was brought about under pressure from the WB, and before the weekend protests it was defended by the Bank's head, James Wolfensohn. The Bolivian government's violent attack on the protest movement that arose included: declaration of a 90-day state of emergency; seven water protesters dead and more than 100 injured. A crowd was fired on by a graduate of the U.S.' notorious "School of the Americas," and government at various levels there is infested by other graduates. Olivera said: "The blood spilled in Cochabamba carries the fingerprints of Bechtel." But Bechtel had been thrown out of the country in a model of resistance which the protesters in Washington greeted with wild applause. (Wolfensohn now has problems with invitations he received to deliver commencement addresses before his name became, like Spiro Agnew's, a household word.)

On April 14 the International Forum on Globalization presented a twelve-hour teach-in to an overflow crowd at the Foundry United Methodist Church, where Clinton prays, but manages -- as Ralph Nader pointed out -- to forget it all in his limo in the short drive back to the White House. At Foundry, and in other appearances, Filipino sociologist Walden Bello described stagnation rather than growth as the product of IMF policies; the WB's creation of, rather than alleviation of, poverty; the IMF's "devastating performance . . . during the Asian financial crisis," worsening things; and the collapse of the old WB/IMF paradigm in the face of the criticism even of ardent pro-capitalists4 (Joseph Stiglitz,5 Congress's Meltzer Commission Report,6 et. al.): it doesn't work. Far from relieving poverty, the institutions have made poverty and have rushed in to capture the resultant collapsed economies for the benefit of corporations, which have seen economic crisis as opportunity. It may well be said, to paraphrase Yale's influential mid-century diplomatic historian Samuel ("Wave the") Flagg Bemis, that the world's distress has been America's success,7 or at least the success of America's corporations.

The DC police (backed up by the Pentagon, National Guard, U.S. Marshals, Capitol Police, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents) acted in ways that reminded some Nigerians in Washington (from scholars to activists to cab drivers) of home: drawing their line around 90 blocks, closing Interstate 395, parks and some Metro stations, removing mailboxes; closing down "Convergence" headquarters (cynically discovering a "fire hazard" and claiming, at first, that chemicals used for painting puppets were ingredients for Molotov cocktails), closing down copy shops, trapping demonstrators at 20th and K, and then removing video reporters before arresting 600 protesters (as well as some tourists and press), keeping street vendors of drinks and food totally away from the Great March to Nowhere through Foggy Bottom on the hot Sunday of April 16,8 removing their badges. Many press people were furious at the treatment they got at the hands of the police. The cops did an abundance of video-taping for their own purposes, and welcomed observers from various police forces around the U.S. By the end of the protests, they had arrested around 1300 -- and, with "jail solidarity," some stayed in for as long as five days.

The increasing anger on the part of the demonstrators makes perfect sense when seen against the background of a peaceful protest that was set upon by a police force that had been summoned and armed with the latest weaponry for a blatantly political purpose. The police ignored the Constitution and acted like an occupying army. The language of military rule became part of everyday conversation: "perimeter," "sealed off," "locked down." This is how they managed to claim that the protest had failed, since the meetings had indeed gone on despite the protests. Cities around the world will not be vying for the opportunity to host such "successes" in the future. This is not the Olympics. After Seattle, and now Washington, it's hard to imagine where on earth these loan sharking organizations can meet without an army to defend them, and bus them to their meetings in the dead of night. (Related events occurred in London and Berlin before and on May 1,9 to be followed by the Democratic (Los Angeles) and Republican (Philadelphia) National Conventions in the summer, and then Prague in the fall.)

In all this, I found weaknesses as well as strengths. Walden Bello spoke clearly for abolition of IMF/WB. But many others did not know whether they were for abolition or for reform -- whether they sought "to fix it, or nix it."10 Many of the young don't yet know of the extraordinary resilience of the system, with its Orwellian ability to rename itself (e.g. "Poverty Reduction") as a way of staying in business. Certainly this has been a major theme in American history: this capacity to absorb has repeatedly killed off movements that have not learned that knowing what you want is an important part of doing successful battle against a sponge.

If we are to abolish these institutions -- as we should -- what will we then put in their place? With much of the movement rooted in an ascetic environmentalism, hostile to development, and talking, archaically, about "self-reliance," there seems an absence of willingness to think about what a radically different democratic international institution to aid Third World countries' rise from poverty would look like. The important notion that WB/IMF should be abolished, when combined with failure to give hard thought to alternatives, leaves the bad guys inevitably in charge of the inadequate solutions and renamed old solutions that they are even now cooking up. Sometimes this small-is- beautiful ideology on the part of protesters, this failure to engage with the needs and desires of Third World people (including the desire for joy and for consumption), leads to ludicrous and insulting non-solutions: Nader speaks passionately of the desirability today of mud huts developed in ancient Egypt,11 while others testify to the virtues of "twenty thousand years of humble agriculture."

I will vote for Nader for President; he is obviously very strong in his anti-corporatism (though vulnerable to charges that he seeks to make corporate capitalism responsible rather than to abolish it). But socially he seems very conservative. He has shown -- and his 2000 candidacy announcemnt reflects it -- what appears to be hostile indifference to feminism and gay liberation, having earlier described them as "gonadal politics." When challenged for this, he simply hunkered down, or boasted -- while his audience cringed -- of something he did for women when he was on the Harvard Law Review, a kind of an updated "some of my best friends . . . "

At Foundry on April 14, Nader spoke out, rightly, for vaccination, but attacked Viagra and Prozac, apparently seen as only life-style frivolities.12 From the audience, Joanne Landy (a Nader supporter) cried out -- as is her custom in such situations, particularly in large domed spaces -- "Whatsamatta with Viagra!!?" The gentle sound wafted toward the dome of the beautiful church; two days later, at the Ellipse, Nader delivered the same speech, but without the offending passages. But they are likely to come back. There is, with Nader, a strong ascetic streak which is very much in the American grain, but also very much out of touch with the cultural revolution wrought by the sixties. Even Oprah knows better than Ralph Nader. (As Landy points out, half seriously, a Nader presidency could leave us depressed, in our mud huts, suffering from erectile dysfunction -- and possibly without any tv to watch.)

Nader's kind of austerity is widespread in the left and in environmental movements, underlying much of the critique of consumerism and the pursuit of such narrow goals as "decent housing and adequate food."13 There seems little awareness that abundance and consumption have a utopian side and that, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes, "Consumption as spectacle contains the promise that want will disappear." It's not clear whether the real limits to what the earth can produce and tolerate cause the ascetic complex, or whether the ideology comes first, focusing attention on the limits rather than the possibilities. In any case, the ideology of parsimoniousness and "self-reliance" is unfriendly to development. This, in turn, leaves protesters uninterested in devising democratic approaches to development, which leaves them wide open to criticism as sustaining backwardness in Third World countries, with the mud hut as their alternative.

Youth are the heart of the movement -- the campuses are coming alive, and both on and off campus youth culture is revealing more and more of its left potential. In Washington, they were bold, courageous, resilient and savvy, in self-organization and in confrontation on the streets. Arts flourished in imaginative ways, with puppets, Structural Adjustment machines, giant potatoes, etc. They went to jail in great numbers, and continued to resist while in jail.

Although jail solidarity is magnificent, we need to know more about the internal governance of the affinity groups and the processes by which they reached consensus ("consensed," in one usage I heard), both in jail and in the streets. Decision-making by consensus has sometimes had a grim underside. Before sixties veterans further romanticize youth, once again uncritically mistaking the appearance of participatory democracy for democracy, we might want to re-examine Jo Freeman's early radical feminist classic, "The Tyranny of Structurelessness,"14 seeking to avoid a repetition of the horrors of some of the sixties collectives and communes.15

Because of all of the truly admirable characteristics of the youth movement, but also because sixties radicals have always searched for some authentic vanguard,16 there seems to be a tendency among these now older radicals to select youth as the vanguard of the moment, and to send themselves into retirement, to function only as advisers, and then only with great humility. Let me stress that it is not youth that has imposed this mandatory retirement, but rather the sixties radicals themselves. I have heard such notions from, for instance, some older radical feminists, who have spoken of the need to stand aside and let the young lead. This seems to be combined with a kind of I-wonder-what-will-happen-next attitude, a spectatorial stance which waits for others to make a movement. In all this, there is a lack of awareness that sexy and trendy not-your-mother's-young- feminists are, in part, an invention of the media, another stick with which to beat radical feminism.17

Perhaps that is why, so far as I could see, there was no radical feminist presence in the Washington protests. Naomi Weisstein has incisively suggested that feminists march -- faux-pregnant, faces painted grey, preceded by drumming -- and articulate the kind of protests that should be central in globalization struggles but that were ignored in Washington: reproductive rights, abortion, anti-rape, and the stagnation and poverty resulting from women's subjugation under patriarchy.

The wild kids that the media have told us about may in fact be (with important exceptions) deferential, respectful, and with -- sad to say -- good manners and a poignant longing to love and be loved by their adversaries. An April 15 Jewish Community Center non-debate between critics on the one hand, and hacks employed by the IMF/World Bank on the other, featured a moderator -- a writer for, G_d help us, The Nation18 -- who fawned over and repeatedly hugged the hacks (this really happened!) These sickening gestures and commendations (for courage, mutual benevolent feelings, etc.) brought feel-good applause for the casually dressed IMF/WB-ers from the youthful audience, rather than the boos and hisses that would have been appropriate. The longing to be at peace with your adversaries is death to social movements. A generation many of whose members think that forthright debate should be avoided as "towel-snapping," and groove on the benighted and directionless kids of Blair Witch Project19 is a generation which, even at its best, sometimes reflects the worst in its times. Sweet and good- natured, but also somewhat addled by the Age of Oprah, attuned to consensus rather than conflict, many of the young have about the level of consciousness that many SDS members had at an early stage of the movement against the war in Vietnam, say around 1965.

On the other hand, if this is only 1965 in the life of the new movement, well, that's just wonderful, compared to where we have been. So, hallelujah, it's a time of rebirth, with the voracious capitalism of the conservative world order under deserved attack. This time, perhaps, we may help to build a true internationalism, a globalized resistance, a global alternative to the global crimes of the IMF/World Bank.

An earlier, shorter version of this article was posted on www.TomPaine.com, April 19, 2000. The writer acknowledges the help of Joanne Landy and Naomi Weisstein, who are not responsible for the above. Comments are welcome at utopia1@attglobal.net


  1. For a scholarly response to such notions, by a brilliant young historian of the New Left, see John McMillian, "Love Letters to the Future": REP, Radical America, and New Left History, Radical History Review, 77(Spring 2000), pp. 20-59. return

  2. For this and the following, see (in addition to Oscar Olivera's talk at the April 14 teach-in) Jim Shultz's reports at http://www.democracyctr.org; and the same author's "Water Fallout: Bolivians Battle Globalization," In These Times, May 15, 2000, pp. 11-12. return

  3. There is no mention of Bechtel in "Bolivia Calls an Emergency after Protest Over Water," The New York Times, April 9, 2000. There is one mention in "Bolivian Water Plan Dropped after Protests Turn into Melees," ibid., April 11, 2000. return

  4. For a short version of Bello's valuable analysis, see his "Meltzer Report on Bretton Woods Twins Builds a Case for Abolition but Hesitates" (available at http://www.focusweb.org). return

  5. See Stiglitz, "The Insider: What I Learned at the World Economic Crisis," The New Republic, April 17 & 24, 2000, pp. 56-60. (TNR displayed this on its cover, calling it, "What I saw at the Devaluation: Why the IMF can't be Trusted to run the World Economy.") Stiglitz was chief economist and vice president of the World Bank, 1997-2000. See also David Moberg, "Silencing Joseph Stiglitz: The World Bank Cuts its Ties to the Economist who Became an Unlikely Hero to World Trade Protesters," Salon (http://www.salon.com), May 2, 2000. return

  6. For Allan Meltzer's reaction to the Washington protests, see his "A Better Way to Help the World," Financial Times, April 28, 2000. While Meltzer is far from an abolitionist, he is very critical of the WB: "By its own admission, half of its projects are unsuccessful, and the failure rate is even higher in the poorest countries. The Bank's management must stop its current public relations flim-flam and start improving its effectiveness in reducing poverty. If the demonstrators help achieve that, their efforts will have been worthwhile." return

  7. It's my memory that Bemis, a scholar of immense influence who was known at the time as the Dean of American Diplomatic Historians, used the phrase, "Europe's Distress is America's Success." return

  8. I don't know how this route was negotiated with the police, and I am sympathetic with those who did the negotiating. However, the AFL-CIO seemed obsessed with separating itself from illegal activities, associating itself only with "permitted" components. Perhaps as a result of that, the march wound around through a deserted Foggy Bottom and came back to its starting point at the Ellipse, rarely encountering a citizen of Washington. Ironically, despite all the talk from Seattle of "Teamsters and Turtles," there was minimal labor participation in the march, although a fair number of the speakers came from unions. (There were numerous turtles.) return

  9. Financial Times, April 19, 2000. return

  10. For the phrase, see Patrick Bond, "Run on the Bank," ZNet Commentary, April 6, 2000: http://www.zmag.org. return

  11. This is the way that I, and others who heard Nader to whom I have spoken, heard it. But perhaps Nader was actually referring to a recent article in The New York Times about the work of the twentieth-century Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy. (For the following, see Susan Sachs, "Arts Abroad: Honoring a Visionary If Not His Vision," The New York Times, April 4, 2000.) If so, the picture is even grimmer. The Aga Khan Award-winning architect built the village of New Gourna from bricks of mud and straw, but the poor for whom it was intended have rejected it. Hoping to build a village where peasants "would follow the way of life that I would like them to," Fathy eschewed what the New York Times calls "the idea of running water directly to each house as too expensive and unsuited to village customs, [and] he installed neighborhood wells and rhapsodized about the result."

    The dire results for women of such retrograde romanticism are unintentionally revealed by Fathy's words:

    It is hard to imagine a village in Egypt without its black-robed women, . . . erect as queens, each with her water jar carried nonchalantly on her head, and it will be a pity to lose the sight.

    The people of New Gourna, the New York Times notes, "see no charm in communal wells and prefer running water." All this should be a warning for those who romanticize non-development. return

  12. For an earlier presentation of such notions, see Ken Silverstein, "Millions for Viagra: Pennies for Diseases of the Poor [sic]," The Nation, July 19, 1999. Silverstein, apparently thinking that the poor don't (or shouldn't) suffer from sexual dysfunction, and that, in whatever class, such needs are trivial, reviles "lifestyle drugs -- remedies that may one day free the world from the scourge of toenail fungus, obesity, baldness, face wrinkles and impotence." In this and in other articles (e.g. condemnations of tourism), The Nation often reveals vestiges of Old Left asceticism. return

  13. For this and the following, see Jesse Lemisch and Naomi Weisstein, "Cornucopia Isn't Consumerism: How We Came to Love our White Rabbit Hats," Against the Current, January/February 1992, pp. 31-34. return

  14. In Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine, Anita Rapone, eds., Radical Feminism (New York 1973), pp. 285-299. return

  15. For a horrifying and accurate account, which nonetheless does not turn sour on the movement's splendid utopianism, see Vivian Rothstein, "The Magnolia Street Commune," Boston Review, 1999 (available at http://www.bostonreview.mit.edu). return

  16. For a critique focusing on issues of authenticity in left folk culture, see Jesse Lemisch, "Pop Front Culture: I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night," The Nation, October 18, 1986; Jesse Lemisch, "The Politics of Left Culture," The Nation, December 20, 1986. return

  17. For a critique of "Third Wave" feminism by a "relative youngie," see Sonia Shah, "Young and Younger," ZNet commentary, October 5, 1999. return

  18. John Nichols, who writes a good column called "The Beat." return

  19. Blair Witch Project bears comparison with Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), which echoes sixties themes of agency. Jaws, like Blair Witch, is about a small group of people trying to overcome terror and find their way out of a grotesque and frightening situation. Jaws features Brody, an inept and not-manly former New York cop who can't swim (Roy Scheider), and Hooper, a small nerdy icthyologist (Richard Dreyfuss), still partly encased in the character of the previous year's Duddy Kravitz (1974). Physically limited but resourceful, these heroes overcome the terror. Blair Witch, however, portrays a surrender to directionlessness with, to boot, a misogynist portrayal of the central character. For an earlier presentation of this point, see Jesse Lemisch, "Black Agency in the Amistad Uprising," Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, Winter 1999, pp. 57-70. return

[colored bar]

Contents of No. 29

Go back to New Politics home page