Eyes on the Prize: Mark Engler’s ‘How to Rule the World’

Source: Guerrilla News Network

You couldn’t say that the global justice movement has melted away. But then, you couldn’t say that it remains a vital force in shaping the concerns of media outlets, international financial moguls, world leaders or even the pulpits of anarchist rabble rousers. The war in Iraq, climate change and peak oil – all class A concerns for humanity to be sure – have tended to eclipse the critique of “neo-liberal globalization” at the top of the public activist agenda, making the mass mobilization of protesters in Seattle, to name only the movement’s iconic congregation, a distant memory.

Yet as journalist and Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Mark Engler reminds us in his new book How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy the global justice movement is far from dead, and certainly not irrelevant. Far from it, Engler contends. In essence, what Engler is calling for is a renewed activist focus on building solidarity between social movements to face down what he rightly sees as a changing, adaptable beast.

Wrestling in the pulpit

If the Clinton era represented a time of corporate globalization in which neoliberal policies such as financial liberalization and the use of the IMF/World Bank to prise open recalcitrant economies held sway, then the Bush era has embodied a different species of globalization. Engler perceives a transition from multilateralism (by and large) under Clinton to an imperial globalization under Bush, a notably different matter.

While Clinton was happy to work through international institutions to open up the world to finance capital, Engler sees the Bush-era neocons as focused far more on enhancing America’s national power. For them, while Clinton’s policies certainly helped sections of American business (and screwed over many millions of poor farmers and slum dwellers in the process) they were deficient in manly brawn, the desire to assert who precisely was in control of the global economy, and who it is meant to ultimately benefit. No prizes for guessing which nation they thought fitted the bill.

The neocons therefore chose a number of pathways which diverged from Clinton’s supposedly supine liberalism. Before 9-11, the administration went out of its way to challenge the very notion of multilateralism. The Kyoto Protocol was savaged. The International Criminal Court – shoved aside. Conventions on women’s and indigenous rights? sent to Guantanamo, or they might as well have been. Yet after 9-11, the “assertion” kicked into gear, radically changing the opponent that global justice advocates now face.

Iraq simply represents the most ubiquitous example of such assertion. In fact, as Engler rightly notes, one of the best ways of explaining Iraq is as an instance of exemplary violence – what has been labeled the “Ledeen doctrine” after neocon soothsayer Michael Ledeen, a prominent war hawk. As neoconservative commentator Jonah Goldberg told Engler at the time of the Iraq War, “the United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense.”

This reflected a specific conception of power which Clinton did not share. While American violence, and the threat of it, is intended to cow potential challengers, the occupation of land and control over strategic resources is necessary to discipline rising rivals. Iraq is just such a resource, and the U.S. is in the for the long haul, in Engler’s opinion. As he counsels, “while activists rightly demand “no blood for oil” they commonly focus too narrowly on Iraq’s oil fields as corporate plunder rather than a source of imperial power and thus miss the wider agenda of corporate dominance.”

The focus in Engler’s book upon the shift towards “imperial globalization” – the assertion of U.S. power in strategically important regions to counter rising threats. To Iraq we might add Somalia too, on a critical sea route (important more for China than for the U.S.). We could also add the Philippines, where U.S. “aid” has been massacring peasants and leftist insurgents, or East Timor, where Australian and U.S. interference has been constant, and Chinese desire for Timorese gas has been frustrated.

Moreover, while Clinton might have relied on the WTO, Bush has consciously used bilateral trade deals to bully smaller nations, and has martialled U.S. aid monies to achieve national security ends (with his quaintly named “millennium challenge accounts” in the vanguard). You can overstress the shift – and Engler counsels against this – but activists have been slow to see how their old targets – the WTO, World Bank and IMF have been rapidly shouldered aside and replaced by old-fashioned nation state based intimidation.

The IMF, for example, has seen its loan portfolio shrivel, and Washington has barely batted an eyelid. The WTO is on “life support.” The World Bank was handed over to the neocons to explicitly wield as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. Notions of multilateralism have given way to “ad hoc assemblies, often not lasting beyond the crisis being confronted and in many cases carrying only general agreement over the objectives to be accomplished” as the neocon-inspired 1992 “Defense Policy Guidance” document suggested.

The game continues

If emphasis on financial liberalization was meant to funnel money to Wall Street (and it most certainly was), imperial globalization is intended to ensure that this hegemony is defended. The two overlap, yet are still distinct. If Clinton’s globalization was analogous to a game of chess, then Bush’s resembles a vast game of paintball – yet the game continues.

That shift towards empire as a strategy of globalization is one of the points that Engler raises, but only one of them. It is his springboard from which to explore the implications of elite division that such a policy departure has caused, as well as the confusion that it has raised amongst global justice advocates. As such, Engler is treading both familiar and fresh ground. The nuts and bolts critique of globalization that he presents (rising inequality, financial turbulence, lack of democracy, environmental destruction, American dominance etc..) is unavoidably stale, but a strength of his analysis is to separate divergent elite conceptions of globalization, and to offer a way forwards focusing on globalization from below.

Again, this is not new. As Engler notes, a better world may be developing from myriad social movements. He uses a trip to Porto Alegre to the 2001 World Social Forum to illustrate how “globalization from below does not take the form of a one-size fits all prescription for the global economy” – a fair point, although it does jibe somewhat with his book’s title. In fact, it might have been better to call it “how not to manage the world, yet still live peacefully and prosperously in it” given that Engler forcefully argues for a diverse, yet uncompromising alliance of movements to assert their “specific political histories…and current conflicts” and, by fighting together, to defeat the “one size fits all” monster which is neo-liberal globalization.

Engler also devotes space in his book to detailing how earlier phases of the global justice movement had significant successes – debt cancellation prime among them, but far from alone. He deals well with Latin America, stressing the strength of social movements in propelling progressive, and fickle, governments into power (and he is skeptical about their sincerity, without concealing their departures from neo-liberal orthodoxy). He also devotes a great deal of time to comparing two apostles of globalization – Thomas Friedman (who comes out very badly, and rightly so) and Joseph Stiglitz, often seen as an ally of the global justice movement.

A strength of Engler’s analysis is that his critique of Stiglitz is far more devastating than his treatment of Friedman. If Friedman is a boneheaded propagandist, Stiglitz is an elitist red herring who, if his economic critique is on target, continues to miss the crucial truth that:

Those who are working to fundamentally alter the balance of power between the world’s dominant nations and those at the periphery, between the elite and the impoverished, and between corporations and working people can be forgiven if they base their more thorough-going visions of change on something other than the yet-to-surface enlightened self interest of those who would save capitalism from itself.

This is incendiary stuff, and typical of Engler’s stance, with which, we have to hope, a great many progressives will concur.

A happy ending to imperialism?

But what of globalization as a public issue?

Although the issue of globalization has been obscured by other causes, Engler’s book is timely. With the likely handover of power in the U.S. to a more multilaterally-minded President on the horizon, he expects the issue of corporate globalization to resurface big-time, yet he also expects imperial globalization to survive. As he notes, none of the presidential candidates on offer “are lobbying to limit Pentagon spending.”

If the problems of the WTO and IMF open up new opportunities for alternatives (take Chavez’ Bank of the South, for example) there will be a reassertion of corporate power, and there is only one solution:

The powerful will abandon their strategies of control only when it grows too costly for them to do otherwise. It is the concerted efforts of people coming together in local communities and in movements spanning borders that will raise the costs. Empire becomes unsustainable – it becomes bad business – when the people of the world resist. And democracy triumphs over privilege and exploitation when we make it a practice that is too alive for money to contain.

Mark Engler’s book is a useful contribution to the global justice movement and asks some searching questions of its participants. At a time of transition, a time of threats and possibilities, his call for a democratic globalization from below, and recognition that our adversaries will be both nationalist and cosmopolitan, political and corporate, imperial and multilateral, will hopefully persuade some that building a global citizens’ movement remains a worthwhile, and pressing task.