Printer Friendly

Confronting McWorld: Pathways to a Post-Corporate Society.

For those of us who were there in the streets of Seattle, and the great many more who watched the dramatic week of mass protests against the World Trade Organization unfold on television, the Battle of Seattle was truly a defining moment in the building of a movement for a post-corporate society. We must not forget, of course, that Birmingham, Geneva and Cologne preceded Seattle in building mass protests against corporate-driven globalization. But, by targeting the WTO as the symbol of global corporate governance, Seattle became both the watershed and the beachhead of resistance. For, the Battle of Seattle was not only successful in stopping [if temporarily] the WTO's proposed Millennium Round of global trade negotiations but it also served as the launching pad for a new wave of mass protests over the past year with code names designated by youth activists indicating the month and day as follows:

A-16 - the World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington, D.C. in April 2000

M-1 - the May Day 2000 demonstrations against corporate globalization

M-8 - the Asia Development Bank meetings in Thailand, May 2000

J-31-A-14 - the Republican and Democratic Conventions in the U.S., Summer '2000

S-11 - the World Economic Forum meetings in Melbourne, Australia, September 2000

S-26 - the meetings of the IMF and World Bank in Prague, September 2000

Plus the mass protests staged and/or planned here in Canada regarding major global events:

J-5 - the meeting of the Organization of American Stares in Windsor, June 2000

J-12 - the World Petroleum Congress meetings in Calgary, June 2000

A-17 - the forthcoming Free Trade of the Americas meeting in Quebec City, April 2001.

Political Moment

The Battle of Seattle was, as we said, a defining moment. It took place, however, almost exactly ten years after another defining moment of our times, namely, the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Above all, this event symbolized the triumph of Capitalism over Communism. The bipolar global economy, which had characterized political life throughout most of the 20th century, had been terminated. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, we were told, marked the 'end of ideology', the 'end of history'. With the triumph of Capitalism, democracy itself would flourish throughout the world. But, as it spread its wings to cover the four corners of the planet in the 1990s, Capitalism became fully globalized and totalitarian at the same time. The transnational corporation emerged as the dominant institutional force of this new global capitalism, superceding the powers of the nation-state in many countries. Moving into the centre of modern history, the transnational corporation now wields an increasingly powerful influence over t he daily lives of nations and peoples. It also poses a fundamental threat to democracy itself.

This was certainly one of the keynote messages that surfaced from the youth-led protests and blockades on the streets of Seattle and the campaigns that followed. After all, today's youth know what it means to live in a corporate-dominated society or "McWorld" as they call it. As Ralph Nader points out, this is the first generation to experience what it means to 'grow up corporate'. In her best selling book No Logo Naomi Klein describes in graphic detail how today's youth are submerged in a sea of corporate branding and how culture jamming of corporate logos and symbols has become a major form of resistance, as witnessed in recent campaigns against Nike, the GAP, Disney and other brand name corporations engaged in sweatshop labour practices. Indeed, transnational corporations -- and the stranglehold they have secured over the state -- have become the major targets of mass mobilizations by workers, farmers, environmentalists as well as by youth in opposition to the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank.

What these mass protests have succeeded in doing is to provoke a 'crisis of legitimacy' with regards to the dominant institutions of global economic governance. As the great social movement strategist, Antonio Gramsci, pointed out almost three quarters of a century ago, political power and control cannot be sustained in the long run without popular support or 'legitimacy'. A 'crisis of legitimacy', argued Gramsci, occurs when political institutions are stripped of their moral and cultural prestige and reduced to their basic "economic corporate" existence. By unmasking and exposing the corporate powers that lie behind the state, therefore, the ideological consensus which bonds ruling economic and political elites with the general population and thereby legitimizing their power, is broken.

Consciously or not, this is the strategy that has been most effective in the resistance campaigns against global economic governance which has resulted in a recent string of victories for civil society movements. Whether we are talking about the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment [MAI] at the OECD, or the shutdown of the WTO Millennium Round in Seattle, or the loss of confidence in the World Bank and the IMF -- these major victories have been scored in no small measure because the corporate powers that are driving these global governing institutions have been publicly exposed, thereby undermining their credibility and authority. What's more, events like the financial meltdown that occurred in the so called "Asian miracle economies" [South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines] in 1997-98, served to further fan the flames of this crisis of legitimacy regarding the major institutions of global economic governance.

Even the mainline business press has sent out warning signals about this emerging crisis of legitimacy. In a September 2000 cover story on public perceptions about the dangers of growing corporate power, Business Week magazine reported that 72 per cent of Americans maintain that big business has too much power over peoples' daily lives and 95 percent insist that the responsibilities of corporations are not just to make profits for their shareholders -- that they also owe a debt to workers and communities.

Resistance Mode

It is equally important to note the deepening dimensions of resistance to corporate globalization. In some countries, the kind of resistance that has been mounting is not only political and economic, but also cultural and localized at the same time. Take, for example, the gathering of over 100,000 people that took place in Millau, France over a June 2000 weekend. The occasion was not another meeting of global leaders like the WTO or the IMF. Instead, it was the trial of Jose Bove and the McDo Ten. When the WTO ruled against the European ban on hormone-treated beef, allowing the U.S., Canada and other beef exporting countries to raise tariffs on their imports of European products as a penalty, one of the targets was the world famous Roquefort cheese which is made from sheep's milk in the farming communities around Millau. Protesting against the WTO ruling, Jose Bove and nine other peasant leaders decided to smash the construction of a local McDonalds' franchise as a global symbol of their resistance.

So, what McDonald's officials publicly labeled as a "wrecking party," the local farmers called a "festival of destruction." But, alas, I may have misled you. Of the 100,000 that gathered in Millau, approximately 35,000 reportedly came to witness the trial while the remaining 65,000 or so showed up for a rock concert that weekend. Yet, the two events were closely related. The rock band's concert in Millau was organized in support of the McDo 10. What's more, thousands joined in the chant "The World Is Not For Sale And Neither Am I," which just happens to be the title of Bove's recent book. And, to top it all off, political cartoonists throughout Europe had a field day, drawing Jose Bove's handle bar moustache in the shape of McDonald's golden arches logo.

Underlying the McDo 10 trial, however, is the fact that dissent itself is -- once again -- being targeted as a criminalized activity. During the WTO protests in Seattle, the Pentagon's top secret Delta Force, which was featured in the Waco standoff, had established its own command post in a downtown hotel. At the A-16 demonstrations in Washington D.C., undercover police were deployed everywhere and phones were tapped to monitor 73 Internet sites of campaign activists. In a RAND study prepared for the Pentagon, civil society activists against corporate globalization are portrayed as an "NGO swarm" that can "sting a victim to death" through Internet action.

All of this points to the need to deepen our understanding of resistance in an age of corporate globalization. Ursula Franklin, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and one of this country's long-standing environmental and peace activists, maintains that the time has come for people to recognize that we are living under conditions of military occupation, where the corporations are the new armies of occupation, and there is much to learn from the French Resistance Movement. The end of the Cold War, she says, did not mean the end of warmaking. Military tactics have simply shifted to the economic arena and what we now have is an economic war being waged against people. The new enemy, she contends, is 'the people' and new territories of occupation are 'the commons' such as health care, education, culture, the environment and all the other elements of common life that used to be protected and enhanced by the public sector. What we have now, with this new style of military occupation, she argues, is "pu ppet governments ... running the country on behalf of corporations and their armies of marketeers."

Like the French resistance, says Franklin, we too find ourselves acting as "collaborators with the armies of occupation." After all, the places where we work, buy products and services, and secure the food we eat are very often connected, one way or another, to the corporations which are the armies of occupation. In order to protect our families and survive, we collaborate with our occupiers in various ways. But, we can also develop strategies and tactics of resistance in order to block their advance wherever possible. Unlike the Nazi occupiers of Europe, today's corporate occupiers do not wear uniforms. So, we must learn to identify, unmask and expose them and their operations wherever we can. This is the kind of discipline that needs to be developed if we are to deepen and broaden the resistance for the long run as a stepping stone to building a post-corporate society.

Vision Thing

Yet, resistance without transformation is not sufficient Building a post-corporate society requires moving from resistance to transformation. In order to move in this direction, there needs to be a unifying theme or vision. In a series of articles published by Canadian Dimension over the past year or so, Sam Gindin, former long time assistant to the president of the Canadian Auto Workers and now visiting professor at York University, underscores the dangers in going from issue to issue and campaign to campaign without addressing the root causes and the need for systemic change. If the structural causes of all the issues we are addressing in our campaigns of resistance are rooted in the dominant economic system, namely, capitalism itself, then what needs to be done, says Gindin, is to develop a compass and a space for activists to discuss and debate alternatives to capitalism as a basis for formulating a vision and strategy for social transformation in the long run.

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in a political climate where the TINA syndrome reigns supreme. Ever since Maggie Thatcher pronounced the TINA gospel -- "There Is No Alternative" -- meaning there is no alternative to capitalism, the world has been trapped in a straightjacket of totalitarian thinking. And, with this, the politics of fear have managed to sap the juices of political imagination and hope. What's more, says Naomi Klein, the youth activists that form the heart of the movement against corporate globalization today, do not want a predetermined ideology or political vision imposed on them. The movement, she says, is too diversified and decentralized to allow this to happen. Nevertheless, Klein insists, the vision thing does exist -- youth activists do have some vision of where they want to go and this is evident in the their diverse struggles and campaigns. Yet, while acknowledging Naomi Klein's points, Sam Gindin is right in pressing for more clarity about political vision.

In grappling with the vision thing, the deeper questions before us have to do with what does it mean to transform global capitalism? What does it mean to build a post-corporate society? Are we talking about a society where transnational corporations are harnessed and tamed, or a society where such corporations are no longer allowed to exist at all? Is our political vision aimed at humanizing capitalism or replacing it altogether with a socialist democracy? Regardless of where we stand, the time has come for activists to begin discussing and debating these fundamental questions again. For, as Canadian philosopher John McMurtry warns, we may well be in what he calls the "cancer stage of capitalism" wherein a fundamental choice must be made between a 'life economy' and a 'death economy' concerning the future of humanity and the planet itself.

In short, we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift. Whether our vision thing is ultimately about the task of 'reforming' or 'transforming' capitalism, it must be recognized that there is a pluralism of perspectives that need to be given serious attention in defining ones political vision for the future. They include ecological and feminist as well as worker visions; Aboriginal and youth visions along with those of those of people of colour. Also woven amongst these are various ethical and spiritual visions. Each of these perspectives has a critical role to play in forging a new political vision for the building of a post-corporate society. What is needed is a crucible in which there can be a creative interaction and convergence of the essential values and perspectives embodied in these diverse visions.

Citizen Politics

Yet, a new political vision cannot be forged and cultivated without a new citizens' politics. This brings us to the role of civil society organizations in building a post-corporate society. By civil society, I am referring to that independent space that exists between the corporation and the state which is composed of a myriad of voluntary organizations and associations, commonly known as the third sector. As a result of studies conducted at the Centre for Civil Society at Johns Hopkins University, Lester Solomon concludes that the third sector is currently undergoing unprecedented growth. In a recent study of nine countries, Solomon says that the non-profit sector is growing at a rate of four times the rate of the economy as a whole.

Although most of this civil society mushrooming is taking place in terms of social service and charitable organizations, there are, in addition to labour unions, a growing number new civil society groups which are committed to struggles for democratic-social change. But, if the civil society sector is to become a viable vehicle for building a post-corporate society in the future, then a citizens' politics based on both resistance and transformation is essential. The real challenge here is to develop a dialectic between resistance and transformation. In other words, there can be no effective form of resistance without a vision and strategy for transformation and vice versa. Citizen activists need to learn to practice this kind of dialectic through their political action.

In an age of corporate globalization or global capitalism, there is a tendency to emphasize the development of international civil society organizations. Yet, as Parkland's Gordon Laxer reminds us, along with numerous social movement strategists, the struggle for transformation begins at home. The national arena is still the strategic space in which a social bloc of countervailing forces can best be organized and manifested. International civil society organizations, that do not have a well-organized and activated constituency base within countries, are bound to be ineffective. Even when it comes to transforming the global economy itself, organized resistance within nation-states is imperative. This in turn calls for a citizens' politics of resistance and transformation that is rooted in local and national struggles.

For inspiration along these lines, it is worth looking elsewhere, notably in the developing countries of the South. In the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, for example, the people are experimenting with the development of a new model of governance in response to corporate globalization. Shortly after the Brazilian Workers Party was elected to office, the new government of this seaside port city of some 3 million people began to introduce mechanisms for democratic participation in decision malting. Now, as we all know, budget making is usually the time when governments manifest their decision-making powers. In Canada, civil society groups are engaged every year in the exercise of developing an Alternative Federal Budget. But, in Brazil, the government of Porto Alegre has been able to take this process several steps farther by actually developing what they call a "People's Budget."

Using resources provided by the government, citizen forums are organized annually in each of the 16 jurisdictions that comprise the Porto Alegre metropolitan area to discuss and debate community needs, spending priorities and raising public revenues. Community-based choices are made about needs and priorities ranging from schools, hospitals and parks to water, housing and waste disposal. As one observer notes, given the choice between a neo-liberal solution and a community-based solution to local problems in a globalized economy, people are more likely to choose the latter every time, regardless of their political stripe. Once the community priorities are selected, each citizen forum elects one person to represent their platform in government. The 16 elected citizens and the 16 elected councillors then meet to sort out the community priorities and make final budget decisions.

What the Porto Alegre experiment illustrates is that there are new models of governance, based on both participatory and representative democracy, which can be developed as a pathway for building a post-corporate society. Where do we want to be five or ten years from now in terms of building a post-corporate society and what is it going to take to get us there? During the next two days, we will have a chance to probe these and related questions in our plenary and workshop sessions, but this evening I want to briefly identify some guideposts.

Six Pathways

As I see it, there are at least six pathways or tracks to a post-corporate society which need to be developed in this country over the next five years or so.

Track 1: Revitalizing Citizen Politics:

What I mean by this is that we need to develop some new organizing methods and strategies for energizing the constituencies of our own civil society organizations, let alone the public at large. After all, living under corporate occupation, people have become increasingly colonized as far as their democratic rights are concerned. The rights and freedoms assumed by corporations today supersede those of citizens' and nations. We need to decolonize ourselves and relearn what it means to be self-governing peoples, which is the hallmark of democracy. At the same time, our organizations could benefit from new approaches and methods. Individual activists can be encouraged to set up advocacy networks around key issues with the space and resources to do network organizing amongst members for campaign activities.

Taking a leaf from youth activists, a more decentralized model of coalition or network building can be applied by utilizing the 'hub and spokes' approach where the spokes allow for a diversity of campaigns while the hub provides facilitation and modest coordination. And, of course, there are many creative ways of using the Internet as an organizing tool. Take, for example, the ways in which Reclaim The Streets in the U.K. has been able to mobilize tens of thousands of people to block off down town areas as common space for street parties, highlighting one or more issue of economic and social justice.

Track 2: Developing an Economic Agenda:

Over the next five years, decisive steps should be taken to declare the neoliberal model as a failed experiment based on outmoded 19th century market theories and to advance a new agenda for transforming the economy at local, national, and international levels. On the national level, an alternative economic platform must not only propose new policies and programs for traditional sectors like agriculture, resource development and manufacturing industries but also innovative measures designed to meet social and environmental objectives such as shorter work weeks and renewable energy.

Any national economic platform must be strategically linked, on the one hand, to a plan of action designed to stimulate the building of local sustainable communities in both urban and rural settings, where priority is put on community-based economic alternatives.

On the other hand, strategic linkages also need to be made to the development of an international plan of action that includes the renegotiation and/or abrogation of existing free trade agreements, the overhaul of global finance institutions and the elimination of debt burdens for Third World countries, and the re-regulation of foreign investment. Implementing such an agenda would require, of course, the reclaiming of an interventionist role for the state in the economy along with a revitalizing the public sector to include greater democratic participation and control.

Track 3: Democratizing the State:

A pathway must also be outlined for dismantling the corporate security state that now exists and replacing it with a democratic model of governance. Among the mechanisms that need to be dismantled or drastically curtailed are the big business lobby machinery in Ottawa and the provincial capitals, the system of corporate financing of political parties and electoral campaigns, the corporate funded policy think tanks like the Fraser and the C.D. Howe Institutes, the political advertising campaigns that big business lobbies are allowed to conduct on public policy issues, and the revolving door between senior corporate and government bureaucrats.

A platform for democratic governance should include proposals for proportional representation which, by ensuring that Members of Parliament are elected based on the percentage of votes acquired rather than simply the 'first past the post' rule, would improve representative democracy.

At the same time, concrete proposals for participatory democracy, designed to increase citizen participation in policy decision making, is essential. Popular planning mechanisms like the Peoples' Budget process in Porto Alegre need to be introduced as a means for enhancing democratic participation and control over government decision making. Similarly, based on the school board concept, community investment and economic development boards composed of elected citizens could be formed with the mandate to make decisions on local development plans based on community economic, social and environmental priorities. And, to develop consensus with regards to major national and international policy issues, constituent assemblies composed of elected representatives from major sectors of civil society, could be established.

Track 4: Harnessing Corporate Power

No platform for democratic social change today would be sufficient if it did not contain concrete proposals for transforming the nature and role of the corporation at home and around the world. A series of measures are being developed now that could be used to harness and restructure corporations. Drawing upon 18th- and 19th-century legal traditions, steps are being taken in several U.S. states to revive the right of citizens to initiate a review of a corporation's charter with a view to either renew or remove their legal authority to operate. Legislative initiatives to restructure the nature and role of the corporation -- to ensure that other stakeholders besides investors and shareholders such as workers, customers, suppliers, creditors and the community itself can exercise degrees of ownership and control over the company's operations -- are being explored.

So too are legal measures to remove the limited liability laws that protect corporations from litigation because of abusive practices along with means that could be used to hold a corporation liable for any environmental, social or human rights damage. New anti-trust laws are also being pursued which could be used not only to curb the expansion of corporate powers through mega mergers but also to deglobalize their operations. In addition, more specific legislative measures are being taken by the U.S. Congress to regulate the overseas operations of U.S. corporations and to provide new legal avenues for people in other countries to bring charges and seek remedies for unjust practices. Similar steps could be included in a platform here in Canada to harness and restructure the operations of corporations.

Track 5: Exercising Collective Power.

In order to effectively engage in the politics of resistance and transformation, civil society organizations need to retrieve their capacities to exercise collective power by withdrawing consent. Our economic, social and political system is predicated on consent and cooperation. By doing work, buying products and services, and obeying laws, citizens give their consent to those who govern and rule. But citizens can also collectively withdraw their consent through mass labour strikes, consumer boycotts of products, and the exercise of civil disobedience. Once collective withdrawal of consent has been manifested, the authority and legitimacy of those who govern or rule is undermined.

Recently, the art of 'culture jamming' the public images of corporations and governments has become another tool which youth activists, in particular, have been using effectively.

Moreover, civil society can also exercise power through access to pools of capital. Labour unions, for example, could considerably increase their influence and power if they gained control over their pension funds and developed some creative strategies for reinvesting this capital. By reinvesting even a small percentage of their multi-billion dollar pension funds in mass communication instruments such as newspapers, radio, and television with reasonable rates of return, unions could well position themselves strategically to turn around the tide of public opinion. Although such strategies are controversial in union circles these days because of the risks involved [including the risk of turning workers into investors], it should be recognized that this capital is currently being invested every day in operations which undercut the struggles of workers here in Canada and all over the world. The time has come to regain control of this capital in the interests of working people and their allies.

Track 6: Deepening Political Vision.

Finally, there is a need for civil society movements in Canada to find common space for activists to come together and develop a unifying vision for social transformation. The dangers noted earlier of activists jumping from issue to issue and campaign to campaign without a compass that embodies a unifying political vision, are evident. Space needs to be provided for campaign activists from a wide range of civil society organizations to get away temporarily from the battle lines in order to develop a deeper awareness of the dynamics of capitalism and democracy and what it means to transform them through future action. Through this kind of process, a unifying political vision could be gradually forged, drawing upon relevant insights from democratic socialism along with defining elements from aboriginal, feminist, environmentalist, and youth, plus other relevant cultural and spiritual traditions. Furthermore, this visioning can be stimulated, as we have seen, through interaction with social movements and ideas emerging in other parts of the world, notably the South. What is needed is a common institutional space for civil society organizations in Canada to engage in a formation process both to deepen and forge a more unifying political vision for social transformation and to further develop the capacities, skills and tools for strategic action in the future.

Taken together, these are six pathways that could be developed over the next five years for building a post-corporate society. It is important, however, to recognize that the directions taken will, in part, be shaped by the contours of the particular political moment in which we find ourselves. Just as there has been a realignment of the political right going on in the past few years, so there must be a major realignment of the political left in the years ahead.

This brings us to what has been left unsaid this evening, namely, the political party question. On this, let me be quite candid. There is no doubt in my mind that a civil society movement needs a political party to deliver this kind of agenda for social transformation. The problem is that there is no party on the political landscape in Canada today that is prepared to make this agenda for building a post-corporate society the centrepiece of its platform. Rather than spinning our wheels trying to get a party to adopt parts of this agenda on a piecemeal basis, in my view, it makes more sense to focus our energies first on building a broad-based consensus in our civil society movements and then deal with the issue of what kind of political party is going to be required to deliver on this agenda. Like everything else this evening, this too is open for debate.

Tony Clarke is Founder and Director of the Polaris Institute, Ottawa. This is the text of his Keynote Address to the 4th Annual Parkland Conference at the University of Alberta, November 11-19, 2000.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Clarke, Tony
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:2000: The Year of Global Protest against Globalization.
Next Article:A Democratic Socialist Vision for the 21st Century.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters