Power Hides from the People

New market “freedoms” need the help of old-fashioned authoritarianism

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 1st February 2001

I’m beginning to feel unwelcome. On Monday a letter in the Guardian revealed that staff from the Bookmarks bookshop trying to reach the World Economic Forum were refused entry to Switzerland. Their offence? Carrying copies of my book Captive State and Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, which were deemed too dangerous to be allowed into the country at such a sensitive time. Now I discover that, alongside such threats to civilisation as the World Development Movement, Jubilee Plus, Friends of the Earth and the human rights lawyer Louise Christian, my presence has become a “security risk”, which major venues around the country have been asked to forestall.

On Friday, a speaking tour called “Globalise Resistance” begins in Glasgow. Organised by greens, socialists and student activists, it brings together liberal and radical critics of globalisation. It involves no demonstrations, no rallies, no riots: it is simply a series of conferences. Yet almost everywhere we’re going, people have called for the tour to be restricted or banned.

On Friday, the Scottish Conservative party asked the Home Office to review its decision to grant a visa to a speaker from the US. The SNP warned that our conference in Glasgow “must be closely monitored.” In Manchester, we were booked to speak at the university. A few weeks ago, it cancelled the booking. Having spoken to the police, it had decided that we were “a potential security risk”. So the organisers hired a hall in the Co-op’s headquarters instead. A fortnight ago, the security company running the hall annulled the contract on the advice of the police. After some discussion, the firm, to its credit, reversed its decision.

The tour’s organisers encountered similar problems when they tried to hire a venue in London. They had agreed a price with Imperial College, but it backed away just as the contract was about to be signed. So instead they booked the conference facilities at Goldsmiths College, whose principle is the Labour historian Ben Pimlott. On January 22nd, Goldsmiths wrote to confirm a booking for 1000 guests. Soon afterwards, the college pulled out.

I have spent much of the past week trying to find out why. When, after days of trying, I managed to raise Ben Pimlott, he insisted that I shouldn’t quote him. This wasn’t hard, as he refused to answer most of my questions, such as whether the event had been cancelled because of its political complexion. An administrator told me that the conference was too big for the college, and had been booked in error. But Goldsmiths’ brochure reveals that the two main auditoria alone seat 1040 people, and “over fifty additional rooms” are available for hire. The organisers offered to restrict the number of guests; but the college refused to negotiate. The conference had to find another venue.

So what on earth is going on? Nobody knows, but when the Socialist Alliance, which is one of the groups involved in the current tour, booked rooms from Brighton and Hove Council for a meeting coinciding with the Labour party conference last September, the council tried to cancel on the grounds that it would “offend our major customer”: namely the Labour Party. It backed down only when the press began phoning.

It is certainly becoming harder to challenge the neoliberal consensus to which nearly all the world’s major political parties now subscribe. The global deregulation which allows big business both to seize trade from smaller companies and to dump its costs onto people and the environment can proceed only if it is accompanied by the re-regulation of the people it threatens. All over the world, governments are trying to stamp out peaceful protest and dissent.

In Britain, the new terrorism and investigatory powers acts enable the security services both to characterise protesters as terrorists and to ransack their communications without a warrant. In the US, peaceful demonstrators are now being arrested en masse before their protests begin. After the demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, some of us took bets as to where the next world trade talks would be held. Someone suggested Burma, another Bahrain. Someone else hazarded Qatar. Sure enough, last week we heard that November’s trade talks will be held in Qatar. New market “freedoms” will be implemented with the help of old-fashioned authoritarianism.

Institutions behave like this when they are frightened. The more the politics and economics of globalisation are exposed to public scrutiny, the more they are found wanting. When power has to hide from the people, you know it’s illegitimate.

To book tickets for the Globalise Resistance tour, phone 07956 681328.