Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



August 5, 2003

THE NEW ROBBER BARONS

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 10:23
protest(posted from Miami)
Social critic and professor Charles Derber’s new book People Before Profit is a bumpy ride. Its back cover, with glowing reviews by Naomi Klein, Ralph Nader, Ted Kennedy and Noam Chomsky, raises huge expectations. What Derber delivers is a well-researched and informative study of globalization and corporate power — and a naive and unworkable prescription for change.

The best part of the book comes right after the introduction, as Derber teaches us just how much our current economic predicament parallels that of the latter half of the 19th century, the Gilded Age, when:


[US sovereignty] shifted from the people toward the large corporations and financiers. The new system of American government, essentially federalized democracy with a corporate logo was “a government by Wall Street, of Wall Street and for Wall Street.” As the robber barons integrated the economy from New York to California, they deformed democracy and unhinged the social order…The robber barons “overran all the existing institutions which buttress society…they took possession of the political government, the school, the press, the church.” Business, that is, began to absorb all of society into itself.

Derber draws the connections to today’s economy, and makes the argument against untrameled globalization and corporate power, saying:


In today’s corpocracy…business and government forge an intimate relationship, both within the nation-state and the larger world order. In the new system, government still wields sovereign authority, but sovereign power has actually been transferred to a partnership increasingly dominated by the business sector.

He also exposes the myth that globalization benefits poor nations as well as rich:


Globalization, rather than catalyzing a splendid burst of growth in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the Third World, has slowed it to a snail’s pace…The World Bank reported that worldwide growth actually shrank in the 1990′s, the decade of accelerating globalization. The slowdown was especially notable in the Third World…”with the typical country registering negligable growth”…The 1998 Asian financial meltdown reversed much of the [Asian tigers'] gains, turning success stories like Thailand and Indonesia into economic nightmares.  Meanwhile, sub-Saharan African economies actually shrank, while in much of the rest of Africa and Latin America growth hovered close to zero.

Derber then dissects the anti-globalization movement into two camps — “UN people” who support a strong United Nations as a force to balance the power of global corporations and their lackeys, the IMF, World Bank and WTO; and “barbershoppers”, who espouse relocalizing and devolving power to communities, where people’s needs and the effects of decisions are truly understood. Derber wants to unite the two factions into a “global democracy movement”.

Here’s where IMHO the book moves from excellent historical and economic analysis to technicolor dreamland. His global democracy prescription calls for five aims: (a) creating accountable ‘world governments’, (b) reconstructing national democracies, (c) democratizing global business, (d) resurrecting local community with global citizenship, and (e) creating collective security. Nothing to it! Here’s his policy and platform program to get us there:

  • re-regulation of global money flows and corporations
  • redistribution of income and wealth
  • resurrecting ‘global commons’
  • full, equal and informed political participation
  • rebuilding the firewall between government and corporations
  • revoking corporate citizenship and rights as ‘persons’
  • rewriting corporate charters to mandate serving the common good
  • end to hidden corporate subsidies
  • limiting US power in the world

I was almost expecting to see an end to all wars and perpetual global world peace on the list, and Derber didn’t disappoint — he sees his program as the elixir for terrorism and all our political woes, not just our economic ones. And he might even be right, if this list of pipedreams were even faintly achievable. He displays an almost unbelievable lack of awareness of how slowly cultures and economies change and how difficult it is to displace power once it is dug in. And I thought I was an idealist.

For those whose eyebrows haven’t risen too far in their heads to continue reading, Derber concludes with a 25-point set of actions comprising ‘what you can do today’. The actions fall into four discouragingly prosaic categories:

  • Conscientious consumerism: Think about what you buy. Buy smart. Think about the plight of women struggling in Third World streets and sweatshops. Buy green and conserve.
  • Education of yourself and others: Start study groups. Travel abroad.
  • Organization: Think global, act local. Make change from inside. Unite with others.
  • Activism: Support a strong UN, human rights, election finance reform. Protest against poverty, social and environmental abuses, excess corporate concentration and power, the policies of the WTO, IMF and World Bank, and US intervention and unilateralism.

I would really like to believe Derber is right, and his hopeful vision was possible. But methinks he got too caught up in the surreal world on the streets of Seattle and its wild-eyed, grass-roots romanticism. People Before Profit, like its title, reads like a manifesto from the 1960s. I know what we accomplished back then, ending the Vietnam War and sending shock-waves through every corner of society. Alas, this is not 1968, and the reactionary forces we overcame back then are back with a vengeance, and won’t be fooled so easily this time.

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