The left is good at figuring out what's wrong, but it's a lot harder to figure out how to do it right.
Police stand by outside of a money exchange house, as demonstrators protest frozen investments, Buenos Aires, Argentina. April 29, 2002. John Moore
MAY 1, 2002. The Gully talked to economist Radhika Balakrishnan, Professor at Marymount Manhattan College and a member of Strategic Analysis for Gender Equity, about globalization, women's role in the global economy, and the World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre at the end of January as an alternative to the World Economic Forum.
THE GULLY: Most of the visible anti-globalization activism seems to focus on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Was that the focus in Porto Alegre?
RADHIKA BALAKRISHNAN: They play a role, but at Porto Alegre the emphasis was on private capital mobility, which is more important than the World Bank or the IMF. Investors go when they want, come when they want. It's a real crisis. When there's a sudden pullout of investment, countries lose their ability to pay in hard currency, import goods etc. Investors are investing to get money back. If something else suddenly looks more promising, they want to be paid off and move on.
So what should be done about capital mobility?
Governments can have the right to curtail the mobility of the capital in and out of their country so this kind of random speculative investments are reduced, but it really has to be done at the international level. There's a good analysis at the Social Forum website [Control of Financial Capital]. One of my Porto Alegre colleagues said that if a candidate ran on this ticket on the national level, before they got elected, the capital would leave. So it has to be coordinated on the international level.
Does that mean institutional efforts? Influencing the World Trade Organization? Is that viable?
Well, the WTO is actually trying to get more flexibility for capital, so not really. As to how, you can boil it down to "confronting the power of capitalism" [laughing]. It's hard to talk about as a soundbyte. All we can say is that, given the examples of Argentina, South East Asia, Russia, the collapse of their economies gives us enough indication to know that we need to advocate for it. The article I mentioned goes into it in depth.
What was great about Porto Alegre was that people really wanted to work through an alternative agenda, not just speechify. The left is good at figuring out what's wrong, but it's a lot harder to figure out how to do it right.
Where do we start?
There was a consensus among everyone there from everywhere in the world that any solution has to deal with women, with lgbt rights. There were separate panels on women and gay issues, but even better, every session that I went to had that woven in. I'm still on such a high from it. For once it wasn't the old 'class is more important than race and gender' thing. Everything is seen as connected.
What is the role of women in the global economy?
We've come a long way in feminist analysis of economic issues. And there is a good theoretical understanding of the macroeconomic differences between men and women. We've documented women's role in the care economy child rearing, elder care and have shown how this unpaid work is part of a larger economic process, so that it has to be addressed at the macro level, at policy level. When a government undertakes a structural readjustment, cuts health care or education, the assumption is not that they're no longer necessary, but that free labor will soak up the need for care there's an assumption about the elasticity of women's labor. The truth is that there's a limit to what women can absorb in work increases, especially when you factor in paid work. And who picks up the slack?
The second level of gender difference in employment is that women in developing countries are often subcontracted workers, part of the hidden assembly line, small shop and home-based workers, the links between capitalist products and lives. They are the ones putting together clothes, plastic flowers, footballs. It's something we really have to look at in terms of movement politics the clean clothes campaign, anti-sweatshop activism and make sure what we're doing is welcome. We have to link up with Third World organizers to see if what we're doing is actually beneficial to their agenda.
So what's the solution? The International Forum on Globalization [a major anti-globalization think-tank] seems to think localization is the answer. But their view of it is a little disturbing, turning everyone into farmers, fishermen, and artisans. As if people in the developing world wouldn't want to do anything else. Their focus is also on empowering local politicians. But sometimes local politicians are part of the problem, like in Argentina. The local is also often terrible for gay people. Look at Egypt.
That's true. There's no guarantee that the local would be more just. Women, for instance, rarely benefit from the local. I think, as a movement, we need to make sure we're as global as the corporations. It's not time for being provincial.
In Porto Alegre, when we talked about the impact of 9/11, there was some discussion of whether or not the focus should be on going back to supporting national economies, especially with the rise of xenophobia, but by and large, the idea was rejected. Really, only a few countries are large enough and rich enough to practice economic nationalism. No one is saying we don't want trade. The question is who controls it.
Even the U.S., which pushes open markets and deregulation on everyone else, just slapped on a steel tariff.
That's right. Bush is taking a page from Pat Buchanan's nationalist agenda. Buchanan's a big advocate of protectionism. Probably the U.S. is one of the few countries that could come close to pulling off economic nationalism. Almost no one else can afford that. Activists need to make allies all over the world, not close the borders. Who drew these borders, anyway? Why respect them? They're mostly colonial legacies. Look at Afghanistan. It was just cobbled together for the convenience of other countries. It's a mess.
If simple localization, or economic nationalism, isn't the solution, what is?
I suppose it's local control over the global. The most important thing is that we need governments that are representative of their people. The trend is for governments now to be representative of capital. Lost by the wayside is the early vision of government as providing what is necessary for our interests. That seems to have escaped our imaginations.
One of the things activists from developing countries kept asking me over and over, is 'what are you doing in the United States?' They kept telling me 'we can do anything we want on our end, but most of the work has to happen in the US.'
Average Americans can begin with who they vote in. We have to pay attention to the global politics of elected officials. Ask pointed questions. How many people know the role of the U.S. in the World Trade Organization? Clinton was as bad as Bush.
I think the Enron thing has exposed the corporate-government alliance. Hopefully, that will encourage people to be aware of the role of corporations, especially in developing countries where there is even more deregulation, and the people are even more vulnerable than here.
For the World Social Forum.
For the Center for Popular Economics, teaching economic literacy.
For Focus on the Global South. Resources and links.
The Nation's cogent analysis of the changing anti-globalization movement, From Protest to Politics.
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