[permaculture] There Is an Alternative to Corporate Rule

Nicholas Roberts nicholas at themediasociety.org
Fri Jan 9 02:41:01 EST 2009


There Is an Alternative to Corporate Rule
All over the world, truly democratic approaches are bubbling up from
the grassroots
By Mark Engler
Published on September 1, 2008

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from Mark Engler's new book How
to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation
Books, 2008).

— 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). He can be reached via the web site

Nicholas Roberts
[im] skype:niccolor

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