Hordes of Vigilantes & Popular elements defeat MAI, for now

Noam Chomsky


expected, the OECD countries did not reach agreement on April 27, and we move to the next
phase. One useful consequence was that the national press departed from its (virtual)
silence. In the business pages of the New York Times, economic affairs
correspondent Louis Uchitelle reported that the target date for the MAI had been delayed
six months, under popular pressure. Treaties concerning trade and investment usually
“draw little public attention” (why?); and while “labor and the environment
are not excluded,” the director of international trade at the National Association of
Manufacturers explained, “they are not at the center” of the concerns of trade
diplomats and the World Trade Organization. But “these outsiders are clamoring to
make their views known in the negotiations for a treaty that is to be called the
Multilateral Agreement on Investment,” Uchitelle commented (with intended irony, I
presume), and the clamor sufficed to compel the delay.

font-family:Arial”>The Washington
also reported the delay, in its financial section, blaming primarily “the
French intelligentsia,” who had “seized on the idea” that the rules of the
MAI “posed a threat to French culture,” joined by Canadians as well. “And
the Clinton administration showed little interest in fighting for the accord, especially
given fervent opposition from many of the same American environmental and labor groups
that battled against [NAFTA],” and that somehow fail to comprehend that their battle
is misdirected since it is the Clinton administration that has been insisting upon
“environmental goals” and “international labor standards” all
along—not an outright falsehood, since the goals and standards are left suitably

font-family:Arial”>Time font-family:Arial”>The same
theme was voiced with a note of despair, if not terror, by the world’s leading
business daily, the Financial Times of London. In an article headlined
“Network guerrillas,” it reported that “fear and bewilderment have seized
governments of industrialised countries” as, “to their consternation,”
their efforts to impose the MAI in secret “have been ambushed by a horde of
vigilantes whose motives and methods are only dimly understood in most national
capitals”—naturally enough; they are not among the “domestic
constituencies,” so how can governments be expected to understand them? “This
week the horde claimed its first success” by blocking the agreement on the MAI, the
journal continued, “and some think it could fundamentally alter the way international
economic agreements are negotiated.”

font-family:Arial”>The hordes
are a terrifying sight: “they included trade unions, environmental and human rights
lobbyists and pressure groups opposed to globalisation”—meaning, globalization
in the particular form demanded by the domestic constituencies. The rampaging horde
overwhelmed the pathetic and helpless power structures of the rich industrial societies.
They are led by “fringe movements that espouse extreme positions” and have
“good organisation and strong finances” that enable them “to wield much
influence with the media and members of national parliaments.” In the United States,
the “much influence” with the media was effectively zero, and in Britain, which
hardly differed, it reached such heights that Home Secretary Jack Straw of the Labor
government conceded over BBC that he had never heard of the MAI. But it must be understood
that even the slightest breach in conformity is a terrible danger.

font-family:Arial”>It is
superfluous to add that the lobbies and pressure groups that are causing such fear and
consternation are not the U.S. Council for International Business, the “lawyers and
businessmen” who are “writing the rules of global order,” and the like, but
the “public voice” that is “invariably missing.”

is to remain in the U.S., so the people who count will be close to the protector in their
corner and will enjoy a proper lifestyle, with the landscape improved as well: the hovels
of the foreign workforce will not mar the view. Profits aside, the operation provides a
useful weapon against workers who dare to raise their heads (as the recent strike
illustrates), and who help out by paying for the loss of their jobs and for the improved
weapons of class war.

not the only such victory in recent months. Another was achieved last fall, when the
Administration was compelled to withdraw its proposed “Fast Track” legislation.
Recall that the issue was not “free trade,” as commonly alleged, but democracy:
the demand of the hordes “for greater openness and accountability.” The Clinton
administration had argued, correctly, that it was asking for nothing new: just the same
authority its predecessors had enjoyed to conduct “deals behind closed doors”
that are submitted “for rubber-stamping by parliaments.” But times are changing.
As the business press recognized when “Fast Track” faced an unexpected public
challenge, opponents of the old regime had an “ultimate weapon,” the general
population, which was no longer satisfied to keep to the spectator role as their betters
do the important work. The complaints of the business press echo those of the liberal
internationalists of the Trilateral Commission 25 years ago, lamenting the efforts of the
“special interests” to organize and enter the political arena. Their vulgar
antics disrupted the civilized arrangements before the “crisis of democracy”
erupted, when “Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a
relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers” as explained by
Harvard’s Samuel Huntington, soon to become professor of the Science of Government.
And now they are intruding in even more sacred chambers.

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Though power and privilege surely will not rest, nonetheless the popular victories
should be heartening. They teach lessons about what can be achieved even when opposing
forces are so outlandishly unbalanced as in the MAI confrontation. It is true that recent
victories are defensive. They prevent, or at least delay, steps to undermine democracy
even further, and to transfer even more power into the hands of the rapidly concentrating
private tyrannies that seek to administer markets and to constitute a “virtual
Senate” that has many ways to block popular efforts to use democratic forms for the
public interest: threat of capital flight, transfer of production, and other means. But
the defensive victories are real. One should attend carefully to the fear and desperation
of the powerful. They understand very well the potential reach of the “ultimate
weapon,” and only hope that those who seek a more free and just world will not gain
the same understanding, and put it effectively to use.