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The long battle against neo-liberalism: despite appearances, the G-20 trade group, which meets in Melbourne in November, does not signal a new or more inclusive approach to world trade.

Somewhat incongruously, an image of Uluru adorns the Group of Twenty homepage to signify that Australia is chair for this trade grouping for 2006. Below Uluru is an image of something that seems almost as permanent and immovable: Federal Treasurer Peter Costello, announcing that the forthcoming annual meeting of the G-20 will be held in Melbourne over the weekend of 18-19 November.

It's easy to be confused by the shifting trade groupings that have emerged over the last decades: the G-7 and G-8, the G-22, G-33 and the G-77, to name just a few. The most economically powerful of these is the G-8. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Japan form the G-7 and have been meeting since 1975 as the leading industrial nations of the Global North. Since 1998, the G-7 expanded to a G-8 with the post-Cold War inclusion of Russia. In contrast, the G-77 (first formed in 1964, it is now made up of 132 countries) is an alliance formed by nations in the Global South to advocate collectively for the interests of developing countries.

Emerging in 1999, the G-20 is made up of members that cut across North-South dichotomies by including those deemed to be both 'significant industrial' and 'emerging market' economies. Included in the former are the G-8 members, as well as Germany, Japan and Australia. The latter includes G-77 nations such as Indonesia, India, China and Brazil. Each country is formally represented at G-20 forums by their finance ministers and central bank governors, who are also joined by the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and the President of the World Bank.

In bringing together both elite industrial and key developing nations, the G-20 appears to be a more diverse trade group than those that are organised on the basis of clear commonalities such as levels of wealth, regional location, or dominant economic interests, such as oil or agriculture. However, the origins of the G-20 demonstrate how it has become one avenue for elite capitalist interests to entrench and consolidate a global market rather than signalling a move towards a more inclusive and therefore potentially more equitable trade forum.

The G-7 was a major impetus for the formation of the G-20. According to a statement of the G-7 finance ministers in September 1999, the G-20 was formed 'to establish a new mechanism for informal dialogue in the framework of the Bretton Woods institutional system', to 'broaden the dialogue on key economic and financial policy issues' and to 'promote co-operation to achieve stable and sustainable world economic growth that benefits all'.

While this sounds promising, it is encased within an architecture built on the assumptions that 'open and competitive international markets for trade and investment are essential for efficient global resource allocation'. Further, it does not give any consideration to the social and environmental costs of the ongoing demands for growth.

The major purpose of the G-20 has been to bring greater stability to global markets. This was seen as particularly urgent in the wake of various economic and political crises, most notably in Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia across 1997 and 1998, and Mexico in 1994. As part of a response to these crises, a G-22 was convened in 1998 and a G-33 in 1999, with the G-20 emerging at the end of 1999.

Viewed in this light, the formation of the G-20 is one attempt to draw in and entrench key developing nations deemed central to the consolidation of a global market regime. This is not only important because of the potential access to domestic markets that member nations such as India and China might provide, or the role they play in supplying commodities to Northern economies. It is also an attempt to head off potential crises and instability within domestic markets that affect global economic growth, and to dramatically show the sharp contradictions on which neo-liberal economics are based.

If there are protests against the G-20 meeting in Melbourne during November, comparisons to the activist blockade against the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting at Crown Casino in September 2000 will be inevitable. Commonly known as S-11, a constant theme of these protests was the concern for the undemocratic character of organisations and forums that have been central in the promotion of neoliberal agendas, notably those undertaken by corporations, the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and the IMF, the World Trade Organisation, the G-8, as well as the WEF.

Attempting to respond to such concerns, the G-20 claims a 'high degree of representativeness and legitimacy' on the grounds that its members are drawn from all continents, comprise two-thirds of the world's population, and account for 90 per cent of the worlds Gross National Product. The G-20 even seeks to differentiate itself from other trade groupings, arguing that the 'G-20's broad representation of countries at different stages of development gives its consensus outcomes greater impact than those of the G-7'. Such claims are highly contestable.

Neither representative nor legitimate, the G-20 is an example of extraordinary concentrations of power. Like other such groupings, the G-20 is overwhelmingly male-dominated, comprising representatives from both 'democratic' and 'non-democratic' nations who work towards the interests of elites in their own particular constituencies. The fact that particular members of the G-20, such as China, are not representative of their populations is only to begin the critique without reflecting on the character of Western democracy.

The concerns about representation and the lack of legitimacy are further heightened by the lack of information and detail about what occurs inside such meetings. Information that is released to the public is often concealed by rhetoric or technical economic language. Perhaps most importantly, questions of representation and legitimacy remain undermined by the fact that the exclusive character of such groupings provides no opportunity for input by the vast majority of the world's nations, most notably the poorest.

The topic of 'energy and resources' listed in the available meeting briefs for the Melbourne event is a good example. The way it is presented gives the impression that the only concerns regarding increasing industrialisation are the potential effects of energy demands on economic growth. A whole spectrum of concerns, not least the effects of climate change on the entire globe, appear as if they will be not be considered in any way.

In challenging the legitimacy of the G-20 meeting and the agendas discussed in Melbourne, it will be vital that testimony by people who are affected by such trade groupings are highlighted. However, where S-11 was attended by spokespeople from communities within the Global South, in part to give testimony, such acts were subsequently mimicked by the advocates of neo-liberalism. The anti-WTO protests in Sydney in 2002, for example, saw independent spokespeople flown from developing countries to testify to the benefits of free trade for the poor. Such tactics should be expected again.

Meeting such tactical challenges are in addition to the rapidly changing approach to the policing of such protests in the current 'security climate'. Following S-11, no-one should be surprised at the willingness of police to use extensive violence, no matter the level of non-violent direct action adhered to by protesters.

These challenges will be unlikely to dissuade protesters opposing the G-20, though strategies will no doubt be adapted. Building a platform of public knowledge and information about a trade grouping that has otherwise managed to remain out of public view will be important to future opportunities to express dissent. This is especially as the Chair of the G-20 shifts to South Africa in 2007, another nation that has become renown for the government's embrace of neo-liberalism.

The G-20 welcomes enquiries at policy@g20.org and its homepage can be viewed at www.g20.org

Damian Grenfell is a Melbourne-based writer and works with the Globalism Institute, RMIT University.
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Author:Grenfell, Damian
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Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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