Pro Patria, Pro Mundo
Imposing new forms of accountability on global finance leads ultimately to a much larger question--how to exert moderating controls (and taxation) on the destabilizing surges of capital that have ignited recurring financial crises (and led to massive bailouts by unwitting taxpayers). Only nations have the power to solve this problem. "At some point, we have to ask whether utterly free capital is a benefit to everyone," a financial economist with a leading hedge fund once told me. "Free capital is certainly a benefit to people who own the capital. But they couldn't exist if these governments did not exist to protect them. No one wants to locate the Chicago Board of Trade in Bangkok or Jakarta."
The logic of globalization has led, in fact, to a redefinition of national interest, at least for the United States, in which government policy assumes that advancing the well-being of shareholders and global firms--as opposed to the general population, workers and communities--provides the highest overall benefit. This preferential order is never frankly acknowledged, of course, but it has been embraced by both Democratic and Republican Presidents. The contradictions for the nation have long been visible, but they were explained away with propagandistic economic claims (much the way authorities ignored obvious contradictions in the stock-market bubble). Over the past twenty-five years, for instance, the wage levels of ordinary working people have been stagnant in real terms as the prime manufacturing jobs moved offshore. Partly in consequence, the United States became a debtor nation--buying more from abroad than it sells and borrowing the money to do so--with accumulated indebtedness that has surpassed 20 percent of GDP. The multinationals claim US trade deficits don't matter--for them, they don't. For the rest of us, this condition has led to a deepening dependence on foreign investors and the potential for an eventual breakdown of the global system itself, when the proud leader and principal consumer in global trade someday taps out.
My point is this: The patriotic tensions generated by war and recession can spawn a rare clarifying moment--the political opportunity to educate and agitate Americans on these deeper contradictions in power between the nation-state and the global system. Inattentive citizens are no longer so passive, but suddenly paying attention to world news. The Seattle movement, as Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange observed, has a potential to connect with a much broader audience, now ready to listen and learn. The teach-in curriculum should begin closer to home, not for narrow nationalistic purposes or to stop globalization but to build support for fundamental change in how globalization proceeds. If the global system is to be reformed--made more humane and democratic, more equitable and respectful of each society's values--the power to achieve those goals belongs only to national governments, not to remote international institutions. For obvious reasons, that power resides especially in the politics of Washington, DC.
An important first step is to re-establish the nation's sovereign prerogative to legislate its own standards of decency as governing values in global trade. The exercise of national legislative initiatives is not as remote as it may sound. Bipartisan legislation is pending, for instance, to close US markets to goods exported by Burma until that notorious regime halts its forced labor practices (American-in-name-only companies like Unocal are complicit). The measure's leading sponsors are ideological opposites--Senators Jesse Helms and Tom Harkin--who share outrage over the trading system's laissez-faire tolerance of gross human abuses. Their measure, on its face, seems to violate World Trade Organization rules; in fact, the advocates actually hope it will provoke the Burmese generals into filing a formal complaint with the WTO. If the WTO upholds the US law, it would open the way for broader measures of social reform. If the WTO rules against the United States, the indifference to brutality will further discredit the WTO.
Another, similar measure is "right to know" legislation that would require multinationals based in the United States to report the location and conditions of their overseas factories--everything from toxic pollution to health and safety standards to the status of labor rights. The bill does not attempt to set standards of behavior for foreign countries but requires US companies to report the facts to local workers and communities as well as to the US government--information that can stimulate grassroots agitation for change. The measure would establish an important principle: Congress cannot impose American values on others, but it does have the right to impose them on multinationals that call themselves American.
A more ambitious project would be to confront US multinationals on the ambivalent nature of their own patriotism. Air the facts and name the names. If the companies are truly global and without responsibility to this particular nation, then why are US taxpayers expected to subsidize their success and bail them out of failure? The legislative vehicle for forcing a debate on these questions would be recurring amendments to cut off the firms unwilling to accept explicit obligations to nation and citizens. One might describe these measures as "homeland security."
Critical questions about global corporations are no longer abstract propositions. As is already clear from recent actions in Washington, some Americans are regarded as special in crisis--and awarded billions of dollars in protection from malign market forces. Other Americans are told to keep a stiff upper lip. This malformed definition of national unity is ripe for attack by the true patriots.