Another World Is Possible

01 November 2001
Article

In this space last year ("Carte Blanche, Bête Noire", Winter 2000), I described some aspects of the emerging European and worldwide movement against corporate-driven globalization, ending on an optimistic note ("it's... a great time to be politically alive"). A year on, I'd say it's greater still. The movement is gaining strength, exudes self-confidence, and has chalked up some partial victories. Young people are joining in droves and the adversary is, if not yet on the ropes, at least a bit dazed by the breadth and determination of the offensive.

The media in some countries still try hard to treat the genus "protester" as a marginal curiosity rather than a political animal. The Washington Post reported on the April demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the "Style" section, stressing hair, nose rings, and body art. In Europe, however, and particularly in France, the press has been obliged to accept and report on the new actors that have arisen alongside transnational corporations and governments. The media now provide at least a capsule version of our message.

"Seattle" has become shorthand for a turning point, marking the moment when the anti-globalization forces thrust themselves upon the mainstream consciousness. As I write, the Seattle era has barely celebrated its first birthday, yet some incredible events have occurred.

Actually, I refuse the term "anti-globalization" that the media have lumbered us with. This combat is really between those who want inclusive globalization based on cooperation and solidarity and those who want the market to make all the decisions. Thomas Friedman, an ardent apostle of the latter view, puts it perfectly in his book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree",: as your country is forced to accept the new, neoliberal rules, "your economy grows and your politics shrink". (In fact, your economy doesn't necessarily grow, and certainly not as much as between 1950-1975, but that's another story, one Friedman chooses not to tell.)

Protesters, on the other hand, think politics should be stretched and expanded so as to engender a radically new kind of internationalism. People my age cut their political teeth in anti-colonial, anti-imperialist solidarity movements - for Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, South Africa, and the like. This time it's different. There is a genuine and growing sense that all ordinary people, wherever they live, are in this together. We have the same grievances and sense of injustice; we have, above all, the same enemies, even though the trade unionists, environmentalists, and cultural workers of the North lead far more comfortable lives than globalization's myriad losers in the South. No one denies that the chief victims are the billion people living on less than a dollar a day and the three billion - half the world - making do with less than two dollars per day. But suddenly the injuries they endure seem relevant to us all.

The fight is also about making new and different rules. The media stress lawlessness - and there is some on the part of a tiny fraction of those who have taken to the streets - but on the whole the protesters are studiously nonviolent and want enforceable rules. They understand that the notion of "deregulation" is a sham. States may be downsizing their regulatory arsenals, but new rules are being made all the time at the international level by organizations most see as fronts for transnational corporations and that no citizen has a prayer of influencing unless it's by blocking their meetings.

Old war horses like me who have spent decades writing and speaking about such austere topics as the horrors of world hunger, third world debt, the World Bank or the World Trade Organization (WTO), gaze in wonder at this new movement, hopeful that we might have had something to do with it. Perhaps we did - at least I doubt that it emerged full-blown from the head of Zeus - but whatever its roots, there has never before existed such instinctual one-worldism, at least not in my experience. Young people especially seem to find it completely normal to come out in large numbers and quite possibly get their heads bashed over issues like structural adjustment, sweatshops and unfair trade policies whose impacts are mostly felt thousands of miles away from their own precincts.

In France, a two-and-a-half-year-old organization called the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions in Aid of Citizens (ATTAC) has 27,000 members, 170 local committees, several cross-cutting sectoral affinity groups (culture, Africa, Mediterranean, trade, and so on) and is growing steadily in 16 other countries. Despite its name, its concerns go beyond obtaining a "Tobin Tax" on international currency transactions and include third world debt, the international financial institutions, the protection of public pension funds, and, most recently, the WTO. This movement, like many others, is helping people to understand how globalization works and for whom; its activists are in the streets for every major political rendezvous. In fact, more French people demonstrated in twenty-some different cities in solidarity with Seattle than came out in Seattle itself.

And then there was the extraordinary trial of José Bové and his nine small-farmer comrades at the end of June - at least eighty thousand people turned up in the sleepy town of Millau (population twenty thousand) to support the sheep farmers who dismantled a McDonald's to protest just about everything from the proliferation of junk food and hormone-fed beef to US cultural dominance and the power of the WTO. The whole world must by now be familiar with this mustachioed folk hero, the beginning of whose saga I reported here last year.

So the climate is improving and the spirit is there. The problem is that we haven't actually forced the corporate globalizers and their hench-organizations to change. Yes, we got rid of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment; yes, we've won temporarily on some genetically modified organism issues; yes, a couple of meetings got short-circuited or shut down. But the same old people with their same old policies are still firmly in place. We have a long way to go before we win.

Even when they retire, the globalizers are not rebuked but instead - I weigh my words - glorified. Take the case of Michel Camdessus, head of the IMF for thirteen long years during which millions of lives were destroyed or shortened by IMF-devised structural adjustment policies, all of which he oversaw and approved.

The Vatican has now named the selfsame Camdessus to its Justice and Peace Commission in charge of defining social policy for the church. When Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize, we had to recognize that there are moments when political satire cannot compete with reality; so it is with Camdessus in his new chair. As for the IMF, structural adjustment hatchet man Stanley Fischer is still in the number-two slot behind the new German managing director, Horst Köhler.

For years the IMF's blanket excuse for mayhem inflicted on ordinary people in southern and eastern countries was, "We are not a development agency". Now, all of a sudden, "We" are. At least "We" have changed our rhetoric so that the "Extended Structural Adjustment Facility" has become the "Poverty Reduction and Growth Fund", although no transformation of the content is perceptible. As in magical thinking, the name of the thing acts upon the thing itself.

James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, also talks a good game. No one is more affected by the plight of the poor than he; his speech at the annual General Meeting in Prague was a model of hand-wringing concern. Wolfensohn nonetheless ditched his chief economist, Joe Stiglitz, who dared to criticize structural adjustment and the Washington Consensus. It is widely rumored that Stiglitz was a thorn in the side of US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers; that the latter rang up Wolfensohn to say, "Jim, if you want another five years at the bank, Joe must go". Be that as it may, the only man at the bank who was telling at least a part of the truth got the sack. Except, that is, for Ravi Kanbur, another honorable bank economist and chief author of its flagship World Development Report on poverty, who resigned rather than let Summers rewrite substantial portions of his text.

Resistance to Pressure

Neither of these institutions has wavered on the issue of third world debt in spite of the millions of signatures collected and the huge numbers of people demonstrating thanks to the organizing efforts of Jubilee 2000. The debt is higher than ever, and there was, in fact, a regression in commitments between the G7 meetings in Cologne in 1999 and Okinawa in 2000. The IMF even managed to tell Mozambique, arguably the poorest country in the world, that it didn't have to pay a hundred million dollars in debt service after its devastating floods, only seventy-three million dollars.

Across the pond at the WTO, services negotiations are moving forward in the framework of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Seattle couldn't stop this new stage of liberalization because it had been mandated in Marrakesh when the WTO was created. Transparency and accountability reach new nadirs on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the minutes of the all-important working groups are posted ten to twelve months after their meetings occur.

"Services" under GATS includes public transport, health, education, environmental, and cultural services - 160 areas in all. Whereas Americans benefit from virtually no public services (the postal service comes to mind but little else), Europeans, who have many, are deeply and rightfully suspicious of their negotiators' intentions. Our governments and the European trade commissioner Pascal Lamy keep reassuring us that our excellent public health insurance and generally good public school systems are not in jeopardy, yet Lamy's chief services negotiator has, for example, announced that "health and education are ripe for liberalization".

Lamy himself told a recent meeting of the US Council for International Business in New York that "If we [Europeans] want to improve our own access to foreign markets then we can't keep our protected sectors out of the sunlight. We have to be open to negotiating them all if we are going to have the material for a big deal. In the US and the EU [European Union], that means some pain in some sectors but gain in many others and I think we both know that we are going to have to bite the bullet to get what we want". He has not yet announced what "pain" he is prepared to accept on behalf of his fellow Europeans.

Lamy is also pushing for changes in the EU Amsterdam Treaty that would give him "fast-track" powers in trade negotiations like the ones President Clinton was refused by the US Congress. If he gets his way, individual governments will no longer be able to veto agreements concluded by the EU. National parliaments will have nothing to say, while the largely toothless European Parliament will be "consulted".

Carrion Capitalism

The usual suspects, some of whose deeds are described above, are, whether they know it and like it or not, front men. I try not to use the word "globalization" now without a qualifier such as "market-driven" or "corporate-led", because Transnational Corporations (TNCs) are its real motors. The TNCs had a rather good year 2000, rounding out the twentieth century with the biggest buying binge in history. In 1999, they carried out more than six thousand trans-border mergers and acquisitions, mostly the latter, for a total of $720 billion. More than a hundred of these were mega-deals involving over a billion dollars; totals for M and As, as they say in the trade, are fully expected to surpass the trillion dollar mark by the end of 2000.

Financial crises like those in Asia, Russia, or Latin America have their uses, weakening foreign firms and rendering them vulnerable to takeover artists. Several brokerage houses and hedge funds have set up "vulture funds", whose only mission is to seek out wounded companies and those whose privatization is being forced by the World Bank-IMF tandem. Perhaps we could coin a phrase and call it "carrion capitalism"?

The outcome of this ballet of the trans-border billions is huge and growing concentration in every sector. The dangers are obvious, particularly for smaller, weaker countries, but also for employees and consumers who are not going to get many benefits when the entire world has become a collection of giant oligopolies.

Meanwhile, US corporations are enjoying a fiscal field day. Between 1996 and 1998, several dozen of the most prominent US firms either paid no federal taxes at all (and in addition got refunds and credits) or paid far less, at much lower rates, than they theoretically owed. Corporate profits flew off the charts during this period (up by more than 23 percent), yet income to the US treasury from the corporate sector grew by only 7.7 percent.

Perhaps the treasury should thank its lucky stars for even that, given that tax shelters are extraordinarily thick on the ground. Companies have recently discovered the highly effective dodge of stock options, which for tax purposes are counted as an expense but do not count against profits as reported to shareholders. So you can reward your top executives beyond any historical precedent while graciously allowing ordinary tax-paying citizens to shoulder the burden of financing public goods.

Oh yes, Microsoft and Cisco Systems paid zero federal tax in 1999. All this and more can be gleaned from a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in Washington. A representative of the Tax Executives Institute commented to Bloomberg News that "There is nothing in the report that suggests that any of this results from any illegal or improper activity". Quite so. That's precisely the problem.

To sum up, the climate may be far better than it was, but so far we haven't actually won anything from the worldwide corporate government. We need more people and better organization if we mean to start changing that. Anyone who wants to join this fight will have a reasonably good time, valuable comrades, and a huge amount of unpaid if rewarding work over a long haul.

I sent this piece to Dissent before the result of the US elections was clear. I don't vote in the United States, because I don't have to live with the choice of the US electorate - at least not directly - and as a French citizen I can exercise my democratic rights where I live. But had I voted, it would have been for Ralph Nader. There comes a time when enough is enough, when you have to say that "another world is possible", which is the slogan of ATTAC. That is also the message of Seattle and all the mini-Seattles. The Democratic Party is basically happy with the world we've got. I think the whole point of politics right now is to fight for a different one. Another world isn't just possible - it's indispensable.

Copyright 2001 Dissent Magazine