Winning a Global Vote

Greg Guma

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 ritual.

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 governments?

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.

Democracy watch