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Washington’s Sacre du Printemps

Will the IMF spring meetings become an annual ritual for others besides finance ministers?

April 21, 2000

Will the IMF spring meetings become an annual ritual for others besides finance ministers?

Spring has always been regarded by poets and artists as a time of rebirth. For most of them, this rebirth has quaint and pastoral connotations. But for some — and none more so than Russian composer Igor Stravinsky — the annual renewal comes with spring is tumultuous and violent. Had the thousands of demonstrators who protested the IMF and World Bank’s Spring Meetings erupted in Seattle-style violence, Stravinsky’s churning ballet — The Rite of Spring — would have been the appropriate theme music.

Even now, almost 90 years after its 1913 premiere in Paris, the “Rite of Spring” can still strike harshly on the ears of the uninitiated listener. At Paris’s Theatre des Champs-Elysées — in an era when symphonic music was held in much higher regard than today — the audience needed only to hear the first few bars of Stravinsky’s new work before starting a riot.

As the music began, the audience immediately found itself split into two camps. One group, intrigued by the modernity of the work, wanted to hear more of the music. The other, abhorring the piece for the same reason, began laughing and jeering loudly. Confronting each other, the two groups brought the concert to an abrupt halt, wrecking the theater in the process.

One can draw certain instructive parallels between Stravinsky’s “Spring” debacle and the IMF’s. Just as the concert goers probably were convinced that Stravinsky’s score was either brilliant or bunk, the IMF and its protesters are both convinced that they are doing the right thing.

While IMF and World Bank officials concede that their organizations will need to adapt to changing priorities for the developing world, they are firmly convinced that their organizations have a important role to play — and that their work is valuable.Their opponents seem equally convinced that the opposite is true. The World Bank and the IMF are the servants of a conspiracy by multinational corporations to profit from the labor of poor developing countries.

As a standoff between two groups with such incompatible views, Washington’s anti-IMF protest clearly had the potential to spark off a violent clash. But it did happen. The demonstrators — who numbered as many as 10,000 on the protest’s first day — dwindled to barely a thousand as a steady, cold rain poured down on them. They marched in the streets and chanted anti-IMF and anti-World Bank slogans. They danced and banged drums.

In that sense, they behaved very much like the pagan ritualists in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” But unlike Stravinsky’s virgin, they did not dance themselves to death in a Spring sacrifice — unless you can count the 700 or so people who had themselves voluntarily arrested as having made a sacrifice.No, while the protesters heaped scorn on the IMF and the World Bank and blamed those institutions for any number of abuses and problems in the Third World, we are not aware that they blamed them for rain that put such a damper on their protest. In fact, it was one of the Spring Meeting’s participants, a leading European economist, who noted: “The IMF even controls the rain! No one should dare mess with an institution that is powerful enough to do that!”