Despite the city effectively being turned into a fortress by an army of policemen equipped with tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters and riot-control equipment, thousands of protesters gathered outside the venue of a meeting of senior politicians planning their future strategy for promoting their common interests. One protester was shot dead, dozens injured and almost a hundred arrested as police used force against previously peaceful demonstrators; there is no dispute that the first violence came from the police. Almost a week after the meeting and protests ended, many of those arrested were still being held without charge and without any access to lawyers or (in the case of foreigners) consular officials.
It is not difficult to imagine the CNN coverage if such events had taken place in the old Eastern Bloc, or in Beijing or Baghdad or any other country opposed by the West. But they didn’t: they took place in the Italian city of Genoa, while the leaders of the ‘democratic’ world met at the G8 summit. Nor was the trouble unprecedented; similar troubles have taken place in numerous cities in the last 18 months: in Seattle during the WTO’s ministerial talks in December 1999; in Washington and Prague in April and September 2000 (World Bank and IMF meetings); in Davos in January this year (World Economic Forum meeting); in Quebec in April (Summit of the Americas); in London in May (annual May Day demonstrations); and in Gothenburg in June (European Union summit). In the Western media, these are portrayed as the protests of a small group of militant anti-capitalist troublemakers. In fact, more than 700 groups were involved in the Genoa protests, raising a wide range of issues, and there is strong suspicion that the clashes were engineered by the authorities in order to discredit the protesters and divert attention from their concerns.
The protesters are routinely attacked as anti-democratic. The reality is that the protests show the deep dissatisfaction and frustration of many in the West who recognise that ‘democratic’ processes invariably elect governments whose loyalty is to big business rather than to ordinary people, whose voices politicians can simply ignore when they are raised through ‘legitimate’ channels. In many Arab countries, there is an unofficial ‘red line’ defining the issues on which the governments do not permit discussion or criticism in the media or elsewhere; for all the West’s claims of freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the people, its response to anti-capitalist protests shows that there is a similar redline in the West. So much for democracy.
So what falls within this red line? It is certainly not a coincidence that it is protest against capitalism and globalization that have raised the ire of Western governments: the economic interests of corporate elites have been the driving force of Western expansionism for centuries. The European model of modernity was globalised by imperialism for the elites’ economic gain, and while politically the West may have loosened its control slightly by decolonization, its economic control has been continuously strengthened by the activities of transnational corporations and international economic institutions. Western states have permitted the break-up of their empires into nearly 200 supposedly equal ‘sovereign’ states, and built the pretence of an ‘international community’ around the UN and other such institutions, but it is significant that global economic policy is discussed not in the UN, nor even in the US security council (where Western powers have a veto and the UN’s real power lies), but in closely controlled meetings of western leaders. The only role the leaders of other ‘sovereign’ countries have at such meetings is to come as supplicants presenting proposals for their masters’ approval, as South African president Thabo Mbeke and other African leaders presented their New African Initiative at Genoa.
Many westerners also suffer from the greed of the corporate elites; health, education and wealth inequalities are growing in most Western countries, so it is not surprising that ordinary people are wary of the elites’ economic power. But most westerners also oppose the ongoing war against Iraq; Western governments have demonstrated their ability to marginalise and ignore such opposition when necessary. It is unlikely that popular opposition to Western economic expansionism will have any impact. But at the very least it should help non-Westerners to see through the West’s facade of popular democratic freedoms in their own countries and a beneficent role in world affairs and understand its true nature.