Summit of the Americas protest ratchets up a notch
April 20, 2001 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Summit of the Americas protest ratchets up a notch Have these accomplished anything?
posted by owillis (107 comments total)
Holy, these protesters have accomplished little, if anything, save the sight of their own faces plastered on our TV screens. (ALERT: Corporate apologist post). Just like the clowns in Seattle for WTO, these protesters appear to be largely brainless buffoons who feel a need to rail against...what? Capitalism? Corporations? Freedom? Democracy? They imagine conspiracies where there are none and hold as "evil" the very values that have created the greatest society on earth. Admit it: there's probably not a one of them who hasn't benefited from, or professed allegiance to in some form, the very corporations, freedoms, and structures that they are protesting. Don't get me wrong, though - I have no qualms at all with the fact that they have the right to protest.
posted by davidmsc at 12:50 PM on April 20, 2001

Throwing hockey pucks!? I wonder how many protesters are wearing their hockey pads. They should just start a game. Then everyone could throw fish.
posted by roboto at 12:59 PM on April 20, 2001

Have these accomplished anything?

Will these protests accomplish anything? I don't think a definitive answer can be given at this point. Anyone who says confidently that they won't accomplish anything is probably a little too steeped in his own dogmatism, hence not worth responding to.

One thing is fairly predictable: the Reuters headlines will continue to read "Bush Seeks to Build 'Hemisphere of Liberty'" rather than "Protestors Seek to Build 'Hemisphere of Liberty'. You see, "liberty" means "freedom from environmental regulations" (etc) rather than "freedom from intellectual property barriers" (etc).
posted by johnb at 1:02 PM on April 20, 2001

The MSNBC relay of the CBC feed with Ashley Banfield is way better than the CNN feed. No one at CNN seems to know what's going on at ground zero. Banfield, being a Canadian herself, is doing a great job and asking the right questions of people who are at ground zero. Also kudos to Lester Holt, her co-host.

(Just reacting to multiple feeds. This is not an endorsement to any corporate media entity.)
posted by tamim at 1:04 PM on April 20, 2001

Admit it: there's probably not a one of them who hasn't benefited from, or professed allegiance to in some form, the very corporations, freedoms, and structures that they are protesting.

Well, sure. Does that fact then obligate those of us in the West -- in the United States in particular -- to shut up about making life better for people who aren't benefiting? To pick a ridiculously extreme example, if I'm an American in 1954 when the CIA is overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Guatemala at the behest of the United Fruit Company, should I just shut my yap and think of forthcoming delicious, cheap bananas?

They should just start a game. Then everyone could throw fish.

Octipii, dude.
posted by snarkout at 1:05 PM on April 20, 2001

I thought the WTO protests were mostly way ridiculous until the 2000 election, during which I saw Republicans being engaging in similarly irksome behavior in front of the Supreme Court building. No, they weren't being violent -- OK, in earlier cases in Florida they just about were -- but they were all shouting, "Go Fox News! Go Fox News!" Mass, outdoor protests aimed at a television audience may just be, by their very nature, prone to bring out the most annoying facets of human nature. Fox News had as much to do with what was . . . well, it had much to do with the elections, just not in a way that should have led anyone to scream, "Go Fox News!" as if at some bizarro corporate media football game.
posted by raysmj at 1:07 PM on April 20, 2001

I'm watching MSNBC too. My peeve is the people who are spokespersons for the protest groups turning a blind eye to the protestors actions...
posted by owillis at 1:09 PM on April 20, 2001

Re: They imagine conspiracies where there are none and hold as "evil" the very values that have created the greatest society on earth.

What criteria is used to determine what the greatest society on earth is? What are those values that led to this creation? This feels like empty rhetoric.
posted by maller at 1:10 PM on April 20, 2001

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy President Mark Ritchie commented:

"Making this FTAA chapter on investment public on the world wide web is a small but real next step in the long process of bringing democracy and transparency to trade negotiations. It is unfortunate that most governments have not yet come to see the wisdom of being open with their citizens on policy proposals that could profoundly affect all of daily life. We hope that the rest of the secret text will be released by governments today or tomorrow so citizens and taxpayers can see what is being proposed in our name. Until now only corporate advisors to the negotiators have participated in the negotiation of this text, and even members of the U.S. Congress have had only conditioned access to these documents and have been prohibited from taking notes or making copies. “

The secrecy of WTO etc. was/is a major complaint of the protestors. This might be claimed as a miniscule victory. That is, it would seem so to me if I could understand the investment document, or if we could do anything about what it says.
posted by mblandi at 1:10 PM on April 20, 2001

snarkout: Does that fact then obligate those of us in the West -- in the United States in particular -- to shut up about making life better for people who aren't benefiting?
Ah, but notice how I heartily endorsed their right to protest -- not once did I make any reference to the protesters "shut(ting) up." Again, I re-iterate my support for the right to protest. In fact, they can protest as much as they want - but wouldn't it be great if they could do it without violence, threats of violence, criminal activity, and mass chaos?
posted by davidmsc at 1:14 PM on April 20, 2001

OK, Maller, I'll bite: what criteria do you use to evaluate how great a society is? I use freedom, health, technology, opportunity, democracy, rule of law, recreation, freedom, longevity, liberty, capitalism, culture, creativity, growth, freedom, and others. Oh, and did I mention freedom? No "empty rhetoric" here - simple recitation of facts.
posted by davidmsc at 1:19 PM on April 20, 2001

It would be great.

But then they wouldn't get on National Corporate News because no one would care and no one would pay attention.

They rely on the corporate media just as much as they protest against it.
posted by mkn at 1:21 PM on April 20, 2001

David, I'm not saying you suggested that protesters be muzzled; it's just that the tone of your post suggests that, as Westerners have benefited from globalization, they shouldn't be protesting excesses:
there's probably not a one of them who hasn't benefited from...the very corporations, freedoms, and structures that they are protesting.

To which I say again: Well, sure. What's your point? That corporations and globalization benefit some people? That they're not pure, unmitigated evil? I think most of us -- and I'll grant that some protestors may not fall into this category -- admit these things.
posted by snarkout at 1:23 PM on April 20, 2001

Snarkout: Agreed & point taken. I did not mean to imply that anyone who has received Good from globalization should not protest; I simply see so very little to protest about. I mean, how can anyone be against "free trade?" I don't mean that question as anything other than an honest question - no sneering or righteousness implied. The goal of this summit is to expand free trade, which benefits all of the Americas - right? What's not to love? Business gets to expand, shareholders rejoice, new markets open, those less fortunate have greater access to jobs, goods, etc. I am genuinely baffled as to WHY anyone would protest this, especially via violence.
posted by davidmsc at 1:38 PM on April 20, 2001

I'm always amused by these tools/fools who think that endorsement of the status quo somehow makes them "pro free trade" or "libertarian". America, you want a free market? Then how about:

1) unilaterally removing all trade barriers (and leaving the rest of the world alone)
2) introducing genuine "rugged individualism": i.e., dismantle the corporate protectionism built into corporate charter (limited liability etc)

Consider it a dare.

Of course, these trade agreements aren't about free trade. They're about power protecting power.
posted by johnb at 1:40 PM on April 20, 2001

these protesters appear to be largely brainless buffoons...[who] hold as "evil" the very values that have created the greatest society on earth...

Which values are those? Imperialism? Some Darwinistic "fuck 'em if they can't hold their own" mentality? I'm playing a bit of devil's advocate here, since I have my own issues with the validity of the protests, but to dismiss the protesters because they have "benefitted from" a corrupt (in their view) system is to totally ignore what they're saying. <snark>It's very kind of you to recognize they're right to protest</snark>, but to dismiss them out of hand, under the guise of "discussing" the issues is less than fair.
posted by jpoulos at 1:40 PM on April 20, 2001

They're about power protecting power.
How so? Specifics, please. It's very hard to find out exactly what people are angry about here.
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:44 PM on April 20, 2001


Now there's a word that means pretty much nothing in America today. Freedom to what? Freedom from what? Bandying about such meaningless catch-phrases just goes to prove the fact that Americans are quite possibly the least-educated, least-sophisticated thinkers on the planet.

In America, sure, one can argue that one is free to speak (provided he has access to media, which increasingly is not the case); but what about quality health care? quality eduacation? a clean environment? a living wage? The freedom you speak of is accessible if you have money. That ain't freedom. That's privilege.
posted by mapalm at 1:45 PM on April 20, 2001

Re: free speech
You are posting on the internet on a very popular site. How many people wil read your comment?
Or do you just feel you have the right to get on TV if you have something to say?

Re: freedom v. privilige
Since you have not defined freedom either, though, the second paragraph of your post doesn't mean much.
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:49 PM on April 20, 2001

I don't mean that question as anything other than an honest question - no sneering or righteousness implied. The goal of this summit is to expand free trade, which benefits all of the Americas - right?

David, I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but my chief objection to free trade agreements tend to be focused on legitimate safety, labor, and environmental concerns that get trumped, leading to a race to the bottom. See the recent Mefi discussion about the WTO and Mexican trucking, if you're interested; I think it had some pretty good back and forth from both sides.

(FWIW, on one of the qualities on your list, longevity, the U.S. doesn't stack up terribly well against Western Europe or Japan, particularly if you're using disability-adjusted lifespans.)
posted by snarkout at 1:52 PM on April 20, 2001

OK, you go ahead and keep your nose in your programming manuals, stock reports, and comic books and let your good friends at Nike and the World Water Council sort out all these nasty protestors...
posted by badstone at 1:56 PM on April 20, 2001

My contention is that the most powerful tools for reaching the broadest number of people are controlled by a very small number of corporations. The fact that I am free to post on MeFi cannot be compared to the juggernaut that is News Corp or Viacom.

As for freedom, it just gets a little boring to hear how America has so many "freedoms": I'm just trying to advocate a bit more of a sophisticated dialogue.
posted by mapalm at 1:58 PM on April 20, 2001

The secrecy of WTO etc. was/is a major complaint of the protestors.

That's the thing, though. While there is a contingent there of people who at least have an arguably-legitimate point of view about WTO/WTAA problems, overall there is no major complaint of these people, only protesting for protesting's sake. These protests are agglomerations of all sorts of ragtag groups, who only can agree on a lot of protesting and a dislike of The Man, whatever that might be to each of them. They all get together and create coldly calculated activities, planned as far ahead as the events they are protesting, that reek only of Being Anti. All of this makes it very hard for the average person to look upon it as anything but a big-ass media event.

And they can't even agree on the activities. The Quebec protests have intentionally split into three distinct groups: The ones who are protesting legitimately, the ones that want to intentionally create disobedience "within reason," and an "anything goes" contingent that really wants to wreak havoc. (There was a news article about this intentional split somewhere in the last week or so, but I misplaced it. A link would be appreciated.)
posted by aaron at 2:01 PM on April 20, 2001

Well, what would you propose as an alternative system for free speech?
It is my contention that, because of the internet, more people have a louder voice than ever before in human history. Because of private-key encryption, we have more control over who our words reach, without fear of interception.
TV may be getting less democratic. But TV as it stands will likely be lumped with ham radio as an outdated communications method within our lifetime.

As for people harping on america's freedom, yes, it can get tiresome :) But I think free speech is one right that america excellently protects and promotes.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:12 PM on April 20, 2001

I found the article I was referring to: How To Plan Chaos, from this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine. (Registration-free link, have fun!)
posted by aaron at 2:13 PM on April 20, 2001

Hey, when it comes to making life difficult for multinational corporations, I'm all for "anything goes." Why the hell not? Or is it better to stay home and watch it all unfold courtesy of Time Warner?
posted by mapalm at 2:14 PM on April 20, 2001

It's very hard to find out exactly what people are angry about here.

Good lord, what nonsense. For anyone who frequents metafilter, it's exactly as hard as typing "" into a browser.
posted by sudama at 2:14 PM on April 20, 2001

If you're going to watch corporate media's skew on the protests, then you're going to walk away from the TV set thinking that the protestors have nothing to say. This is big media's circus tent, and they can spin the whole thing any damn way they want. Take a wild guess which way it's going to go.

Another problem with protesting is that this an incredibly complex issue that can't just be yelled out of a bullhorn.

This one's for all the people who are claiming that the anti-FTAA have "nothing" to protest about ...


More about the FTAA

FTAA text released (can't get to this link myself, their server appears to be bogged down)

PS: The U.S. is a "republic", not a "democracy".
posted by user92371 at 2:18 PM on April 20, 2001

No one said there was freedom of mass speech, mapalm. Freedom is an empty heart-string puller lately though.

Aaron, I feel the same thing about the "movement" there. I can only get a bit here and there, nothing fleshy, but on the other hand, I can't get any real descriptions of how free-trade is really good for humanity. I was not educated in Economics or Political Science though. Anybody?

I am currently browsing this though, specifically stuff about the investor state, to read about the legitimate protestors' view.
posted by mblandi at 2:20 PM on April 20, 2001

Absolutely. We have tremendous freedom to exchange ideas and debate via the internet. Fabulous. But TV is still the master of the media, and it ain't going anywhere soon.

Fortunately more and more people are scratching their heads and saying, "Hey, wait a minute: I work my ass off, make a piddling wage, have no health insurance...something is wrong." But are these voices heard on the airwaves? No, because they are voices that challenge the assumptions of the corporate culture that owns the media outlets. And that goes back to the whole "freedom of speech" facade.
posted by mapalm at 2:22 PM on April 20, 2001

Hey, when it comes to making life difficult for multinational corporations, I'm all for "anything goes." Why the hell not?

Intentional property destruction and physical violence against innocent people is fine because multinational corporations exist?
posted by aaron at 2:25 PM on April 20, 2001

The protesters are against large companies shifting jobs from western countries to Third World one where they can pay slave wages.
I was at a free concert in San Francisco put on to highlight how big the prison industrial complex has become. Not a mention in any newspaper or TV news but when 200 people show up to hear an Al Gore speech it is on every major network.
The problem the protestors have is a lack of organization when it comes to getting the message out. Oh, yeah, and the few hooligans who manage to work they're way into their ranks.
posted by keithl at 2:27 PM on April 20, 2001

I've become a bit of an (admittedly far too dispassionate) student of this whole globalization / protest phenomenon over the past couple of years, and the following are all arguments that seem to be proferred constantly by the naysayers. All of them seem like pretty foolish and faulty excuses for inaction to me.

1. The "these people are protesting the very things they benefit from" argument.

So what? Nobody in Western society can claim to not benefit from or even enjoy many of the fruits of our consumer / free market setup. But that doesn't mean that we can't see the faults and inequities in the system and try to get them corrected. Why not try to have the best of both worlds, prosperity, but without the abuses and wrongs?

2. The "these protestors lack specificity, or unity or whatever" argument.

Well, in this era, I think that is now a given. This isn't Vietnam or the civil rights marches. Nothing is that clear-cut black/white anymore. However there are a lot of insiduous and interwoven problems, and many of them do relate to globalization, multinationals, the market economy being lionized above all else, and so on. So, all of these fractious groups with different issues related to that are coming together to try to get something done. What's wrong with that?

3. The "paranoid conspiracy theorists" argument.

I don't think I, or many informed people, really think that this is due to some vast, calculated elite conspiracy. It's just slowly developed to forces in the markets(shareholder earnings pressure, competition, etc), negligence, zero-sum, short-term thinking, and outright greed, among many other things.

4. The "free trade = more liberty" argument.

Bunk. More liberty for the rich and the multinationals, while the great majority of people, as well as the environment, suffer due to the lack of regulations to protect them.

5. The "protestors are all thugs looking to cause trouble and destruction and little else" argument.

Also bunk. Sure, there are bad apples and extremists, but they seem to be the vast minority. They just get the most attention because violence and destruction makes for good news ratings.

6. The "protesting isn't accomplishing anything" argument.

Well, we're talking about it, aren't we? This stuff is on the news, isn't it? At least they are managing to get some awareness of these issues out there to lots of people who had little or none before. Now, whether that translates to action or change remains to be seen, but it's at least a start, no?
posted by jdunn_entropy at 2:29 PM on April 20, 2001

My thought is this: if so many people are against FTAA, NAFTA, WTO, etc - why are they not electing officials that are sympathetic? I do think that shaking up the system from inside would do much more for their various agendas...
posted by owillis at 2:36 PM on April 20, 2001

Major Complaint - the WTO has the power to overturn laws passed by our elected officials and we can't do jack about it. How's that for beef?
posted by roboto at 2:36 PM on April 20, 2001

...why are they not electing officials that are sympathetic?

How many such candidates are getting the backing to run for office?
posted by harmful at 2:39 PM on April 20, 2001

Don't see many officials against it to choose from, Owillis, except Nader, who actually dared speak about it. And while the media is talking about the continents of sweet liberty, who could be against that?
posted by mblandi at 2:41 PM on April 20, 2001

Preventing corps from moving jobs to "slave wage" countries ignores the fact that this is exactly how to raise the standard of living in those countries. Look at the history of the U.S. Wages here used to be miniscule and working conditions were atrocious. But over time, things became better.

The same will happen to 3rd world countries with the advent of free trade. Look at how the economic picture in Korea or Mexico has improved. Believe me, those people want to have those jobs and their "slave wages."

These anti-capitalists are nothing more than economic luddites. Free trade will only help bring people up. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen. Without free trade, those folks are stuck in the hand-to-mouth existence they currently "enjoy".
posted by CRS at 2:41 PM on April 20, 2001

but they seem to be the vast minority.

A vast minority is far more than enough to destroy the effectiveness of the entire thing, especially when the rest of the protesters are explicitly working with that minority. (See the NYTimes article I linked above.)

Well, we're talking about it, aren't we? This stuff is on the news, isn't it?

It only came on the news when the violence started. And that's all most people are going to see: A bunch of rioters intent on impeding the activities of democratically-elected leaders. Thugs with the balls to cry "democracy!" while actually using mobs to attempt to force their minority viewpoints onto everybody else. You may not agree that's what the protests are, but that's exactly how the average person is going to interpret them when they see the pictures on TV.
posted by aaron at 2:45 PM on April 20, 2001

owillis -- While I agree with you that 'working from the inside' can be very effective, I suspect there's a lack of choice for elected officials who reflect an anti-free trade stance. And, well, while I and many others do find folks to vote for who reflect these views, it's my observation that the average voter (what few there are nowadays) will innately ignore complicated issues such as this one in favour of knee-jerk promises like tax cuts, etc. Hence these protests, one of the few ways that a disenfranchised voice from outside of 'the establishment' can be heard.
posted by jess at 2:46 PM on April 20, 2001

Major Complaint - the WTO has the power to overturn laws passed by our elected officials and we can't do jack about it.

The WTO cannot take effect in a given country unless the democratically-elected leaders ratify it. And a given country could pull out anytime it wanted to do so.
posted by aaron at 2:49 PM on April 20, 2001

And at no point, Aaron, do you consider that those images are being shown for the very reason you mention? That the people relating the news to us have the most to lose by all of this? And that maybe there is no incentive for a news outlet to make these protests seem like anything more than "thugs" rioting?
posted by Doug at 2:49 PM on April 20, 2001

CRS, congrats on rehearsing the neolib talking points. But when we "look at the history of US wages" we find labor mobility as well as capital mobility. (Both are included in the definition of free trade.) Doesn't anyone read Adam Smith anymore?
posted by johnb at 2:53 PM on April 20, 2001

Look at the history of the U.S. Wages here used to be miniscule and working conditions were atrocious. But over time, things became better.

I love it!! Over time.... The working conditions we all enjoy today (40 hour week, minimum wage, somewhat safe working conditions) were won by labor unions fighting for those rights, as corporations in turn fought tooth and nail to prevent them. And it is labor unions that suffer under "free trade" agreements. We're doing the poor of the third world a favor by allowing them to sew our shoes for a dollar a day? I think we can do better.
posted by mapalm at 3:01 PM on April 20, 2001

You mean by funneling cash to corrupt leaders? I do think that "dollar a day" is a lot better than what they were getting before...
posted by owillis at 3:07 PM on April 20, 2001

Doug, I'm only speaking in terms of getting the point across, and saying that IMHO it's not working. Once a protest becomes violent, the protesters' moral argument is lost. It's the worst thing they could do in terms of getting positive coverage of their message.

But, as someone who has worked in network news, I have no trouble saying you're dead wrong when you claim "the people relating the news to us have the most to lose by all of this." Many there are actually sympathetic to these people at one level or another, but at no point do they ever sit around and think, "Gee, one day these people could be a threat to our livelihood. Let's make them look as bad as possible!"

I do agree there's no incentive for them to show anything but rioting, but I think that's because there is no one message at these events. When there's too many protesters advocating too many things in too many ways, it's inevitable they'll only be seen as a mass mob causing trouble.
posted by aaron at 3:07 PM on April 20, 2001

Intentional property destruction and physical violence against innocent people is fine because multinational corporations exist?

Sometimes the end justifies the means. That's how the other side sees it, yes?

...that's all most people are going to see: A bunch of rioters intent on impeding the activities of democratically-elected leaders. Thugs with the balls to cry "democracy!" while actually using mobs to attempt to force their minority viewpoints onto everybody else.

On the one hand, yes, that's going to happen. On the other hand, Seattle upped the stakes, suggesting that the thugs were the ones in uniform, and that the WTO was the one trying to hide behind the riot screens. And Seattle proved the rallying call for Prague, and Prague for Québec City.

And you're right that violence is sometimes self-defeating: people will remember the Whitehall demonstrations last year in London for the spray-painting of Churchill's statue and (idiotically) the Cenotaph. But in spite of this mixed message, it still manages to inspire people to protest at the next event. So it's obviously remaining a mixed message, in spite of the desire of the media to turn it into a nice, simple 30-second slot on the evening news.

My point: revolutionary movements aren't lobby groups. They don't need a media-friendly message, because the revolution will not be televised.

(Oh: "Democratically-elected leaders"? You can't say that with a straight face, surely? As so many people say, the USA is a republic, not a democracy; and GWB is undoubtedly a republically[sic]-elected leader, given that democracy had precious little to do with it.)
posted by holgate at 3:31 PM on April 20, 2001

johnb: Do you realize that Canadian timber, most of which is sold by the government, threatens small land owner in the U.S. due to the fact that Canadian timber is sold for so much less? Not sure about the whole picture, but I've read this enough for it to be worrisome. But you want the U.S. to really try free trade, and stop messing with the rest of the world, whatever that means? You mean, get rid of all regulations? Where on Earth do you live? A vacuum? Hope someone close to you has a finger ripped off while working on the job. We'll just see how the free market takes care of that all on its own.
posted by raysmj at 3:33 PM on April 20, 2001

holgate: I ask again. What has it accomplished? Bored college kids getting angry and indignant about a system? Great. Then why the hell doesn't one or more of them run for congress and get on the floor of the Senate and really make change? Surely more effective than hurling rocks at people (yes, police are people working just like you or I)...
posted by owillis at 3:46 PM on April 20, 2001

owliss: I mentioned this earlier, but probably too early for anyone to pay attention, so . . . again, did anyone say this about the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged, mostly Republican protestors in both Miami and D.C. after the 2000 elections? I was more amused than angered by the protests in front of the Supreme Court, but "get a life, already" was definitely emitted from my head a time (via mouth or cartoon bubble or what have you) or two or three or four while watching coverage on C-SPAN. Would you have asked these people to run for Congress? No, because in a democracy, no one is required to do so. And only 535 people are elected to Congress anyhow.

Yes, some of the above protestors were probably working for parties at the local level. Some were probably officials themselves. But many of these WTO protestor types are in activist groups, or environmental groups or what have you. It's probably the nature of public protests that brings out the goofiness. Then one must keep in mind that the WTO protestors are generally younger.
posted by raysmj at 3:57 PM on April 20, 2001

owillis: Ten years ago, in the aftermath of the brand-name 80s, no-one was really thinking in the mainstream about the means of production (and yes, the Marxist term is quite deliberate). Now, in the aftermath of BSE and foot and mouth in the UK, there's a serious debate about intensive farming methods; in the aftermath of the exposés of Nike and Gap, or the impending abandonment of the US by Converse, people are talking about the localisation of production.

All of this has happened in the last half-dozen years.

If a more informed consumer choice is the watered-down high street fashion, as a result of the protestor's haute couture, it's a victory.

Think Zapatista.

Then why the hell doesn't one or more of them run for congress and get on the floor of the Senate and really make change?


"If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it."

Being elected -- in essence, sacrificing your beliefs to the party machine -- is the best way to kill a career of political activism. A friend of mine who took part in student protests in his teens is standing for Parliament in the forthcoming election: it's a very depressing sight.
posted by holgate at 4:06 PM on April 20, 2001

raysmj, you may have misread me. What I'm saying is that if we are going to live in a society governed by "rugged individualism" (as the rightists allegedly want us to), then individual shareholders should be held responsible for corporate malfeasance. Laws that protect shareholders from liability are a form of corporate welfare that self-styled "liberarians" often overlook in their tirades against intrusive government.
(more here)

So my target is right-wing hypocrisy, not the worker and environmental protections which define a civilized society.

And in response to sonofsamiam earlier, NAFTA and similar agreements are really only ways of locking in corporate protectionism, in the form of restrictions on intellectual property etc (see South African generic AIDS drugs issue), under the false guise of "free trade". I encourage anyone to actually read the text of NAFTA before spilling more rubbish about the "wonders of free trade".
posted by johnb at 4:16 PM on April 20, 2001

Sudama: Whew! Thanks for the link - now I know exactly what the protesters are protesting against - Capitalism! Sorry, but with the words "Anti-Capitalist Convergence" on the main page, this is "Game Over." People who protest against Capitalism are, quite simply, either ill-informed, stupid, corrupt, short-sighted, wrong, evil, or even more likely, ignorant of what capitalism is, what it represents, and how it is the genius behind so very much of what is right with the world we live in. It is the engine that has transformed the world and given us these many gifts that we treasure (including MeFi, people). Again, they can protest all they want -- but now that they have "defined" their issue, they have no credibility. And the violence is inexcusable, period. And "freedom" is not a meaningless word - to those who understand what it is.
posted by davidmsc at 4:29 PM on April 20, 2001

Sudama: We have a RIGHT to freedom of speech, but the other things that you spoke of - quality healthcare, quality education, living wage, etc - sorry, but there is no "right" to these things. They are not "privileges." They are things that must be EARNED. The only way that we could make them a "right" would be to bankrupt the entire nation/world in a foolish attempt to sacrifice the producers (those willing to EARN and WORK) for the benefit of those who are unwilling to do so. See - that's what freedom is all about - in America, virtually anyone is FREE to change his/her circumstances. Don't like your job? Get a different one. Want to improve your station? Go to college, learn a trade. Want to drop out and live in a shack in Montana? Go for it. Want to utilize all of this incredible technology and post on MeFi? Go ahead. Freedom + capitalism = Greatest Society On Earth.
posted by davidmsc at 4:31 PM on April 20, 2001

These and other protests are absolutely fundamental, and they are definitely accomplishing something. The underlying point of much of the protest - no matter that it's often poorly annunciated - is that with all the talk of "free trade" and such, what's happening is a profound dis-connection of trade and economics from politics and the political rights and freedoms of the people.

Americans above all should understand this, because although the world is a very different place, it's that very disconnect - the chasm opened by a regime's attempt to disconnect economic and trade policy from the political will of people on the ground - that was a big part of the US Revolution. No taxation without representation, the Boston Tea Party, the undue tarrifs imposed by Britain back then - that's what a big part of that was about.

So it's a total mystery to me that current regimes think they can do just that - ignore the political and just implement trade policies.

Let's take this down to a what if. What if due to trade treaties, the US HAD to institute a government-funded single-payer healthcare system? That would be outrageous to most Americans, even those who thought it was a better system! But in a case like that, narrow trade rules would be seen (correctly) to be unduly influencing something that is properly in the domain of politics, a broader issue than simple economics.

Well the same thing is happening on other issues here under NAFTA, and will only increase under FTAA if it is allowed to go forward without fundamental changes. Trade treaties are forcing important political changes that expressly go against the stated (in elections) will of voters. It's outrageous, and the protesters understand this disconnect in a fundamental way. It almost seems instinctual for many - "I don't know what exactly it is, but it smells." And they act on it.
posted by mikel at 4:46 PM on April 20, 2001

I am at this point in no manner able to take a position, but I had read earlier in the day that (not referring to the protests or meetings) that Capiltalism killed killed off Communism and now Capitalism will kill off Democracy.
that stopped me in my tracks.
posted by Postroad at 4:49 PM on April 20, 2001

We have a RIGHT to freedom of speech, but the other things that you spoke of - quality healthcare, quality education, living wage, etc - sorry, but there is no "right" to these things. They are not "privileges." They are things that must be EARNED.

That's a matter of opinion: after all, much of the civilised world takes precisely the opposite position, guaranteeing access to education, healthcare and other living standards long before speech enters the equation. And Stanley Fish would argue with you on the latter. And what many of the protesters in Québec City object to is the attempt to impose such inverted notions of "rights" on the rest of the world.

in America, virtually anyone is FREE to change his/her circumstances.

"virtually" is the chasm between theory and practice.

(And if you didn't sound so rabid, I'd have you down for a troll.)
posted by holgate at 4:55 PM on April 20, 2001

davidmsc reminds me of one of those panglossian "New Economy" evangelists at the peak of the bubble -- you know, the ones who are now blaming Greenspan for their own lack of investing acumen. Nasdaq 5000 woohoo! ...erm, whoops :/
posted by johnb at 5:22 PM on April 20, 2001

Nader was not so much anti-corporation as he was for restrictions to keep corporations from becoming the conolling groups for our political figures through giving large amounts of money in various guises and in suporting lobby groups to ensure that they got what they wanted from government.

I may be wrong on this but I don't recall any specifics he offered to put into place to bring about control over this corporation takeover.
posted by Postroad at 6:18 PM on April 20, 2001

re: media coverage. I wonder how many papers will use this image tomorrow, as opposed to ones using variations on this one?
posted by holgate at 6:26 PM on April 20, 2001

holgate: The Stanley Fish thing is nearly incoherent (and not even fun incoherent with a kernel of truth in there that makes you to photocopy it and hang it over the computer, etc.) and not the sort of thing which is going to win you over with your opponent here. Which, I don't know, maybe you think you are not going to win the opponent over, so go for it. In any case, I'm surprised the Columbia Journalism Review, usually a stellar publication, printed that tripe. It just gave me a headache.

Also, the one thing not treated as a fundamental right -- in the sense of "something any decent society should provide its citizens," rather than "something owed to me as a human being" -- here in America that is treated so elsewhere is health care. It seems unjust and sad to me that we have not made it around to that point, but other nations keep changing the terms of the health care "right." Why? No one's figured out how to provide it at a reasonable price all the time. It's the nature of the health care business. Holgate, it really does depend upon what you mean by "right." (This is all Fish's paragraph comes down to, which is what makes it so boring. He presents the blase as a mind-blowing revelation.)
posted by raysmj at 6:51 PM on April 20, 2001

raysmj, how about this interview, which avoids the theoretical compression of the CJR summary:

Free speech is what's left over when you have determined which forms of speech cannot be permitted to flourish. The "free speech zone" emerges against the background of what has been excluded. Everyone begins by assuming what shouldn't be said; otherwise there would be no point to saying anything.

In short, "fundamental" rights are contextual. We're allowed to disagree on them, because we start from different speaking points. There's a perennial debate over the limits of free speech -- in fact, by calling it "protected speech", you acknowledge that it's limited, ringfenced -- and there's a perennial debate over the right to welfare, healthcare, and other social commitments of the state along similar terms.

Anyway, here's a link to a FT review of Adair Turner's book on European and US capitalism. Salient quote:

...countries can achieve economic success with very different tax and spending policies and very different approaches to regulation. He notes, for example, that the Dutch economy performed better than that of the US or the UK during the 1990s. Yet government revenues amount to 44 per cent of gross domestic product - against 31 per cent in the US; the top marginal income tax rate is above 50 per cent; trade unions are strong; and some labour market rules go beyond what is required by the European Social Chapter.

And that's within the context of the EU, that alleged bastion of political homogenisation.
posted by holgate at 7:25 PM on April 20, 2001

Stanley Fish always seemed to me to be (for lack of a better term) an idiot. Terry Eagleton's hilarious review of Fish's "The Trouble with Principle" pretty much nails it:

"It is one of the minor symptoms of the mental decline of the United States that Stanley Fish is thought to be on the Left. By some of his compatriots, anyway, and no doubt by himself. In a nation so politically addled that 'liberal' can mean 'state interventionist' and 'libertarianism' letting the poor die on the streets, this is perhaps not wholly unpredictable.

Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump. Indeed, he is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervour with which others peddle second-hand Hoovers. Unlike today's corporate executive, however, who has scrupulously acquired the rhetoric of consensus and multiculturalism, Fish is an old-style, free-booting captain of industry who has no intention of clasping both of your hands earnestly in his and asking whether you feel comfortable with being fired...." more here.

So many good lines, it's like shooting Fish in a barrel.
posted by johnb at 7:26 PM on April 20, 2001

Holgate: I disagree that what is a right & what is not a right is a "matter of opinion; according to the US Constitution, we do not have the right to education, healthcare, etc.

And re: in America, virtually anyone is FREE to change his/her circumstances. "virtually" is the chasm between theory and practice: Agreed; there is a chasm between theory and action. Those who act, will usually gain what they seek. Those who can not move from theory to action will usually not gain what they seek. In this regard, and relating this back to the protesters, much as I despise their aims, I salute their commitment to their cause and their willingness to ACT on their beliefs.

Finally, johnb, I'm no panglossian and have a very meager sum invested in the market; I cheered when it went up, have held firm on the downside, and blame no one for any losses that I have incurred.

ALSO: I'm relatively new to MeFi and am not trying to inflame; what is the "troll" reference? I apologize if I have violated a MeFi rule. Enlightenment, please...?
posted by davidmsc at 7:50 PM on April 20, 2001

davidmsc: The definition of 'troll', from the Jargon File.
posted by darukaru at 7:56 PM on April 20, 2001

holgate: More precise on my part would be to say that free speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble, etc., are not *material* rights. I think people, regardless of what's in their Constitution or not, or the terms of their debate about such matter, would agree that people see the "right to free speech" and "the right to free healthcare" very differently. If I'm starving, I would still want to be able to say something to someone about it, in other words. But of course I'd do so because of increased expectations. If I had been starving all along, I might just say nothing, according to most psychological theory. Which I think relates to what is going on here -- increased expectations, material expectations and an expectation that leaders will be fair with people. And these expectations could be ignored at the peril of the leaders involved.
posted by raysmj at 8:27 PM on April 20, 2001

Have these accomplished anything?

Umm... makes for great pictures?

But seriously considering the cocoon most world leaders live in a little trouble getting to the dinner meeting might not be a bad thing.

On a lighter note, Canadians sound funny.
posted by redleaf at 8:42 PM on April 20, 2001

Having experienced a bit of Tear Gas myself I respect and greatly admire anyone protesting these days. The fact that violent protestors are mixed up with those trying to doing things peacefully is a frustrating reality.

One of the more disturbing events to me recently is the massive dust storm that made it's way from Mongolia to the US. It is a clear signal that you can't ignore rampant poluting just because it's not close to home. This world is a small world after all.

If industrialization spreads without enforcement of environmental protections, we are headed for disaster. All the chest-thumping about the virtues of capitalism, freedom, etc. are rendered quite moot if the planet can't sustain human life.

Finally, since I like to include quotes so much in my posts...

"Everything in the world may be endured except continued prosperity." -Goethe
posted by john at 9:09 PM on April 20, 2001

johnb: well, both Fish and Eagleton (and their mutual loathing) have been brilliantly caricatured by David Lodge, so I won't add to it. (And yes, from personal experience of both academics, Fish is Maurice Zapp as much as Eagleton is Philip Swallow.)

davidmsc: sorry for snappiness. I'm just increasingly cynical about the ability of people to get what they deserve out of society, particularly that of the US which promises so much to the aspiring individual and delivers in such a scattergun fashion.

raysmj: I think people, regardless of what's in their Constitution or not, or the terms of their debate about such matter, would agree that people see the "right to free speech" and "the right to free healthcare" very differently.

I think you're putting words into my mouth here: I didn't say "free healthcare", because I'm not going to fall into the ol' "free software" trap of equating "free as in speech" with "free as in beer". It's not a question of cost, but of social principles.

The debate, ultimately, goes back to the late 1600s, and John Locke's statement of the individual's rights within society in terms of "Life, Liberty and Property". And the debate on healthcare comes under the category of "Life", just as the debate on speech and guns comes under the category of "Liberty" and the debate on taxation under "Property".

Fish's point is that the US Constitution is a rhetorical location, a perspective; and to argue the pre-eminence of one perspective is essentially to deny the perspectival philosophy -- Locke's acknowledgement that societies give different emphasis to different elements of that triptych -- which underwrites the Constitution. It's not the bloody Bible.

Anyway, as johnb suggested, for a little heavy reading on what this "capitalism" thing is, or ought to be, you could do a lot worse than read Adam Smith. And it makes you wonder whether "global capitalism" has much to do with society at all.
posted by holgate at 9:19 PM on April 20, 2001

Less theoretically: john, did you see the piece on the great freeze which is threatening to wipe out the nomadic communities of Mongolia?
posted by holgate at 9:20 PM on April 20, 2001

Sounds ominous holgate. I depise Realplayer, so I couldn't view the story. I'll try and find it in a different version.
posted by john at 9:37 PM on April 20, 2001

holgate: Then there's Locke's notion of the right of a community to take wasted property for its own use, an idea nearly always ignored by those enamored of Locke's theories regarding property rights. He never developed a practical theory regarding how a community would go about confiscating such property (and then the whole money thing got into the way -- actually, he knew it would, but that's a whole 'nother thing, blah blah). It lived on, however, in the idea that governments should discourage conspicuous consumption and encourage investment, etc. I think the idea of community rights is very relevant to the discussion at hand.
posted by raysmj at 9:48 PM on April 20, 2001

Definitely, raysmj. Two big issues:

* the disparity between the movement of capital and the movement of labour;
* the disparity between the mobility of the corporation and the mobility of the individual.

The point being that "labour" in its Lockean sense no longer realises local benefits. Even in the dark days of the Industrial Revolution, the ironmasters and mineowners would build terraces of houses for their workers, to ensure that they could get more hours out of them at the workplace. An attenuated global marketplace negates this need to support one's workforce, because all work devolves into "service", built around the short-term contract.

The article on the "betrayal" of Adam Smith has an interesting quote, putting the famous "invisible hand" of the market in context:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security, and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

The mineowner unwittingly enriched the community he employed; but corporations are an invisible community of nations, populated by shareholders and employees.
posted by holgate at 12:19 AM on April 21, 2001

I don't know Adam Smith from Adam Rice, but, as it's practiced in the United States, fuck capitalism and any other system that rewards greed, ruthlessness, and inhumanity above all else.
posted by sudama at 5:54 AM on April 21, 2001

wow - this is the longest metafilter thread i've ever seen. Which, by the way, answers the question asked at the top of the page - "what have the protests accomplished?":

they've got us *talking about this stuff* - free speech is an empty phrase if it is not practiced, passionately and on a daily basis. Likewise freedom of assembly - it's seldom mentioned that most of the people teargassed in Seattle and elsewhere were exercising well-defined *legal* rights of peaceful assembly. Remember - the FTAA agenda is still a *secret text* - they don't even want us to know what they're talking about behind all those cops.

As for the news coverage - think about it for a second. Who owns the news media? It's like one of those LAPD internal investigations - "we checked into it, and we didn't do anything wrong, honest!" The fact that so many posters have gone hook line and sinker for the infobyte that the protesters are ignorant, misguided and/or evil shows you just how effective this process has become.

Yes we have the internet - for now. If we continue to sit by and watch our freedoms dissolve elsewhere, we're not going to have it here for much longer.

btw - check out
posted by dinsdale at 9:23 AM on April 21, 2001

"Capitalism is . . . the genius behind so very much of what is right with the world we live in."

On one hand, two hundred years largely characterized by slavery, genocide, imperialism, and environmental ruination.

On the other hand, a wide range of consumer products for the home and office.

You be the judge!
posted by jbushnell at 9:23 AM on April 21, 2001

Could you please point out a system besides capitalism that has actually worked in the real world and not a textbook?

And America (obviously) isn't textbook capitalism either (which is a good thing)...
posted by owillis at 9:40 AM on April 21, 2001

owillis: Could you please point out a system beside capitalism that has actually worked in the real world and not a textbook?

define "worked".

lots of people have come to the conclusion that capitalism isn't "working".

so let's start with a definition and go from there.

posted by rebeccablood at 9:54 AM on April 21, 2001

Owliss: The point holgate was making with Adam Smith was, I believe, largely geared toward developing trade within nations. Also, recall his calling the system one made for a "nation of shopkeepers." This implies small businesses, local shops. I definitely think the whole chain store thing can get out of hand, but do our government's policies, and the free trade agreements specifically, favor the major corporations? Yes, the bankruptcy bill of 2001 being a major example. It would practically force all companies with $3 million in outstanding debt to liquidate, while leaving an exception in for large corporations. This also ties in to the whole Jeffersonian heritage and Republican ideal thing in America, so sure it's worth talking about, even if people rarely do anymore. And it seems pointless to blow off any debate about the issues with, "Well, it's brought us the greatest system in the world." Debating American policy and current public values does not make one anti-American. Far from it, actually.
posted by raysmj at 10:02 AM on April 21, 2001

excuse me, that's republican with a small "r."
posted by raysmj at 10:21 AM on April 21, 2001

Besides, owillis, you answered your own question. You asked for an economic system besides capitalism that has “worked”, then say American capitalism isn’t capitalism. Ergo, no “textbook” (you mean fundamental) economic system has ever “worked”.

Basically, no economic system based coercion has ever run without regulatory enforcement since people don’t willingly relinquish their freedom. Without enforcement, America-style corporate fundamentalism, European socialism and communism would’ve never been feasible means of property exchange. The only ideology that runs without coercion is anarchy, and it did for a few years in Spain, until invaded by Hitler’s allies.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 10:31 AM on April 21, 2001

Oliver, you're conflating issues. One can be perfectly happy with the mixed economy practiced in the U.S. and Canada and still think that free trade agreements as they're written and practiced today are a bad idea.
posted by snarkout at 10:33 AM on April 21, 2001

Something about this thread keeps making me think of Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy. For a first-person perspective of how our government, society, and economic system evolved in the early 20th century, you could do much worse. The third installment, The Big Money, seems especially relevant today.
posted by gimli at 11:06 AM on April 21, 2001

I was just honestly asking a question (although you can probably figure my stance on all this). Very illuminating perspectives from everyone involved...
posted by owillis at 12:31 PM on April 21, 2001

Americans have been trained to say "Capitalism works, Communism doesn't" without the slightest comprehension of what those words might mean. After all, what exactly are we talking about? Median wage growth? If so, USSR beats US for the period 1920-90. But let's compare apples with apples. The USSR and the US did not begin on equal footing: GDP per capita was larger in the US. A better comparison would be US vs Denmark or USSR vs Brazil. In both cases the "socialist" country comes out ahead in income growth. The same can be proved with respect to a number of other criteria...

But "Capitalism vs Communism" threads tend not to be very productive, so I'll stop there. In any case, I don't think either system can be said to "work" -- assuming the criterion for success has somthing to do with the welfare of sentient life on this planet. Both systems rely on ecologically unsustainable growth, and both are authoritarian and plutocratic in their own way.

Holgate - those David Lodge novels are brilliant; I'm looking forward to the new one -- supposed to involve an AI researcher as protagonist, if I remember right.
posted by johnb at 12:32 PM on April 21, 2001

owillis: I was just honestly asking a question, too. in your world, what would constitute a system that worked?
posted by rebeccablood at 3:07 PM on April 21, 2001

rebecca: for me a system that works is an open, market based system with minimal government interference, as well as well run social programs (education, welfare, etc) where results and effects are measured.
posted by owillis at 4:16 PM on April 21, 2001

Isn't that kind of stacking the deck? If "market based system" more or less equates to capitalism, I mean? Then of course capitalism is the ideal way.

On the other hand, I could see "market based system" as something akin to the law of gravity--I mean, you may feel that the way markets establish value just is the way things are. In that sense, "market based systems" are like "physics based systems"--that's reality--and we're looking for the sweet spot in the set of systems that obey that constraint.

So: minimal government interference--with what? implies some kind of theory of action, legal process, etc.; and well-run social programs--implies some way of establishing goals for a society (political process). A useful way of organizing your thinking, but doesn't seem very concrete as a way of comparing one system to another.

(Just thinking out loud here.)
posted by rodii at 4:43 PM on April 21, 2001

an open, market based system with minimal government interference

so the result of that would be that the smartest guy wins, and everyone has a chance to succeed if they have a good idea and the smarts to promote it well?

you can probably argue that this is happening now, at least to a large extent.

I would be interested in a certain amount of interference to ensure that environmental costs are measured and taxed (or included in the price of goods); and to ensure that workers are paid a living wage and are guaranteed safe working conditions, with clear remedal steps where necessary.

the first part of that isn't happening at all, and you *might* be able to make a case for the second part, but lots of people are quick to pronounce a pittance "a living wage" when they couldn't get by for a week on it. and you know how it goes for the whistleblowers.

well run social programs (education, welfare, etc) where results and effects are measured.

and the results of that would be...?

my wishlist would include:
- social programs that ensure that citizens have enough to eat and a safe roof over their heads.
- 100% literacy, or close to it.
- health care for all citizens, or for at least all those under 18 and above 65, and all pregnant women (it's all about saving money in the long run).
- and a way to measure whether those things are happening, and effective remedial measures if they don't.

to my eye, my second wishlist isn't happening at *all*.

notice that neither your system nor my system depends on there being corporations at all. capitalism could exist without the corporation existing at all. business does not have to be big.

maybe if the value systems in place were different you could count on corporations to treat people well, to do all the things I've listed, but in general when business has had a chance to make a profit, they do it at any cost to the environment and the people. that's the problem.

it seems clear to me that corporations do nothing for poor people in general, and nothing for the well to do, either in the long run. it's all about profits and "responsibility to the shareholders" to turn a profit: you can argue that unless a corporation doesn't turn the highest profit, they're cheating their shareholders. the result, unfortunately, is that the interests of the corporation supercede everything else, right or wrong.

the corporate fiction has to be changed in my opinion: it was designed to protect the people behind the corporation from taking the fall if the business should fall on hard times, but instead it's been used to just act with impunity, with no consequences as a result.

wood s lot has a lot of links on the costs of globalization; from the perspective that in general it's harming all of us more than it's helping. (I'd link them here, but he has a lot of good pull quotes). look way down the page.
posted by rebeccablood at 4:45 PM on April 21, 2001

I like market based systems with controls because I believe it maxmimizes the value for the end user and the seller of goods and services. That's why competition is good.

I look at corporations like this - they are made up of groups of people who are generating wealth. The wealth they amass is distribued through purchase of goods and services. People are employed by corporations and in turn are able to buy goods and services. I don't really believe in looking at corporations as evil/good (besides AOL - they're evil :) but as collectives of people.

I don't have a problem with things like minimum wage, and vote for officials who believe in making it livable.

I don't believe they should have absolute power though, and that markets should be open - but I don't believe in the government always interfering without merit (see USA vs. Microsoft), opposite of that would be USA vs. ATT - which led to increased competition, lower prices for the consumer, and eventually more profits and jobs in the telecom sector.

The way social programs are run now - money is just thrown at them to make people feel good without rhyme or reason. I do not believe in people living off of the government for their whole lives.

I do believe in universal health care, because I feel it is a right and not a privelege.

In short (too late!): I don't have a problem with corporations that are held in check by the citizenry (the current system - where we vote for candidates who's philosphies are in line with our own), and a system that assists people until they are able to "right themselves" and don't live dependent on the government.

(hope I was clear, somewhat stream of consciousness)
posted by owillis at 5:10 PM on April 21, 2001

owillis: don't begin with the system, begin with who it benefits, and in what ways. As rodii says, by saying you want an "open, market-based system" you're already accepting an ideology, not a set of practices or consequences. Last time I looked, society was made up of people.

And for fuck's sake, enough of us here are web designers (or at least familiar with the practice of building sites) to know that there's been a shift away from creating brochureware towards "user-centred design". If we can agree that something as trivial as a web site should be optimised towards those who use it, why can't we extend that principle to society in general?

So: what do we, as users, want out of society? Health and security; protection from the arbitrary imposition of the will of others, or of the state; the ability to develop and use our skills to benefit ourselves and our surroundings; the opportunity to pass on those benefits to the next generation. If we can get some consensus on those basic aspirations, then there's something to build upon.

So let's not talk of abstractions, of "systems": let's go with Aristotle on this one. Because I'm damn sure that the first market capitalists in the late 1600s weren't thinking about "open, market-based systems" before they were thinking about a way to secure their lives and those of their families. Systems are retrospective explanations, which you could even call "refusals" to explain, because simply attributing the world's iniquities to "capitalism" is as empty a protest as blaming it on "communism".

And always be guided by one question: qui bono? Who benefits?
posted by holgate at 5:12 PM on April 21, 2001

Okay then: I want a system where people can achieve their dreams and the government only intrudes when absolutely necessary.
posted by owillis at 5:29 PM on April 21, 2001

I don't really believe in looking at corporations as evil/good (besides AOL - they're evil :) but as collectives of people.

The point is that they're not simply collections of persons: They are themselves regarded under law as "persons". As Rebecca Blood points out, "capitalism could exist without the corporation existing at all." Indeed, you could argue that "corporate capitalism" is an oxymoron. Corporations are nothing more than abstract entities constructed out of layers of government bureaucracy and legislation, and therefore depend upon wholesale violation of "free market" principles. They were actually invented for the specific purpose of encouraging "capital formation" (read: concentration) at the expense of individual rights. Of course, none of this "government intervention" is allowed for in the US Constitution.

And always be guided by one question: qui bono? Who benefits?

That reminds me something Gore Vidal once said: two of the most important questions to be asked about any form of government are "from whom, to whom?" (paraphrasing)
posted by johnb at 6:02 PM on April 21, 2001

All people? Psychos, con men, any random pig-dog? And what does "only when necessary" mean in practice? Are roads necessary? Mail? Currency? Schools? Cops? And what happens when something that was once deemed necessary (like mail delivery) comes to be replaceable by something non-government? Do we just trash it, and damn the systems that have come to depend on it? Or do we give some systems grandfather status? And if we do that, how long til we're back in the same situation, with entrenched interests battling for "their" slices of the pie?

The trouble with what Nick's saying, I think, is the issue of complexity--that there are always unintended system-level effects. You can't just say that "the system" is an abstraction and wish it out of existence. What do we do our desire for health and security leads to unacceptable limits on freedom? Anthony Giddens has written interestingly about this.

And I guess my question about Rebecca's ideas is: which people? All people, or just Americans? Because if it's all people, then the globalists are arguing that they have the best chance of achieving that.
posted by rodii at 6:09 PM on April 21, 2001

rebeccablood: Your analysis is fine as it is, but leaves out non-material questions. Some would say globalism's affect on the quality of living hasn't been so hot either. I think the case is often overstated, especially with cliches about "indigenous" cultures. (Reminds me a lot of a blues/R&B list I was on once when bored folks drawn to this music for vague political reasons would go off on tangents about "indigenous" blues culture, ignoring the fact that blues and R&B were anything but indigenous music. Heck, and where did Robert Johnson get the idea for that cool-guy-with-a-cigarette pose in his photo? How many harmonicas and guitars did Sears sell in the South from 1900 to 1930? Etc, etc.) It's more a matter of degree of influence of global conglomerates, it seems to me, and the whole balance is out of whack now. In any case, life isn't all care, food, health care, quality footwear, etc. It's what sort of food, quality footwear, the aesthetics of hospitals and how pleasant the nurses are, etc.

No, these matters are considered after the basic needs are met, of course, but that changes after a time too -- the definition of "basic" needs, that is. Heard a former school teacher tell me that she felt sorry for children who bought their socks and pants at Dollar General stores. In most parts of the planet they'd be considered fabulous and, frankly, their white athletic socks look the same as those one can buy elsewhere. But of course those stores don't help the community and we're back to square one.

Anyway, the definition of a system that works should not only include basic needs, but should consider whether that society leads a person to become what he or she should become. Which leads us back to the first few pages of Aristotle's "Politics."
posted by raysmj at 6:17 PM on April 21, 2001

(Here's a good link to Giddens and the "Runaway World debate.")
posted by rodii at 6:32 PM on April 21, 2001

Because if it's all people, then the globalists are arguing that they have the best chance of achieving that.

Of course, they're wrong about that. The slowdown in third world growth (not to mention the increase in inequality) is largely attributable to the imposition of Western-style "liberalization" schemes. See, e.g., Growth May Be Good for the Poor-- But are IMF and World Bank Policies Good for Growth?

But more broadly, the globalists' dream of liberation through consumption -- of selling SUVs and Big Macs to the billions of people in the third world -- is, if realized, more likely to lead to human extinction than liberation. At the end of the day, the earth is a sphere, and you can only pack so much energy and natural resources into a sphere of finite dimension.
posted by johnb at 6:36 PM on April 21, 2001

rodii: which people? All people, or just Americans?

well, since I was addressing the question of capitalism, I was thinking of the US. but I'll tell you what: I want to see those things everywhere. all around the world.

I don't agree that globalists have the best chance of achieving that, or at least not as they work now. maybe if they turned their value systems upside down they would, but it's not what's really happening. as holgate pointed out here and elsewhere, a global corporation has no vested interest in investing in any particular place. they can just up and move if conditions look more profitable elsewhere.

raysmj:Your analysis is fine as it is, but leaves out non-material questions.

well, I was trying to bring it down to basics. and I do believe in the basics. I believe that food comes first, and then housing and education and healthcare, and I'm not quite sure which order to put those last three in.

if you have all of those things, I believe you have a fighting chance (and I guess whether you have a fighting chance to total self-actualization or just to fight in the revolution depends on the government that reigns over you; on the other hand, if you have all of those things, you might think your government is just fine.)

quality is important, too, but as you point out people's bottom lines get a little questionable sometimes. on the other hand, if everyone's basic needs are being met, huge inequities, while worthy of consideration, aren't inexcusable.

and you know what? I don't give a fig what kind of government produces these conditions for people. one of my favorite quotes:
When it shall be said in any country in the world, 'My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive' -- when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and government. -- Thomas Paine
posted by rebeccablood at 6:39 PM on April 21, 2001

rodii: Giddens is more interesting. I think, when he talks about the way modernity redefines the notion of "personhood", and how we're more able than at any time to redraw the boundaries of our social organisations. To that extent, I don't want to wish the "system" out of existence, but simply to regard it as a back-reference to a collective set of social practices. Once we conduct a debate in the abstract, whether under the banner of "individual freedom" or "the welfare state", we're implicitly setting a false closure, which as absurd at a point when we have greater freedom than ever to work on the details.

We need, I think, a sense of historical perspective.

(It helps, I think, that I've spent most of my life in a town which owes its existence to an earlier incarnation of capitalism. The main square in Middlesbrough is a case in point: on the one side is a public library, endowed by Andrew Carnegie; alongside it are statues of Bolckow and Vaughan, the two ironmasters who brought industry and prosperity to the town in the late 1800s. They were entrepreneurs first, not philanthropists, but they invested in their workforce. I can't imagine there are many places in SE Asia graced by Nike subcontractors that will erect statues of Phil Knight.)
posted by holgate at 6:57 PM on April 21, 2001

rebeccablood: my wishlist would include:
- social programs that ensure that citizens have enough to eat and a safe roof over their heads.
- 100% literacy, or close to it.
- health care for all citizens, or for at least all those under 18 and above 65, and all pregnant women (it's all about saving money in the long run).

1. Enough to eat according to what guidelines? Whose diet will be the standard? Which "target weight" will be used as the baseline? What about those who are vegetarians? What about those who hate vegetables?
2. Who will determine what a "safe roof" is? A 1960s-era apartment complex? A ranch-style home in the country for everyone? A Brooklyn brownstone? How many toilets in each house? Do we all get a microwave? A Gilligan's-Isle type hut? A two-car garage?
3. We're doing pretty good on this count, but back to the basic issue: literate according to what standard? Should we all be able to read 3rd grade text? Graduate-level? Enough to understand food labels?
4. Toughest of all: healthcare. Still, the questions remain: WHO will determine what level of care every one gets? Would we all be entitled to cardiothoracic surgery? Annual physicals? Daily vitamins? Rolfing? Breast enlargement? And if we limit it to under 18 and over 65...well, would it really be fair to have free care on the last day of your 18th year, and then the next day not have the same benefit? Conversely, if you are 64 years old, should you wait until you turn 65 to get that "free" bypass operation that you need?

I'm not trying to "troll" - I am asking honest questions. I understand that many people *want* everyone to get everything they need, but to promise such things as "rights" or "guarantees" begs these two questions: who decides, and who pays? Until these questions can be answered rationally, proposing such "rights" seems meaningless. Comments?
posted by davidmsc at 9:17 PM on April 21, 2001

johnb and rebecca: I agree with you, I was merely pointing out that your adversaries--if that's not too strong a word--claim to be arguing from the same assumptions about giving a good life to everyone. It's really tough to go from first principles about the good life to the details of the best system.
posted by rodii at 9:18 PM on April 21, 2001

This thread started out depressing — with a bunch of ideologically-opposed people banging heads in somewhat predictable ways — but then it transformed into something interesting: an actual, honest-to-God dialogue about the issues. Metafilter has a tendency to do that, which says something about the quality of the discourse here.

Those of you interested in an alternate history of how markets form and operate may enjoy Manuel DeLanda's A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, which takes a complexity-theory approach towards the matter, to rewarding results.
posted by jbushnell at 9:59 PM on April 21, 2001

Until these questions can be answered rationally, proposing such "rights" seems meaningless.

That's an ironic prescription for a return to the world of the planned economy, and the only people wanting that right now, I think, are Russian pensioners. But it's also a prescription for apathy: you end up debating about shades of grey when it's quite possible to address the disparities of black and white. (And that applies literally as well as figuratively.)

It reminds me of the old chestnut quoted by Francis Bacon: But yet he was reputed one of the wise men, that made answer to the question, when a man should marry, - A young man not yet, an elder man not at all.

We can say with some consensus that it's wrong for an 5-year-old to marry, and unwise to wait until you're 90; so we work from those extremes, to an area where the debate is rendered trivial.

The disparity between the richest and poorest grows precisely because the debate is concentrated on delineating the middle-ground. And that's because it's where elections are won and lost, and why it so often takes either an act of political bravery or a catastrophic recession to change things.

And yes, I'm really enjoying this tone this thread has developed.
posted by holgate at 10:08 PM on April 21, 2001

I don't really believe in looking at corporations as evil/good ... but as collectives of people.

The only problem I see with that is that corporations (generally) aren't collectives, they're (generally) hierarchies.
posted by jbushnell at 10:12 PM on April 21, 2001

jbushnell: Yes, corporations are hierarchies. But in their defense, the whole idea of at least democratizing companies -- that is, taking ideas from lower levels, increasing communication from top to bottom, etc. -- has taken hold within many, if not most, American businesses. Pure hierarchies are largely very outre. You don't hear about this very much, but I've seen some pretty startlingly enlightened employee literature out there. Where does this idea come from, though? The U.S. government, or more specifically management experts brought in by the U.S. government to work with the rebuilding movement in Japan. (If anyone wants to be awakened from their cynicism regarding utopian idealists, by the way, you could do no worse than to read Abraham Maslow's works on management and democracy from the late '60s and '70s. This was once laughable stuff that's now highly fashionable.)

This still does not excuse the gulf between executive and employee pay, nor does it make the corporations democratically accountable. Its popularity makes the regression to having one's bidding done in re to trade agreements at secret meetings all the more deplorable. Finally, it does not excuse going overseas or rather developing nations and not playing by the same rules. But there must be something work learning there. It's the old rule about an elite being more enlightened and tolerant, etc., or at least more so than the masses they lead, but being repressive when in its self-interest to do so. Someone has to watch the big boys too.

In short, the problem is not the companies are evil. It's that they have no one watching over them, or at least not enough people holding them accountable.
posted by raysmj at 10:44 PM on April 21, 2001

Yes, corporations are hierarchies. But in their defense ... [p]ure hierarchies are largely very outre.

I suspect that's true. Even as early as the Twenties the straightforward organizational hierarchy was on the wane: Fritz Lang's 1926 film Metropolis, a great film about the gap between workers and bosses, documents the death of the pure hierarchy and the birth of — middle management.

"There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator."

Now, I don't feel that middle management alone fully eradicates the hierarchy at work— and whether it has truly served as the corporate "heart" is highly questionable — but between that, widespread acceptance of labor unions, and the general decentralization of workplaces, you're right that "pure hierarchies" don't truly exist anymore.
posted by jbushnell at 10:03 AM on April 22, 2001

jbushnell: Did you read that collective link? It was the most depressing thing I have read today.
posted by thirteen at 11:36 AM on April 23, 2001

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