Checking in for Waldorf Hysteria

Free Traders and Fair Traders in Stalemate as CEOs Converge on New York

When you enter the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel through the Park Avenue lobby, you step upon a 148,000-piece tile mosaic, "The Wheel of Life," which depicts the drama of human existence. Above you are 13 allegorical murals—fishermen hauling in their catch and the like. In surrounding shops, there are diamond necklaces to purchase, art from Sotheby's. Titans of the business and tourist elites sink into plushy wingbacks canted toward the two-ton 19th-century clock, which rings on the quarter hour. The cost of a hotel suite ranges from $265 to $670 per night.

From January 31 through February 4, 2002, the Waldorf and New York City will play host to the 1000 members of the World Economic Forum (WEF): top executives of Boeing, Coca-Cola, IBM, Microsoft, Reuters, Vivendi, Volkswagen, and so forth. Normally, they meet at Davos, in the Swiss Alps. But after the terrorist strike on the World Trade Center, the Forum moved its annual meeting to the Waldorf-Astoria to show its support for New York. This is the first high-profile gathering of global leaders in the U.S. since 9-11, and economic-globalization observers right and left will have much to say and do while the CEOs are in town.

It's been a rough couple of months for both sides, what with a recession sapping profits and NASDAQ points quicker than you can suck your teeth. Economies in Western Europe and Japan are spiraling downward, and as of press time, Argentina has declared a state of siege—after four years of deep recession its citizens are erupting—and its president is resigning. The anti-corporate-globalization activists have become nearly invisible since 9-11. Whether one is pro-free trade or pro-fair trade, the arrival of the WEF potentates in New York represents a moment to take account of the year's gains and setbacks, and to ponder what may be on the horizon.

Tuxedo junction: the Waldorf, where the swank ranks will meet
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Tuxedo junction: the Waldorf, where the swank ranks will meet

"Globalization went from being one of three issues everyone was dealing with to not being that," says John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based independent think tank. Now, he believes, both sides are trying to recover their momentum.

Some highlights. April: 30,000 people demonstrated against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas plan (FTAA), which could extend NAFTA throughout much of the Western hemisphere. July: 100,000 demonstrators swelled into the streets of Genoa, Italy, to protest the neoliberal economic policies of the G8 (the seven wealthiest industrial nations and Russia), whose leaders were meeting behind closed doors there. One demonstrator was killed—not the first such death, just the most widely reported. September: The retreat. International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., were canceled, and mass anti-corporate demonstrations morphed into a small anti-war vigil. November: The World Trade Organization (WTO) met in Qatar, a Middle Eastern emirate that forbids demonstrations. Even without throngs of protesters, the meeting nearly failed when India and France threatened to walk out if their trade concerns were not addressed. (They were not, and they did not.) Meanwhile, developing nations lobbied successfully for the right to import generic drugs, an act that would violate multinational pharmaceutical drug patents. The final language, however, is spongy, at best. December: The House voted 215-214 in favor of "fast track" trade promotion authority, which, if approved by the Senate, would allow the president to negotiate trade agreements such as the FTAA without congressional amendment. A major blow to fair traders, it would seem.

Does fast track mean that the free traders have prevailed in America? Cavanagh isn't overly concerned about the vote, which he sees as "tainted by blatant vote-buying in the last 17 minutes" (an anti-free-trade South Carolina Republican switched his vote under pressure). In a year during which most Democrats have been rolling over and playing dead for the president, performing stupid pet tricks like granting billion-dollar bailouts to airlines that have mercilessly laid off employees, the opposition to fast track was unexpectedly spirited. Nevertheless, the vote was slipped in under the radar, while the media covered Attorney General Ashcroft's testimony as to whether proposed anti-terrorist laws would infringe upon civil liberties.

Both sides see links between the September 11 terrorist attacks and free-trade globalization. "The WEF folks say, 'Poverty is a breeding ground for terrorism, and we are pushing for forms of globalization that help alleviate poverty,' " Cavanagh explains. "Our side says that economic injustice is linked with a lack of democracy, which becomes a breeding ground for terrorism."

One of the perpetual criticisms of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO is that they make economic-policy decisions undemocratically. The WEF folks do not make policy decisions; they influence them over cocktails and have been doing so for 30 years. Their conversations have prefigured the creation of such organizations as the WTO. For their part, economic-justice activists use international protests to pull together and firm up the bonds of their loose coalition. After four months on the sidelines, invisible and in disarray, they are throbbing with pent-up anger and ready to remind the naysayers that they have not slunk away.

"If you look at the anti-globalization movement as a series of mass mobilizations," cautions Beverly Bell, director of the Center for Economic Justice, "then you're right to say it fell apart. But if you look at the economic-justice movement as one growing these past decades that spiked in the last three years, you can only say it suffered a brief dip in the fall of 2001." Bell, whose group fosters links between grassroots organizations and policy advocates, contends that grassroots events, often ignored by the mainstream media, tell the story of a movement on the move. Jobs With Justice, for example, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, organizes Workers' Rights Boards, essentially town meetings that have taken place in 20 U.S. cities. These boards, made up of academics, elected officials, and community leaders, offer a "legal framework to support worker and economic-justice issues."

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