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
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
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Yet the divine right of yore has been replaced by a pantheon of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