James Goodman is an active member
of Aid/Watch and the Australian Fair Trade and Investment
Network. He teaches at the University of Technology Sydney.
In September 2000 the World Economic Forum (WEF) is holding its
'Asia-Pacific Summit' in Melbourne. Alexander Downer, who attended
the 1998 Summit, describes the Summit as the world's 'Business Olympics'.
The Summit co-organisers, the Business Council of Australia, is
Australia's leading advocate of corporate globalisation, and represents
major TNCs operating in Australia, such as BHP, Boral, Coca-Cola,
McDonald's, North Ltd, Rio Tinto, Shell and Westpac. The WEF and
the BCA will bring 800-1,000 Chief Executives of the world's transnational
corporations to the summit, which, appropriately enough, will be
held at the Melbourne Casino. There they will 'share their analysis
of the new Asia and to identify together, through intensive networking,
the opportunities for business and economic cooperation'. Having
networked in Melbourne they will proceed to Sydney to occupy their
executive suites at the Olympic sponsorship jamboree.
The WEF was born in 1971 as a yearly 'European Management
Forum' of Euro-corporates, held in Davos, Switzerland. It was funded
by the European Commission until 1987, when it became the WEF and
started to claim global reach. Its membership reflects its class
orientation, and includes the most prominent transnational corporations,
1000 of which make up the WEF 'Foundation Members'. In addition
there is a club of 'Global Growth Companies'; 300 'Industry Governors';
300 Global Leaders of Tomorrow'; 'World Economic Leaders' from both
politics and business; 'World Media Leaders' from 100 media groups;
100 'World Cultural Leaders'; and 'Forum Fellows' from academia
and the heads of national economic research organisations.
The WEF aspires to be an agenda-setting Forum. It
is, in its own modest opinion, 'the foremost global partnership
of business, political, intellectual and other leaders of society
committed to improving the state of the world'. With the diffusion
of neo-liberalism, and consequent advances in corporate globalisation
from the 1980s, the WEF has taken on an unprecedented role as a
rallying point for global elites, and as a vehicle for class power.
Clearly the WEF can't set the agenda and certainly can't determine
the outcomes - it is not a conspiratorial cabal standing over society.
Rather, it is a class grouping fully embedded in social relations,
that self-consciously takes on the role of planning for collective
class interests. It seeks to influence the political agendas and
respond to the prevailing challenges - and in this respect, as Kees
van der Pijl argues, it is the first 'true International of capital'.
The Forum has been remarkably successful - since
1971 the 'state of the world' has dramatically improved for many
of the participating corporations. WEF strategising drove the neo-liberal
agenda in the 1980's, bringing together politicians from the 'pretender'
states of the newly industrialising world, as well as from the OECD
states, to map out an agenda with transnational business executives.
It offered a proactive forum, removed from the public gaze, and
played a central role in diffusing neo-liberalism. The model was
presented as the solution to crises of accumulation experienced
in the 1970s and early 1980s, and was highly effective in extending
the reign of the market.
This success has come at the price of built-in uncertainty
and unstability. Globalised neo-liberalism had led to a dramatic
redrawing of the boundaries of capitalism. Temporal boundaries have
melted away with the speeding up of circulation; spatial boundaries
have been superceded with the growing transnational reach of corporations;
even socio-psychological boundaries have lifted, with the increased
commodification of life. A newly-empowered transnational capitalist
class has emerged triumphant, presiding over the new landscapes
of accumulation. But class hegemomy is by no means assured - uncharted
territory imposes incalculable risk. Speeding circulation compresses
business cycles, confidence rests on ephemera, ideological symbols
embody so-called 'fundamentals', speculation rules. Corporate transnationalism
exhausts social and physical environments, and the fall-out becomes
uncontainable as corporations are pincered by investor and consumer
volativities. Deeper commodification disassembles social solidarity
and generates powerful imperatives for cultural survival, often
carried through the new modes of social communication.
As a result, since at least the mid 1990s, neo-liberal
prescriptions been widely discredited. Exponential rises in executive
salaries, and in corporate accumulation, along with a dramatic concentration
of economic power across all sectors, offer clear evidence of the
success of neo-liberalism as a class strategy. But neo-liberal globalisation
has also brought unprecedented levels of global inequality, and
undreamed-of degrees of financial instability, environmental exhaustion
and social dislocation. The neo-liberal triumph has created new
sources of opposition, the impacts and responses have been unremitting,
and advocates have being forced onto the defensive. The high water
mark was 1995, when the OECD declared it was marking out a 'global
vision for the year 2020, a New Global Age'. But already a political
revival, inspired by social democratic ideas, and expressed in a
new form of social liberalism sometimes described as the 'Third
Way', was sweeping the OECD.
As neo-liberal prescriptions have unraveled, there
has been an urgent revision of the WEF's neo-liberal project. The
WEF has left behind its market fundamentalism, and now is charting
a new agenda for corporate globalism, one that embraces rather than
rejects 'the social'. The massed ranks of analysts, consultants
and advisers, from credit-ratings agencies, management consultancies,
inter-governmental institutions and non-government organisations,
have entered the fray, battling to define the new accumulation paradigm.
There are continuing efforts to enhance 'market discipline', to
suppress the advancing crises, to institutionalise transnational
class power, and render neo-liberal globalism irreversible. Yet
there is also deepening dissent amongst policy-making groups. There
is a rethinking of neo-liberalism even amongst the most elite institutions:
as Hans-Peter Martin and Herald Schuman demonstrate, many of the
most powerful players in global capitalism are questioning the 'dictatorship
of the market'. Primary advocates and beneficiaries of neo-liberal
globalism, such as George Soros and Ted Turner, both of whom had
embarked on paternalist interventions - the imaginatively branded
'Soros Foundation' and 'Turner Foundation' - began expressing sincere
regrets at the social costs of neo-liberalism. Other elements, as
van der Pijl highlights, went further and increasingly have embarked
on a rethinking explicitly 'mobilised against yesterday's prescriptions'.
These have much wider ramifications, potentially enabling 'a deepening
of democracy, a reappropriation of the public sphere by the population,
and eventually a more fundamental transformation away from class
Recent developments have only strengthened the leverage
of this dissenting segment. Institutional crises of legitimacy have
accumulated, with the OECD shelving its 'Multilateral Agreement
on Investment' in 1998, the temporary ditching of the World Trade
Organisation's 'Millenium Round' in 1999, and the advancing crisis
in the International Monetary Fund's global regime of 'structural
adjustment'. Add into the equation the continuing crisis in 'transitional'
post-communist societies, especially Russia, and the severe jolt
delivered to the 'Newly Industrialising countries' of East Asia
by financial 'contagion' in 1997-8, and the impending bursting of
the infotainment bubble, then the challenges to neo-liberalism begin
to seem irresistable. Expressing this, there have been the dramatic
public explosions against neo-liberal globalism: Geneva 1996, Cologne
1998, Seattle 1999, Washington 2000.
For the first time in many years, 'anti-capitalist'
protest has returned to the capitalist heartland, and to the global
stage. These protests open up the ideological space for the articulation
of alternative guiding principles, putting on the agenda the possibility
of transformation away from the current malaise. As the promotion
of capitalist discipline is questioned, protest targeted at the
agents of neo-liberal globalism gains remarkable political leverage.
In this political climate WEF meetings start to take on a special
significance. Since 1996 the WEF has attracted increasingly militant
opposition, and it has responded by attempting to re-chart the neo-liberal
project. The WEF response is to deliberately avoid the appearance
of backroom strategising, and instead to seek a higher public profile,
attempting to reground its legitimacy by being seen to engage with
prominent advocates of the emerging alternatives. The WEF is thus
placing itself at the centre of debates about the revision of neo-liberalism,
asserting that Davos can play 'important role in forging the new
Reflecting this, the WEF has reached out to those
'excluded' by neo-liberal globalism - notably non-OECD governments,
such as Mexico and South Africa, and critical Non-Government Organisations,
such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
At Davos in 1998 Hillary Clinton argued the role of NGOs and other
representatives of 'civil society' had to be enhanced, while John
Sweeney, from the AFL-CIO, focused on issues of distribution, arguing
markets had to 'work for the majority and not simply for the few'.
In 1999 Vice-President Al Gore appeared with Kofi Annan, who appealed
for a 'global compact' between business and the UN founded on 'core
values in the areas of human rights, labour standards, and environmental
practices'. In 2000 President Clinton shared the Millennial limelight
- somewhat blurred by Seattle - with Tony Blair. Davos policy debates
are now couched in terms of 'institutional accommodation', 'corporate
responsibility' and 'global dialogue', with sessions in 2000 on
'responsible globality', 'inclusive prosperity' and 'sustainable
development'. Perhaps most cynically, the WEF's 'World Competitiveness
Scorecard' - a yearly league-table of 'how national environments
are conducive or detrimental to the domestic and global competitiveness
of enterprises' - was supplemented by an 'Environmental Sustainability
Index' at Davos 2000. At the same time, as Jane Kelsey highlights,
a new 'World Economic Community' internet link-up between 10,000
key economic decision-makers - an internet 'hotline' for concertising
corporate responses - is being constructed.
The contest is on to establish a revised normative
and institutional framework for the global economy. The WEF is claiming
a central role in shaping the agenda, and some, such as the ICFTU,
are participants in the process, taking heart in the WEF's apparent
willingness to become an advocate of 'globalisation with a human
face'. But the key question is whether the WEF should be permitted
to drive this agenda. Should a Forum that is dominated by corporate
interests be encouraged to take on the role of mapping out future
frameworks for global governance? Should it be granted recognition
and legitimacy in this agenda-setting process? Or, rather, should
its role be challenged, and alternative sources of legitimacy be
There was a telling moment at Davos 2000 when the
assembled executives refused to vacate the conference chamber to
enable a security check before Clinton's speech. The US President's
Security Service was forced to back down after a corporate 'sit-in'.
Clinton's speech went ahead: even the President of the US has to
respect the wishes of the corporate club. Perhaps he should have
joined the 1000 protestors outside the conference venue, and joined
the democratic movement against corporate power.
There will be similar protests outside Melbourne
regional summit of the WEF in September. In 1999 the summit lobbied
for regional governments to back the coming WTO 'Millennium Round',
arguing that trade liberalisation was inevitable and needed to be
extended into 'free and fair competition, protecting intellectual
property and foreign investment'. In 2000 we can expect much rhetoric
about inclusiveness and sustainability. Just as the Melbourne Casino
poses itself as a 'family entertainment' centre, so the Melbourne
WEF meeting will be spinning the rhetoric of corporate responsibility.
There will be plenty of ironic moments and opportunities to politicise
globalised neo-liberalism. Perhaps this is what lies behind the
comment, from Melbourne's Lord Mayor, that the Forum will be a 'huge
opportunity for the city'.
Information on the anti-WEF protest is available
Sources: Kelsey, Jane, 2000, Reclaiming the Future,
Bridget Williams Books, Wellington;
Martin, Hans-Peter and Schumann, Harald, 1997, The Global Trap,
Kees van der Pijl, 1998, Transnational classes and international
relations, Routledge, London.
James Goodman, Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences, University of
Technology Sydney (UTS), PO Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007, Australia,
Tel: 9514 2714, Fax: 9514 2332, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org