The Vision Thing: a response to Cancúnblog

Adam Lent
6 November 2003

openDemocracy’s Cancúnblog is an excellent debate on the issues raised by the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) summit in the Mexican resort town in September 2003. For a moving report like Katharine Ainger’s to be followed by such detailed and thoughtful discussion is rare indeed. It is heartening to see how the sterile face-off between localisers and everyone else has been replaced by a practical discussion about how best to bring about feasible change.

The two issues I want to draw out are those of context and vision. These are present in the debate, but only tangentially. But they need to be right at the forefront of our thoughts. In particular, we must acknowledge that the days when we could be comfortable with single-issue campaigning are gone. All global matters, including the vital single issue of trade, must be placed in a wider context if we are to be effective. And the best way we can think in context is by acknowledging and nurturing a broad vision of global change.

The inescapable context is that the United States’s attitude to trade and the WTO is only one part of a wider assault on multilateralism. To rejoice at the collapse of the Cancún negotiations is to allow the most hawkish members of the Bush administration off the hook. For them, all multilateral organisations, from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), offer potential threats to their mission to create a world that permits America absolute freedom to maintain its unique global dominance throughout the 21st century.

As a result, the survival of multilateralism cannot be taken for granted any longer. The starting-point for all campaigns for global change must now be the defence of existing international institutions – a critical defence maybe, but defence nevertheless. For without these institutions any wider hope of progressive global change based on the spirit of cooperation and negotiation is simply a dream.

Neither should we cling to the comforting hope of an election defeat for George W. Bush in the presidential elections of 2004. The people pursuing neo-conservative ambitions are deadly serious and deeply resourceful. Their intellectual and political predecessors, the New Right, faced political setbacks during the 1960s and 1970s but they ultimately seized supreme political power in the 1980s. The neo-conservatives will reappear over time even if a Democratic victory comes to pass in 2004. Next time, however, they will be far more sophisticated, exhibiting more patience and using subtler arguments. The current Iraqi crisis should not be seen as a defeat for their vision, rather as a learning experience.

One of the great strengths of the neo-conservative approach, and neo-liberalism more broadly, is its all-encompassing vision. For its proponents, trade is just one piece in a much wider jigsaw which is striking in its clarity when fully assembled. It is this vision, drawing on decades of political analysis and practice that inspires political leaders, maintains allegiance and provides strategic direction. Most importantly, the coherence and persuasive nature of the vision allows it to gain hegemony in organisations as diverse as national governments, multilateral organisations and business.

Against this all-encompassing vision, what does the movement for global change offer other than a series of brief single-issue campaigns? No wonder the achievements of the ‘victorious’ debt campaign look so minimal when the anti-debt ideals and the Jubilee organisation were allowed to fade so rapidly in 2000. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) may have been defeated but, of course, it reappears as the General Agreement on Trade and services (Gats) a few years later when the neo-liberals spy that the opposition has gone quiet.

All movements will ebb and flow but the movement for global change will keep on suffering periodic evaporation if it remains obsessed with short-term single-issue campaigns. We need a sustaining long-term vision if we are to face neo-liberals and neo-conservatives on anything like a level playing-field.

In Britain, the Fabian Society has started the process of creating this vision with the recent publication of the pamphlet Progressive Globalisation. It recognises that just as neo-liberals plunder their own classical liberal inheritance for ideas and arguments, so progressives should look back to the achievements of social democracy in challenging national inequality to shape a vision of global change.

The pamphlet argues for a campaign for global reform based on four pillars: equitable trade, democratic governance, global redistribution of wealth, and regulation of transnational business. These are ideas which have their roots in the social democratic tradition and which offer a real way forward for global campaigners to develop a stronger sense of context and vision.

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