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Published on Sunday, April 16, 2000 in the Washington Post
Shouts Bring Murmurs, And That Works
by Todd Gitlin

The demonstrators clamoring against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund fairly beg to be dismissed. Here they come, the millennium's first political party crashers. Like those who disrupted the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last year, they can look like a pack of loudmouths and flat-earthers, juvenile showboats and grandstanders, who oversimplify complex problems that need expert management. Some of their accusations certainly sound simplistic, their remedies recklessly all-or-nothing, as in "Break the Bank" and "De-Fund the Fund." Some of the most vociferous believe the World Bank and the IMF are so discredited by their wealthy rulers, so punitive toward the poor and destructive of the environment, that they cannot be repaired. These insurgents think the most constructive thing they can say is "Stop!"

The movement currently gathering is a whirlwind, and it is sometimes hard to see the constructive side of a whirlwind. Stridency distorts. Slogans are, by definition, simplistic. They are symbolic salvos meant to stir the souls of advocates, however much they irritate more complacent or cautious souls (who proceed to denounce the sloganeers with their own slogan, "Simplistic!"). After all, a bumper sticker is not an argument. It is an impetus toward revamping the public agenda. The wisest movements know this. But movements are not built solely by the wise.

This week's protests are following a familiar--and effective--pattern. Major political change usually requires social commotion whose energy must then be contained and focused. That is why successful protest movements take two types of activists working (whether they know it or not) in tandem. There are the outsiders, usually young, usually moralistic, committed to confronting the powers that be with evidence of errors, sins and crimes. They believe that what they lack is not a powerful argument but power, and that their prime resource is the ability to obstruct the smooth workings of the prevailing machinery. Outsiders raise their voices and commit civil--and sometimes not so civil--disobedience.

Insiders, by contrast, are usually professionals, mainly academics and lawyers. They are older, more accomplished, lovers of order who tend not to raise their voices. They are familiar with the ways of bureaucracy. They write memos. They believe themselves to be mastering the art of the possible. Argument and deal making are their forms of demonstration.

Insider and outsider impulses sometimes coexist in the same breast. Sometimes outsiders are former insiders--Daniel Ellsberg, for example, the onetime Pentagon official who, in 1971, released the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam to the New York Times and The Washington Post, risking a long jail sentence and reprisals by President Nixon's operatives; he proceeded to cross the line, devoting himself for decades to civil disobedience against American nuclear policy. Outsiders may, in turn, become insiders--Tom Hayden, for example, the New Leftist who for a quarter of a century (much longer than he spent as a student and community organizer and planner of demonstrations) has sought and held state office in California and has become a powerful voice in education and environmental policy there.

Outsiders may resent the fact, but one of their prime functions is to improve the clout of insiders. In truth, the demonstrators converging on Washington this week are undertaking the time-honored, indispensable mission of democratic crowds: to crack a wrongheaded consensus, to energize actual and potential reformers on the inside, to polarize opinion and goad laggards, to precipitate public debates that have been suppressed by establishments or pursued only by experts in closed rooms where inertia and groupthink overwhelm dissent.

In other words, the demonstrators are renewing a standard division of labor. Outsiders set agendas and insiders go to work, perhaps more urgently than before. Under the right conditions, agendas even expand. In the early 1960s, when civil rights demonstrators brought the country to a boil by demanding voting rights and an end to segregation, they not only inspired a wave of anti-discrimination laws but stirred a growing concern about economic inequality, whereupon Washington insiders were able to devise and implement the war on poverty.

Insiders may feel embarrassed by outsiders' tactics or misstatements, like this one from a movement Web site: "The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank are the architects of the world economy." (Sloppily, in the interest of focusing the cause, the author of that statement neglects the multinational corporations themselves!) But the enlightened, problem-solving experts are able to gain a hearing inside the halls of power precisely because there is clamor outside, even if those who clamor are stronger on critique than on proposals.

So, because outsider passions have come to the fore, reform-minded people inside the system may gain larger and more attentive audiences. Around the world, concerned intellectuals are spurred to piece together their own manifestos, striving to formulate varieties of just, sustainable globalization as alternatives to the destructive kind now in play. The process is untidy and uneven. Movements like the current one are not centralized think tanks that adopt and enforce party lines. Like the antiwar movement of the late 1960s, they are melanges--dispersed, polycentric and fluid, their positions all over the lot.

Even when they approve of some outsider sentiments, insiders will be wary of radical declarations. They have no illusions that globalization can be swept away or global institutions dispensed with. Just because the World Bank has made loans to projects that pour noxious chemicals into the natural world, displace local farmers with gigantic dams and uproot sustainable agriculture in favor of growing crops for export, insiders do not harbor illusions that the poor of the world can dispense with a world bank altogether. Just because the IMF has at times increased human suffering on several continents on behalf of reckless privatization and the slashing of social safety nets does not mean that flat abolition is the remedy. Just because the absolutist utopians in charge of the world's prosperous North think that markets solve all problems does not mean that markets can be discarded. The task of the insiders now is to argue for debt relief and convince the governments that fund the World Bank and the IMF that less Draconian policies will not only serve justice in the developing countries, in Russia, central Europe and elsewhere, but will help stabilize the world.

Toward the end of improving their own prospects, insiders and politicians had better get used to untidiness. The movement now in progress is unlikely to melt away, if only because its issues are fundamental and enduring. Politicians would be well advised to sift out the nihilism from this week's cacophony, curb their dismissiveness and listen for the justice in the clamor. Whatever their differences, all the outsiders--the students against sweatshops, human rights activists, organizers of unions, indigenous people against resource marauders--agree that what is at stake are central threats and injustices for the decades to come: desperate poverty in a world of affluence, world-destroying development. Some may say they want an end to globalization. But most want a more just version, a global New Deal.

Some demonstrators will be more articulate than others. Some will be more thoughtful. Even the most thoughtful will disagree about ends as well as means. But the White House, the U.S. Treasury, the World Bank and the IMF would be wise to pay heed to such words as these: "Tremendous power has flowed to the people entrusted to bring the gospel of the market to the far corners of the globe. . . . the culture of international economic policy in the world's most powerful democracy is not democratic."

The author of these words is not a window-smashing anarchist from the far Northwest but the quintessential insider: former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, writing in the current issue of the New Republic. Many more people will be paying attention to Stiglitz's words because of the shouts in the streets.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University whose books include "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" (Bantam Books) and, most recently, the novel "Sacrifice" (Henry Holt).

© 2000 The Washington Post Company


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