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Anarchy Through Government (and Vice Versa)

Wednesday, May 10 2000
Two weeks ago, the World Bank dismissed Joseph Stiglitz while he was out of the country. If you don't know why that matters, you haven't been paying attention. Stiglitz wrote a damning essay about the International Monetary Fund in The New Republic and became a hero to the protesters who clogged Washington on April 16. Not that he likes all the protesters. Not that he necessarily knows their names. But he criticized the IMF for its cookie-cutter approach to lending money in Asia, and that was damning because he'd served as chief economist at the World Bank from 1997 until late last year. "If the people we entrust to manage the global economy," he wrote, "don't begin a dialogue and take [protesters'] criticisms to heart, things will continue to go very, very wrong."

So he got sacked. The Bank had kept Stiglitz on as ad-viser to the president, James Wolfensohn, but when Stiglitz was in Ethiopia late last month he was asked not to bother coming back to work. The dismissal leaves a long dark echo, and gives the protesters against the World Bank, the IMF, and other multilateral organizations involved with global finance a credibility the World Bank never intended.

Who are the protesters, though? Global Exchange helped organize Seattle and Washington, but nothing I've read has pointed out that the anarchistic tang of the "actions" that resulted is as self-contradictory as chicken-flavored soda. A recent New Yorker piece argued that the new ideology of protest might be rooted in anarchism instead of Marx; but the piece stopped short of mentioning that the whole idea of globally enforced labor and environmental standards has nothing to do with anarchy. Even a protest against the World Trade Organization, say, but in favor of worldwide labor and environmental standards, doesn't seem to make sense, on the surface, because who would enforce those standards, if not the WTO?

"It's not that we're saying there shouldn't be rules, or there shouldn't be trade," says Kevin Danaher, of Global Exchange. His wife, Medea Benjamin, who co-founded the group with Danaher, adds that the democratic transparency of the United Nations would make it a better forum for free-trade negotiations than the WTO or IMF, in her opinion. "We want international rules, but we want those rules to be of the kind of value system that we're advocating."

OK. So the people at Global Exchange aren't a bunch of anarchists. They advocate Fair Trade, as opposed to free trade (a position that sounds unpleasantly Republican). Fair Trade funnels money downward to farmers and laborers, rather than upward to banks and financiers. "It's not even ideological, it's seein' people starve to death," says Danaher. "Instead of puttin' money in the hands of the elites [as the World Bank and IMF do] you've got to put it down in the hands of the people. You could get it to the people better just by throwin' dollar bills out of a helicopter."

Fair Trade involves price-fixing, wage-fixing, "public accountability," and monitoring of business and farming practices on every level. It has lots and lots of rules. The idea is to cut out middlemen, says Danaher, "and get the money down to the producer." The scheme is well-intended and may even improve the lives of some small craftsmen and farmers, but the idea that such an elaborate system of rules could remain anti-authoritarian, or uncorrupt, for more than a generation, is nuts.

Nevertheless, a romantic cloud of anarchism still clings to the protesters, and not just because a few black-dressed thugs broke windows in Seattle. Leaders like Benjamin, who have disowned the violence, pay lip service to anarchism. They reject elitism, and organize bottom-up. "I agree with lots of anarchists. I agree with the principles of anarchism," says John Sellers, director of the Ruckus Society. "And I think most anarchists I know are negative about property destruction. That's an unfortunate thing that's happened to anarchism, you know, that it's portrayed as a scary-lookin' bunch of people in balaclavas."

True enough. The basic ingredient in anarchism is not violence but total representation -- no bosses, no ruling class, no apparatchiks or technocrats, but democratic process on every level. It's anti-capitalist without being leftist, or Marxist, or anything else too predictable. "'The Left' has a lot of baggage," says Sellers. "I mean -- The Left. A lot of people are gonna write you off. So it's not that we're ignoring the values of what the left has traditionally been, but I just don't want to get painted into any corners."

Sellers is my poster boy for the movement's identity crisis. He's younger than either Benjamin or Danaher -- about 33 -- with a coarsely shaved blond head and a gray-flecked goatee. He used to drive around North America in his pickup as a mercenary nonviolent organizer, "doing actions, picking up contracts with organizations when I needed some money." Now he does the same thing in a more settled fashion from the Ruckus office in Berkeley. (Ruckus holds training camps for activists to learn urban rappelling and other tricks of civil disobedience.) He's a smart, outdoors-minded guy inclined toward anarchism, away from the trappings of civilization; but he's willing to be practical.

His vision, in rough outline, involves, "prioritizing communities first and foremost. Making cities livable models. Tearing up streets, reclaiming the streams and rivers that flow through cities in the first place, and making green space." He also wants to take automobiles out of cities by improving mass transit.

This program, too, would need loads of legislation, but Sellers still prefers the idea of a leaderless anarchy of citizens who want to do the right thing. (So do I, frankly.) So did the Romans and Greeks. The ancient dream of a harmonious, unhierarchical society is what they meant by a Golden Age. Sellers -- and he's not alone in the movement -- envisions a slow slide into a new Golden Age, with a compromise period when laws are necessary to organize social and economic behavior into a healthier pattern. "I don't think there's a way to go from where we are right now to a laissez-faire model, which I would like to see ultimately, without having protections and standards that are gonna be enforced."

I don't think so, either. But legislating utopia is what Lenin tried to do.

The World Bank, IMF, and WTO are secretive, unaccountably powerful organizations that may need to be reformed or even replaced. The Seattle and Washington protests have managed the clean victory of making the leaders of international finance organizations wince and blink in the glare of sudden publicity, and Stiglitz's sacking proves that those leaders hate the attention. But both protesters and financiers need to look in the mirror. Bank ministers who would never promote "anarchy" prattle about free trade; protesters allergic to "free trade" sometimes forget that the real thing -- unfettered by corporate monopolizing as well as government fiddling -- is the logical end of their sleeping anarchism.

Michael Scott Moore ( can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.


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