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From New York to Porto Alegre

The second month of the second year of the new century began with the two ways open to us set, as it were, side by side. In New York the WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM met privately and secretly, an elite collection of big business leaders, government officials, and their intellectual bodyguards — surrounded by a real bodyguard of thousands of police.

Meanwhile, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, thousands of representatives of popular organizations from more than 110 countries convened publicly in the second annual WORLD SOCIAL FORUM. In New York, the Bill of Rights was suspended in the ways that have become typical for US and other police forces at these businessmen’s meetings; in Brazil, something of the spirit of carnival pervaded the sessions.

The WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM brought together those whom the financial press have called — half in jest, all in earnest — “the Masters of the Universe.” There were roughly four cops for every participant, and attempts to demonstrate against them were harshly controlled. In contrast, the WORLD SOCIAL FORUM opened with a colorful parade under the banner “Another World Is Possible”; thousands of people marched through the center of Porto Alegre, a Brazilian city that has had a labor-based social democratic government for a dozen years, to open a discussion of practical alternatives to the “neoliberal” privatization being cried up in New York.

There were a thousand “masters” in New York and perhaps 70,000 attendees in Porto Alegre, but the disproportion between the world economic elite and the rest of us is much greater. Those who control the disposition of the world’s wealth — and hence the possibilities for the rest of us to employ the talents of our heads and hands — are a tiny group: try as they might (and as the media demonstrate, they do try hard — there was little coverage of the Brazilian meeting in the US press), they cannot keep up the fiction that their interests coincide with those of the rest of us.

More than a hundred and fifty years ago, a now largely forgotten German student of the Greek and Latin classics described the “globalization” that had already come upon the world: “The masters of the universe [not his phrase, but a reasonable translation of it] have, through their exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, they have drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it had stood … They compel all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt their mode of production; they compel them to introduce what they call ‘liberalization’ into their midst, i.e., to become like themselves. In one word, the masters of the universe create a world after their own image.”

And that world is one of sharp and increasing inequality. Noam Chomsky, one of the principal speakers at the WORLD SOCIAL FORUM, points to US government studies (from the Clinton years) showing that neoliberal economic integration will continue and enlarge the gap between “haves” and “have-nots.” The Pentagon stated their simple conclusion: that will produce “turmoil among growing numbers of impoverished people throughout the world, who will have to be controlled by force.” As Chomsky comments, “Apart from the horrendous consequences for the victims, that is also a prescription for global disaster.”

The German student of a century and a half ago was of course Karl Marx, and he concluded his description of actually-existing globalization with a call for more, but of a different sort: “The working people of the world have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!”

The question is not whether there will be globalization — as Marx noted, it has been around for centuries — but what form it will take. Will world-wide economic integration be under the control of those who met in New York and the people they work for — and therefore continue the subjection of the world’s majority to the authoritarian institutions in which we carry on our working lives — or will it take the forms pioneered in thought and action by the popular organizations meeting in Porto Alegre?

The former are adamant that, in Margaret Thatcher’s favorite phrase, “There is no alternative” — because they own all the important productive property, so decisions about how the world’s wealth is to be invested are in their hands. The latter insist that another world — a human and humane world — is possible. These are “sharply different programs of globalization,” Chomsky concludes. “Apart from whatever else one might think about it, the [New York] version really does threaten the survival of the species. One reason is that the underlying principles, if taken seriously, lead to the conclusion that it is quite rational to destroy the environment for our grandchildren….”

The Hebrew bible — the basis for all modern Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — includes the following exhortation: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

Life was on display in Brazil last week; in New York, death.

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.

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