My Dinner with Renato

GLOBAL VILLAGE OR GLOBAL PILLAGE?Economic Reconstruction from the Bottom Up.

Diners gawked through the lace-curtained windows of Washington’s Wyndham Bristol Hotel restaurant. The crew outside was motley indeed: young, blue-jeaned, carrying hand-lettered signs clutched in wind-reddened fingers, and chanting slogans … in Italian?

“Renato, Renato, Il MAI e’ condannato!” the protestors chanted merrily, circling in front of the Wyndham’s polished doors. We were awaiting the imminent arrival of Renato Ruggiero, head honcho of the mysterious World Trade Organization, a secretive shadow world government that, as Ruggiero proclaimed last year, is “re-writing the world’s Constitution.” The protest targeted the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the latest power-grab by multinationals trying an end-run around the increasing tendency of national governments to impose restrictions on the corporations’ right to make money whenever, and however, they damn well please.

“Renato, Renato, Il MAI e’ condannato!” (“Renato, Renato, the MAI is doomed!”; in Italian it rhymes); then we switched to my favorite: “MAI alla porta, o un’ altra torta!” – “MAI out the door, or another pie.” This refers to Renato’s unfortunate facial encounter with two lemon cream pies the previous week, when members of People Insurgent Everywhere (P.I.E.) added Ruggiero to their growing list of pie-ees – which now includes Bill Gates, Milton Friedman, Monsanto C.E.O. Robert Shapiro, and a couple other putative Masters of the Universe.

“You kill dolphins and exploit kids!” doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue, but “Uccidi i delphini, e sfrutti i bambini!” works quite nicely, as does “Salute, ambiente, non te ne frega niente!” (“Health, environment, you don’t give a damn!”). I’d heard of conversational Italian, but this was my first exposure to “rally Italian.”

After the rally, I was tapped to infiltrate the meeting inside (not for my brains or good looks, but because, sporting a jacket, I was the only one who might possibly pass muster at the door). One nervous hotel flunky did try to head me off (“May I help you sir?”) but he wasn’t quick-witted enough to know what to do when I breezily told him I was on my way into the W.T.O meeting. So I wound up having coffee and cookies with the guy some people say is the most powerful man in the world – although the little, rotund, balding, and bespectacled Italian fellow looked to me like he puts his pantalones on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

The W.T.O. is under major attack around the world by non-governmental organizations of various kinds – the N.G.O.s, primarily on behalf of working people and the environment, are demanding an active say at the developing global power table. In response, the W.T.O. has hired (surprise) a P.R. firm, which had obviously told Renato to go out and be nice to these noisy people. So between meetings with Alan Greenspan and the President, Ruggiero had squeezed in an hour with a hand-picked group of labor, environmental, and employer representatives.

With the exception of the labor guys (who had no patience for polite conversation), everyone chatted comfortably about finding a common, middle ground. The notion sounds nice, until you remember (as my former boss Jim Hightower so bluntly puts it), “There’s nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”

Globalization, like the “Information Superhighway” or “Y2K,” is one of the ubiquitous catchwords of the decade, and like the others, it’s over-hyped and misunderstood. Unfortunately, unlike the Internet or Y2K, you don’t have to be hooked-in or wired-up to be affected, and anyone who plans to be on the planet in the next few years is going to need a basic understanding of the issues at stake. Global Village is probably the best single book on “globalization” – a word and idea perfectly suited for fin de siècle silliness. My recommendation is to read the first five chapters of Global Village, and then read Strike! (also just out in a long-overdue second edition), before finishing Global Village.

It’s no accident that Strike! author Jeremy Brecher (joined as co-author on Global Village by former truck driver Tim Costello) is best suited for tackling the supposedly complex topic of globalization, because he understands that “free trade” has less to do with opening markets and international commerce than it does with driving down wages and increasing corporate profits. Free traders argue that globalization is a rising tide (where have we heard this before?) that raises all boats, benefiting tiny rowboats more than the luxury yachts. Even if we were to accept this questionable metaphor, in fact the tide is rapidly on the way out, stranding those fleets of little boats while the yachts safely ride the deep water swells.

In Global Village, Brecher and Costello make a simple argument: because capital is sloshing around the world faster and more easily than ever, “the result is a global ‘race to the bottom’ in which workers, communities, and whole countries are forced to compete by lowering wages, working conditions, environmental protections, and social spending.” What’s worse, as Global Village illustrates in chilling detail, those who benefit from globalization – the international institutions representing corporations and the wealthy – are rapidly expanding “their ability to block anything democratic governments might do to ‘interfere’ with the mobility of private capital.”

The New World Order has almost nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with following the money, through thickets of arcane trade agreements like GATT, NAFTA and the M.A.I., which are codifying the transfer of wealth from poor to rich at a stunning rate. Despite relentlessly cheery headlines about the longest economic boom in U.S. history, Brecher and Costello remind us of the sobering fact that “the real median income of more than 60% of American voters has fallen,” while household debt reached 91 percent of disposable personal income in 1997.

Our political and business leaders assure us that while economic crisis stalks the globe outside U.S. borders, we’re safe inside, enjoying the globalization benefits of cheaper goods. Meanwhile, 26 million Americans visited charitable food programs in 1997 (up 15 percent from the previous year), and so many of us are filing bankruptcy that the banks and credits, institutions are begging Congress to take pity (on them, not us), and tighten the bankruptcy laws.

While Observer readers will be familiar already with the critical view of globalization articulated by many in the American progressive movement, Global Village contributes to our understanding by also providing an accessible primer on modern capitalism, briefly but clearly outlining the history and development of trade and investment over the last few centuries. It may seem counter-intuitive, but perhaps the moment when billions of dollars can flit around the globe in the flicker of an eye is precisely the time for us to stop and think about our current system’s roots – in the relationships between medieval European monarchs, feudal lords, and peasants.

Global Village has two critical weaknesses. In the age of the constantly updated Internet, books can quickly become as anachronistic as an old Farmer’s Almanac. This is especially true when dealing with a rapidly developing issue like globalization, which has created a whole new religion of economic publications and an attendant priesthood of writers and experts. Except for a brief new introduction, the second edition is not updated for the head-spinning developments occurring since the 1994 edition. Given the tremendous economic and social shifts around the world over the last five years – including huge mergers, massive layoffs, and the collapse of major economies – this is an important omission indeed. The other weakness lies in the book’s second half, beginning with Chapter Six’s exploration of “The Lilliput Strategy.” Brecher and Costello propose weaving together (like the Lilliputians of Gulliver’s Travels) the “modest sources of power available [and combining] them with often quite different sources of power available to participants in other countries and locations” to “prevent downward leveling into a system of rules and practices which together force upward leveling.” The problem is that Global Village has done such a good job of laying out the grim results of globalization, and portraying the powerful forces pushing for ever greater concentrations of wealth and power – that we’re obviously way beyond plans for “new systems of rules and practices.”

Ordinary people have indeed begun to battle the effects of globalization in their communities, and Global Village chronicles the emergence and success of citizen movements around the world, in Chapter Five’s “Resistance is Global.” But thus far that resistance is largely inchoate and local, as Brecher and Costello accurately point out: “There are few if any direct connections between an uprising of indigenous people in Chiapas, a strike to preserve labor rights in Peoria, and student demonstrations against a minimum wage in Paris.” If the people in Mexico, Illinois, and France are to have any hope of defeating the forces generating globalization, we must find ways to forge an international consensus to confront the new globalists as embodied in corporate/governmental groups like Ruggiero’s W.T.O.

Yet I found the last few programmatic chapters of Global Village curiously anticlimactic, leaving my fingers itching for the new edition of Brecher’s “Strike!” That book begins in 1877, when wealthy Americans were “pervaded by an uneasy feeling that they were living over a mine of social and industrial discontent with which the power of the government … was wholly inadequate to deal: and that some day this mine would explode and blow society into the air.” And the book concludes in 1988, in the voice of an assembly-line worker: “It’s been ‘Well, that’s his fight. Don’t bother me. He’s the one going through that. I’ve got a job.’ We can’t do that anymore. The fact is, we’ve got to break down the walls that divide us, because his battle is my battle, my battle is his battle, and your battle is my battle. We can’t succeed any other way.”

Chris Garlock recently left Austin to work Inside the Dreaded Beltway, but he’s promised not to let Vernon Jordan pick up any checks.

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