Not the least of the services that the September 11 attackers rendered to the Bush administration (and the business interests that back it) was to provide a basis for propaganda against the anti-globalization movement. From the point of view of Bush and his backers, the anti-globalization movement was a serious threat, but after September 11, US government propaganda could associate it with terrorism. The point was made explicit by the transfer of this month’s meeting of the World Economic Forum from its accustomed place in Davos, Switzerland, to New York City. It is a conscious juxtaposition of the ruins of the World Trade Center and the masters of world trade, the working people who died in those office buildings obscenely translated into cover for the exploitation of poor people around the world.
Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair were not overstating when they chose as the title of their recent book about the demonstrations in Seattle two years ago, FIVE DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD. The events in that city in November of 1999 brought to view the breadth and depth of opposition to business dominance of the world — what became in the next months and years, through successive demonstrations in Washington, Quebec, Sweden, and Genoa — the largest world-wide mass movement in history.
Corporate media did their best to reduce it to “Teamsters and turtles” and focus attention on “black bloc” diversions. (By the meeting of the G8 governments in Genoa last July, many of these so-called anarchists seem to have been police spies and provocateurs). But the executive committee of the ownership class knew who these people were, and just how dangerous they were. At Genoa a fascist police attack was engineered — not against the black bloc, but against the mainstream peaceful protesters, who were savagely beaten and jailed.
These are the people whom the captains of industry and finance fear. The media, which they own, said that the protesters had no plans — ignoring their serious and extensive critique of “neoliberalism,” the fashionable name for business-control of the world and the exclusion of democratic limitation of business through government.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, the most thoughtful member of this administration (frighteningly enough), occasionally blurts out the truth. He sees the situation but not the contradictions: “We’re selling a product,” he says. “That product we are selling is democracy. It’s the free enterprise system, the American value system.”
He seems to think those three things are identical. But democracy and “the free enterprise system” — capitalism — are contradictories. The former presumes equality — one person, one vote; but the latter depends on inequality — your influence in society depends on how much wealth you command.
And “the American value system” is thoroughly ambiguous. It should presumably mean the Enlightenment ideals that were said to animate the revolution of 1776 and are expressed in (parts of) the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The history of the US should be written in terms of the attempts of those few with wealth and power to make sure that the implications of those ideals (e.g., “all men are created equal”) are not extended to people other than themselves, and in the struggles of poor and working people, of minorities and women, to see that they are — a contest far from over, or even clear in the direction of its outcome.
Actual American values, the values that animate our public discourse and culture, were described early in the last century by William James as “the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.”
Of course we salve our troubled conscience by calling it “meritocracy,” but, as one contemporary commentator puts it, “Instead of the comforting rationale that merit breeds success and the successful have merit, a more rational approach would be to speculate that in our society wealth and power tend to accrue to those who are ruthless, cunning, avaricious, self-seeking, lacking in sympathy and compassion, subservient to authority and willing to abandon principle for material gain…”
As John Pilger recently wrote in the NEW STATESMAN, “Since 11 September, the ‘war on terrorism’ has provided a pretext for the rich countries, led by the United States, to further their dominance over world affairs. By spreading ‘fear and respect,’ as a WASHINGTON POST reporter put it, America intends to see off challenges to its uncertain ability to control and manage the ‘global economy,’ the euphemism for the progressive seizure of markets and resources by the G8 rich nations. This, not the hunt for a man in a cave in Afghanistan, is the aim behind US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s threats to ’40 to 50 countries.’ It has little to do with terrorism and much to do with maintaining the divisions that underpin ‘globalization.'”
Carl Estabrook teaches at the University of Illinois and is the host of News From Neptune, a weekly radio show on politics and the media. He writes a regular column for CounterPunch.