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Commentary | PACIFIC PROSPECT

Protesters Aren't Alone in Doubts About Globalization

September 13, 2000|TOM PLATE | Times contributing editor Tom Plate, a WEF participant, teaches at UCLA. Further material on the conference is available on the Web site http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu

MELBOURNE, Australia — The suits on the buses mostly sat quietly, working their cell phones in part because there was little else to do. The buses, which were to transport them to the large convention hotel housing the World Economic Forum's annual Asia conference, were not moving. Blocking their way three blocks from the glistening Crown Towers complex, where the official sessions were to be held, were row after row of arm-linked protesters. There were thousands of them, and many who were braving the brisk breezes of the nippy Australian spring were women and children. These protesters may not have understood all the nuances, complexities and yield curves of globalization. But they knew they didn't like this scary global phenomenon one bit.

This World Economic Forum provided the juiciest target since the riots last December in Seattle, scene of the now-infamous World Trade Organization fiasco. True, the WEF, unlike the WTO, is a nongovernmental organization with no formal power to legislate or administer or adjudicate. Still, the wide-roving talk-tank, which also holds an annual January conclave in Switzerland, presented an irresistible target of opportunity for these protesters. Before long, about 750 or so WEF invitees--CEOs, government officials, policy intellectuals, media leaders, academics and WEF officials themselves who had flown in from their Geneva headquarters--didn't know what hit them.

On Monday morning, when it dawned on police that they could be facing another Seattle, the WEF invitees were warned of the brewing trouble. Spurning the buses with their police escorts, some of the invitees sauntered up to the barricades and tried their best to charm their way through. It was a no go. So at the outset, this was a conference whose attendance was severely restricted, as the hotel site was wholly encircled by protesters well before the police realized how many there were and what they were up to. In frustration, near the end of the day some delegates agreed to be airlifted to the hotel rooftop by police helicopters, or, with a James Bond-like panache, sped to the site by motor launch across the Yarra River.

The attitude inside was defiant but concerned; and there was less gloating about the unmitigated benefits of globalization than the protesters outside might have imagined. Sure, Australia's Prime Minister John Howard proclaimed globality "the ticket to prosperity for poor nations." This is the pro-globalization party line. But there were plenty of suits inside who had their doubts, though not in the way of many of the protesters, who regard globalization mostly as a cover for the multinational corporate pillaging of the poor. On the inside, doubts about the health of the Asia Pacific regional economy, increasingly globalized as it is, were common. A surprising number said the Asian recovery probably would not continue. Australian Treasurer Peter Costello complained bitterly in a riveting off-the-cuff opening address that too little has been done in the region to repair the infamously flawed world "financial architecture"--just a few years ago oft-cited as the root cause of the crisis. Kenneth Courtis, Asia vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, accused Japan of creating "a massive debt trap" for itself that might trigger an even more deadly crisis.

No, few if any of the angry protesters had any idea of the intensity of the debate inside. For many of them, globalization is nothing more than a global conspiracy designed to leave them behind and line the pockets of the rich. When you're out of a job, or fear you're going to lose one, this view seems more plausible than radical. Rapid technological innovation, not just immense corporate greed, is the driving force of the new millennium. The truth is that globalization is a powerful force hurling all of us--wealthy or not--into an uncertain future.

But observing the many young faces of protest on the barricades, you had to accept that these were the genuine, defiant ones of the new age, with a resistance fueled not just by hatred of brutally unfeeling corporations but also by the harsh facts of contemporary life. Many people simply want to stop the world and get off. That this is their only solution causes them no embarrassment. Rather than viewing globalization as a ticket to prosperity, they see it as a ticket to nowhere. Nodding to the tumult outside, economist Courtis warned his fellow rich and famous, "It's too simple [to just preach to people], 'It's the markets, stupid.' " Capitalism's global gladiators are going to have to come up with something better than this if they are to convince others--and maybe even themselves.

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