Back to the Past

by Joel Bleifuss

In These Times magazine, September 2001


In a succession of actions that have commanded world attention, the global justice movement is charting a path through new political terrain, if one that contains hauntingly familiar historical formations.

A neo-feudal aura surrounds the convocations of the WTO, IMF, World Bank and G8. Behind chain-link and barbed wire battlements, statesmen and bureaucrats draw up pacts that will form the constitution for a one-economy corporate world.

Unimpeded capital movement, free trade, intellectual property protections and other market rights are enshrined in international treaties that liberate transnational corporations from regulation by nation states. Written out of this process are the world's 6 billion commoners, along with their voting rights, human rights, labor rights, social rights, economic rights and environmental rights.

People are being slowly disenfranchised, unable to control basic aspects of their lives and their communities through the traditional channels of representative government. Europeans exclude hormone-treated U.S. beef, only to find it can't be done without suffering hefty WTO sanctions. Americans pass legislation that protects the world's vanishing sea turtles. Woops, hello WTO, goodbye turtles. People in Massachusetts enact a boycott of companies that do business with Burma's killer generals. Too bad, trade policy trumps human rights.

We are witnessing an unprecedented transfer of power from people and their governments to global institutions whose allegiance is to abstract free-market principle, and whose favored citizens are soulless corporate entities that have the power to shape and break nations.

Making the protection of capital the primary focus of international cooperation means problems that demand world attention lose out. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for a $10 billion global health fund to combat AIDS and other infectious diseases. Yet at the G8 summit, leaders pledged only $1.3 billion (0.4 per cent of Bush's proposed 2002 budget for the U.S. military) to help the 36 million people doomed to a slow death by AIDS-and made sure to do nothing to upset the pharmaceutical corporations and their AlDS-treatment cartel.

In feudal times, kings and lords held power through divine right. To challenge their authority was to oppose God, a heresy worthy of death. Now enlightened, we view such notions as foolish. Yet the divine right of yore has been replaced by a pantheon of free market verities whose lock on popular thought is so strong that heresy can be kept in check through ridicule. Commenting on the Genoa protesters, the New York Times' Thomas Friedman sneered: "To be against globalization is to be against so many things-from cell phones to trade to Big Macs-that it connotes nothing. Which is why the anti-globalization protests have produced noise but nothing that has improved anyone's life."

The good news: The globalization protests show that people are not duped by such inanities. Where faithful flocks once bowed before an all-powerful deity, the revolutions of the 18th and l9th centuries ushered in an era of constitutional democracies. Today's world citizens,imbued with an elixir of liberty, equality and fraternity, are starting to realize that unaccountable global institutions threaten their hard-won political freedoms.

"We are seeing the globalization of citizenship," Saskia Sassen noted in these pages in March. The protesters are "conducting themselves as denationalized citizens in a way that interestingly parallels the formalized rights and entitlements that allow corporations to function on an international level."

This transformation is dawning on the G8 leaders, who will next gather at a hideaway in the Canadian Rockies accessible by only one road, and the WTO bureaucrats, who are scheduled to meet in the remote monarchy of Qatar. The latter are no doubt waiting for China's ascension to hold their meeting in Beijing. On Tiananmen Square perchance?

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