Global Harming


Let’s say you’re a farmer. That’s not a stretch: According to the new book Views From the South: The Effects of Globalization and the WTO on Third World Countries, three-quarters of humanity earns its living from agriculture. You’re South Asian; that’s not unlikely, either. One-fifth of the world’s population lives on the subcontinent. Once upon a time you grew the foods you and your neighbors actually ate, diverse cereal grains, which kept stomachs comfortably full even if they left your village poor in cash. Now you have been globalized—pressured to raise commodities for sale abroad. Integrating the nation into the “global marketplace” was not your choice—not even your prime minister’s choice. It was, simply, an imperative if India was to receive the International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans it needs to survive.

Unfortunately you grow soybeans. You are forced to charge much more than your competitors in America, who sell their beans at $155 a ton; that’s because American farmers get paid outright by the government $193 for every ton they grow. India could never afford such subsidies. But even if it could, that would be illegal; international trade rules disallow such subsidies unless they are already written into national law. And America has been paying off its farmers in this protectionist manner for over 65 years.

It’s enough to make a used-car salesman blush. Or cause a farmer to take his own life. In the district of Warangal, acreage once devoted to grains and vegetables has been dug up at the siren song of “white gold”—miracle hybrid cottonseeds devised in Western laboratories to yield Jack and the Beanstalk-like bounties. Problem is, they don’t turn out to yield all that much. And they are so vulnerable to pests that chemical use in the district went from $2.5 million for a typical year in the ’80s to $50 million three years ago. And where once farmers saved their seeds to use over again each season, now they have to buy them fresh each year from the global “life science” corporations that own the copyrights. Debt upon debt, hopelessness, no way out; and in 1998, 500 of Warangal’s farmers died by their own hand. This is what people are talking about when they talk about the ravages of what those in power prefer to call “globalization.”

Views From the South, a splendidly constructed anthology of essays by leading Third World critics of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, is a book to break your heart. You want to cry when you read about the feisty tools the United Nations’ poor majority forged for themselves in the ’60s and ’70s to achieve record levels of economic growth, only to see them crushed as “protectionist” by nations superciliously demanding a “level playing field” for First World products. Learning how the WTO makes its rules, by a process it prefers to call “consensus,” which better resembles the techniques of a street-side bunco artist—a sensitive soul might just blubber uncontrollably. “I’ve always been on the side of the little guy,” says WTO director general Michael Moore. It’s not too much to begin calling the situation by its proper name: evil. India’s exports to Europe are less than half of what they were before globalization began. Africa’s food import bill has doubled.

What, dear reader, to do about it? You’re way ahead of me: You’ve seen those masses taking to the streets to protest globalization in Seattle, Prague, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, seen the teargassing and paramilitaries on TV, read the exemplary coverage in this very newspaper—all of which give anyone with eyes to see the suspicion that America is closer to becoming a police state than it ever has been. You might, then, turn to Five Days That Shook the World, a new book of reporting on the antiglobalism activism that began in November 1999 at the WTO meeting in Seattle, in which you’ll read about Madeleine Albright pressuring the mayor of America’s most self-consciously liberal city to declare the equivalent of martial law (Seattle’s mayor resisted her request to allow the federal government to take over the policing altogether); a civil emergency declared in Detroit (2000 police in riot gear) for a meeting across the river in Canada; police holding kids against jail walls by their necks until they turn blue; and police shutting down a Philadelphia convergence center based on intelligence that it was being run by “the former Soviet-allied World Federation of Trade Unions.” But you also might put Five Days down in frustration. They say that journalism is the first draft of history. That doesn’t mean that journalists are supposed to publish their first drafts as history.

It’s hard to trust a book that hasn’t learned some very basic lessons in punctuation, doesn’t know whether Seattle boasts a “Mayor Shell” or a “Mayor Schell,” offers its sympathy to war-torn “Etitrea”—or boasts of a strong feminist tinge within the movement even while leaving off the cover the names of the two people who wrote the book’s most riveting chapters, both of whom happen to be women. (Many of the book’s chapters are signed, though none by Alexander Cockburn, which isn’t surprising since Cockburn’s delightfully distinctive writing voice is nowhere to be discerned in its pages.)

Five Days That Shook the World bears an argument, an important one, and one worth chewing on with friends: that rather than having forged a triumphant coalition between unionists, Greens, and passionate young devotees of “direct action,” Seattle and its aftermath were successful only when the more radical forces of direct action drowned out the enfeebled, establishment-addled voices of groups like the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO. But it’s carried on here in sound bites, ad hominems, macho posturing, and, too often, editorial incoherence. I’ve never seen a more slapdash book. There’s evil out there. The victims deserve better.