All over the world, truly democratic approaches are bubbling up from the grassroots.
Published in Alternet.
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 U.S. military strength decisively projected abroad, the forces of evil will sweep the globe. Meanwhile, “corporate globalists” of Wall Street persist in their belief that, in the post-Cold War world, we have no choice but to embrace the continual advance of the “free” market.
Neither idea is credible. The disastrous war in Iraq has firmly contradicted the neocons’ argument that preemptive war can create security. Meanwhile, mainstream pundits continue to proclaim neoliberalism — the radical free market doctrine that has defined the “Washington Consensus” in international economics in recent decades — to be inevitable and irreplaceable. Yet as that ideology falls into disrepute across the globe, their contention is revealed as ever more deeply disingenuous. Today, there exist scores of books and hundreds of reports that offer new directions for the global order — plus innumerable initiatives at local, national, and international levels to create political and economic systems that uphold human rights and defend the environment.
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.
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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 Seattle protests against the WTO, challenges to the Washington Consensus became virtually invisible to their reporters once again after 9/11. This only partially reflected what was happening on the ground. In the months following the attacks, some protests — notably a major mobilization against World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington, DC — were cancelled as the world rose to express sympathy for the victims. However, the Bush administration’s reckless response wiped out global good will and ultimately widened the scope of protests.
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 U.S. militarism with a repudiation of corporate globalization. When Bush traveled abroad, he was met with huge protests, many of which raised economic issues as well as anti-war concerns. Yet media outlets mostly reported these demonstrations as incoherent anti-American riots when they covered them at all. Beltway pundits rushed to declare the global justice movement dead. Leading the pack was Edward Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think-tank of the pro-“free trade” Democratic Leadership Council, who pronounced the movement “destined for irrelevance” in a realigned world.
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.
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The View From Porto Alegre
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 Porto Alegre, the original home of the World Social Forum, should be sufficient to forever put to rest the knee-jerk contention that there is no alternative to dominant visions of globalization.
Even as progressives within the U.S. turned to resisting Bush administration policies of preemptive war and its reactionary assaults on Constitutional rights, international movements have not waited for regime change in the U.S. to further the decline of the Washington Consensus. Massive crowds have joined Americans in rallying against the war in Iraq, as on February 15, 2003, when upwards of ten million people in over 500 cities took to the streets, constituting the largest coordinated global day of action in history. But, at the same time, local communities have waged battles to reverse privatization of public utilities and transnational campaigns have fought for reforms like debt cancellation. In countries throughout Latin America, they have successfully overthrown neoliberal governments, elected leaders who oppose the Washington Consensus, and they have pressured those officials to enact social policies that serve working people.
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 Porto Alegre for three additional years after the initial summit, the global event has also convened in Mumbai, India and Nairobi, Kenya, with smaller forums taking place at the regional level. At World Social Forum, community leaders, nonprofit representatives, scholars, organizers, and progressive lawmakers have presented, debated, and refined ideas that collectively represent as comprehensive a set of policies for the global economy as any wonky campaign office could ever hope to devise. These spaces have served as physical embodiments of the proposals for a democratic globalization.
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 U.S. or European courts. And they include detailed proposals for strengthening anti-trust law in order to break up business monopolies — among them the massive media empires that do much to set the limits of public debate.
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 United States have passed Living Wage laws since the early 1990s. These go beyond paltry minimum wage requirements and mandate that businesses pay employees at least enough to keep their families out of poverty. At the social forums, U.S. advocates discussed how to spread these campaigns. Meanwhile, representatives from the estimated 180 worker-run factories that formed after capital fled Argentina’s collapsing neoliberal economy in 2001 spoke about their experiences in self-management. And groups like the Women’s International Coalition for Economic Justice have stressed that U.N.-backed summits and other international efforts to advance women’s rights must not be subordinated to multilateral trade agreements.
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 Porto Alegre have presented an agenda for change rooted in local struggles and campaigns that have long been underway. Excellent volumes such as Alternatives to Economic Globalization, a book compiled by the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization, have profiled other aspects of this agenda. The Human Development Reports produced annually by the United Nations Development Program have backed many of these same initiatives. A number of progressive proposals have even been introduced as legislation in the U.S. Congress in such measures as the recent TRADE Act, advanced by fair trade advocates this summer. Needless to say, the elite beneficiaries of corporate and imperial rule, still steadfast in their contention that no alternatives exist, would prefer that the public not take notice of any of these developments.
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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 Washington militarists ask, “What is the alternative?” they base the question on faulty assumptions. Their question serves to naturalize very radical agendas of empire and corporate rule, suggesting that these are normal and acceptable states of affairs. They are not. In a situation where power is grossly imbalanced, where crimes are being perpetuated in the name of democracy, and where ever larger sections of public life are being handed over to the market, saying “no” to these radical agendas can be a perfectly worthy task in itself.
In an important respect, the alternative to invading Iraq is not invading Iraq. The alternative to NAFTA is no NAFTA. The neocons’ invasion of Iraq has cost thousands of American lives, taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, produced some two million refugees, and is set to squander over a trillion dollars of public funds. It has generated heightened regional tensions, greater instability, and more terrorism. Given the disastrous history of U.S. interventions — not just in Iraq, but also, to mention some particularly ignoble examples of the past 60 years, in Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Iran, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua — calling for a moratorium on such military actions, official and covert, is a first step in stemming the damage of imperial globalization.
The agenda of corporate globalization, which unfortunately thrived during the Clinton presidency and is still popular within the right wing of the Democratic Party, is subtler. But this, too, has relied on forceful maneuvering to come into existence. Neoliberalism involves aggressively opening markets, clearing the way for a previously unheard of level of speculative capital transfer, and dictating the restructuring of local economies. None of these things occur naturally, and they deserve opposition. A moratorium on harmful “free trade” deals and on further expansion of the WTO, especially into areas beyond the traditional realm of trade, is a vital immediate demand.
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.
When Washington mandates a more “flexible” labor market — one without unions or worker protections — an alternative is to defend living wages, collective bargaining, and the right to associate. And when IMF bailouts for wealthy investors create a situation in which, to paraphrase author Eduardo Galeano, “risk is socialized while profit is privatized,” an alternative is simply to end these bailouts, making speculators bear the cost of their gambles.
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 Latin America, they are winning. The punditry is increasingly taking notice. For there is nothing so dangerous to those who insist that the world must remain as it is as the simple, stubbornly defiant doctrine of hope.
Photo credit: Mutari / Wikimedia Commons.