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Arundhati Roy:
"Globalization is ripping through people's lives"

September 27, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

ARUNDHATI ROY is an acclaimed Indian writer. Since winning the prestigious Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things in 1997, she has devoted herself to speaking out against corporate globalization. Here, we print, with permission, excerpts of a speech she gave September 18 in Santa Fe, N.M. The Web-cast is available at www.lannan.org.

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THE UNITED States, which George W. Bush has called "the most peaceful nation on earth," has been at war with one country or another every year for the last 50 years.

Wars are never fought for altruistic reasons. They're usually fought for hegemony--for business. And then, of course, there's the business of war. Protecting its control of the world's oil is fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. government's recent military interventions in the Balkans and Central Asia have to do with oil.

Hamid Karzai, the puppet president of Afghanistan installed by the U.S., is said to be a former employee of Unocal, the U.S.-based oil company. The U.S. government's paranoid patrolling of the Middle East is because it has two-thirds of the world's oil reserves. Oil keeps America's engines purring sweetly. Oil keeps the free market rolling. Whoever controls the world's oil controls the world's market.

And how do you control the oil? Nobody puts it more elegantly than the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In an article called "Craziness Pays," he says: "The U.S. has to make it clear to Iraq and U.S. allies that…America will use force without negotiation, hesitation or UN approval." His advice was well taken in the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the almost daily humiliation that the U.S. government heaps on the UN.

In his book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman says, "The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas...and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps." Perhaps this was written in a moment of vulnerability--but it's certainly the most succinct, accurate description of the project of corporate globalization that I have read.

After September 11, 2001, and the "war against terror," the hidden hand and fist have had their cover blown. And we have a clear view now of America's other weapon--the free market--bearing down on the developing world, with a clenched unsmiling smile.

The "task that never ends" is America's perfect war--the perfect vehicle for the endless expansion of American imperialism. In Urdu, the word for profit is "fayda." Al Qaida means "the word of God, the Law." So in India, some of us call the war against terror: Al Qaida vs. Al Fayda--the word vs. the profit. For the moment, it looks as though Al Fayda will carry the day. But then you never know…

In the last 10 years of unbridled corporate globalization, the world's total income has increased by an average of 2.5 percent a year. And yet the numbers of the poor in the world has increased by 100 million. Of the top 100 biggest economies, 51 are corporations, not countries. The top 1 percent of the world has the same combined income as the bottom 57 percent, and the disparity is growing.

Now, under the spreading canopy of the "war against terror," this process is being hustled along. The men in suits are in an unseemly hurry. While bombs rain down on us and Cruise missiles skid across the skies, while nuclear weapons are stockpiled to make the world a safer place, contracts are being signed, patents are being registered, oil pipelines are being laid, natural resources are being plundered, water is being privatized, and democracies are being undermined.

In a country like India, the "structural adjustment" end of the corporate globalization project is ripping through people's lives. "Development" projects, massive privatization and labor "reforms" are pushing people off their lands and out of their jobs, resulting in a kind of barbaric dispossession that has few parallels in history.

Across the world, as the "free market" brazenly protects Western markets and forces developing countries to lift their trade barriers, the poor are getting poorer, and the rich richer.

Civil unrest has begun to erupt in the global village. In countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia and India, the resistance movements against corporate globalization are growing. To contain them, governments are tightening their control. Protesters are being labeled "terrorists" and then being dealt with as such.

But civil unrest does not only mean marches and demonstrations and protests against globalization. Unfortunately, it also means a desperate downward spiral into crime and chaos and all kinds of despair and disillusionment--which, as we know from history and from what we see unrolling before our eyes, gradually becomes a fertile breeding ground for terrible things: cultural nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism and, of course, terrorism. All these march arm in arm with corporate globalization.

There is a notion gaining credence that the free market breaks down national barriers and that corporate globalization's ultimate destination is a hippie paradise where the heart is the only passport and we all live together happily inside a John Lennon song--"Imagine there's not country." This is a canard.

What the free market undermines is not national sovereignty, but democracy. As the disparity between the rich and poor grows, the hidden fist has its work cut out for it. Multinational corporations on the prowl for sweetheart deals that yield enormous profits cannot push through those deals and administer those projects in developing countries without the active connivance of state machinery--the police, the courts, sometimes even the army.

Today, corporate globalization needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, preferably authoritarian governments in poorer countries to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies. It needs a press that pretends to be free. It needs courts that pretend to dispense justice.

It needs nuclear bombs, standing armies, sterner immigration laws and watchful coastal patrols to make sure that only money, goods, patents and services are globalized--not the free movement of people, not respect for human rights, not international treaties on racial discrimination, or chemical and nuclear weapons, or greenhouse gas emissions, or, god forbid, justice. It's as though even a gesture towards international accountability would wreck the whole enterprise.

Close to one year after the "war against terror" was officially flagged off in the ruins of Afghanistan, in country after country, freedoms are being curtailed in the name of protecting freedom--civil liberties are being suspended in the name of protecting democracy. All kinds of dissent are being defined as "terrorism." All kinds of laws are being passed to deal with it.

Osama bin Laden seems to have vanished into thin air. Mullah Omar is said to have made his escape on a motorbike (They could have sent Tin-Tin after him). The Taliban may have disappeared, but their spirit and their system of summary justice is surfacing in the unlikeliest of places--in India, in Pakistan, in Nigeria, in America, in all the Central Asian Republics run by all manner of despots, and of course, in Afghanistan, under the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.

Meanwhile, down at the mall, there's a mid-season sale. Everything's discounted--oceans, rivers, oil, gene pools, fig wasps, flowers, childhoods, aluminum factories, phone companies, wisdom, wilderness, civil rights, ecosystems, air--all 4.6 billion years of evolution. It's packed, sealed, tagged, valued and available off the rack (no returns). As for justice, I'm told it's on offer, too. You can get the best that money can buy.

Donald Rumsfeld said that his mission in the "war against terror" was to persuade the world that Americans must be allowed to continue their way of life. When the maddened King stamps his foot, slaves tremble in their quarters. So, standing here today, it's hard for me to say this, but "the American way of life" is simply not sustainable. Because it doesn't acknowledge that there is a world beyond America.

Fortunately power has a shelf life. When the time comes, maybe this mighty empire will, like others before it, overreach itself and implode from within. It looks as though structural cracks have already appeared. As the "war against terror" casts its net wider and wider, America's corporate heart is hemorrhaging.

For all the endless empty chatter about democracy, today, the world is run by three of the most secretive institutions in the world: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. All three of which, in turn, are dominated by the U.S.

Their decisions are made in secret. The people who head them are appointed behind closed doors. Nobody really knows anything about them, their politics, their beliefs, their intentions. Nobody elected them. Nobody said they could make decisions on our behalf.

A world run by a handful of greedy bankers and CEOs who nobody elected can't possibly last. Soviet-style communism failed, not because it was intrinsically evil, but because it was flawed. It allowed too few people to usurp too much power. Twenty-first-century market capitalism, American-style, will fail for the same reasons. Both are edifices constructed by human intelligence, undone by human nature.

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