ricardo dominguez on Fri, 8 Jun 2001 13:02:55 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Simulating Democracy Can Be A Virtual Breeze

Simulating Democracy Can Be A Virtual


By Norman Solomon

Few media eyebrows went up when the
World Bank recently canceled a global
meeting set for Barcelona in late June
-- and shifted it to the Internet.
Thousands of street demonstrators would
have been in Spain's big northeastern
port city to confront the conference.
Cyberspace promises to be a much more
serene location.

The World Bank is eager to portray its
decision as magnanimous, sparing
Barcelona the sort of upheaval that has
struck Seattle, Prague, Quebec City and
other urban hosts of international
economic summits. "A conference on
poverty reduction should take place in a
peaceful atmosphere free from heckling,
violence and intimidation," says a World
Bank official, adding that "it is time
to take a stand against this kind of
threat to free expression."

A senior adviser to the huge lending
institution offered this explanation:
"We decided that you can't have a
meeting of ideas behind a cordon of
police officers." Presumably, the
meeting of ideas will flourish behind a
cordon of passwords, bytes and pixels.

If hackers can be kept at bay, the few
hundred participants in the Annual Bank
Conference on Development Economics will
be able to conduct a lovely forum over
the Internet. The video conferencing
system is likely to be state-of-the-art,
making possible a modern and bloodless
way to avoid uninvited perspectives.

The World Bank's retreat behind virtual
walls may fulfill its goal of keeping
the riffraff away, with online discourse
going smoothly, but vital issues remain
-- such as policies that undercut
essential government services in poor
countries, while promoting privatization
and user fees for access to health care
and education.

"The objectives of the World Bank with
this failed conference were simply an
image-washing operation," said a
statement from a Barcelona-based
campaign that had worked on planning for
the demonstrations. Now, the World Bank
is depicting itself as the injured

Protest organizers are derisive about
the Bank's media spin: "The
representatives of the globalized
capitalism feel threatened by the
popular movements against globalization.
They, who meet in towers surrounded by
walls and soldiers in order to stay
apart from the people whom they oppress,
wish to appear as victims. They, who
have at their disposal the resources of
the planet, complain that those who have
nothing wanted to have their voice

The World Bank's gambit of seeking
refuge in cyberspace should be a wake-up
call to activists who dream that
websites and email are
paradigm-shattering tools of the people.
Some who take it for granted that "the
revolution will not be televised" seem
to hope that their revolution will be

But there's nothing inherently
democratizing about the Internet. In
fact, it has developed into a prodigious
conduit of political and cultural
propaganda, distributed via centrally
edited mega-networks. America Online has
27 million subscribers, the New
Internationalist magazine noted
recently. "They spend an incredible 84
percent of their Internet time on AOL
alone, which provides a regulated
leisure and shopping environment
dominated by in-house brands -- from
Time magazine to Madonna's latest

At the same time that creative advocates
for social change are routinely putting
the Internet to great use, powerful
elite bodies like the World Bank are
touting online innovations as democratic
models -- while striving to elude the
reach of progressive grassroots

If, in 1968, the Democratic National
Convention had been held in cyberspace
instead of in Chicago, on what streets
would the antiwar protests have
converged? If, on Inauguration Day this
year, the swearing-in ceremony for
George W. Bush had taken place virtually
rather than at one end of Pennsylvania
Avenue, where would people have gathered
to hold up their signs saying "Hail to
the Thief"?

Top officials of the World Bank are onto
something. In a managerial world,
disruption must be kept to an absolute
minimum. If global corporatization is to
achieve its transnational potential, the
discourse among power brokers and their
favorite thinkers can happen everywhere
at once -- and nowhere in particular.
Let the troublemakers try to interfere
by doing civil disobedience in

In any struggle that concentrates on a
battlefield of high-tech communications,
the long-term advantages are heavily
weighted toward institutions with
billions of dollars behind them.
Whatever our hopes, no technology can
make up for a lack of democracy.

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