SAO PAULO, Brazil – As graphic proof of the polarization of the world today, nothing can beat the overlapping World Economic Forum (WEF) in New York and the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre. Think about a fat American kid eating fast food juxtaposed to a skinny slum kid staring at a chicken bone.
No need for a PhD in symbology. New York is the capital of world capitalism, and Porto Alegre, the city of the “gauchos” in southern Brazil, is a mid-sized, development-world city, a model of “sustainable development.” Other graphic symbols can be read: New York in winter, southern Brazil in summer, New York under a state-of-siege mentality, Porto Alegre sunny and colorful. Porto Alegre translates in English as “Gay Port.”
In New York, we had corporate chiefs, bankers, (a few) statesmen, diplomats, Noble Prize laureates, media moguls, academic heavies and the odd pop superstar (U2’s Bono Vox, who battles for the elimination of the debt of poor countries). In Porto Alegre we had non-governmental organization (NGO) officials, trade-union delegates, members of leftist parties, members of social organizations, students, environmental activists and just one superstar – renowned academic and US foreign-policy critic Noam Chomsky.
Anglo-American media conglomerates all but ignored the WSF while eagerly waiting to catch any crumbs dropped by the “multimillion-dollar cocktail party,” as the WEF was dubbed by anti-globalization protesters. The WSF, on the other hand, was well covered by European media like French TV5, German Deutsche Welle and Spanish TVE, major European newspapers, and a score of independent media and websites from all over the world.
The official theme of the WEF was apparently “leadership in fragile times,” with a subtext of “improving the state of the world.” There was much talk about “asymmetric threats,” seminars on “the future of terrorism,” more condemnation of Japan’s economic gloom, and a few worries about the side effects of “perverse capitalism,” Enron-style. Dominique Moisi, one of the directors of the French Institute of International Relations, stressed that “the institutions of a globalized world should be more responsible.” Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs warned once again that the International Monetary Fund’s policies are bleeding hundreds of millions of people in developing countries everywhere.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan finally went straight to the point. He said globalization risks a devastating boomerang effect if the elite of the world fail to increase spending to battle poverty and disease in developing countries. Annan stressed that more than 1 billion people worldwide live in extreme poverty and degradation. He forcefully reminded the elite at the WEF that popular anger – everywhere – lies in the perception that globalization itself is to blame, and those driving the process – his audience, in fact – were responsible.
There was indeed a recurrent theme at the WEF, but it was not “leadership in fragile times” or “improving the state of the world”: it was, in fact, “vulnerability.”
In Porto Alegre, on the other hand, the official, recurrent theme was “another world is possible” – something that was followed to the letter by all kinds of people criticizing the exclusivist policies of the IMF, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank. Martin Khor, from the NGO Third World Network, synthesized what the overwhelming majority in Africa, Latin America and Asia is thinking: the WTO is “imposing liberalization of poor countries to maintain the protectionism of rich countries.” Women from everywhere denounced many instances of oppression, and depicted fundamentalism as an enemy as powerful as unbridled globalization.
Twenty thousand young people from 50 countries set up an alternative summit parallel to the Porto Alegre alternative summit. It was an uplifting mix of carnivalesque rebellion and serious activism, civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. Among the disparate groups it was possible to find Reclaim the Streets from England, Movimiento de Resistencia Global from Spain, Tutte Bianche from Italy, Direct Action Network from the US, Alternatives from Canada. Naomi Klein, author of the international best-seller No Logo, was in awe facing so much exuberance, feeling she would need a long time just to digest and start thinking critically about it all. In this utopian atmosphere, institutional party politics as we know it was unanimously dismissed as absolute rubbish.
Back to New York and the Wardorf Astoria, venue for the WEF. In typical New York style, everything was “exclusive” – by invitation only. Decrepit pop star Elton John was paid a cool US$1 million to serenade the “vulnerable” guests of Lehman Brothers. Supermodel Heidi Klum was seen discussing globalization with gaping investment bankers. Many were almost resorting to carpet bombing to get a table at Le Cirque restaurant. But protests were not anything remotely like Seattle or Genoa: they were cheerful and peaceful. A “virtual action” crashed the site of the WEF.
In Porto Alegre, there were plenty of street parties in a pre-carnival atmosphere: after all, world-famous Brazilian carnival, one of the most extraordinary democratic extravaganzas on the planet, starts next Saturday. Bush The Great Polluter was saluted by a Greepeace banner placed on a factory chimney. Gerd Leopold, executive-director of Greenpeace, said the US was practicing “ecological terrorism.” Protests were also cheerful and peaceful. While in New York former IMF hand Stanley Fischer, with a splendidly cynical half-smile, growled that the Fund was not in any way responsible for its former darling, Argentina’s, crisis, Argentinians in Porto Alegre were protesting against the effects of the dreaded “structural adjustment” IMF policies.
Both forums, the rich man’s and the poor man’s, happened straight after George W Bush announced to the world in his State of the Union address that we are all victims of a nefarious “axis of evil” consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. These are supposed to be the emperor’s new clothes, when they are in fact part of the same old black-and-white Bush doctrine. Embarrassed European officials in New York – from diplomats to former prime ministers – were forced to display extraordinary diplomatic-contortionist flexibility to dissociate themselves from placing Iran in this group. Colin Powell did his best to explain on the record Saint Bush’s rhetoric of Good and Evil to the galleries – which include just about everyone, from the UN to the “international community.”
The logic of war is now inescapable. And there’s nothing new to it – as far as neoconservative Republicans are concerned. If any extra explanation is needed, one just has to take a look at their paper, the Weekly Standard. Neoconservative attack dogs since September 11 have been insisting that the different strands of the anti-globalization movement are as evil as terrorism. Now these attack dogs are frantically sniffing for any signs of European dissent – immediately interpreted as “treason.”
European diplomats concede Europe is in a dead end. There are just two options on the table. There is pit bull Tony Blair’s line: Follow the Leader (blind obedience), and try to influence Him whenever possible. And there’s opposition to Washington’s plans. But no amount of intellectual argument will prevent Bush and his “intellectuals” from attacking Iraq, Iran, North Korea or anybody else.
As an Asia Times Online editorial put it, Bush has now subverted Trotsky’s concept of “permanent revolution” to his own ends. The Pentagon will be granted all the billions it craves. The “war against terrorism” – meaning direct American involvement – is already on in the Philippines, and it will inevitably spread to the Middle East and Africa.
The “axis of evil” paranoia hovers over the polarized world expressed by the contrast between the WEF in New York and the WSF in Porto Alegre. Once again, it’s all about empire. Michael Hardt, professor of literature at Duke University, North Carolina, and co-author with Italian philosopher and political scientist Antonio Negri of the seminal Empire, was also at the WSF. Hardt and Negri were the first to conceptualize the contemporary development of an “imperial system” – a network of global power more powerful than the US and its armies. Hardt stresses that globalization “is not good or bad: it’s neither and both.” Bush “intellectuals” will have a hard time following the nuances.
Hardt has been painstakingly demonstrating that the US since the Gulf War is engaged not only in “old-style imperialist action” through its military actions in the Persian Gulf and Bosnia, but also in “imperial ideology,” ie, acting according to its global interests. Hardt sums it all up when he says, “American government officials are in fact managing global capital.”
Antonio Negri himself, from Rome, paves the way for future action. He says the anti-globalization movements “must be transformed into a real world counter-power, a counter-empire.” He realizes “Porto Alegre is not the Paris Commune.” And he also realizes that “being anti-American is total idiocy. The American government is the most important of the powers to be challenged, but it’s not the only one.”
Contrary to what neoconservatives might suppose, Negri is also against “Third-Worldism”: “There is no division between North and South anymore, because there are no more geographical difference between nation-states.” In the process of globalization, “Nation-states cannot control the movement of capital and the struggles inside their own space. Not even the Americans can preserve the form of the nation-state.”
Negri is articulating what young people from all over the world, represented in Porto Alegre, are trying to express: “We don’t want to live in a world like this, under a power that wants to regulate even our lives, our affections, our desires.” What Negri calls exploited “social multitudes” – workers, students, informal workers, part-time workers, the unemployed, immigrants, women – are screaming that “another world is possible.” Kofi Annan himself did his best to tell his WEF audience the same thing. One wonders if anybody is listening.