There Is an Alternative to Corporate Rule
All over the world, truly democratic approaches are bubbling up from the grassroots.
One of the remarkable features of modern political life is how consistently global elites deny that viable alternatives to the current global order exist, even as the terrain of international politics rapidly shifts. The "imperial globalists" that rose to power in the Bush years contend that without
Neither idea is credible. The disastrous war in
In truth, a lack of viable ideas is hardly the problem for those who reject both corporate and imperial models of globalization. Whether they are part of boisterous national uprisings or quiet, persistent community efforts to fuel a truly democratic globalization -- a globalization from below -- members of grassroots networks are now engaged in a debate about the proper balance of vision, program, political strategy, and tactics needed to move forward.
Changes in the Global Justice Movement
Part of what has fueled public confusion about alternatives was specific to the political moment when globalization protests captured the attention of the mainstream media. During the period around the year 2000, global justice organizing was being covered only in contexts where participants were providing a voice of opposition -- at the summit meetings of institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF). These events became flash points of resistance for a reason: the summit meetings were remarkably effective at drawing together a tremendously diverse body of global citizen activists.
Yet the globalization scene began to shift early in the Bush years, with the attacks of 9/11 playing an important role in the change. Just as abruptly as the major news outlets had announced the arrival of a "new" global movement after the
As strategies to impose elite visions of globalization continued, global justice protests throughout the world resumed. Many people, particularly in Southern countries, combined outrage at
Millions of people had reason to protest. These activists were about to redraw the political map of Latin America, preside over the collapse of neoliberalism's legitimacy, lead a worldwide rebellion against preemptive war, and push issues of economic justice to ever more prominent places in the global development debate. Their efforts for a democratic globalization, they would assert, were very much alive.
The View From
As it turned out, a most visible manifestation of the next stage of global justice movement would come from a modest city of 1.5 million people deep in the south of Brazil, a place whose name has become synonymous with the pursuit of a more just and democratic global order. Today, mention of
Even as progressives within the
Reflecting this sustained torrent of global activity, the World Social Forum has grown and matured. While the first global forum in 2001 hosted 12,000 participants, subsequent events have grown larger and larger, drawing crowds of up to 150,000 people. In addition to returning to
Groups meeting in tents designated for discussion of energy and the environment have strategized about ways to break our dependence on the oil economy. They have proposed investment in mass public transportation, high mileage standards for cars, and shifting government subsidies for hydrocarbon exploitation to alternative energy. Other environmentalists have worked to promote an international carbon tax to penalize polluters -- something undoubtedly in the public interest, especially given mounting evidence about the perils of global warming. All these represent perfectly viable public policies, but have been vehemently opposed by the oil industry.
In other tents, family farmers and food safety advocates from throughout the world have gathered to promote models for redistributive land reform. Even the international financial institutions acknowledge that land reform would be beneficial for the poor, but it has been pushed off the political map by national elites and agribusiness conglomerates. Other advocates explained how current government subsidies for exports and for pesticides boost large-scale "mono-cropping" over organic agriculture; in response, they argued for a shift in public funds to support sustainable farming. Indigenous communities further asserted their right to self-determination, particularly with regard to maintaining traditional systems of land ownership and food production.
Tents holding discussions on the need to curb corporate power have advanced a slate of innovative proposals. These include public financing of elections to end what U.S. Senator Russ Feingold has called "a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion." They include laws that allow victims of corporate abuses in the developing world to sue in
A group called ATTAC, one of the organizations that founded the World Social Forum, has set up tents promoting campaigning for the Tobin Tax. First proposed by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin in the 1970s, the initiative would impose a low percentage tax on the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of international financial transactions that take place each day. This would provide a disincentive for short-term gambling on currencies, and it would encourage longer-term and more productive investment. Moreover, even a miniscule levy could create an annual fund of upwards of $100 billion that could be used to stop the spread of disease and alleviate global poverty.
Warehouse workspaces hosting labor organizations have offered myriad methods for protecting workers' rights and ending sweatshop conditions. Over seventy cities and localities in the
Finally, workshops organized by representatives from the fair trade movement profiled endeavors to build direct ties between producers in the global South and Northern consumers. The fair trade model aims to eliminate exploitative middlemen, ensure that workers get a living wage for their labor, and give local collectives a greater say in the determining the conditions under which international economic exchanges take place. Like organic food, fair trade remains a niche market, and it cannot substitute for wider structural changes in global economy. But it provides both a living alternative to exploitative trade and a hopeful model for future change.
Even this wide range of activity hardly constitutes an exhaustive survey. Unlike the corporate and imperial models, a globalization from below does not take the form of one-size-fits-all prescription for the global economy. With regard to alternative policies, the model of participatory democracy produces, in the words of another slogan, "One No, Many Yeses." It generates a strong challenge to structures of neoliberalism and empire, but allows for a wider sense of what might replace them.
Contrary to individual manifestos that presume that a lack of ideas is the problem for progressives, the advocates at
Just Saying No, or First Do No Harm
The ideas, experiences, and proposals of the World Social Forum provide a trove of information for all those who want to construct a new agenda for the global economy. At the same time, as long as democratic movements do not have the power to overrule political and economic elites, there exists an important case for just saying "no" -- for first insisting that those now in power stop doing harm.
When Wall Street neoliberals and
In an important respect, the alternative to invading
The agenda of corporate globalization, which unfortunately thrived during the
Simply refusing each of the mandates of the Washington Consensus -- or at least rejecting the idea that they should be imposed world as a one-size-fits-all uniform for development -- would itself allow for a substantial restructuring of globalization politics. The true utopians in the global economy are people who embraced the market fundamentalist fantasy that unchecked capital would serve the common good. Refuting this idea can be fairly straightforward.
Neoliberal corporate globalization prescribes the elimination of tariffs and other protections for local enterprises. An alternative would be to allow poorer countries to keep these intact, reviving what is known in trade agreements as "special and differential treatment." This model would give developing countries more flexibility in choosing to nurture infant industries and to protect agricultural commodities that are important to traditional cultures and to the security of their food supply. When the Washington Consensus demands the privatization of public industry and the division of the commons into private property, an alternative is to keep these things in the hands of the public, defending the provision of public goods as a way of ensuring economic human rights -- including guaranteed public access to water, electricity, and health care. If it calls for cuts in social services, an alternative is to reject the cuts, maintaining or bolstering these services and instead pushing for a redistributive tax system that makes the wealthy pay their fair share.
The demand to reverse neoliberal structural adjustment policies proposes a fundamentally different relationship between wealthy nations and the global South than currently exists. It would grant countries the freedom to determine their own economic policies, priorities for government spending, and rules for controlling foreign investment. Instead of imposing a single hegemonic model on the entire world, this new relationship would allow for broader diversity and experimentation in international development. While this does not by itself constitute a vision for ensuring human rights or protecting the environment, it nevertheless represents an important strategic gain. It alone would likely bring change of great enough magnitude to make the politics of the global economy look virtually unrecognizable to those who have grown accustomed to Washington-dictated corporate globalization.
Those who reject corporate and imperial models of globalization have a wealth of ideas at their disposal, a healthy internal debate to refine their strategies, and a vibrant, growing international network of citizens that see their efforts as part an interconnected whole. They also have very powerful enemies. Fortunately, as we enter the post-Bush era, the international community has voiced a firm rejection of unilateralism and preemptive war. Likewise, ever-larger swaths of the globe view the neoliberal doctrine of corporate expansion as a failed and discredited vision. This creates unique opportunities for citizens to fight to bring a democratic globalization into existence. More exciting still is that many people are already doing so, and, on key issues like debt relief and across entire regions like the
Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008), from which this article is adapted. He can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com