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Bond, Patrick (2012) Populists confront US-European ‘1%’ Bilderbergers at Washington hotel. Eye on Civil Society : -.

Very near the Dulles International Airport west of Washington last weekend, I found myself a couple of dozen meters away from a formidable gathering of 150 powerbrokers – the Bilderberg Group (named after a Dutch hotel) – whose capacity to move money and influence events rivals even the G8 summit in Camp David and NATO military meeting in Chicago last month, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Spring Meeting in April, or the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January.

No, I wasn’t invited, but while passing through Washington, reckoned that this was the best opportunity to hear Bilderbergers’ critics from the populist strain of US civil society. Hundreds of protesters jammed the sidewalk, mainly boasting a libertarian ideology. Their main organizer, Alex Jones, has a radio audience of three million and a lurid website. The protesters hurled creative abuse at the black limousines rolling past towards the Chantilly Marriott Hotel entrance.

The Bilderberg group first met in Holland in 1954, co-hosted by Dutch royalty, Uniliver and the US Central Intelligence Agency. The group was a top-secret, intellectual and ideological ‘testing grounds for new initiatives for Atlantic unity,’ according to Sussex University scholar Kees van der Pijl.

Often compared to the Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations as key strategic role-players, the Bilderberg Group now has an official website which explains that its “regular, off-the-record discussions helped create a better understanding of the complex forces and major trends affecting Western nations in the difficult post-war period. The Cold War has now ended. But in practically all respects there are more, not fewer, common problems – from trade to jobs, from monetary policy to investment, from ecological challenges to the task of promoting international security.”

By inviting a few outside the US-Euro axis, Bilderberg organisers send signals about which regions are considered important – and Africa doesn’t feature. On this year’s agenda were “Transatlantic Relations, Evolution of the Political Landscape in Europe and the US, Austerity and Growth in Developed Economies, Cyber Security, Energy Challenges, the Future of Democracy, Russia, China and the Middle East.”

The 2012 guest list included the managers of international banks, oil and chemical companies, high tech firms, the World Bank and World Trade Organisation, plus rising government leaders and old imperialists like Henry Kissinger.

This crew is bound to draw the ire of many victims, yet instead of the kind of ‘Occupy’ protest I witnessed in London last month – a march through The City with leftist critics furious about parasitical banking practices – or at Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park last year, there was a more open paranoia about the conspiracies being hatched in the Virginia hotel.

These include everything from the vetting of top politicians – men like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama came here just as their star rose – to arranging potential world hyperinflation via the next bail-out round for the shaky financial sector. Mind you, some such conspiracy theories are sufficiently close enough to an accurate reading of power to be taken semi-seriously.

With Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish social pressure rising, we can anticipate many more such populist concerns about the anti-democratic IMF, European Central Bank and financial institutions. Even in South Africa, what with the mysterious men from Moody’s rating agency arm-twisting Pretoria and Sanral to reinstate e-tolling, it appears there are grounds for this sort of critique.

Yet these US right-leaning protesters’ fear of the elites has only superficial commonality with the Occupy movement’s more robust approach. The latter want a forward-moving ‘system change’ – as we heard from ‘Occupy COP17’ in Durban outside the climate summit last December – whereas nationalistic US nativism offers no grounds for broad-based alliances.

As a fairly typical protest banner here put it, “Warning to secret societies: you are pissing off American patriots. We have machine guns also.” This macho, self-described ‘paleo-conservative’ narrative plus the occasional undercurrent of anti-semitism is not language heard from Occupy’s collection of socialists, anarchists, liberals, Greens, labour, civic activists, youth and the progressive faith community.

The strongest political effort by these libertarian anti-Bilderberg protesters is to attempt the election of Texan member of Congress, Ron Paul, as president, and with 20 percent popularity, he remains Mitt Romney’s only irritant within the Republican Party as the November showdown with Obama now looms.

But with Obama continuing to molly-coddle Wall Street (still no prosecutions for the great 2008-09 financial theft) and openly declaring himself a militarist – personally approving drone assassinations in the Middle East and delighting in the Stuxnet cyberwar attack on Iran, according to The New York Times last week – the paranoid streak about Washington’s surveillance and proto-fascistic policing also resonates.

So long as they leave their guns behind, I wish them well, because to have directed a great deal more media attention and popular hostility against the ‘1% of the 1%’ gathered in the Marriot last weekend, was a public service that the rest of our world should now build upon. But hopefully, with political values more aligned to rainbow than Rambo.

Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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