The mass popular protests against the investor rights agreements that masquerade under the rubric of “free trade” have been a matter of deep concern for years to those who are described in the business press, with only a touch of irony, as “the masters of the universe” (Financial Times). To avert popular reaction, negotiations are conducted mostly in secret, with the participation of the business world and of course known to the media, but scarcely reported. Nonetheless, through independent means (Internet, popular organisations, etc.), information has reached a great many people, leading to fears that opponents of these agreements have an “ultimate weapon,” the general population (Wall Street Journal), and that it is becoming “harder for negotiators to do deals behind closed doors and submit them for rubber stamping by parliaments” (Financial Times, quoting “veteran trade diplomats”).
The US leadership is desperately eager to reinstitute “fast track legislation,” which permits international economic agreements to be reached Stalinist-style: by the state executive, with Congress granted only the right of ratification. The International Financial Institutions and G-8 have been compelled to modify their rhetoric, to a limited extent their programmes, in fear of the “ultimate weapon.” Future meetings are planned in remote places (e.g., Qatar), to marginalise the public even further.
The doctrinal systems (government and corporate media) increasingly resort to extensive campaigns of defamation, denouncing protestors bitterly in often ludicrous terms, while rarely allowing them to express their actual views. Police violence has increased, most recently at Genoa, including attacks on offices of nonviolent organisations so extreme as to have aroused some censure even in the mainstream business press. It is not unlikely that at least some of the violence attributed to demonstrators results from the classic tactic of police provocateurs. These actions should be understood, I think, as part of the effort to defame, intimidate, and deter popular protest.
In the background is a general matter of profound significance. The protestors generally understand very well that the primary thrust of the “neoliberal programmes” that are instituted in the international agreements, with their complex array of liberalisation and protectionism, are a device to restrict the public arena — the arena of democratic participation, to the extent that countries enjoy a measure of meaningful democracy — and to transfer decisions over human affairs into the hands of unaccountable private concentrations of power, linked to one another and to the most powerful states.
The demonstrations are only the froth on the rising tide of popular protest against this attack on fundamental human rights, a tide that is becoming increasingly difficult to resist.