The Columbia Counter-Summit

After discovering hidden files on the web server and subsequently combing through the vaults of Columbia Political Review's past, we are unveiling our newest feature – Blast from the Past – where we periodically publish past articles on the website for a little trip down memory lane. 

The World Economic Forum, an annual conference that combines discussions and parties, brought to Manhattan a diverse and elite group of politicians, business people, and celebrities. Protesters, of course, followed in their wake. Students and activists flowed in from all  parts of the world to voice their opposition to the murky and diffused phenomenon of globalization.

A group of Columbia students from Students for Global Justice, an ad hoc group under the Columbia Student Solidarity Network (CSSN), collaborated with Berkeley students to organize a counter-summit to the WEF. They planned the counter-summit, they say, to educate people about the repercussions of what they call “neoliberal economics.” The ramifications of globalization are wide ranging, they say. The summit’s attendees said that some of the most important topics included environmental degradation, economic inequality (within and between nations), lack of democratic representation in international organizations, human-rights concerns, and labor issues.

“Globalization is a really large topic. I like to describe it as an octopus with multiple arms,” said Luis Fernandez, who traveled from Tempe, Arizona to participate in the counter-summit and in the protests.

Michael Castleman, an organizer of the counter-summit, which took place on the Barnard and Columbia campuses, explains “the whole system that this institution represents – based on greed and profit over humanity – we feel is not a sustainable system, is not a good system, except for the few people who benefit.”

The counter-summit consisted of 55 workshops and two plenary sessions over two days. Ginger Gentile, president of CSSN, the blanket organization for left-leaning groups on campus, explained that two of the most popular workshops did not deal with protesting. "Some stuff was about the Zapatista movement. There was a lot of stuff about the labor movement and its relation to the war in Afghanistan. There was one about Citigroup. There was some basic stuff about what is the WTO and what is GATT – kind of an alphabet soup.”

Protesters came to voice their opposition to various topics. “I’m here to protest the WEF, which is basically a cocktail party for the richest white males on the planet,” explained Tony Young, who traveled from Iowa. He added that institutions that enforce neoliberal economic policies, such as the World Trade Organization, “to protect corporate interests at the expense of working people, indigenous people, and the environment.”

When Young refers to “neoliberal” economic policies, he is describing the current prevailing school of thought in international economics, which emphasizes the importance of international institutions in helping countries and individuals seek long-term mutual gains from trade. The idea that countries can benefit from trade stems from the economic concept of comparative advantage, which says that states can maximize profits by enhancing their most efficient industries at the lowest cost, and selling the efficiently produced products inexpensively relative to other states. By eliminating tariffs and other protectionist measures, countries should be able to employ the concept of comparative advantage and produce goods more expediently, to the benefit of the consumer.

As the reams of protesters in Seattle, Genoa, and New York can attest, however, the situation is not so cut and dry. Many feel that labor in developed countries is threatened by free trade because corporations can easily find shockingly inexpensive labor in developing countries. Human-rights issues arise when corporations employ cheap labor where neither child labor nor working conditions are regulated. For environmentalists, the World Trade Organization is especially noxious because it prohibits countries from using protectionist measures such as tariffs, even if other countries are using the tariffs punitively (for violation of environmental policy, for example).

The International Monetary Fund also draws radicals’ ire. The role of the IMF is to act as a lender of last resort for developing countries who cannot make payments on their loans. The IMF loans, however, often come with some “conditionality” stipulating the borrowing country adopt some particular policy. The IMF demands that inflation be brought under control, and doing this often involves reduces state spending, especially on food subsidies and other programs.

Given the power wielded by the WTO and the IMF, protesters commonly complain about the lack of democratic representation in international organizations. “I’m protesting the fact that a lot of these organizations that are the shaping the future and the whole world. They are coming together to discuss ways to pen up markets with little accountability, remarked Fernández, a visiting protester.

Mike Furchtgott, CC ’05, who attended the protest on Saturday morning, echoed Fernández’s remarks, “You’ve heard the phrase no taxation without representation. A lot of protesters think that these organizations shouldn't have a whole lot of power or responsibility without accountability.” Furchtgott conceded that “there are benefits” to free trade, but “at the same time, I think that workers’ rights groups and environmental issue groups should have more of a voice.”

Not surprisingly one of the more prevalent protests this year was against the war on terrorism, which protesters argue is a product of global economic conditions. “It is no longer possible to talk about globalization without talking about the war,” said Michael Letwin, from New York Labor Against War, at the first plenary session. He pointed to the U.S. policies that led to the funding of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War, explaining that the “blowback of these policies is something we had to pay for.” Letwin argued that is ironic that “Nine-eleven has led to an intensification of these policies. The U.S. government is using our sorrow and our grief as a pretext to take these policies to even greater level.”

Peter Marcuse, Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia, also spoke at the plenary about the effects of September 11 on the anti-globalization moment. “It’s a very strange argument that we’re having now,” said Marcuse. “The reaction to terrorism has been support for globalization.” He repeatedly described the post-September 11 world as representing a “skewed form of globalization,” one that “doesn’t include support for an international court of law, the Kyoto accord, or an equitable division of resources among the world’s peoples and countries.”

The counter-summit drew about 1,200 people. Interestingly, despite the Lerner Hall venue, few Columbia students attended the summit. “The majority were not from Columbia. People came from really far away. Oregon, Chicago, Arizona, California,” says Ginger Gentile, an organizer. She added that the counter-summit “helped draw people to the protest on Saturday, and it gave people an education. It was more of an incentive, because to come out just for a day of going to protests is not very cost-effective.”