Nils Buis / Jaap van Leeuwen

Activism based on economics
Movements against the consequences of a free market economy

A global movement seems to have arisen out of nowhere, which has managed to put the campaign against international free trade onto the political agenda. Such economic activism used to be the exclusive domain of the trade unions of old, but they have now exchanged their traditional revolutionary objectives for more pragmatic ways of representing employees' interests against those of their employers. However, since the Anti-MAI Campaign (Action against Multilateral Agreements on Investment) it has once again become possible to speak of radical protest against the cancerous growth of liberal capitalism.

Holland: some initiatives which are questioning the power of investment
In Holland, too, various groups and individuals are joining the protest movement which attracted public attention last year in Seattle and more recently in Prague. The protest was aimed mainly against the infinite power of supra-national financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These are held responsible for selling out the economic interests of 'Third World' countries in favour of the rich West, and for maintaining the unfair distribution of power and welfare. In Seattle, inevitable minor disturbances, though insignificant, became a focus of public attention, whereas during the lead-up to the Prague IWF/World Bank summit the media focussed mainly on the issues raised by the movement: the catastrophic consequences of the IMF's and World Bank's policies. The focus hence shifted from the outward manifestations of the protests to their content. It is also interesting that the movement's critique has been supported by people in unexpected quarters, the best-known example being the former vice-president and chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, who made certain information known. Overall, the movement has succeeded in massively expanding the field of action against the power of the multinationals.1

In Holland, anti-globalisation activists prefer to speak of a coalition rather than a movement. This very diverse group, campaigning against the economic power of investment, includes environmental activists, orthodox communists, and trade union members, not to mention Mexican Zappatistas, radical anarchists, feminist groups, and last but not least, French farmers under the leadership of Jose Bove.

Their basic starting-point is the principle of 'agreeing to disagree': there is general agreement about what the existing alternatives are, but everyone has different ideas about which model to follow. However, the coalition is actually developing: through information exchange and several meetings, the diverse groupings are coming into contact with differing viewpoints and arguments. Important fertilisation is taking place between single-issue groups, which is leading to significant development towards a common approach to the issue.

Several Dutch groups are stimulating public debate about the power of capital investment. For some, the focus is a critique of global developments, while others are putting forward suggestions of practical ways of combating economic injustice. One of the latter groups is the Stichting Uno-inkomen (a foundation campaigning for subsistence payments). They are campaigning for a worldwide subsistence payment for all, regardless of age or other income. The United Nations could distribute the money, and everyone would receive the same amount. Two percent of the world's income would finance the distribution of fifty U.S. cents to everyone in the world. This basic amount could be raised through a tax then given out to everybody all over the world. In the western world, the difference would hardly be felt, but for a huge section of the world's population, it would mean a doubling of their income. At best, it could also mean an increase in buying-power which would then improve the local economic situation and thereby lead to improvements in the infrastructure, water supply, education and health systems. The essence of this idea is that it is not a hidden form of development aid, because everybody receives the same basic income, including those in wealthy countries. The wealthy would be made aware that many people have to live on these fifty cents. In this age of globalisation, a necessary process of consciousness-raising would be set in motion.2

Other groups involved in distributing information and organising actions are: the Autonoom Centrum in Amsterdam, Eurodusnie in Leiden, and the Kollektief Omslag in Eindhoven.

Attac Nederland
As part of the international Attac movement (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), Attac Nederland aims to stem the international flow of capital investment. It aspires to the creation of an ecologically and democratically controlled economy which would be just and sustainable.3

Attac was founded at the beginning of 2000 and is an independent organisation. It brings together scientists engaged in social concerns, citizens who are keen to do something, and individual members of other organisations. The Dutch group joined the international Attac organisation in Paris, founded through the initiative of Le monde diplomatique. There are now similar groups in nineteen countries, with ten active groups in the European Union.

Attac attempts to prevent any expansion of the power held by international companies and banks, mainly through distributing information and through actions. Further expansion of power would mean increasing injustice relating to incomes, and nature and the environment would be damaged beyond repair. In this context it is important to gain insights into the functioning of the international financial world and to expose its lack of democracy.

In Attac's view, the 'ordinary' person pays the price for the free-market economy. This was the case in Latin American and Asian countries when, three years ago, they ended up in severe financial crisis which has led to an economic melt-down. The fall in value of the national currencies was mainly due to speculation, which then led to a withdrawal of international investment. Ultimately it was employees and consumers in the affected countries who had to pay the price.4 It is also obvious that those countries' governments have been forced by institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank to cut spending in health and education services, reverse land reforms, and neglect environmental policies. Such financial crisis will have ramifications for generations to come. The institutions, banks, big investors and speculators who were responsible are not only getting off scot-free but also profiting.5

Attac wishes to expose the irresponsibility, in terms of social and economic consequences, of the unlimited profiteering of speculators. As Attac's Dutch president, Hans van Heijningen, says, 'the business of speculation, which is booming at stock markets all over the world, has less and less to do with real economics which focus on production, trade and consumption. It should be noted that 95% of the daily global turn-over of four thousand billion gilder is speculative money.'6 This means that only 5% is directly related to the trade of material goods; the rest is speculation. Money has become an end in itself and no longer has any relationship with its original function: a means of exchange used in trade. One of Attac's five action plans is the introduction of the Tobin tax, a tax on international currency exchange. This tax should be able to stem the flow of speculative money. Other action plans are: to support every country's democratic right to control any international flow of capital (independently of the IMF and the World Bank); the abolition of tax relief for companies; a significantly higher tax on capital profit; and the introduction of a direct liability of shareholders, financial and company managers making them directly responsible for the effects of the way they conduct their business.

All in all, this is quite a moderate programme. Attac is not aiming at radical change, its main objective being to ensure that politics controls the economy and not the other way round. It is consciously striving to turn into a broad movement aimed at combating the excesses of neo-liberal politics with realistic suggestions. As such, Attac has much in common with the protest movements connected to the IMF and World Bank summits and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), in which Attac members played prominent roles. Hans van Heijningen sums up:
'It is important to demonstrate an opposition. We shouldn't waste our time with suggestions that have absolutely no chance of getting anywhere in the next ten years. But we should try, by some means or other, to develop suggestions which prove that the economy can be managed in a different way. The Tobin tax is a good example. Its introduction is relatively simple and would have a symbolic function rather than achieving fundamental change.'

1. Jaap van Leeuwen, Nils Buis, 'Het alternatief voor cholera is geen cholera,' in SolidairNews no. 2 (Utrecht, November 2000).
2. Flip van Doorn, Allemaal twee kwartjes (October 2000).
3. Attac Nederland, Amsterdam 2000.
4. 'Flitskapitaalmoet aangepakt worden,' Xpress no. 3 (Amsterdam, December 1999).
5. Freek Kallenberg, 'Aanval op het Kapitaal' in: Ravage no. 5 (Amsterdam, 7 April 2000).
6. ibid.


Nils Buis worked as a graphic designer in his company ‘Om tekst en vorm’ and in the Utrecht housing project ‘de bonte kaketoe’. He is a member of Solidair.
Jaap van Leeuwen is a consultant on sustainable technology with ADT (Advies Duurzame Technologie). He is a member of Solidair.