Conference in "Gigantinho"

25 January 2003

Dear Friends, dear Comrades,

Look around you. It is a miracle that we should be together here at all. Even five years ago, no one, not even the most optimistic among us, could have imagined the size and scope of this movement. In historical terms, the four years since Seattle, the three gatherings here in Porto Alegre are nothing, a mere blink of the eye. What we have all accomplished in this brief moment is breathtaking. So we should see our presence here and the very existence of this movement and of the World Social Forum as a great victory.

We've been asked to deal specifically this evening with transnational corporations and financial markets. I want to do this as briefly as possible particularly since this has been so eloquently accomplished by the three previous speakers. The first gathering in Porto Alegre in 2001 was intended to analyse the world situation. The second, in 2002, concentrated on proposals for alternatives. This year, we are supposed to be thinking about strategies for bringing about the changes we all hope for. So I will assume people here are aware of the basics on both transnational corporations, or TNCs, and financial markets. My real goal is to talk about strategies, not just concerning TNCs and financial markets but the strategies of the movement in general.

The top 200 TNCs produce almost a quarter of measured world production or GNP but they employ fewer and fewer people compared to their sales. All together, the 60.000 or so transnationals employ less than one percent of the world's available workforce, so don't count on them to provide significant employment. For corporations, labour is a cost and they will necessarily keep their costs as low as possible.

Trade between branches of the same company accounts for over a third of world trade-in other words, IBM is trading with IBM or Ford with Ford. So it is not surprising that trade rules and the WTO itself are designed to satisfy the needs of these companies.

Perhaps not all companies are as dishonest and predatory as the ones like ENRON which so spectacularly failed last year. However, the present economic crisis demonstrates that everyone in the corporate and financial world was cooperating in the recent scandals. Auditors were approving fraudulent accounts, financial analysts were telling people to buy stocks which they themselves were selling; financial journalists were hyping the "boom" while the banks were loaning more to customers they never should have loaned to in the first place. Everyone went along, and in the case of ENRON, that includes the Vice-President and the President of the United States Dick Cheney and George Bush.

But what else would you expect? Directors sold their stocks at the peak because they alone knew what shape the companies were really in. Ordinary workers lost their pensions and their health insurance. Yet the surprising thing is that people were so universally surprised. Everyone who knew what was happening behaved in his or her self-interest, which is exactly what people are supposed to do in a capitalist society. Altruism and ethics have no place in the boardroom. Some people believe that this system can be changed enough to give transnational capitalism a "human face". I am afraid I do not share their optimism.

The fashion now in corporate circles is something called Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR which in English at least can also stand for Corporate Self-Regulation. Because self-regulation is the point. The one thing companies do NOT want is binding laws governing their conduct, particularly at the global level. The opposition of the TNCs should show us the way: we need binding laws and we need to tax them internationally as well.

Some individual companies may improve their behaviour and we shouldn't discourage them; but when corporations act collectively, as they so often do, ethics and social responsibility are forgotten. Corporate lobbies are extremely effective in obtaining what they want from governments. Agreements under the World Trade Organisation, particularly its Agreements on Services [the GATS] and on Intellectual Property [TRIPs] show that corporations are attempting to place a series of new and extremely lucrative areas firmly inside the marketplace. Health, education, culture, the environment including water and living organisms are all now, thanks to corporate influence, part of the corporate domain.

They also hope to add investment and government purchases to the long list of new profit-making activities.

I shall go even faster on the issue of financial markets. The continuing crises over the past decade have shown that borders open to speculative capital will produce one catastrophe after another. Argentina is only the latest in a series, although it is surely one of the most severe. And it won't be the last. The only countries which have survived the onslaughts of financial speculation in relatively good shape are those that have placed some controls on inflows and especially outflows of capital.

After the fiascos in Argentina, Russia, Indonesia and so many other countries you would think governments would insist on replacing the IMF. Yet the Fund is still imposing freedom of capital inflows and outflows on indebted countries. Only countries not undergoing Fund-supervised structural adjustment like Chile, Malaysia or China have enjoyed the luxury of making their own policies.

Now let me come back to the issue of strategy. What do these few quick observations about corporations and financial markets tell us? First, let's recognise that exhortation and persuasion will get us nowhere. It's no good repeating that this or that "should" or "must" happen. Wealth and power never willingly share. Dominant classes do not give up their privileges. In fact, they always want more. Nothing is ever enough. Those in power will not protect the environment simply because it would be in everyone's interests to do so; they will continually try to claw back gains made by working people and they will not spontaneously help the poor however dire their situation may become. Let me put it bluntly: No level of human suffering, in and of itself, will cause policy to change.

Now I'm going to say some harsh, negative, even frightening things so before I do, let me say that despite everything, I am fundamentally optimistic and hopeful. In the early twenty-first century, I believe we have crossed a threshold. Please allow me to refer to my own work to illustrate this point. Three years ago I wrote a book called The Lugano Report [O Relatorio Lugano in Portuguese]. When we speak here about the need for a radically different world, we have first to recognise the serious risk that the future world could be even worse than the one we've got if we don't prevent it. This is precisely the subject of the Lugano Report.

In this book I imagine that people very much like the ones now meeting in Davos commission a group of experts to write a report. The question the commissioners ask is "How can we preserve capitalism in the 21st century?" How can these Davos people make sure that capitalism will continue to dominate and thrive; how can they guarantee that it will be the only credible system, that no other can even be imagined? These "masters of the universe" want to know what they must do to keep themselves in power. This is precisely the question we are asking here this evening, from precisely the opposite perspective. We are asking what must be done in order that the present capitalist order not prevail. What must we do to make sure that our lives and communities and natural environments are not ruled by the whims of corporations and financial markets?

The group of experts who are supposed to be writing the Lugano Report come to conclusions which are, to say the least, extremely unpleasant. For all kinds of reasons-economic, ecological and political-the expert group concludes that it will be altogether impossible to preserve capitalism in the year 2020 when there will be approximately eight billion people on earth. For that reason, a great many of those people, particularly the poorest ones, those who are not and cannot be integrated into the system must be eliminated as quietly as possible and by whatever means may be necessary. War, famine and disease will then be allowed to do their work and to take their toll.

The question we're asking in Porto Alegre, implicitly or explicitly, is therefor deadly serious. Can we or can we not change the present system, because if we cannot, then I am convinced that the Lugano scenario is the one we shall be faced with and this scenario is horrible indeed.

I believe we are now more starkly confronted with the horror of that scenario than ever before. If you believe I'm exaggerating, look around. One symptom is the refusal to do anything serious about the ever-increasing AIDS crisis. AIDS is running wild in poor countries among poor people.

As for common diseases aside from AIDS, poor countries are not being given access to cheap generic drugs to treat the most common killers because the United States has given precedence to the pharmaceutical companies and refuses to implement the one positive step that came out of the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha last year.

Another Lugano-type symptom is the degeneration of one conflict after another, with no efforts towards peaceful, negotiated solutions. We all think of first of Israel and Palestine; but there are in fact at least 80 wars going on in the world right now. To give a single example, the Congo-Zaire war has already killed four million people.

Clearly the new teams in the White House and the Pentagon are using the attacks of 11 September to their advantage to justify the barbaric notion of "preventive" or "pre-emptive" war. Such wars, of which Iraq is likely to be only the first victim, will decimate civilian populations unless the peace movement can stop these American outlaws.

Famine too is once more on the rise. In the 1980s, governments had promised to cut hunger by now from its levels of twenty years ago. Instead, more people are struck by food deprivation than ever before. The Director of the FAO recently said that at the rate we are going it will take 150 years to eliminate hunger altogether.

All this and much, much more gives me the feeling that the Lugano scenario is already being implemented. There is no conspiracy. The rich and powerful have apparently concluded, like the authors of my false report, that hundreds of millions of people in the world today are superfluous. They do not hold salaried jobs and they contribute nothing to capitalist production. They have little or no money and contribute nothing to capitalist consumption. They are not profitable, they are a drag on the economy and they are redundant.

There will be no Hitler-Auschwitz model because it's too visible and creates resistance and eventually universal rejection. It is instead a post-modern 21st century model in which nothing can really be blamed on anyone. No one is responsible. Horrible things just happen and life goes on, at least for some.

Our struggle therefore is deadly serious. If you share my analysis, as I hope you may, then clearly this gives all of us here a historic responsibility. In one word, we cannot fail. In the midst of this wonderful celebration in Porto Alegre, I hope we can also remain sober and thoughtful. The great 19th century German philosopher Hegel said "The only thing that history teaches us is that nobody ever learns anything from history". Let's prove that Hegel was wrong and learn from history which tells us that other movements of great promise have been destroyed in the past, either by their enemies or by their own mistakes. They too resisted the powerful, they too fought against the oppressors of their own times, they too held out great hopes for a different world.

If they had won, then our own presence here in Porto Alegre and our own movement would be less necessary because the world would already be a decent place for everyone to live, a place without hunger or serious deprivation where everyone would have a right to the basics of life. We would be living in harmony with the natural environment and would be governing ourselves according to democratic principles and this is sadly not the case.

Dear friends and comrades, we have to win this struggle this time because we are attempting to do something which our predecessors could not even dream of. We are trying to challenge neo-liberal, corporate-led globalisation on its own terrain, the globe. So we must work not just in our local or national contexts but internationally as well. The ambition to build a truly global justice movement exists for the first time in human history.

Our adversaries, the transnational corporations, are a law unto themselves. Financial markets take no notice of the disasters they cause for ordinary people. International institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation are all engaged in reducing rather than expanding democratic spaces; they serve only those who are already profiting from the world system. So our movement will have to be a hundred times stronger and wiser and more determined than any other that has come before in creating those democratic spaces.

Make no mistake, however. The stronger we become, the more our enemies will seek to destroy us. This is only natural. In the world we want, these adversaries would lose everything: their power, their wealth, their prestige. So we must be alert to their strategies of destruction and not let down our guard.

Let's learn from history as well that we can also destroy ourselves. Fortunately I don't see any signs of this-quite the contrary. This young movement has shown startling maturity and has remained overwhelmingly non-violent. This is one reason we will surely be subjected to more provocations trying to incite us to violence. We must resist such provocations at all costs and never reproduce in our own ranks and our own practice the violence of our adversaries.

We need to learn. The first duty of the activist is to understand how the world works and how the institutions that oppress us function. Politics is more complicated than it used to be. When I started out, it was enough to say "US Get Out of Vietnam" and everyone understood what you were talking about. Today if you go out into the street and tell people about the WTO or the IMF, most of them won't have a clue what you're talking about. So we need to learn in order to be able to teach and to expand our movement.

We have also managed to run a democratic movement in the image of the democratic world we hope to create. This movement has moral, political and intellectual heroes and heroines and emblematic organisations we look up to: such individuals and groups inspire us but they do not, thank God, resemble the leadership in the corporate world. We have no one, nor do we want anyone to be in a position to give orders and be obeyed. We are a network of networks. Let's make sure it stays that way.

Although part of our task is to make proposals for change, good proposals won't be accepted simply because they are good but only as a result of sustained pressure. The old ideas about changing the balance of forces and class struggle are still relevant. To change that balance, we need to forge alliances. The movement has so far been quite good at this, making common cause with ecologists, womens's groups, small farmers, trade unions, development organisations, intellectual and cultural workers and now the peace movement, although there is still much room for improvement.

Still, despite these successes, we've not always been able to include the representatives of most disadvantaged people or most immigrant communities in our societies. The movement is still largely middle class and we must try to reach out to those people who need a different world even more than we do but who are concentrating most of the time on their own survival.

So far, wherever our adversaries have gathered, we've been there. People are protesting against the financial and corporate elites in Davos at this very moment. I think we now need to agree on the following principle: wherever they are, some of us will be, but only some of us, usually the people who are geographically closest to the venue. Some of us but not all, because many of our comrades can't afford to travel or they can't afford to be away from their jobs or their families.

Furthermore, some activists closest to the grass roots are also the poorest and they aren't necessarily in Porto Alegre or at the other major venues of the movement. How can we share limited material resources with them? Should we start thinking about fundraising in order to bring in the real grass-roots? Many funders are by now sympathetic to our goals.

Occasionally, we need to impress the media with numbers. The European Social Forum in Florence was one such occasion with a million people marching. Another such occasion for us in Europe will be the G8 in Evian, France, in June. Nonetheless, we need to find new ways to express our opposition, and this can be done with relatively few people.

I've already said that non-violence must be our guiding principle. However, "peaceful" doesn't mean "boring". We need to attract attention with more artistic expression, more colour, more creativity and we can learn an enormous amount from the Brazilians in this regard. Let's remember as well that the people we're protesting against are not just contemptible, they're ludicrous. One of my dreams is to be a part of several thousand people just laughing at these pretentious types.

Journalists constantly ask if we shouldn't become a political party. For me, the answer to that is emphatically "No!". We are deeply political and we must therefore work through politicians and parties but do our politics differently. I don't mean this as an insult, but traditional politics is the place of compromise. Even when one of our own, like Lula, takes power, he still needs an independant movement to push his government.

We can't always or even often act directly on the international sphere and must exercise influence at the local and national levels. Surely we should sieze the opportunity and push our governments towards adopting our proposals. How can we change or abolish the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, the World Bank if not through governments? Stopping the occasional meeting through protests does not kill the institution. We need binding laws. The WTO can make international law but the movement has no way of doing so unless we use governments.

We need to be pushing to make spaces in which genuine political and economic experiments and change can take place. Some say that proposals for international taxation, shutting down tax havens or cancelling debt are merely reformist, not revolutionary enough. I disagree. If implemented, such changes would be truly revolutionary because they would introduce a qualitative change; just as national taxation and redistribution changed wealth distribution patterns in countries that adopted them. The proof is that every time the right wing comes back to power, it immediately lowers taxes on the rich.

Let me end on a personal note. Next year, in 2004, although I can scarcely believe it, I'll be 70. Since the days of the anti-Vietnam war movement, I have never been so hopeful. I'm in good health but none of us knows how much time we have left on earth. Let me affirm here my deep conviction that the future of the global justice movement is bright. This movement no longer depends on the personal presence or absence of this person or that person, no matter who they are. It has taken on a life of its own; it has become healthy, self-sustaining and it is developing like a living organism with no part in competition with the others or superseding the others.

Dear friends and comrades: Since we are privileged to participate in this unique gathering of the World Social Forum, let's remember that such privilege carries responsibility. Never forget that we are all actors in history. We are linked to the past and we have a duty to be worthy of those who came before us, that innumerable legion who fought poverty, injustice and oppression with the tools of their own times. We, in this brilliant and fortunate moment here in Porto Alegre, are also a bond and a promise to the future, through our hope, our daily work and our determination as we proclaim


Now let's make it.

Thank you.