Brian Holmes on 13 Sep 2000 08:24:37 -0000

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<nettime> draft article on WTO

John Bunzl's point about competition being at the root of the current forms
of exploitation - whether in terms of labor or ecology - is well taken by
an awful lot of people in the so-called "anti-globalization" movement. The
platform of the People's Global Action coalition goes pretty deeply into
that, the Zapatistas have been on that line from the start, recently you
have a sophisticated and very down-to-earth discourse on that from the
French Confederation Paysanne farmer's group, and so on. I think it's
mainly in the peasants' movements, but also in European political movements
for a universal minimum income, that the question of how to imagine what a
world with less competition would look like is being raised in detail.
There are a lot of ideas out there, so I think maybe do a little reading
and change the title of the paper? But there aren't that many dreamy
utopians out there, because everyone knows this is also a fight, a
political conflict, which involves ideas but also actions, power, scales
and frameworks of power.
        Arguments have been raised in this thread about corporations being
"faceless," abstract discursive forms and therefore unattackable through
name-calling and mud-slinging. And then another argument (Mark Robbins)
says "The left has been duped into adopting a worldview wherein
corporations are human, with the same rights and priviliges that we as
human beings enjoy.  They are not, and they have not. That is what must be
        Both these arguments have something behind them but they miss the
major political point of the contemporary protests, which are less about
the legal or philosophical definition of corporations than about frameworks
and scales of power. Obviously entrepreneurial capitalism has globalized
and it is only at greater levels of magnitude than the traditionally
sovereign nation-state that today's capitalism can be bridled (not just
regulated, but actually halted in certain of its trends). The protestors
have understood this very well - why else would they be going after the
world economic institutions? Of course, to position themselves for the
creation of a larger framework of power which can really be used for
non-competitive ends. It is within such a framework that legal and
philosophical definitions can be made to matter.
        At the time when the World Bank and the IMF were created, they were
called "Keynes' twins" and they were part of an institutional framework
designed to contain and transform the destructive energy of laissez-faire
capitalism. Now, after a twenty-year neoliberal onslaught, they are both
useless for that purpose. In this case it would be great if the
"simple-minded" protestors got their wish and got rid of them. Can the WTO
be "reformed"? Can the UN be "reformed" How could a world government be
built? What kind of mediations would there be between such a government and
all the other scales, down to identity groups, neighborhoods and
individuals? What kinds of freedoms would be guaranteed - what wouldn't be
controlled by a world government?
        Those are the horizon-questions of the "anti-globalization"
movement, which is really a movement against _the globalization of capital_
(another way to describe the competition thing). But too much worry about
the very large questions can throw you off the track. The really-existing
instruments of global governance, like the IMF, the US Federal Reserve
Bank, the European Central Bank, Nato,  the UN - all these are places where
crowds can bring pressure to bear by protesting and name-calling, while
organizers and intellectuals articulate the greivances and hack their way
further into the arenas that the big deals are cut and the power is
deployed. In all those fights, protest can make itself felt most
effectively at the points where the traditional nations negotiate their new
place within the supranational power frameworks (of which mainly are two
driving the globalization of capital, or really one and its clone: the
American Empire and the European Union - though people who know more about
Asia could probably describe a third). I think it's precisely at the points
where the frameworks and scales of power are changing, that popular power,
democratic people-power, can make the most difference and generate the most
real institutional force. It is at such points that what Mark Robbins calls
"the courts" are created, legitimated, and backed up by cops and armies and
bureaucrats. Fortunately the not-so-dumb protestors kept a court called the
Multilateral Agreement on Investments from being instituted, and from
enforcing a particularly rapacious definition of the corporation. So far,
that's our biggest victory. But it's a negative one, and we need to push
for positive victories.
        So the problem is not a lack of ideas, and it's not that the
protestors are regressive and out-of-date. The problem for anyone on the
left is to ride the tiger of a popular movement in such a way that you help
get the ideas to the places where they can change the shape and purpose of
the existing frameworks of power, and force the institution of new and
better ones.

Brian Holmes

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