Le Monde diplomatique, January 2001


Frightening the free marketeers


Globalisation is irreversible, inevitable and, according to political commentator Alain Minc, necessarily "beneficial" (1). Or so free-market pundits of all kinds have been telling us for over 10 years now. The message has been repeated ad nauseam by economic journalists, leader-writers, essayists, international institutions and governments of all shades. And the credo is still being proclaimed in its most naive form. "For my part," European commissioner Frederik Bolkestein wrote recently, "I shall remain firm in my objections to the Tobin tax, in my advocacy of healthy tax competition, and above all in my belief in the virtues of globalisation" (2).

Yet Bolkestein would probably have been thought unnecessarily crude by his usual mentors, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Without of course changing their practice, they have at least stopped shooting a line that people are no longer prepared to swallow. In its latest World Development Report the bank admits that, in terms of its "attack" on poverty, its structural adjustment programmes are a failure. At the annual economic symposium of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City last August, former IMF deputy managing director Stanley Fischer acknowledged the validity of many anti-globalisation attacks on governments, corporations and international institutions (3). And Michael Kinsley, leader writer for Time magazine, who is one of the WTO's most ardent defenders, recently regretted that the organisation "is despised across the entire political spectrum" (4). So much for Bolkestein's "virtues" and Alain Minc's "benefits".

More serious for the credibility of these two "experts" is the pessimistic assessment of the future of globalisation in the British and American financial press which has made no bones about criticising those self-proclaimed global leaders who have no time for well-meaning amateurs (5). On 11 September the Financial Times warned that "as long as the demands of the public and the capital markets are in conflict, politicians will conclude that anti-business populism promises electoral dividends. The message for big business is hardly reassuring." On 6 November Business Week observed that "unless multinational companies shoulder more of the social costs themselves in countries where governments are weak, street protesters will probably set the rules for them". But it was The Economist that really sounded the alarm bells. On 23 September it admitted that "the protesters are right that the most pressing moral, political and economic issue of our time is third-world poverty. And they are right that the tide of globalisation, powerful as the engines driving it may be, can be turned back. The fact that both these things are true is what makes the protesters - and, crucially, the strand of popular opinion that sympathises with them - so terribly dangerous."

What caused this sudden change of attitude? The success of the street protests in Seattle, Washington, Prague and Melbourne, confirmed by the demonstrations in Nice. It is no mean admission to warn that globalisation is reversible and that political leaders, responding to voters' "populism", can perfectly well undo what they have done or allowed to be done in their name. Tactical considerations certainly play a part in this. By raising the spectre of a mass anti-globalisation movement, the critics aim to provoke governments into taking the measures needed to banish it. Unlike the prophecies of international financiers, these are not intended to be self-fulfilling.

But although deliberate manipulation may play only a small part in the current change of attitude, it is not free of risk. It considerably strengthens the hand of the opponents of free-market globalisation, who see that their struggle is paying dividends.

Apart from the growing impact of the opposition movements, there is another, very straightforward explanation for the change of attitude. It is the still unarticulated feeling that anti-globalisation is gaining ground because it has adopted the same top-down strategy as globalisation itself.

In the interests of American finance

Neo-liberal ideology was fabricated entirely in response to the interests of American finance, concerned to remove all obstacles to the worldwide free movement of capital. A systematic drive to raise funds and infiltrate the universities and media was required in order for it to win intellectual hegemony - first in the United States and then in the rest of the world. By means of the intellectual straitjacket known as the Washington consensus, it was subsequently imposed on the large number of countries "benefiting" from loans from the Bretton Woods institutions. In Europe - driven in the early 1980s by a Thatcherite philosophy enthusiastically espoused by a series of governments across the Channel - it gave rise to the "strong franc" policy, the decision to liberalise capital movements in 1988, the Maastricht treaty of 1992 and the budgetary stability pact of 1997. It is responsible for the
structural adjustment plans imposed on EU applicants in the form of acceptance of the Community "acquis" and, more generally, for all the economic liberalisation measures proposed or implemented by the European Commission.

In each case, peoples have been summoned to comply with measures legitimised by international institutions that are supposedly above partisan politics and, by reason of their technical "expertise", alone able to decide on the "only possible policies". Governments actively involved in formulating those measures have subsequently been able to apply them by invoking, as required, the "conditions" imposed by the IMF and the World Bank or the "constraints" of EU membership. This top-down strategy has served both to absolve governments from responsibility and to legitimise their actions.

Now the anti-globalisation opposition has taken the top-down route from the international to the national, and it is applying the strategy to great effect.

In France, for example, the scathing critics of "inward-looking nationalism", "the French ideology" and "national republicanism" - from Bernard-Henri Lévy to Philippe Sollers, via Daniel Cohn-Bendit and a few of their journalist friends - have failed to squeeze the anti-globalisation movement into the straitjacket of preconceived ideas they employ to defend and demonstrate their free-market orthodoxy (6). The fact that José Bové's bail was paid by American farmers, for example, or that a movement like Attac (7) has spread spontaneously to a score of countries, makes nonsense of allegations of nationalism. The mass protests in Seattle and Nice brought together demonstrators from many different countries. All came with demands specific to their own countries or professions,
but all those demands were set in a global context.

It is becoming clear to everybody that since national policies are over-determined by strategies decided at international level, protest and the formulation of alternatives must also take place at that level. In sharp contrast to free-market globalisation, which is purely a product of the North, the new alternatives must incorporate the aspirations of both North and South. The main task of the World Social Forum to be held from 25 to 30 January in Porto Alegre (see Ignacio Ramonet's leading article) will be to formulate the first global alternatives. It will then be up to the movements, unions and elected representatives attending the forum to translate them into actions suited to each country, bearing in mind local power relations. A new internationalism is emerging - very slowly,
of course, because issues such as social and environmental standards can divide as well as unite. It will gradually bring together isolated struggles and legitimise them by reference to a common set of proposals associated with symbolic venues.

For citizens' movements, Seattle or Porto Alegre may soon acquire the status which the Washington consensus or the budgetary stability pact have for their national governments. The piercing anxiety of the free-marketeers can now be more easily understood.

They see looming before them a structure built on a model of their own making. They are only too aware of its efficiency and know that the outcome of their policies can only be to strengthen it. And they are unlikely to be reassured by an excellent recent report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) entitled "Anti-globalisation - a spreading phenomenon" (8).

(1) The reference is to the unforgettable French title of Minc's book, La mondialisation heureuse (Editions Plon, Paris, 1997), which may be rendered in English as "The Benefits of Globalisation".
(2) "To the Enemies of Globalization", The Wall Street Journal Europe, 25 September 2000.
(3) Financial Times, 28 August 2000.
(4) Michael Kinsley, "The Mystical Power of Free Trade", Time, December 13, 1999.
(5) French pro-globalisation journalists, however, appear to lag behind in this respect. Jean-François Revel's article in Le Point on 15 December is itself suggestive of the famous "retard français" which the magazine is always lambasting. His delusions include references to "the Seattle, Davos and Biarritz hordes", "a few thousand terrorists", "assault troops" who "call, like Hitler, for the closure of frontiers" and, at the same time, "look back fondly
to the Soviet model".
(6) Some use devious methods to attempt to discredit the anti-globalisation movement. An example is the use of the French adjective "anti-mondialiste", deliberately borrowed from the vocabulary of the Front National, to suggest kinship with that party. This trick was used by Alexandre Adler, for example, in an article entitled "La mondialisation malheureuse" (Le Monde, 23 November 2000), in which he attacked, for good measure, the
"agitational violence of communitarian cranks in Seattle and Prague". Under the headline "Le vrai fiasco de la présidence française" (Le Monde, 13 December 2000), Alain Lipiez, a Green Party member of the European parliament, went so far as to claim that the term was used by the anti-globalists themselves.
(7) Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens, currently chaired by the author of this article.
(8) http://www.csis-scrs.gc.ca/eng/miscdocs/200008_e.html

Translated by Barry Smerin

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1997-2001 Le Monde diplomatique - reproduced with permission


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