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Making Poverty History

G8: Who are the Hijackers?

by MIKE MARQUSEE

"FROM July 6 to 8, violent extremists will be converging on Scotland," declares the Dissent Network, one of the groups planning militant opposition to the up-coming G8 summit, "They’ll be trying to meet at the Gleneagles hotel, and we’ll be trying to stop them." A neat inversion of the mainstream media presentation of what promises to be a symbolic confrontation with worldwide resonance.

On one side, the world’s most elite club, the leaders of the "Group of Eight" (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Britain and the United States), whose economies account for two-thirds of global wealth, but currently pour more money into pet food than international development. On the other, a diverse grassroots global justice movement determined to "make poverty history" — by forcing the G8 to cancel debt, increase aid and end unfair trade practises.

Remarkably, since its emergence into western consciousness with the Seattle protest of 1999, this movement has succeeded in making its cause so fashionable, that pop stars queue up to join its ranks (or at least be seen to join its ranks) and corporations vie to sponsor its initiatives. Even the politicians at whom the protests are aimed seem eager to be associated with the movement, when they’re not busy trying to demonise, divide or protect themselves from it.

Gleneagles was chosen as the site for the summit because it combines luxury with security. The 80-year-old French chateau style golf resort is set in 850 private acres of stunning Perthshire scenery. It’s remote by British standards, but not nearly remote enough to deter large numbers of protesters — which is why the police have banned a march to the resort planned for July 6.

For decades, Gleneagles was a high society fixture. After the London "season", it was yachting at Cowes, polo at Deauville and golf and grouse shooting at Gleneagles. These days the hotel relies on "Great Gatsby" discount packages to American tourists and the corporate conference business — of which the G8 gathering is the crème de la crème. Gleneagles is owned by Diageo plc, one of the planet’s biggest booze-merchants, whose brands include Johnnie Walker (over four bottles consumed worldwide every second), Guinness, Baileys, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan and Jose Cuervo. The company recently reported a half-year operating profit of £1.1 billion on a turnover of £4.98 billion — somewhat more than the United Kingdom will spend on aid for the whole of the current financial year.

Of course, the corporate connection, along with the expense (£150 million to the U.K. taxpayer) and five-star comforts, are being played down by the G8’s image-managers. Gleneagles is stocking up on fair trade coffee. The summit, we are told, is to be made "carbon neutral", thanks to a £50,000 grant for green projects in Africa. More significantly, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown have sought to paint themselves as champions of global justice. Brown has presented a modest debt-relief initiative (with stringent conditions, including the requirement that countries eliminate "impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign") and Blair has donned the "Make Poverty History" wristband created by NGOs organising what promises to be a 2,00,000 strong demonstration in Edinburgh on July 2.

The wristbands have become symbols not only of the cause but of attempts to incorporate and exploit it. More than a million of them were produced in Chinese sweatshops shamed by some of the world’s worst labour practices. And shops in the U.K. are selling a version of the wristband — personally endorsed by Bob Geldof — branded with the logos of companies accused of violating workers’ rights in developing countries, including fashion empire Tommy Hilfiger. The "exclusive online partner" for Geldof’s "Live 8" pop concerts (timed to step up the pressure on G8 leaders) is America Online, part of the Time Warner media behemoth, a beneficiary and sponsor of the very policies the musicians hope to challenge.
So while politicians and editors fret about "anarchists" hijacking the protests, global justice activists are entitled to ask just who the real hijackers are.

When not being treated as a threat to law and order, a domestic Al-Qaeda, these activists are subject to mockery and condescension. They are told to leave the making of history to wiser heads, to be "realistic", not to ask for too much. But despite the subtle and not so subtle attempts to blur the distinction between the agents of wealth and power and the agents of change, increasing numbers see through the public relations ruse. They compare the $50 billion increase in aid they’re calling for to the more than $150 billion cost of the U.S.’s war on Iraq, and they know that reality demands radicalism, not soft soap.

This essay originally appeared in the The Hindu.

MIKE MARQUSEE is the author of Chains of Freedom: the Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art and Redemption Song: Muhammed Ali and the Sixties. He can be reach through his website: www.mikemarqusee.com