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Idealism Without Illusions




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Issue No. 13 (April 2000) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Responses to our World Trade
Organization cover story

Dialogue, please!

I would like to offer genuine praise for your story on the Seattle WTO protest, in which your heart -- like mine! -- leapt at the sight of the protesters [RAM #6].

I liked it because you didn’t let yourself get stuck there. You brought in discernment fueled by scholarship.

On the other hand -- some of my friends think you have “Beltway fever” and should move out west so you can get some perspective.

They also think you are completely brainwashed by the corporations.

Is there any way you could facilitate a dialogue in RAM on your WTO article? Yes, it is that important.

Paul Shippee
Boulder, Colo.

Wrong number

You seem to be developing an unfortunate style in RAM, especially evident in your assessment of the WTO protests.

First you present a distorted and simplistic version of the views of those with whom you disagree, like the WTO protesters. Then you ridicule them for holding views that are simplistic and off the mark!

You further neglect key points -- such as the fact that the WTO would not give the time of day to even the most marginal reforms proposed by what you characterize as the “radical center” were it not for the more than 50,000 protesters on the streets.

While claiming a “creative centrist” position for yourself, you proceed to embrace uncritically the line of the corporate right -- as for example the idea that the WTO is a weak, conciliatory, and democratic body. Apparently you’ve not heard of the “green room” where the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Canada work out their position together and then selectively call in other representatives to browbeat them into agreement.

Intent on discrediting the protesters, you missed most of what was really happening in Seattle.

For example, you missed the fact that the U.S. labor movement took a major step toward aligning itself with the interests of working people throughout the world.

You missed the evidence of a shift in progressive movements around the world from identity and single-issue politics to a politics of the whole.

Most important, you missed the underlying issue that united the disparate groups that joined forces in Seattle: Will we have a Thomas (Lexus and the Olive Tree) Friedmanesque world ruled by corporate monopolists and an electronic herd of financial speculators? Or will we have a world ruled democratically by people on the basis of one person, one vote?

You claim your radical middle “got [the] number” of the protesters. Turns out it was a wrong number.

David C. Korten
Author, The Post-Corporate World
Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Missing the boat

You completely ignored the significant factors in Seattle. The Pentagon, through the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), had moles among the black flag anarchists, so that all of the violence, looting, etc. was a Pentagon-manipulated provocateur phenomenon.

So long as the Seattle police were in charge, the nonviolent protesters were respected. After FEMA took charge, dangerous military war gases were used -- primarily to create nation-wide fear, but also to generate publicity aimed at winning public acceptance of a brutality unmatched since the Vietnam war.

It worked. The Pentagon achieved its twin objectives (fear and acceptance) far more readily than the British did when they attacked Gandhi’s demonstrations.

John R. Ewbank
Southampton, Penna.

I think you missed the big message of the WTO protest in Seattle. In an attempt to simplify and categorize the motivations of the thousands who descended on the city, you inexplicably ignored their challenge to Capitalism As We Know It.

The environmentalists and faith-based groups marching in Seattle were trying to say that capitalism and world trade as we have practiced it for millennia and propose to continue -- north, south, east, and west -- is not environmentally or morally sustainable. We are eating our seed corn, polluting rivers and oceans, the earth and the air. The rich are getting richer from this plundering of the planet, and the poor are getting poorer.

Absurdly, it is essentially just a matter of accounting. What do we value? How can it be sustained? Justly, equitably, for everyone on the planet?

The only people who have come forward with a new and logical way to account for the real wealth on which we all depend are Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins, in their book Natural Capitalism (1999). In RAM #3 you panned it for its excesses of enthusiasm[, incoherent structure, and failure to seriously address the most substantial objections to its views], and left your readers less than anxious to read the book. Too bad! We need to build on this seminal work to construct an alternative to the destructive kind of capitalism which now rules our lives.

These disagreements notwithstanding, please send gift subscriptions to those listed below.

Elsa A. Porter
Subcommittee chair, NASA
Portland, Ore.

Healer or divider?

I have just devoured your article on WTO and the radical middle. Bravo!

We share a similar perception of the changes taking place in the world. In the language of my book [The Invisible Player: Consciousness as the Soul of Economic, Social, and Political Life, 1999], these changes are signaling a mutation to a new consciousness -- integrative, harmonizing, and “aperspectival.”

Your article shares that consciousness. Your analysis is not a view of WTO from “outside,” from a particular perspective. It is a vision from inside; it is the aperspectival view of poor and rich who are both part of the same universe.

Your analysis also suggests ways of integrating and harmonizing the different interests of the poor and rich.

Mario Kamenetzky
The World Bank (retired)
Palm Coast, Fla.

You’re right. They’re wrong. One up/one down.

What’s the point of the right/wrong game? What’s the point of alienating your old constituency? “Ah, I’ve seen the light, brother, and now you’re damned and I’m saved.”

The Earth First!ers have played a major role. Ditto the folks in the streets in Seattle. I don’t think it’s all quite so black and white as you portray.

Do you want to be a healer or a divider? Do you want to stand on a position and hold fast? Or do you want to witness the whole play with a kind of divine benevolence?

As a healer, you can still be discriminating. You can still lecture your readers if you come from your heart and you care for the person (if not all of their beliefs).

We need everyone. We need to educate everyone. We need to honor the truths in all four political positions you describe, including acknowledging the righteousness of rage, frustration, oppositions, and still argue for a more inclusive position.

Mark, I think you stand at a pivotal point where you could play a major healing, educational role as well as a pioneering, discriminating one. The challenge is to bring the four quadrants together, discover the common ground, and determine how we can advance a common agenda -- for a healthy, just, happy, and sustainable future.

John Steiner
Boulder, Colo.

In the acknowledgements to his book Getting to Peace (p. 7 below), Bill Ury thanks Steiner for “judicious criticism [mixed] with encouragement.”

Down by the river

The question you did not address, which I consider central, is “Is it true that global capitalism is a cancer devouring the Earth?”

So far as I can tell, it is. And there is no way to stop it.

Long ago I read The Godfather, and the most interesting thing I was left with was that by the end of the book all the mafia’s assets were legal. The Princeton-educated son had gone legitimate, but he had not forgotten how to kill to keep things the way he wanted.

Tens of thousands of tough characters are out there who will do the same. That is why David Korten’s world [RAM #2] -- the idealistic vision of the Seattle protesters -- will never come to pass. Too many people have nice homes near what Kurt Vonnegut calls The Money River, and they all have their Home Entertainment Centers. And it’s hard to move away from that river.

I live close, but don’t have a really good view.

The Rev. Douglas Wilson
Rowe, Mass.

Reading RAM #6, I find myself grumbling inwardly at your new post-law-school, “radical centrist” attitude.

Twenty years ago Robert Theobald and others were writing about changing the direction of civilization. But nobody with any real power seems to be addressing the big questions anymore!

I will resist the temptation to rant on at length about this. Instead, I will address the point in your WTO article where you paraphrase the Progressive Policy Institute as follows: “WTO agreements already in place provide an increase of up to $3,000 per year in purchasing power for a family of four (because of consumer cost savings).”

To take advantage of this increased purchasing power, people must now drive to a “big box” superstore or super-sized mall, as locally-owned businesses rapidly succumb to global competition. Bigger stores, bigger asphalt-covered parking lots, more driving time, and more automobile pollution are what we’re really buying with our $3,000/year windfalls!

My picture of the future, once rosy (if fuzzy), has become drab -- with increasingly better focus -- as scientists funded by corporations and government get closer to turning the planet into a human-engineered garbage dump.

No doubt geneticists will enable humans to survive in that toxic environment. And most humans, always having their “entertainments” and being mostly unaware of a deep inner emptiness, will get used to it.

Lois George-Smith
Tucson, Ariz.

The editor responds

First and foremost, a moment of appreciation. Doesn’t this newsletter have the best subscribers in the world?

To Dave Korten, Elsa Porter, and John Steiner, I want to say that I in no way intended to oversimplify, dismiss or disrespect the ideas of the Seattle protesters. And I don’t see that I have. As is apparent from my article, I read documents from all the major protest groups -- picked out the five best anti-trade arguments I could find there -- and answered each of them in turn (with the help of the savviest “radical middle” groups). Where I come from, that’s not called disrespect. That’s called taking folks seriously!

Of course, some of you won’t be satisfied unless this publication agrees with the protesters, or tries to meet them halfway. But like the groups whose studies I cite, and over 90% of economists, I am convinced the protesters are wrong -- profoundly wrong, crippling-to-the-developing-nations wrong -- on the issues.

It’s not enough for a protest movement to be broad-based and sincere It also has to be right on the issues. At the end of the day, what the protesters did in Seattle was (1) give idealistic cover to the protectionist forces in the labor movement, and (2) make life harder for the world’s poor (since without access to Western markets the developing nations will never be able to earn the capital they need to protect their environments and construct their social safety nets).

God knows, the issues are not easy. And as John Steiner suggests, there’s plenty of “common ground” among us all. But I think I can best serve the readers of this publication by telling the truth as I see it, and serving up plenty of good information (and even a coherent radical middle perspective) along the way. Readers can then compare RAM to others and tease out their own common ground.

Dave Korten’s overheated “green room” reference is, unfortunately, typical of much of what one finds in the Seattle protesters’ literature. Robert Litan, Director of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, informs me that the green room was the WTO meeting room, that it was too small to hold delegations from all 135 member-states at once, and that the meetings there were riven by endless, acrimonious, and still unresolved disputes among the U.S., Europe and Japan. The developing nations didn’t have to be coerced into anything; they were hotter to trot to open markets than was their once and hopefully future suitor, the West.

What Elsa Porter calls the accounting problem is indeed important, so important that it’s been a subject of sustained debate for at least a decade -- at American Economic Association meetings and in economics and social science books and journals (and even textbooks), as well as in carefully crafted Worldwatch Institute studies like The Natural Wealth of Nations (1998) and stimulating polemics like Natural Capitalism. I was happy to give Natural Capitalism an 80% positive review since that’s what it deserved. (If the breadth of the accounting debate is news to you, then you can fairly blame the media: the slothful mainstream media, but also the hunkered-down “alternative” media which disdains what’s going on in business and the professions; see p. 3 above.)

Many such debates about our future are taking place today -- usually just beneath the surface of public awareness. (See RAM #1-8.) That’s why I don’t share Reverend Wilson’s and Lois George-Smith’s pessimism, or what I take to be their longing for a new protest movement. A different approach to social change is on the horizon today; it’s being led by those who love the richness of our breathtakingly diverse society -- even the entertainments! even the malls! even the genetics! -- and simply want to set some life-affirming ground rules. (Did I say “simply”? It’s the work of a lifetime!)

Many dedicated folks are tracing those rules now by doing “good work” in society’s institutions. Just look at the wonderful scientists whose work I cover on pp. 3-4 above. Just look at the business consultants whose work I discuss at the end of the cover story. And wait till you read about the work of the activists at the Children’s Defense Fund next month!

Millions of people today are, slowly but surely, writing the text of a New Social Contract of socially just and environmentally sustainable ground rules. Most are at the radical middle, equidistant from the new hard-heartedness and the old pipe dreams. They’re not marching with signs saying “People Not Profits!” They’re writing books with titles like “For People -- And For Profit” (Kazuo Inamori, 1997). Some are reading this newsletter.


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