Brian Mulroney thinks the numbers are his friends. He proudly points to the percentage of Canada's gross domestic product now made up by exports to the United States—40 per cent! The number of jobs created by trade—four in five! And Mexico's status as an important U.S. trading partner—second only to Canada! These numbers are a vindication, our former prime minister believes, for the free-trade deals he negotiated first with the United States, then with Mexico.
He still doesn't get it: Those numbers aren't his friends; they're his worst enemy. Opposition to free trade has grown, and grown more vocal, precisely because private wealth has soared without translating into anything that can be clearly identified as the public good. It's not that critics don't know how much money is being made under free trade—it's that we know all too well.
While there's no shortage of numbers pointing to increases in exports and investment, the trickle-down effects promised as the political incentive for deregulation—tougher environmental standards, higher wages, better working conditions, less poverty—have either been pitifully incremental or non-existent.
As soon as I wrote the sentence, I deleted it: "Is this really what we want—a movement of meeting stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats like they're the Grateful Dead?"
It could be taken out of context, I thought; better take it out. Then I put it back in: The context was clear, and I was being paranoid. If you let your critics steal your sense of humour, they have already won. Paranoia, I've since learned, can be a healthy impulse.
That sentence, which was first published almost a year ago in the U.S. magazine The Nation, has been following me around like . . . oh, forget it. In The Economist, on CBC Radio, in The Globe and Mail just last week, it has been used exactly as I'd feared: to paint anti-corporate protesters as a roving band of thrill-seekers, in it for the party, not the politics. (On the upside, Deadheads are now convinced that I alone understand them: "Duuude," they say to me. "It's so true what you wrote because Dead shows were all about community.")
Naomi Klein, actor Sarah Polley, and lawyer Clayton Ruby initiated this petition to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in anticipation of police violence during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The letter sought to galvanize public opinion, particularly in the arts community. Over six thousand Canadians signed: artists, academics, journalists, judges, lawyers and intellectuals. Among them were some of Canada's most prominent cultural figures, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Atom Egoyan, Michael Ignatieff, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and the Barenaked Ladies.
"We are here to show the world that another world is possible!" the man on stage said, and a crowd of more than 10,000 roared its approval.
What was strange was that we weren't cheering for a specific other world, just the possibility of one. We were cheering for the idea that another world could, in theory, exist.
For the past thirty years, a select group of CEOs and world leaders have met during the last week in January on a mountaintop in Switzerland to do what they presumed they were the only ones capable of doing: determine how the global economy should be governed. We were cheering because it was, in fact, the last week of January, and this wasn't the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was the first annual World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And even though we weren't CEOs or world leaders, we were still going to spend the week talking about how the global economy should be governed.
Next Friday, trade ministers from the 34 countries negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas will meet in Buenos Aires. Many in Latin America predict that the ministers will be greeted with protests much larger than the ones that exploded in Seattle in 1999.
The FTAA's cheerleaders like to pretend that their only critics are white college kids from Harvard and McGill who just don't understand how much "the poor" are "clamouring" for the FTAA. Will this public display of Latin American opposition to the trade deal change all that?
Don't be silly.
Mass protests in the developing world don't register in our discussions about trade in the West. No matter how many people take to the streets of Buenos Aires, Mexico City or Sao Paulo, defenders of corporate-driven globalization just keep on insisting that every possible objection lobbed their way was dreamed up in Seattle, by somebody with newly matted dreadlocks slurping a latte.