Terrorism and Globalization

Terrorism and Globalization

Although the timing was off, a conference on globalism connects the dots between its subject and terrorism.

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The organizers of the Globalization and Resistance Conference, held at the City University of New York's Graduate Center on November 16 and 17, had a very bad stroke of luck. They started planning the conference over the summer, with an agenda focusing on the origins and impacts of globalization, and the protest movements that have organized against it. Then came the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent US response. Neither the conference speakers nor the attendees did a great job of assimilating those facts to the agenda at hand.

Not, of course, that that's easy. But much of the talk, whether from the stage or in the hallways, was either about globalization (and the so-called antiglobalization movement) or the war (and the antiwar movement). They were like two parallel discourses that never quite met.

Susan George, the writer and activist on development and global poverty, led off the conference by confessing that the bombing of Afghanistan hadn't turned out to be the disaster she'd feared, leaving her a bit confused about what to think. George then laid out a "planetary contract" for "hope and renewal"–an end to our "foolish dependency" on oil, cancellation of poor countries' debts, a program to meet the basic needs of the world's poorest (which would cost $50 billion to $90 billion a year) and new global taxes on financial transactions and multinational corporations. George offered this as worthy of doing in itself, but also as a way of lowering the levels of despair in which terrorists thrive (though she added, it wouldn't change the terrorists themselves, who have a "fascist ideology," though she didn't explain where this ideology came from.")

Though George presented her agenda as if no reasonable person could object, her arguments go against nearly everything the United States and its European junior partners stand for, and would amount to the first steps in overturning the global economic and political hierarchy. A fine idea, but it would mean taking on the most powerful interest groups in the world, something George must know, but which she barely acknowledged. Agenda-setters and activists also seem to inhabit parallel worlds that never quite meet.

But what is the relationship between globalization and terrorism (even loosely and imprecisely defined)? The conference buzz was that terrorism is the product of marginalization and poverty, and marginalization and poverty the products of globalization. But are things really that simple? Latin America and East Asia, two of the regions most transformed by global economic forces over the last two decades, have produced no terrorists of note.

Saudi Arabia, home of Osama bin Laden himself and many of his funders, has been embedded in the global oil economy since well before most Al Qaeda members were born. And Afghanistan, their current home, is almost entirely outside the circuits of global trade and capital flows–an exclusion that contributes greatly to its extreme poverty and social disintegration. (As the economist Joan Robinson once said, under capitalism, "the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.") These facts complicate the simple derivation of terrorism from globalization.

But the biggest absence of all was the recognition that there's something different about this war as compared to recent military interventions over Kosovo and Kuwait. Speakers and attendees frequently cited longstanding US geopolitical goals as lurking behind the war. This is undeniably true. Washington's war strategy is not motivated by tenderness for the people of Afghanistan. For all the professions of concern about the abuse of women under the Taliban, George W. Bush and his cronies haven't been born-again as feminists. But there was little serious acknowledgment that we were attacked, and that some US response was inevitable and even justified. Recognizing that doesn't mean assent to Bush's version of a response, though lots of people in the peace movement seem to fear it does. But anyone who wants to speak to an audience beyond the small circle of believers has to consider these questions seriously.

This has an importance far beyond the fate of one conference. Many antiglobalization activists (not a fair name, since many of them are quite global in their thinking and organization) have been hoping that after the dust settles, the movement could go back to what it had been doing before September 11. Speakers repeatedly invoked the list of place names that have come to signify the movement's breadth and growth–Seattle, Quebec City, Porto Alegre, Genoa…–as if the series will be shortly resumed. But it may not. War, fear, and repression have thrown sand in the gears. Linking the themes of peace and justice can be done, but it requires hard thinking, and there's not enough of that going on right now.

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