The World and Pittsburgh

The World and Pittsburgh

At the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, activists will push the United States to back proposals to regulate CEO compensation and require corporate responsibility.

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Perhaps it’s time to update the slogan that evolved from the 1999 Seattle protests against corporate globalization: “Another World Is Possible.” One year into a financial crisis that has seen governments–especially that of the United States–emerge as guarantors against risk for investors while remaining lax regulators of speculation and CEO greed, it has become all too evident that “Another World Is Necessary.”

That slogan would sum up the urgency of the calls for change that will be sounded during the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, on September 24-25, of leaders of nineteen wealthy nations and the European Union. Presidents and prime ministers will arrive with a sense of that urgency; they know that Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is right when he says the world economy is “far from being out of the woods.” But activists are determined to use Pittsburgh’s streets, campuses, churches and union halls to demand a paradigm-shifting response to the crisis, one that recognizes that the neoliberal policies that got us into this mess are not going to get us out of it.

A muscular letter to President Obama–signed by more than fifty groups, including the Change to Win labor federation, Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, USAction and religious groups–argues that “remedying the current crisis, avoiding future crises and achieving economic justice and stability will require a new approach to domestic and global economic governance.” For instance, the letter notes, G-20 moves to establish new financial-sector regulation “must also include revisions to the WTO’s 1999 Financial Service Agreement, which exports worldwide the extreme financial service deregulation that is a cause of this crisis.” New, more robust approaches are also needed to stimulate economies, promote sustainable development, address poverty and tackle global warming.

The leaders of the world’s largest economies have failed to address the pathologies created by deregulation that rewards banksters and burdens consumers; free trade that favors multinational corporations over workers and communities; and gradualist responses to extreme poverty and climate change. Frustration with these failures was summed up by United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard when he declared that “right now [the G-20] stands for chaos, and it stands for economic destruction.” Steelworkers, headquartered in Pittsburgh, will host pre-summit forums, rallies and concerts highlighting anger at failed economic policies and (with the Alliance for Climate Protection, activist State Senator Jim Ferlo and possibly Al Gore) the need for government investment in green jobs.

Obama’s pre-summit rhetoric was appealing, especially his idea that the Pittsburgh gathering can launch a “global race to the top” to replace the race-to-the-bottom policies that have so widened the gap between rich and poor. But Stiglitz observes that “the administration seems very reluctant to do what is necessary” to regulate “too big to fail” banks and corporations. Indeed, within the G-20, Germany and France have far more aggressively pushed proposals to regulate CEO compensation and require greater corporate responsibility. Differences between European and American business models certainly underpin some of the transatlantic wrangling. Still, it’s remarkable that it is French President Nicolas Sarkozy–no lefty–who promises a walkout in Pittsburgh if there is no agreement to curb bankers’ bonuses. He says he’ll fight to get world leaders to explore alternatives to the “cult of the market,” including creating indexes of well-being and of the “quality of public service.”

Demands for a leap from the rhetoric of change to the reality are generating street heat, which is being turned up by global justice groups, the United Electrical Workers Union and community organizations ranging from the Thomas Merton Center to 3 Rivers Climate Convergence. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his aides, in their determination to promote their city as a global economic center, have imposed restrictions on dissent so wide-ranging that peace activist Cecilia Wheeler had to remind an early September city council meeting, “We are not terrorists…. We’re the good apples here. We want [global leaders] to see overall that this is a small town with values, that welcomes everyone, that discriminates against no one.”

Roughly 4,000 police and new rules to detain protesters have not made dissenters feel welcome. So many requests for permits to march, rally and set up camps in city parks have been stalled or denied that on September 11 the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed suit alleging that city, state and federal authorities had conspired to deny the demonstrators’ free-speech rights by keeping them out of earshot of the G-20 summiteers. “All we are asking for is a safe place near the convention center so that the leaders inside can hear the people’s voices,” says Pete Shell, an antiwar organizer with the Merton Center.

Actually, activists are asking for a lot more. And rightly so. Changes in global governance that shake the grip of bankers and CEOs, even changes in the way leaders think about global governance, don’t begin inside the cloistered gatherings of the G-20 or the WTO. They take shape outside, in the streets, where the victims of the race to the bottom have a right and a responsibility to declare that Another World Is Necessary.

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