On Democratizing the Global Economy

Padraic Rohan’s Column

Upwards of two dozen authors contributed to Democratizing the Global Economy, edited by Kevin Danaher. The subtitle: The Battle Against the IMF and World Bank. Preparations, repercussions, and the actual protests at Washington, DC on April 15/16/17 of 2000 are documented, as are the operations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) and the various strategies of activists to combat these institutions.

I learned a lot in reading this book; some of these authors brought a real passion and understanding to their work. I also question the majority of these contributors in the effectiveness of their work and the goals and assumptions that guide them.

A monumental change is needed. In the last several thousand years, our technology has developed rapidly as our morality hasénot. We have greater abilities, but something essential is missing. We are running ourselves over a cliff and don’t really want to be bothered. This is dumb.

But these are just words. To me, morality is thinking. It obviously affects what we do and how we do it. The development of morality is the understanding of this process of thought, all of our indoctrinations, beliefs, our sense of right and wrong, the sense of self. Our morality must develop, yours and mine, beyond group conditionings, beyond any sense of us vs. them.

There is a very real conflict that these activists are trying to address. I applaud this. We see it, hear about it, read about it every day. Poverty, starvation, oppression, gross income gaps, greed, violence, stupidity of all kinds. It’s a fact. But let’s stop for a second, before we go off, before we lay blame, before we draw the line. Slowly, let’s go into it, try to understand it, try to understand ourselves. Without this reflection, from moment to moment, all our altruism, reform, and desire for change are all so much piss in the wind.

The cover of this book shows a bunch of people on the back of a bald eagle swooping down on some suited skeletons with money bags (accompanied by serpents and pigs) running away from buildings labeled “IMF” and “World Bank.” In the table of contents:

A note about the cover from the publisher: Could America become a force for economic justice, as sumbolized by the eagle chasing the global robber barons? It may seem a farfetched dream given the U.S.’s ugly hand in globalizing the economy. Whether this dream becomes a reality depends largely on how many Americans join those protesting in Seattle, Washington, Prague, and elsewhere.

Have we forgotten that the US is the ringleader, the undisputed dominant force of this global power structure? Corporations, government, right down to you and I. The US spearheaded the creation of the IMF and WB, and is a dominant force in their operation.

The perversion of power at every level has brought us to the point where a small minority are living off of the productivity of a poor majority. If history shows us anything, it is that revolution is in the air. But I don’t want to fight. For what? Do we see that there never comes a point in the cycle of revolution where conflict, violence, war ends? We see this conflict in every aspect of our lives, not just in “war.” Why is this? Why do we suffer? Is it possible for this suffering to cease? This is very important. If we (especially of the west, the privileged few) refuse to get a clue, then here it comes.

Robert Weisman gives an overview of the history of the IMF and WB. Both were created in 1944 at Bretton Woods by America and Britain; the IMF maintained the dollar as the basis of all other currencies, and the WB facilitated European postwar reconstruction and the Marshall Plan. Since the US severed the gold standard in 1971 and outdated the mission of the Fund, the IMF has provided loans to poor countries. Likewise, as business relating to postwar reconstruction waned, the WB fixed it’s sites on funding 3rd world development, specifically infrastructure projects like hydroelectric dams, coal plants, roads, and “other major investments that private capital would not initiate because they are not profitable.”

The IMF is governed by an executive board (representatives of member countries) with voting weighted by money contribution. The US is the biggest shareholder at the IMF with 17% of the votes, and

maintains effective veto power over major decisions at the fund. In practice, the U.S. Treasury Department exercises overwhelming control at the IMF; the New York Times has referred to the IMF as a “proxy for the United States.

Both institutions now combine to advance structural adjustment, which

requires countries to remove barriers to foreign investment, and push countries to orient their economies to producing exports é typically produced by or sold to transnational companies. State-owned enterprises privatized under structural adjustment are frequently sold to transnationals, often at bargain-basement prices.

IMF-orchestrated bailouts é assistance to countries whose exchange rates are plummeting é provide money primarily so that developing countries can pay off their foreign creditors (including private banks). Many critics view these bailouts as bailouts of the creditors who don’t absorb the cost of risky loans gone bad.

This particular kind of corporate welfare can have especially pernicious effects, since it may encourage excessively risky lending by bankers and others. If they know they have free, de facto insurance from the IMF, they can make very risky loans at high interest rates without fear of paying for failures.

I would interject two things:

that this insurance isn’t just to protect investment; it also prevents civil unrest resulting from the worst effects of the free market.

during the 1980’s, the creditor banks, along with the G7 (the seven richest countries in the world) developed an agreement with the IMF (that they would do business only with countries that had signed agreements with the IMF) that essentially authorized the IMF to represent them with debtor countries.

And before anyone jumps to say that this “risky lending” actually benefits 3rd world development, let’s point out that the percentage of export earnings with which these countries have to pay off foreign debt is ludicrous. In post-WWII Germany, a ceiling of 3.5% of export earnings was established. The WB calls paying a quarter of export earnings to debt service “sustainable,” and countries have paid far more.

This adds up to “developing” countries, in the absence of technology that would make them “developed” countries, giving up most of the control of production/harvest/sale of agricultural products, manufactured goods, and natural resources to transnational corporations, and turning around and giving a large percentage of this income to their creditors. And don’t forget that most of their creditors were financed by the taxpayers of the wealthiest countries, most notably the US.

A very sophisticated form of highway robbery. The power structure is getting paid at both ends, in between, on the side. Human labor and natural resources alike are simply commodities to be bought and sold. And with very cheap labor, agricultural products, manufactured goods, and natural resources on the market, small farmers, artisans, shopkeepers everywhere struggle to just survive.

The perspective advanced by Mr. Danaher seems very petulant:

Among the “best-and-brightest” in our society there are two groups: those who want to make a ton of money and those who want to make history by saving the planet and humanity from destruction. I know which of these two groups I want as my friends.

Just how can the best and brightest be defined? And where is the boundary between the good and the bad? There are no “good” people, just like there are no “bad” people. No one is plotting to starve 20,000 people today, but forces have been set in motion.

He speaks of a cult of powerlessness in the American culture, and of a “grass roots” globalization that “reaffirms the primacy of the ethical principles that form the foundation of true democracy: equality, freedom, participation, human diversity, and solidarity” (Reaffirms? When did this get affirmed in the first place?) and that is confronting the globalization of corporations and governments and mobilizing the masses. All well-intentioned, to be sure, but a major contradiction arises. The “good” (the activist culture) fight the “bad” (the transnational corporations, IMF, WB, governments and institutions that support free-market capitalism) to undo 500 years of capitalist exploitation. But hold the phone: what’s done is done.

The world today is the result of fifty years, five hundred years, ten thousand years, eons of forces. Many of these forces are well and truly beyond our control. We cannot change the past or stop the planet from spinning.

What is within our control? What is within our power? A very paradoxical question, and pure lip service, without an earnest inquiry into what the self is. Here the nature of power can be discoveredébut most of us careen wildly over the surface of this reality, perhaps dipping in at times, but too stuck in definition, in belief, in conflict, to plunge into the depths.

And these depths are where power lies. The source of our energy, free, wide open, infiniteéin relationship to everything else, to food, air, light, the earth, others. Related to all desires: to reproduce, to be comfortable; to be recognized, to be right, to look good, to be free, and so on.

We see a tremendous liability along with the tremendous benefit of technological progress. This process gradually allows greater and greater ability to move, communicate, fight, provide for comfort, security, and basic needs of health, food, clothing, and shelter. This technology decides the balance of power, oppressor/oppressed. It allows larger and larger groups to form on the basis of mutual survival and gratification.

And in our ambition, in our desire for recognition, for status, to be better than otherséhere lies the perversion of power, the roots of suffering. It is in all of us. We struggle with ourselves, with our families, and so on. And this struggle, this power struggle, gets institutionalized as one group fights another. So what groups do we belong to and support? With our energy, our time, our jobs, our taxes? How have we been indoctrinated into these groups? What corporations and business plans are we a part of? In our early childhood conditioning, in the media we’re exposed to, in relationship with the people in our lives.

Large groups function in this fashion out of fear and ignorance, just as individuals do. Civilization and society are empty words when we discover how large groups operate, how they are organized and controlled, and what their ultimate aim is.

Bravo to all the people who are confronting the power structure. A huge amount of commitment and organization is evident, in the protesting, the education and media campaigns and all the rest. There are several different prongs going: environmental policy, economic justice, gender and race issues, political self-determination and much more. Repeated calls for political reform and democracy, mass mobilization, and fundamental changes in the global economic system abound. But it feels weird, imbalanced, lacking understanding. When faced with the extremes of the human community today, it is easy to swing to the other extreme.

Protesting can be a distraction from the real problem. These are all human creations, and to rage outwardly is to deny responsibility for this mess. To focus out is a convenient cop-out, a distraction from childhood trauma and personal melodrama. Much of this book documents the various transgressions and shortcomings of the system, but of course the media is biased. Of course the politicians and capitalists are in bed together. Of course our constitutional rights are violated. Of course there’s infighting and conflict within the power structure. Everywhere we look there is conflict, but shoulds and coulds mean nothing in trying to heal it.

We can create something better. But before we of the west go off on social change, fixing society’s ills, and all the rest of it, surely we must be clear about what we’re up against, where the battle lines really are, and for this self-knowledge is necessary.

Michael Albert comments on the Washington, D.C. protests:

Why were communties of color largely absent from the legal peaceful demonstrations and overwhelmingly absent from the civil disobediance demonstrations and the leadership throughout?

Because America is still very rascist. Young black males still cause the hearts of many politicians (and many others) to beat a little faster, and it’s been less than half a century since Jim Crow was alive and well. American inner cities, despite gentrification, are still pathetic and disgraceful examples of economic oppression. And at the risk of being branded rascist, less black people have the time or inclination to protest in the streets.

But what matters as well, is for radicals to go into their neighbor’s dorms or apartments, into the libraries, the dining halls, and even the fraternities, gymnasiums, bars, and malls, to organize people who don’t yet agree.

You don’t get it. The whole model (bring THEM to OUR way of thinking) is faulty. This isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with you and your goals, and you sound a lot like Moonies or Jehovah’s Witnesses or colonial Spaniards with this prosletyzing nonsense.

Ali Starr hails “the development of solidarity with revolutions from all over Africa, Asia, and Latin Americaé” Really? Are you putting your life on the line for your principles in a volatile, violent, poverty-ridden country? If not, then shut up. The American activist culture is peanuts compared with the political violence and oppression that exist elsewhere in the world.

And when Juliette Beck tells me of a victory for small farmers over Starbucks, forgive me, I sneer. I’ll grant the victory when there is a trend showing an increase in small farming, a decrease in income gaps, a pattern against the relentless standardization and corporate accumulation. It’s not getting better, and our wishes will not make it so. Starbucks is a leaf on the tree of the problem. It’s institutional; the beaurocracy and laws that allow such organizations to flourish, and all the various conditionings and oppression that keep people away from the earth and dependent on such a system.

In Deborah James’s “Twelve Ways to Democratize the U.S. Political System,” many great surface reforms are advanced, like institution of public funding for all political campaigns, abolishing the electoral college, free and reduced-cost media time for all candidates, and a hodge podge of “end discrimination” and “reduce wealth inequality.” This is all a band-aid approach: this should happen, that should happen, this is bad, let’s make it good. Why is it bad? None of these 12 proposals address the real problem: that the power structure is rotten from the top to the bottom, that power and money are the bottom line, that America is not now and has never been a democracy. In 1802, Alexander Hamilton declared the US Constitution “a frail and worthless fabric,” and the gross abuses committed by the executive and judicial branches have come a long way since then.

A constitutional convention, and the creation of a new constitution with regular constitutional conventions built into it. How about it? But no, we are a nation of ignoramuses who would sooner eat plastic than question, really question, our political system and power structure, much, much less examine our early conditionings and lifestyles.

Mr. Danaher claims that corporate accountability organizations have

forced government at all levels to make changes in policy that weree not in the interest of the dominant elites. They have established codes of conduct for corporate behavior. They have changed popular tastes and shifted the terms of debate on smoking, forest destruction, junk food, biotechnology, and large questions about whether or not we should truct corporations to operate in the public interest.

Changes in government policy and new codes of corporate behavior are PR ploys, carrots on sticks, no more. Do not try to tell me that things are getting better. And this “large question” of whether to trust corporations to act in the public interestéhmm. I think a series of workshops is in order, with lots of outreach.

I’m tired of this tired argument that the various corporate pledges to promote environmental protection and labor rights will lead to institutional change, despite the acknowledged fact that they are public relations stunts of the power structure. It’s like we don’t even see the downward spiral happening. Income gaps, the environmental exploitation, the oppression and injustice of all kinds are getting worse, not better. It is a testement to the efficiency and effectiveness of the corporate press monopoly that Americans are so isolated and insulated from this bleak fact.

A marked bright spot in the maze of activist jargon is Naomi Klein. She speaks of the futility of attempting to give large-scale coherence to the many prongs of this activist culture. She participated in both the Seattle and the Washington, DC protests, and questions critics both internal and external who attempt to unify or categorize the “movement.”

The common thread among all activists is confrontation of

an agenda that is concentrating power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Of course, there are disagreements: about the role of the nation-state, about whether capitalism is redeemable, about the speed with which change should occur. But within most of these minature movements, there is an emerging consensus that building community-based decision-making power é whether through unions, neighborhoods, farms, villages, anarchist collectives, or aboriginal self-government é is essential to countering the might of multinational corporations.

It sounds vaguely colonial (aboriginal self-government) é I place true self-government at the top of the list é but her point is well taken. She writes very succinctly about the sludge to wade through, the reactionary “alternative,” and a “culture of serial protesting”:

My inbox is cluttered with entreaties of what promises to be “the next Seattle.” There was Windsor and Detroit on June 4 for a “shutdown” of the Organization of American States, and Calgary a week later for the World Petroleum Congress; the Republican Convention in July and the Democratic Convention in L.A. in August; the World Economic Forum’s Asia Pacific Economic Summit on September 11 in Melbourne, followed shortly thereafter by anti-IMF demos on September 26 in Prague and then on to Quebec City for the Summit of the Americas in April 2001. Someone posted a message on the organizing e-mail list for the Washington demos: “Wherever they go, we shall be there! After this, see you in Prague!” But is this what we really want é a movement of meeting-stalkers, following the trade beaurocrats as if they were the Grateful Dead?

She has a solid understanding:

Part of the problem is structural. Among most anarchists, who are doing a great deal of the grassroots organizing (and who got on-line way before the more established left), direct democracy, transparency, and community self-determination are not lofty political goals, they are fundamental tenets governing their own organizations. Yet many of the key NGO’s, though they may share the anarchists’ ideas about democracy in theory, are themselves organized as traditional hierarchies. They are run by charismatic leaders and executive boards, while their members send them money and cheer from the sidelines.

éWhen critics say that the protestors lack vision, what they are really saying is that they lack an overarching revolutionary philosophy é like Marxism, democratic socialism, deep ecology, or social anarchy é on which they all agree. That is absolutely true, and for this we should be extraordinarily grateful.

At the moment, the anti-corporate street activists are ringed by would-be leaders, anxious for the opportunity to enlist them as foot soldiers for their particular cause. At one end there is Michael Lerner and his conference at the Riverside Church, waiting to welcome all that inchoate energy in Seattle and Washington inside the framework of his “Politics of Meaning.” At the other, there is John Zerzan in Eugene, Oregon, who isn’t interested in Lerner’s call for healing but sees the rioting and property destruction at the first step towards the collapse of industrialization and a return to “anarcho-primitivism”: a pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer utopia. In between there are dozens of other visionaries, from the disciples of Murray Bookchin and his theory of social ecology, to certain sectarian Marxists who are convinced the revolution starts tomorrow, to devotees of Kalle Lasn , editor of Adbusters, and his watered-down version of revolution through “culture-jamming.” And then there is the unimaginative pragmatism coming from some union leaders who, before Seattle, were ready to tack social clauses onto existing trade agreements and call it a day.

It is to this young movement’s credit that it has as yet fended off all of these agendas and has rejected everyone’s generously donated maifesto, holding out for an acceptably democratic, representative process to take its resistance to the next stageéBefore it signs on to anyone’s ten-point plan, it deserves the chance to see if, out of its chaotic network of hubs and spokes, something new, something entirely its own, can emerge.

To be sure, the IMF and WB have strayed very far from their original mission. To be sure, they are institutions that contribute to environmental destruction and human suffering. But where do they fit into the power structure? Shameful statistics and descriptions abound, but let us see the forest for the trees.

There is a wishy washy quality to the message advanced in this book: if only everyone would wake up and be a better person, if only this policy or that were changed, if only we had better outreach. I’m doing all right, I’m working hard to make a difference, and if only everyone would join my team, then we’d all be all right.

Nonsense. The desire for change, I understand. But my main point is this: while you’re out there being gerrymandered by various global institutions, business as usual is proceeding down here. You’re fighting the IMF and WB in a traditional manner, and it’s not very effective. They’re just creations and tools of America. Taking on the root problem, while much more difficult, is much more effective. Understanding all the ramifications of this power structure, the web of dependency, the situations of individual people, the underlying beliefs that contribute to this madnesséfollow it far enough and the problem is us. Not them. There is no them. I don’t think I’m speaking Greek here; a true spiritual realization is required, a monumental radical change, which isn’t out there.

Love heals this madness, not more madness in the form of self-sacrifice, overwork, or withdrawal from the world. We’re all in this together, and when there is love, then surely there is no blame, no bad guy, no “this isn’t my fault!”

I understand the sense of urgency to affect change. But this is only half the story, and in some important ways, missing the point. I’ve seen and experienced too much overwork, self-sacrifice and the rest to not understand that someone or something else is living off of that productivity. A very complex relationship exists between my early conditioning, my community and the power structure, whereby I fit in neatly (with my institutionalized ambition and docility) to be a source of energy for another above me.

So taking care of myself becomes of utmost importance: in finding what I love, in understanding the complex web of relationships that I exist in, how beliefs stemming from childhood compel me to behave in a certain way, how I have developed certain beliefs in reaction to my conditioning. The power structure exists within and without. In many of us, the mind has achieved a dominant position.

Ultimately, taking care of oneself means the creation of one’s own reality: health, self-knowledge, what we do and how we do it, what we eat, how we clothe and shelter ourselves, how we relate to the world. Surely this is important, and not a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that humanity is self-destructing.

We have no business trying to fix the world, even if America is responsible for so much suffering. Let’s deal with the present problems here at home, the power struggles and violence that arise out of our minds and hearts, our jobs and taxes, in our day-to-day relationships. Let’s protest, revolt, confront in our daily lives, with all the hypocrisy and ignorance in ourselves, our families, communities, up to the global power structure. But starting from ourselves. There’s never a point at which we graduate and become better than someone else, where we get to dictate to another how it is.

Here proper education lies: a sincere search for the truth, not conformity and nationalism and other silliness. There is no immutable structure, and parent and child, teacher and student, self and environment, explore together, find out together.

Mr. Danaher end the book with this:

More and more people are beginning to break through the cult of powerlessness and now believe that we can build a truly democratic global economy. But the pressing question is: Can we achieve that goal soon enough to prevent the biosphere and millions of people from being destroyed by the built-in rapaciousness of global capitalism?

The answer will be determined, in part, by what you do after you put down this book.

It’s a very good question. If each one of us isn’t struggling with this, then something is horribly wrong.

Padraic Rohan was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has taught elementary school and started an outdoor adventure not-for-profit organization.