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A Conflict Is Looming Between Two Worlds

By Ben Turok, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 16 February 2001

Johannesburg—There is a growing sense of outrage around the world as the effects of globalisation are felt. The international political order is exhibiting a new divide which could replace earlier confrontations. The new divisions are not based on opposing groups of states but on a horizontal division between civil society organisations across the world and governments.

It may be wholly premature to talk in these terms at present, but there are signs of a degree of alienation from the international systems of government that should not be ignored.

The signs are in the build-up of protests at Washington, Seattle, Prague and now Porto Alegre where 10 000 participants gathered at a conference to discuss globalisation and neo-liberalism. As one of the guests, I was impressed by the scale of the event and the seriousness of the participants and the proceedings. My sense is that there has been a qualitative change in the protest movement which now includes dedicated researchers and policy analysts as well as politicians. How South Africans relate to this change in tempo is an important matter.

Our government has reversed the position whereby South Africa was previously excluded from effective participation in international political institutions. We have been welcomed and indeed hold prominent positions in most of them. Some of our ministers are invited to play major roles in a range of positions which would have been unthinkable under the old regime. No doubt our government hopes to use these positions to our own advantage and for the benefit of mankind generally.

This strategy also provides opportunities to coordinate African and Third World interests.

But the global order and its institutions are coming under intense criticism and not just from ultra leftists and anarchists. There are now many serious critics who are deeply concerned about the current forms of globalisation and its associated ideology of neo-liberalism. The values of neo-liberalism are being attacked on the grounds that they prioritise free-market individualism over social values and the common good. An abundance of evidence is being generated to show that the actual outcomes of neo-liberal globalisation are increasing inequality globally and driving large segments of society into structural unemployment and poverty.

There is a growing sense of outrage in civil society around the world which found expression at the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre, Brazil, and a rather different international meeting of economists in Cuba which followed. Although the mix of participants was very different, at each of these events, socialists, communists, environmentalists and activists of every possible hue mixed with academics and politicians in a remarkable rancour-free consensus to condemn neoliberal globalisation and explore economic alternatives.

The World Social Forum was planned to coincide with the Davos meeting of heads of state, finance ministers and business leaders held yearly in Switzerland. The forum took place from January 25 to 30 at the University of Porto Alegre. It was hosted by the leftist government of Rio Grande do Sul, one of the largest and more affluent states of Brazil.

The huge plenary sessions were attended by more than 1 000 participants and addressed by personalities from around the world, including the minister of trade of France, a 12-person delegation from the European Parliament, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul and experts from other countries. I was privileged to be asked to take the chair at a session of 400 parliamentarians where the main presenters were the president of Cuba's Parliament and the head of a committee of the European Parliament with 15 MPs from different countries making additional interventions.

The final declaration states that the meeting was able to measure the dynamics of the citizens' popular resistance to neo-liberal globalisation, assess the disastrous consequences for democracy and the living conditions of people in the south, east and also the north, triggered by the international financial institutions, the World Trade Organisation and the G7.

The declaration goes on to critique environmental issues, foreign debt, free trade agreements, the growing circulation of speculative capital, commercialisation and privatisation of public assets and services which are supposed to serve people's basic needs. It called for a global parliamentary network to coordinate the work and to support the citizens' social movement initiatives, which must be our intermediaries in order to create alternative solutions for another world.

Apart from the excitement generated by the huge crowd, there was a feeling of serious commitment at the 400 workshops scattered around the university where diligent researchers presented a multiplicity of evidence on the effect of neo- liberal globalisation in various parts of the world.

What did the forum achieve? It was first and foremost a public statement of unity and opposition to neo-liberal globalisation on a scale not seen before; it was a demonstration of seriousness in the quest for economic alternatives, and an opportunity for networking and planning across the world which is bound to raise the level of international solidarity.

The Cuban conference was quite different. The 500 participants were established economists, members of the Association of Economists of Latin America and the Caribbean and hosted by the Cuban Association of Economists with additional participation of economists from all over the world. The theme was Globalisation and Development Problems but many of the 93 papers attacked neo- liberalism and capitalism with a vigour not seen since the demise of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.

One of the most interesting sessions was a presentation by the World Bank officials for Latin America and responses by economists from the continent.

While the former claimed that globalisation has not increased financial volatility and economic uncertainty in Latin America, the critics argued that due to lower growth rates the present generation is worse off than the previous one, that there is a decrease in salaries and growing unemployment. World Bank policies were politely but firmly condemned.

They asserted that Latin American governments have less control over their economies, that years of observing fiscal discipline have reduced social spending and led to insolvency rather than growth, that the appearance of lower unemployment in countries like Mexico was because activities like car washing are now counted as employment. Latin Ameri- can banks and industries have been denationalised and there has been a destruction of some sectors.

One speaker said that no other continent has been as disciplined in conforming to economic discipline as Latin America and yet it has performed badly. Poverty has increased over two decades and inequality has grown. Presently no politician will be elected on the basis of support for the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. And the notion of a minimalist state will get no support.

The principle of market-led economies came under severe scrutiny. One speaker asked should the market determine the character of society, or society determine the nature of the market?

The World Bank officials replied to the debate with remarkable good humour. They conceded that serious mistakes had been made, but these were not due to ill will.

Nobody thinks all is well in Latin America, one official said.

Countries should have a national strategic development plan of their own, based on a fully participatory process which will get agreement on levels of savings, investment and productivity.

At the end of the meeting Fidel Castro, who was present throughout the session, went up on the platform to greet the officials personally.

At a subsequent plenary session he spoke for six hours, from 7pm to 1am, on the crisis faced by Cuba after the collapse of the socialist bloc in 1991 exacerbated by the US economic blockade of 1992, the most ferocious in the world's history. Cuba's gross domestic product fell 35% between 1989 and 1993, the fiscal deficit increased to 30% and imports fell 75% over four years. The government was hard pressed to find markets for exports like sugar and nickel and shipping refused to enter Cuba's harbours due to retaliation by the US. In a long address he listed the country's achievements and recovery, saying that our country has become a gigantic university.

My own impressions of Cuba were restricted to a fine five-star hotel and conference centre, and a brief visit to the beautiful Old City of Havana and a visit to a jazz café in the more modern part of Havana. But the problems of Cuba are also evident in the decay of many buildings, in a certain indifference in shop assistants, in the visible prostitution and in a degree of political fatigue. Having to travel by devious routes and many airports to get to Cuba, I share their anger and frustration at the wicked blockade imposed by the US and its effect on the ordinary lives of the Cuban people.

Yet Cuba and Latin America present a world of intellectual challenge to the world order and the search is on for an alternative model which will require much debate and the canvassing of many different views. Above all we need to recover the right to a sustainable development path, and given our own South African problems, we may be able to play a useful part in generating some solutions.