Winning a Global Vote
Toward Freedom magazine, November 1997
If globalization is actually irreversible, as Western leaders
so often claim, where are the institutions that can deal with
its effects? The world has become a single economic entity, we
often hear. Finance, goods, and services move across the planet-though
not labor, of course, which is controlled to suit the dominant
players. Most of us, however, are gaining little-and may lose
much-in the process.
As the G-7 and other elites perfect their new regime-an obscure
alphabet soup of NAFTA, GATT, MAI, IMF, WTO, and so on, the idea
of "national sovereignty" seems more like a myth. Even
national leaders act as if they're powerless to resist the iron
will of market forces and international institutions. Meanwhile,
privatization, "open" markets, cheap labor, and export-oriented
growth to pay off loans are turning political democracy into an
empty consolation prize-and voting into a frustrating and empty
As it stands, transnational corporations can locate virtually
anywhere they want. While governments struggle to keep up with
their shifting demands, secretive financial institutions guide
patterns of development worldwide, often forcing workers in different
parts of the world into destructive competition with one another.
The truth is brutal An emerging, repressive global regime is leaving
both individuals, especially in poor countries, and most so-called
"sovereign lands" with few ways to defend themselves.
Even with its potential problems, some form of global governance-perhaps
a "world parliament" with democratically-elected representatives-at
least would give us a way to exercise some leverage with our current
corporate rulers. But that's probably why the so-called masters
of the universe" have developed such elaborate and opaque
structures, obscuring their operations while ensuring a continued
concentration of wealth-at the expense of the most vulnerable.
In the US, these structures are kept largely out of view as the
charade of national sovereignty continues, a problem made worse
by a mass media that prefers flash to substance. Fortunately,
in most underdeveloped countries, people know precisely who and
what is really to blame for their pain.
Intimidation, blackmail, threats, and coercion are still the
primary tactics of corporate power. But instead of requiring frequent
military backup nowadays, they use the stick of "structural
adjustment,'' and, when challenged, blame the immutable rules
of capitalist economics. Meanwhile, a pervasive new religion -corporate
fundamentalism-entreats most of the world's people to accept an
unjust economic order in which they have no power, promising rewards
in some rosy future.
The dilemma is reminiscent of the early industrial era. As
Jeremy Seabrook points out, Britain's ruling classes resisted
extending the vote a century ago out of fear that, if the poor
had a say, their wealth and privilege were in jeopardy. Thus,
voting rights expanded only gradually, first to entrepreneurs,
then property owners, and only later to adult males and women.
Before being allowed into the game, however, each new group was
largely pacified, and conditioned to accept the existing system.
Today, political democracy is touted as a universal idea that,
despite some setbacks, is spreading around the world. At the same
time, however, unelected, unaccountable economic powers control
the fate of billions and the policies of many national governments.
Even if the UN is reformed, it will merely rationalize a status
quo that makes "nations" accomplices in a slow process
of global disenfranchisement.
If the advocates of universal democracy were serious, they'd
focus, just as a start, on taking control of secretive transnationals,
the World Bank, and the IMF. Why shouldn't those whose lives are
affected by the World Trade Organization (WTO)-and that's almost
everyone-influence its decisions? Why shouldn't such powerful
institutions be open to the same scrutiny as local or national
At the end of the century, nationalism has been outdistanced
by economic reality. Half of the top economic powers in the world
aren't governments, they're corporations. Yet, people, especially
those hurt by their arbitrary decisions, have no voice in their
affairs. For this regime, humanity's well-being is just another
item on the balance sheet-and usually the first victim of tradeoffs.
This is the new world order, and old approaches are producing
disillusionment and misery. The only way to change that is to
move beyond nationalism's limited form of political democracy
to a global system of economic democracy. As a start, it's time
to demand complete and careful scrutiny of all international trade
and economic agreements, an effective voice in the new regime
(at least until we replace it with something better), and the
direct right to vote before deals are made.