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Davos, American Style

Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless.

Why not?

Dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of your labor . . .

--Langston Hughes, ”Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria“

When the hijacked jets struck Manhattan and Washington, D.C., one of the indirect victims was the struggle against runaway globalization. The war cry had been sounded in Seattle in 1999, grown louder in Quebec City and Genoa, and was building toward a massive demonstration against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in our nation‘s capital last autumn. All that changed when the most famous voice of anti-globalization was suddenly a bearded Islamic sociopath with a fondness for helter-skelter. The U.S. entered the days of ”America Rising“ -- anthrax scares, war in Afghanistan and the Trumanizing of George W. Bush. We were all urged to be good team players.

Lately, that’s begun to change -- politics is back with a vengeance. The Bush team struts around Washington as if it just won World War II, posing for Vanity Fair (which hasn‘t lost its knack for backing front-runners), demanding a $48 billion increase in the military budget, and still dreaming of a ”stimulus package“ that would stimulate the rich to write the Republican Party checks for the fall elections. Meanwhile, the Democrats appear to be discovering a vestigial spine. Milking the PR possibilities of Enron’s disgraceful bankruptcy, Tom Daschle and others have begun fighting (well, sorta) Bush‘s right-wing domestic agenda.

Politics is also back in the streets. This week, thousands of protesters have poured into New York City to greet, deride and challenge this week’s World Economic Forum at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Despite its pretense of welcoming the protesters, the Forum‘s not exactly what you’d call a populist event: It normally meets in the tiny resort town of Davos, Switzerland, and costs about 25 grand a head to attend.

Unlike the World Trade Organization, whose closed-door meetings set the rules and agreements that shape the international economy, the World Economic Forum is akin to those dweeby Renaissance Weekends that Bill Clinton used to attend -- it‘s all about networking and high living. It brings together the stars of the world’s financial, governmental and cultural elite: Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and Peter Gabriel, Esther Dyson and Hamid Karzai, interim leader of Afghanistan. While one is tempted to write the whole thing off as a Woodstock for folks in $2,000 power suits -- The New York Times actually previewed the forum in its Sunday Styles section -- the truth is less comical. These are the people who rule the globalized economy, and it‘s here, over lavish dinners at Le Cirque and Jean-Georges, that they make the social connections that bind them together. It’s here that they elaborate the conventional free-market ”wisdom“ that has recently given the world the Enron bankruptcy and the economic collapse of Argentina.a

Next to such an august assembly (Colin Powell! Michael Kinsley! Bono!), the demonstrators must surely resemble a ragtag band of outsiders -- students, Greens, labor organizers, peaceniks, human-rights advocates, Anti-Capitalist Convergers, Black Bloc anarchists, animal-rights activists (some dressed as lovable critters), and academics toting around dog-eared copies of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri‘s trendy tome, Empire. The great drama of the weekend is how their demonstrations (and street warfare?) will play on TV screens everywhere. For in New York, as in Seattle and Genoa, this particular fight over globalization will largely be a battle of images.

A battle not without risks. In the early winter of 2002, taking to Manhattan streets is a tricky business. America’s still shaking off its September 11 hangover, and no one knows if the country still feels so fragile that the majority will feel threatened and enraged by public dissent; I suspect that the NYPD will have very little patience with anyone who smashes a Starbucks window, however laudable their motivations. The protest‘s organizers are well-aware that they’re flirting with catastrophe and insist they‘ve planned nothing that will disrespect the wounded streets of Manhattan.

Such assurances haven’t stopped the city‘s demented tabloids from revving up public anger. Long before the demonstrators ever arrived in New York, the Post’s mad-dingo columnist Steve Dunleavy was warning readers to expect ”a potentially scary scene, promised by little nasty twits.“ And the Daily News was shaking its fist: ”You have a right to free speech, but try to disrupt this town, and you‘ll get your anti-globalization butts kicked. Capish?“ For all its professed love of order, the right would relish a chance to demonize the protesters, and should a riot break out, no matter who caused it, America’s anti-globalization movement could be set back for years -- in the public mind, it will be associated with terror and anarchy.

Of course, there‘s no good reason why September 11 should provide the conservatives with ammunition. If anything, the terrorist attacks should have taught us what happens when rich nations keep telling poor ones simply to lie back and enjoy globalization (which is always better for us than for them). And in the figure of Osama bin Laden, we’ve all learned what genuine anti-Western radicalism really looks like: It flattens skyscrapers filled with civilians.

Far from being extremists in any rational sense of the term, nearly all anti-globalization protesters are (though some may hate hearing it) well-behaved heirs to the Enlightenment. They march for democracy, free expression, economic justice and a rational global order. They believe in the possibility of progress.

They could hardly have found a better time to confront the World Economic Forum than in the midst of the Enron and Argentina debacles. These days, who‘s still so foolish that they would trust any big corporation to act in the public good? Enron’s collapse isn‘t merely the story of one company’s failure. It‘s the emblematic saga of an out-of-control system in which vast corporations are run by men who lie and cheat, yet are propped up by brokers, accountants, pro-business newspapers, boosterish TV pundits, bought-off politicians and regulators unwilling or unable to regulate. In short, this is crony capitalism of the kind that the IMF condemns in Thailand or South Korea.

The case of Argentina is just as damning. Only a few years ago, free marketeers idolized the country like a beauty queen -- putting it in the spotlight as a paragon of free-market virtue. Today, that beauty queen’s behaving like the star of a Girls Gone Wild video, with a gutted currency, riots in the streets and five presidents in two weeks (not to mention ex-President Carlos Menem, an IMF favorite, being investigated for taking Iranian bribes in connection with a massacre at a Buenos Aires synagogue). What‘s happening in Argentina is what happened during the Asian collapse of the late 1990s, and it’s far from coincidental that a dangerous new flash point in the ”War on Terror“ should be Indonesia, whose economy was crushed trying to obey the strictures of Western financiers.

If there was ever a time to protest the idea of a corporatized world, this is the moment to do it. These days, dissent isn‘t just important -- it’s downright patriotic.

***

”How should we live?“ someone asked me in a letter.

I had meant to ask him

the same question.

Again, and as ever,

as may be seen above,

the most pressing questions

are naive ones.

--Wislawa Szymborska, ”The Century‘s Decline“

Unlike opposing the war in Vietnam or racial segregation -- ideas that can be instantly grasped -- the issues surrounding globalization are hard to make clear to the public. In fact, trying to get a firm grasp on the anti-globalization movement is like trying to nail a blob of mercury to the wall. It possesses no clear structure or hierarchy, blurs the lines between left and right, and comes across as a crazy quilt of groups -- Trotskyites and Libertarians, veggies and anarchists, union members and proselytizers for hemp, wonky NGO reformers and whatever-means-necessary radicals with bricks in their hands.

What binds them is (to put the matter crudely) the perception that we’re all being rocketed into a future that most of us didn‘t choose and over which we have little control. This is a world ruled not by individual states or even corporations but by a vast, de-centered, market-based system in which power, like capital, can no longer be pinned down to a particular place. ”Empire“ is what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri term this system in their book of the same title (perhaps the most ill-written volume that ever aspired to change the world). Like the Internet, Empire is everywhere and nowhere.

In fighting it, the anti-globalizers sometimes seem to be equally amorphous. They’ve put forward numerous ideas and demands -- everything from opening up the World Trade Organization and abolishing the World Bank to forgiving Third World debt and ending consumerism. (For more detail, see ”Hitting the Streets,“ below.) The sum of these ideas sounds wildly implausible, even utopian, and can appear even wilder given some protesters‘ foolish belief that the U.S. is like Nazi Germany or that most people in undeveloped countries would rather not enjoy the Western comforts that most of us take for granted. (A trip to the Congo, Vietnam or a Brazil will quickly disabuse you of that notion.)

Yet even without its rhetorical excesses, the movement has created a shiver of fear among the guardians of the elite consensus. It’s constantly thumped not only by The Wall Street Journal but by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who, in a Nixonian flourish, compared the Seattle protesters to Soviet commissars, and the editorial pages of the Washington Post, which claimed that the anti-globalists ”parrot the rhetoric that used to be heard from the military dictatorships and corrupt populists who governed much of Latin America and Africa in the 1970s and ‘80s.“ Confronted with protests against, say, a Nike factory in Indonesia, such pundits argue that the factory is pumping money into the local economy as a whole, then triumphantly exclaim, ”See, your economic ideas would actually hurt the poor people of Java.“

These cocky pro-globalists remind me of a man whose wife tells him she’s unhappy with their marriage. Each time she tries to explain why, he tells her in precise and painful detail why she‘s completely wrong, why her complaints are irrational. ”Don’t be so emotional,“ he says firmly, confident that he‘s proved there’s absolutely nothing wrong with their marriage. Meanwhile, his wife is packing her bags -- his bullying certainty is part of what she‘s fleeing. Much the same is true of the fight over globalization, whose opponents may be wrong about individual issues (for instance, certain forms of protectionism), but still know they’re unhappily married to a worldwide process in which huge questions of labor rights, environmental protection and the distribution of wealth are decided not by democratically elected leaders but by corporate-approved trade representatives in secret meetings.

You often hear complaints that the anti-globalization movement is naive, and frankly, that‘s hard to deny. Like nearly all modern attacks on authority, it’s spearheaded by people young and quixotic enough to believe that they can change the world. A certain amount of naivete comes with the territory, as does a certain amount of violence -- think of Samuel Adams‘ useful hooligans during the American Revolution. One needn’t endorse the Black Bloc‘s trashing of property to acknowledge that the violence in Seattle transformed the dynamics of the whole protest. It got the demonstrators on TV in a way that peaceful protests never would, revealed all the animal spirits lurking in the demonstrators’ idealism and provided a necessary symbolism. No one will believe you can slow down the juggernaut of Empire if you don‘t even dare break a window at Starbucks.

While many anti-globalization organizers worry that their ideas may be hijacked or overshadowed by a violent fringe, it’s equally likely that these ideas are being muffled by their desire for purity -- the rejection of hierarchies, the mistrust of charismatic leaders and mainstream media, the reflexive distaste for anything that smacks of corporate PR. In theory, such ideas sound admirable: The presence of leaders, for instance, implies that there are followers. Still, it would be handy if the movement had a few well-known, articulate people who could serve as its public face on TV (Naomi Klein and who else?) and if its sloganeering didn‘t betray such a tin ear. Just compare the great Paris slogan from May ’68 -- ”Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible“ -- with the dreary current variant, ”Another World Is Possible.“ In a world dominated by media, there‘s a need for more groups like the staff at the terrific Canadian magazine Adbusters, which neatly uses clever advertising techniques to subvert advertising itself.

Although the protests in Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa gave rise to moments of almost orgasmic exuberance, the movement’s reigning attitude often strikes me as being puritanical and painfully earnest -- you don‘t find it championing pleasure as did Emma Goldman or the ’60s crowd. Its spiritual ancestor is Robespierre, not Danton. Then again, it‘s mercifully free of the thoughtlessness that messed up so many political protests in my youth. At their best, today’s protesters seem to be in the process of reclaiming virtue, taking it back from the right, which uses morality very selectively: When it comes to Clinton‘s (admittedly vile) sex life, virtue is paramount, but when it comes to energy policy, Dick Cheney sneers that conservation is merely ”a sign of personal virtue.“ Where much ’60s rhetoric had to do with expanding freedoms (an offshoot of that era‘s seemingly endless prosperity), today’s anti-globalizers are more likely to talk about how we must limit our sense of entitlement. They organize Buy Nothing Day, campaign against energy-devouring SUVs, insist that we should sacrifice some of our own prosperity to help the poor in other countries. Gone is the snobbish disdain that students once felt for blue-collar workers; gone is the confidence that we can do whatever we want and still have social justice, too. Our principles are now something that cost us.

***

”We have removed the stain of Seattle!“

--Robert Zoellick, U.S. Trade Representative, November 14, 2001, after WTO meeting in Doha, Qatar

Although I‘ve been doing it myself, there’s something misleading about dubbing today‘s protesters ”anti-globalization.“ Not only does this accentuate the negative, but it might make one think that they actually oppose the idea of a globally unified, multicultural world. The hardcore enemies of globalism tend to be reactionaries (al Qaeda, the Aryan Nation) obsessed with some notion of racial or religious purity. In contrast, the movement is itself already global. There have been big demonstrations everywhere from Sydney and Taipei to London and La Paz; thousands of activists are currently off at a huge conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Like all modern progressive movements, it promotes positive values that it holds to be universal -- democracy, women’s equality, freedom of expression, environmental protection.

In truth, the fundamental issue is not whether we‘ll have globalization -- the world’s been moving toward that for centuries. The question is how we‘ll have it. Who will make the decisions? Will the world be permanently divided into haves and have-nots? Will the market alone control whether workers in Denver or Delhi lose their jobs? Will closed-door agreements determine whether environmental laws can be enforced in Alaska or Laos, whether the French and Koreans can protect their film industries against the financial behemoth of Hollywood, whether the Chinese can continue to get away with banning labor unions and profiting from slave labor?

The ”anti-globalization“ movement may be known to millions for hating swooshes and frappuccinos, but what finally matters are the ideals that it’s for. The demonstrators in New York seek a world where human-rights advocates and labor organizers can go freely about their work without the fear of being murdered or arrested. Where poor nations can afford the life-saving drugs derived from the plants that grow on their own land. Where the 2.8 billion souls who live on less than $2 a day are freed from tariff agreements that punish them far more than the subsidized farmers in the West‘s ”free-market“ economies. Where ideas of human freedom extend beyond the ever-expanding choices between consumer products (”Culture is not a store,“ goes one of the best slogans). Where rich countries pay poor ones to stop deforestation, rather than just expecting the locals to starve. Where the U.S. gives billions to aid poor countries -- even if we haven’t just bombed them. Where the decisions that affect everyone‘s life are made openly and democratically, not in private conference rooms in Seattle, Genoa or Qatar.

Naturally, all those highfliers inside the Waldorf-Astoria will tell you that they’re profoundly concerned about these things, too -- why else have the World Economic Forum? Of course, they didn‘t manage to show their concern until the Battle of Seattle, when the elite suddenly discovered that the world was paying attention. If history teaches anything, it’s that big shots who attend chic confabs like this one, not to mention the WTO or G8 summits, always insist on their benevolent intentions. Trouble is, they do nothing to implement these noble ideals until they hear a crowd starting to surround the building. That‘s why protesters have been taking to the streets for centuries. And that’s why they‘re now marching up Park Avenue.


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