|s a social movement, ATTAC may seem puzzling
at first glance. The symbol of the movement is a percentage
sign, the name is a technical acronym and ATTAC itself seems
to operate as a very loose network, its name cropping up in
places ranging from academic literature and parliamentary debates
through to mass demonstrations.
Explaining the growth of such a movement is at best tentative,
yet it has certainly found common ground in the majority of
European countries and beyond, playing a major role in the
conferences and workshops at the European Social Forum in
The initials stand for a name that seems innocuous enough,
not even perhaps very interesting - The Association for the
Taxation of financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens
- but when ATTAC started in France in 1998, it created a furore.
It was inspired by James Tobin's idea for the Tobin Tax, a
tax on financial currency transactions. Every day, banks and
financial institutions make profits on currency exchanges
that range into billions.
Under current legislation, these profits are not taxed. James
Tobin proposed that taxing currency transactions would reduce
the up-and-down spirals of currencies and reduce the risk
of currency crises, such as the Asian Crisis in 1997 to 1998.
With the plight of developing countries foremost in mind,
ATTAC took this idea one step further and argued that the
revenue from this tax should be allocated to worthwhile global
goals (hence its double name of the Robin Hood tax).
The European Commission calculated recently that even a modest
turnover tax of 0.01% could generate around $20bn per year,
effectively adding nearly 50% more to direct foreign aid (or
accounting for double the Global AIDS Fund that Kofi Annan
proposed at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations, which
is still on hold).
ATTAC spread rapidly throughout Europe, including Spain, Sweden,
Germany, Finland and Denmark, and now has over 80,000 members.
With the growing awareness of the part that financial markets
play in the imbalance between the rich North and the developing
South, ATTAC's overall aim has grown since the Tobin Tax.
It now also campaigns for the abolition of tax havens for
reasons of tax evasion, money laundering and criminal activity
(including terrorism), and it also campaigns for cancellation
of Third World debt and better secured state pensions (effectively
abolishing private pension funds). A main campaign being waged
at the moment is against GATS.
The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is a World
Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement. Whilst the majority of
WTO agreements concern the trade in products, GATS proposes
to liberalise the global trade in services, which may include
anything from waste disposal to health provision. It aims
to increase international trade in services by removing 'unnecessary'
restrictions and government regulations that may be 'barriers'
to trade. These 'unnecessary' restrictions are usually environmental
concerns, regulations ensuring minimum provision of vital
utilities like water or electricity, and generally accommodating
democratically decided local and national preferences on how
these services should be provided.
In January 2002, the ATTAC London local group was founded
and one of its first preoccupations was how it should operate
in the UK. It was decided to adopt the decentralized model
of organisation as used by ATTAC Sweden, which relies on local
group co-ordination of campaigns and other activities on a
national level. A consensus was therefore reached to first
form a network of autonomous local ATTAC groups, and only
then to think about creating a national organisation. In this
way, the principle of working 'from the bottom up' was adopted
as a more effective way of building a participatory and democratic
Local groups can reflect more truthfully the concerns of
their members and also give members the opportunity to try
out different types of self-organisation and approaches to
democracy, as long as they follow the principles of the ATTAC
platform. In addition, local groups can concentrate on those
issues which interest them most. So ATTAC Jersey, as one would
expect, is concentrating on tax havens. Most decisions are
made by a process of discussion - either at meetings or via
mailing lists, which are archived for the purpose of transparency
- and an important tool linking all the groups is the ATTAC
Britain website (www.attac.org.uk), as well as an online collaborative
editing tool called WIKI, where people can view and contribute
to all work in progress.
The explanation for ATTAC's rapid growth in just over four
years lies in the fact that the essence of ATTAC is its simplicity
and its belief in democracy. Instead of financial flows hiding
money in tax havens and making money by crashing central bank
reserves, speculating on our pensions and taking interest
from the poorest countries' debt, it is citizens, not bankers,
who should decide how the economy is shaped, and which industries
are to be privatised and how money should be distributed.
It is a question of placing the democratic principles of governance
before the interests of international finance. As ATTAC says:
it is simply about regaining, together, the future of our