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Against this globalization

Domenico Pacitti talks to Vittorio Agnoletto

Vittorio Agnoletto recently represented the Italian movement at the international council of the World Social Forum. In 1987, just two years after graduating in industrial medicine at Milan’s state university, he co-founded LILA, the Italian League for the Fight against AIDS and was president from 1992 until November 2001. Agnoletto has been a member of the International AIDS Society since 1999 and has written various books and over 100 articles on AIDS-related issues. I talked with him this spring. 

PACITTI: The Italian movement that you represent is commonly referred to by the media here in Italy as the “no global” or anti-globalization movement. Do you accept this denomination? 

AGNOLETTO: Not at all. In fact, it’s quite misleading. We are not opposed to globalization as such, but simply to the present form of globalization. 

PACITTI: Could you outline the sort of globalization that the movement is opposed to and the sort you wish to promote? 

AGNOLETTO: We are against the globalization of profits in a world dominated by economic considerations in the absence of political rules. That is our basic position. We support the globalization of rights, for example, safeguarding the rights of all those who work. That means demanding respect for trade union rights throughout the world, including full maternity and health rights. 

Globalizing rights means protecting the environment, so that signing the Kyoto agreement is an indispensable first step. It means refusing to accept a world in which over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. It means the refusal to believe in a world in which nearly a billion people still have no access to drinking water. 

On the other hand, we have realistic aims and are not just idle dreamers. According to both UNICEF and a recent UN development program, it would require the relatively modest figure of U.S.$80 billion to supply everyone with drinking water, a decent food diet, and basic health care. Here in Italy we have proposed the Tobin tax. If it were to be applied to the world’s eight stock markets simultaneously, it would go a long way towards remedying poverty and hunger. 

We are certainly not advocating a return to the Stone Age. Computers and the Internet are fundamental. But we want to see a world with a different development. That is why we oppose institutions that are illegitimate—the WTO or G-8, which was never elected by anyone to govern the world. 

We wish to see a new role for UNO that would allow it to make political decisions, a less bureaucratic UNO in which everyone would have the right to vote and no one the right of veto. That is why we are opposed to the IMF and World Bank. 

PACITTI: What exactly are the components of the movement in Italy and how many organizations are there? 

AGNOLETTO: The Italian movement is quite distinctive in that it did not arise suddenly, but was the result of the work carried out by hundreds of associations and groups that began working in specific areas from the mid-1980s. Many of these people had previously been engaged in political activities. 

Following the cultural defeat of the left, which preceded its political defeat, each of us began working in his or her own specific specialist field. In my own case, that has meant 15 years in the AIDS field fighting to have the rights of HIV-positive people upheld. Others have been carrying out parallel work in other fields. 

PACITTI: Has your own work been limited to Italy? 

AGNOLETTO: I do a lot of work in the Balkans and am involved in solidarity intervention programs in South Africa and Nigeria. In 1996 new medicines began to appear. Protease inhibitors are a particularly important example. They completely transform the lives of AIDS sufferers. Since 1996 their administration has prolonged life expectancy by 16-18 years. 

Meanwhile, we know that almost 95 percent of HIV-positive people are unable to use the inhibitors on account of their high cost —about U.S.$10,000 a year per person. 

When we ask why this medicine is so expensive and whether its high price is somehow an unalterable fact of life, we discover that there is absolutely no relation between market price and research and production costs and that the reason for this is because they are running a monopoly. 

PACITTI: Would you name some of the people we’re talking about here? 

AGNOLETTO: GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott, and Merck [based respectively in England, Illinois, and New Jersey]. Those are the main ones. 

PACITTI: How is it that they are allowed to run a monopoly? 

AGNOLETTO: Because the WTO has established a patent regulation that guarantees the interests of these corporations for over 20 years. It safeguards the intellectual ownership of such medicines and that means that no one else is allowed to produce them. So if we want to defend the rights of HIV-positive people, we have to fight against the WTO. 

PACITTI: How united is the Italian movement, given the fact that it reflects a wide cross-section of opinion? 

AGNOLETTO: A fundamental characteristic of the Italian movement is that it is wholly united. This is something that is quite unique in Europe and perhaps even in the world. 

PACITTI: How did this come about? 

AGNOLETTO: It goes back to Genoa. In order to contest the G-8 Summit, in November 2000 we drew up a plan of action that stressed the ideals that held us together and set out our common objectives and programs. At a certain point we realized that we needed a spokesperson to speak for the whole movement and I was nominated. 

PACITTI: When was this exactly? 

AGNOLETTO: It was in May 2001 during the lead-up to the Genoa Social Forum. The November 2000 plan of action document was signed by 1,000 associations—600 Italian and 400 foreign. 

After Genoa, social forums began to spring up throughout Italy as a response to state repression and in order to help carry forward our plans and programs. Today we have over 130 social forums in Italy—virtually one in every key town and area. This spring, we held our National Social Forum convention and did some more organizing. We hold a national convention every two or three months and a coordinating group meets once a month with one representative from each social forum and representatives from each of the national associations.  

PACITTI: So what’s the next step? 

AGNOLETTO: This document now has to be signed by the 130 local social forums and also by all the national associations, which run into hundreds. We have a coordinating group for every social forum and one for every association, which meets every month. Then we have six national work groups that work on different themes. One of these themes is no to war and terrorism. Another work group organizes our presence at every meeting of FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization].  

A second work group organized for the world meeting of FAO held this June in Rome. A third group is organizing the ESF. A fourth is dealing with immigrant labor. There are also a couple of others. Each group will establish two, three, or four spokespeople, but one only on the respective themes of each group. 

PACITTI: Given the present adverse political situation in Italy in terms of the Silvio Berlusconi government and the left’s weak opposition and disarray, isn’t there a political role for your movement? 

AGNOLETTO: We are essentially a social movement with social, cultural, and political objectives and a social movement we must remain. I am totally opposed to any transformation of this movement into a political party. 

PACITTI: But do you believe you can influence politicians sufficiently from outside the political arena? 

AGNOLETTO: Our proposals always command the maximum attention and even succeed in dividing individual parties. We are working for the reorganization of the left and I am in favor of an organization of the left that is genuinely alternative, substantially pluralist, and non-ideological. The fact that we are working towards this objective doesn’t mean that the movement has to be transformed into a political party. 

The movement raises problems and proposes issues and it does so with such vigor that it upsets and divides the political framework, which we also try to put together again with the hypothesis of an alternative left, but not by transforming ourselves. As a movement we are much stronger than a political organization. So in all these months the real opposition to the Berlusconi government has been our movement, which has held open the door of democracy and resistance. 

PACITTI: How do you feel media indoctrination is faring in Italy? 

AGNOLETTO: Italy has a very large and varied media with a particularly high number of local television networks, probably more than any other European country. Ours is the so-called nation of the thousand towns and cities each of which has one or two daily newspapers, but the ownership is concentrated in very few hands. Berlusconi owns three national TV networks in addition to major publishing houses. He recently helped a group of entrepreneurs to prevent Italia 7 from becoming an independent TV network. 

PACITTI: Can we quantify the sort of damage that’s being done? 

AGNOLETTO: Well, the risk is that we could be getting information that is all one way. The risk is that people don’t know what’s happening and that they confuse television with reality. 

PACITTI: Do you have any particular cases in mind? 

AGNOLETTO: Take a look at the way Genoa was handled. We won the information battle in Genoa because we were able to develop an alternative network of radios, newspapers, and magazines to counter misinformation. We won because thousands of people working within the Italian cinema gave us their support. They filmed what actually happened and flooded all the TV networks with their videotapes so that the truth got shown. 

The point is that the journalists who had been sent to Genoa by those same newspapers were meanwhile writing the truth and were producing articles for the local news pages, which went in our favor. So, on the one hand, you had the prestigious front-page article by the editorialist writing under pressure from the ownership and attacking us; and, in the local news pages where the articles were written by people who had actually been there and witnessed what had happened, they only had to tell the truth and we were automatically being defended. 

The government would have liked to close the Genoa affair with the claim that it had all been about a subversive movement organized by Vittorio Agnoletto. But all the documentation showed that this was untrue. So, despite being in a country where all the main networks are under the control of the government and Berlusconi, we displayed a great capacity to counter misinformation. The problem is that this great capacity to counter misinformation is something we are only able to produce at the high points in a conflict. We obviously aren’t able to get through to people in this way every day. 

PACITTI: Say something about the positive results of the World Social Forum 2 in Porto Alegre last February. 

AGNOLETTO: No one can call us “no global” after Porto Alegre because we demonstrated that we are in favor of another type of globalization. Secondly, no one can accuse us of being only capable of protesting since there were 900 work groups, all perfectly capable of proposing alternatives. At Porto Alegre we succeeded in showing how a union between the movements of the north and the large mass movements and populations of the south is not a union built purely on ideology and solidarity. We are fighting battles in which we have common interests. 

That another world is possible is fundamental. But it is the only world that is possible and we want that world also for ourselves. 

PACITTI: What would you say is the lesson we should learn from 9/11? 

AGNOLETTO: The lesson is that the only real antidote to terrorism is our movement. We have been accused of providing a fertile terrain for terrorism. It is rather neoliberal policies that provide such a terrain. If we succeed in consolidating as a world movement and manage to obtain a few victories—we also need to win a few times—we’ll become more credible in the eyes of the great masses in the world’s south. Terrorism has nothing whatsoever to do with our movement. That is why we are building the African Social Forum and the Asian Social Forum and giving spaces to the alternative movements. So we remain the only antidote to terrorism to the same extent that we can succeed in our battle against neoliberalism. In producing hunger and poverty, neoliberalism is the very cradle of terrorism.

Note: This article was published by Z Magazine, July/August 2002, Vol.15, No.7.