Picture January 20, 2009, the day George W. Bush has to vacate the Oval Office.
It’s easy enough to imagine a party marking this fine occasion, with antiwar protestors, civil libertarians, community leaders, environmentalists, health-care advocates, and trade unionists clinking glasses to toast the end of an unfortunate era. Even Americans not normally inclined to political life might be tempted to join the festivities, bringing their own bottles of bubbly to the party. Given that presidential job approval ratings have rarely broken 40% for two years and now remain obdurately around or below 30% — historic lows — it would not surprising if this were a sizeable celebration.
More surprising, however, might be the number of people in the crowd drinking finer brands of champagne. Amid the populist gala, one might well spot figures of high standing in the corporate world, individuals who once would have looked forward to the reign of an MBA president but now believe that neocon bravado is no way to run an empire.
One of the more curious aspects of the Bush years is that the self-proclaimed "uniter" polarized not only American society, but also its business and political elites. These are the types who gather at the annual, ultra-exclusive World Economic Forum in
Don’t think of this as some conspiratorial plot, but as a perfectly commonsensical debate over what policies are in the best interests of those who hire phalanxes of
There is little question that the majority of people on the planet — those who suffered under both the corporate globalization of the Clinton years and the imperial globalization of George W. Bush — deserve something better. However, it is far from certain that social justice advocates who want to encourage a more democratic approach to world affairs and global economic well-being will be able to sway a new administration. On the other hand, the damage inflicted by eight years of neocon rule and the challenges of an increasingly daunting geopolitical scene present a conundrum to the corporate globalizers: Is it even possible to go back to the way things were?
The Revolt of the Corporatists
Throughout their time in office, despite fulsome evidence of failure, George Bush and Dick Cheney have maintained a blithe self-confidence about their ability to successfully promote the interests of the
When it comes to corporate responses to the President’s Global War on Terror, we mostly hear about the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater — companies directly implicated in the invasion and occupation of
The "free trade" elite have become particularly upset about the administration’s focus on go-it-alone nationalism and its disregard for multilateral means of securing influence. This belligerent approach to foreign affairs, they believe, has thwarted the advance of corporate globalization. In an April 2006 column in the Washington Post, globalist cheerleader Sebastian Mallaby laid blame for "why globalization has stalled" at the feet of the Bush administration. The White House, Mallaby charged, was unwilling to invest any political capital in the IMF, the World Bank, or the WTO. He wrote:
"Fifteen years ago, there were hopes that the end of Cold War splits would allow international institutions to acquire a new cohesion. But the great powers of today are simply not interested in creating a resilient multilateral system…. The
Frustrated by Bush’s failures, many in the business elite want to return to the softer empire of corporate globalization and, increasingly, they are looking to the Democrats to navigate this return. As a measure of this — the capitalist equivalent of voting with their feet — political analyst Kevin Phillips notes in his new book, Bad Money, that, in 2007, "[h]edge fund employees’ contributions to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee outnumbered those to its Republican rival by roughly nine to one."
This quiet revolt of the corporatists is already causing interesting reverberations on the campaign trail. The base of the Democratic Party has clearly rejected the "free trade" version of trickle-down economics, which has done far more to help those hedge-fund managers and private-jet-hopping executives than anyone further down the economic ladder. As a result, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are running as opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and of a newer bilateral trade deal with
Still, both candidates are surrounded by business-friendly advisors whose views fit nicely within an older, pre-Bush administration paradigm of corporate globalization. The tension between the anti-NAFTA activists at the base of the Party and those in the campaign war rooms has resulted in some embarrassing gaffes during the primary contest.
For Hillary Clinton, the most notable involved one of her chief strategists, Mark Penn, a man with a long, nefarious record defending corporate abuses as a
The Obama campaign found itself in similar discomfort in February. While the candidate was running in the Ohio primary as an opponent of NAFTA, calling that trade deal a "mistake" that has harmed working people, his senior economic policy adviser, University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee, was meeting with Canadian government officials to explain, as a memo by the Canadians reported, that Obama’s charges were merely "political positioning." Goolsbee quickly claimed that his position had been mischaracterized, but the incident naturally raised questions. Why, for example, had Goolsbee, senior economist to the Democratic Leadership Council, the leading organization on the corporate-friendly rightwing of the party, and a person praised as "a valuable source of free-trade advice over almost a decade," been positioned to mold Obama’s economic stances in the first place?
If pressure from the base of the party lets up after the elections, it would hardly be surprising to see a victorious candidate revert to Bill Clinton’s corporate model for how to rule the world. However, a return to a pre-Bush-style of international politics may be easier dreamed than done.
The Neocon Paradox
To the chagrin of the "free trade" elite, the market fundamentalist ideas that have dominated international development thinking for at least the last 25 years are now under attack globally. This is largely because the economic prescriptions of deregulation, privitization, open markets, and cuts to social services so often made (and enforced) by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have proven catastrophic.
In 2003, the United Nations’ Human Development Report (UNHDP) explained that 54 already poor countries had actually grown even poorer during the "free trade" era of the 1990s. The British Guardian summarized well the essence of this report:
"Taking issue with those who have argued that the ‘tough love’ policies of the past two decades have spawned the growth of a new global middle class, the report says the world became ever more divided between the super-rich and the desperately poor. The richest 1% of the world’s population (around 60 million) now receives as much income as the poorest 57%, while the income of the richest 25 million Americans is the equivalent of that of almost 2 billion of the world’s poorest people."
Such findings led UNDP administrator Mark Malloch Brown, in a remarkably blunt statement, to call for a "guerilla assault on the Washington Consensus."
In fact, in 2008, such an assault is already well under way — and
In late April, economist Mark Weisbrot noted that, with so many countries breaking free of its grasp, the IMF, which once dictated economic policy to strapped governments around the world, is now but a shadow of its former self. In the past four years, its loan portfolio has plummeted from $105 billion to less than $10 billion, the bulk of which now goes to just two countries,
It is a historic irony that Bush administration neocons, smitten with
"They want to drag down the old, multilateral order and replace it with a new,
Battered by losing wars and economic crisis, the
The true Bush administration legacy may be to leave us in a world that is at once far more open to change and also far more dangerous. Such prospects should hardly discourage the long-awaited celebration in January. But they suggest that a new era of globalization battles — struggles to build a world order based neither on corporate influence, nor imperial might — will have only just begun.
Mark Engler, an analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus, is the author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (just published by Nation Books). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), which has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.]