During its first decade, Attac has spearheaded the European and German debates about globalization, becoming an influential mass movement. The group was founded in France 10 years ago this week.
Attac advocates "global justice"
For Werner Raetz, the massive protests that greeted world leaders in northern Germany last year were the pinnacle of his four decades as an activist.
Twelve kilometers (7.5 miles) of security fencing separated the Group of Eight heads of state from tens of thousands of protestors from around Europe. Yet there was no question that their anti-globalization message was being heard by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"In Heiligendamm we showed that there are thousands of people in Germany who are critics of capitalist globalization," said Raetz, who helped Attac organize protests and blockades at the G8. "It showed that globalization criticism in Germany has really arrived."
Critique has been heard
Werner Raetz coordinated G8 activities for Attac
Attac Germany has taken on issues such as German labor market reforms, the US-led war in Iraq, health care reform, rail privatization and many others. The group’s biggest accomplishment to date has been forcing German politicians to at least give lip service to the need for socially responsible trade, said Raetz, who has a bushy white beard and matching hair.
Indeed, Attac has drawn support from across Germany's political spectrum. Both the polemic head of Die Linke, Oskar Lafontaine, as well as former former center-right Christian Democratic Union general secretary Heiner Geissler are members. So is BUND, Germany's largest environmental group.
Framing the debate
Attac has been a vocal critic of the WTO
Attac Germany, which formed in 2000, has about 18,000 members who focus much of their attention on local issues. While it’s not a particularly sexy topic, local Attac groups were extremely successful in getting their cities to put an end to cross-border leasing, where foreign companies were using German cities as tax shelters.
The jury is still out on the long-term influence of Attac and the anti-globalization movement in general, but public opinion polls and individual case studies show that they are making a difference, said Donatella Della Porta of the European University Institute in Florence, a leading researcher in the area of social movement organizations and their influence on global issues.
In Germany, Attac’s role in bringing social justice issues to the forefront helps explain the rise of the Left party, Oskar Lafontaine's political group made up of former communists and disgruntled Social Democrats, Della Porta said.
Anti-globalization's rallying cry
Protestors blockaded roads leading to the last G8 summit
Although it has activists in more than 40 countries, the majority of Attac's 90,000 members are European. Attac opposes neoliberal globalization, which advocates transferring economic control of the global economy to the private sector.
It has managed to turn a relatively abstract debate on taxes, trade and market inequalities into something tangible, bringing together environmental groups, trade unions and religious organizations.
Attac (inspired by the French acronym for Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens) originally rallied around a rather wonkish cause: a tax on currency speculation.
The so-called Tobin tax, as proposed by economist James Tobin in 1971, was pretty straightforward: Any time one currency was converted to another, a tax of 0.1 percent would be levied. Tobin imagined such a tax as a way to cushion exchange rate fluctuations. Attac proponents, however, saw it as a way of raising money which could be used to help ease poverty.
Both uses remained theoretical, as the tax was never introduced.
Muddying the debate?
Protestors and riot police clashed at the 2007 G8 summit
Attac quickly branched out from the tax issue to take on broader inequalities between rich and poor countries, but its original emphasis on taxing financial transactions still rankles in many economic circles. Most critics accuse Attac of having an inadequate understanding of the market economy and say that their proposals lack coherence.
Others accuse them of being protectionists. Attac has resisted the anti-globalization label often attached to it, stressing that it is not advocating isolationism and that it supports socially just, sustainable globalization.
Jagdish Bhagwati, a Colombia University professor who is an economics fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, said that he feels Attac places far too much emphasis on trying to get the Tobin tax implemented. The tax would raise major questions about who would make spending decisions, said Bhagwati, who has been an advisor on globalization issues to the United Nations and World Trade Organization.
Bhagwati said that with the benefits from freer trade and multinational equity, he feels Attac and other activists "muddy up these different dimensions of globalization,” which detracts from "informed public discourse."