Globalization: when people finally accept their own slavery

An Interview with Ignacio Ramonet




Autopista en silencio. Foto de Claudia González Machado
Autopista en silencio. Foto de Claudia González Machado

Omar Gonzalez: The alter-globalization movement is being accused of certain dilettante eclecticism, paralysis, of being less precise each day. I wish you would refer to the historic process of these alternatives, their real impact, the possibilities of changing the world into a better one, and especially regarding the project which in the Porto Alegre edition of the World Social Forum makes a statement regarding what you define as an Alternative Manifest, already outlined in your article “To Resist”.

Ignacio Ramonet: Yes, we had proposed this slogan of “another world is possible” and that’s where the word alter-internationalization comes from. As a matter of fact, this movement takes place in the mid-1990s when there clearly seemed to be a new force, a new dynamics controlling international life; when there still wasn’t a clear idea regarding the features of that dynamics. That’s a bit like when someone is sick and knows exactly what he’s suffering from but he doesn’t know the name of that disease and what caused it. Then, in an early stage -let’s say starting from 1995- we began to mobilize a group of intellectuals, thinkers, journalists and professors too, around Le Monde Diplomatique -our newspaper- to try to identify the features of what we today call globalization, but that we then didn’t know how it was called –because something that has been forgotten is that it didn’t have a name ten years ago. It was a phenomenon that was explained but, all things considered, it wasn’t even named and it’s obvious that if you can’t name something it’s much more difficult to describe it, identify it and fight against it; in short, to criticize it. The first stage was to identify the phenomenon, describe it like an observational sciences naturalist would do, and description itself was already a way to trigger a different reflection. The second stage was to criticize this globalization. We had created an organization –ATTAC– with the idea that it was possible to stop the phenomenon by mobilizing ourselves; to have some ideas that could allow us to attack the core of its engine. Globalization’s engine is the transformation of economy into a financial economy -financial capitalism, which is different from industrial capitalism. The point was how we could –recovering James Tobin’s idea- create, throw a grain of sand that could cause the engine’s gears to slow down. That’s how ATTAC came up. Later, in Seattle, the great protests began against institutions that until that moment were mostly unknown by the public and that received benefits -because they were very technical- from the discretion of keeping out of the media’s eye. For instance, the World Trade Organization could only be identified by a few technicians because the broad public didn’t know what it was. There are better known organisms, especially in Latin America, like the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. But in spite of it all, nobody knows how they work either. The interesting thing about that first protest in Seattle was that is was carried out against a WTO summit. It was a way of showing that capital decisions for today’s world are not taken by governments but by the institutions that, in the end, are unidentified and unknown. That confirmed what we had been saying for some time: that globalization simply means that now, on a level above governments, there’s a sort of supranational government: that of the Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the OCDE. These are the institutions that really dictate, outline and determine the frame and the phenomenon. Therefore, Seattle was a way of making popular the protest that later on quickly multiplied. The third stage was determined by the certain fact that as globalization became multiplied, protests were also multiplied. Huge massive demonstrations against this situation took place, even with violent acts, in Gutenberg or in Florence, where the first victim of alter-globalization appeared, or in Quebec where the way to confront those demonstrations was militarized. We had to respond the criticism that was beginning to take place, to the effect that protest was the only thing alter-globalization did. Well, globalization was criticized; it’s true, but only that; people thought that alter-globalization really didn’t set out to do anything new. That’s where this third stage truly began; the idea that is was necessary to go from protesting to other ways of opposition. At that moment, in Porto Alegre, there was a very original municipal experience: the Workers’ Party governed that city for nearly a decade; it had put into practice the participative budget and had created a kind of government that linked the population to the city’s management. That’s why it seemed to us that Porto Alegre was somewhat emblematic. First, that it was a southern city, and then, that it was a city with the experience of a new kind of democracy. Another decisive idea was to carry out the Social Forum in a symmetrical way to the World Economic Forum that took place in Davos. We called it Social Forum as a reply to the Economic Forum, while keeping in sight that by holding it at the same time we were in a certain way forcing leaders and journalists to chose: they were going to hear the planet’s masters or they were going to hear the people of the world. That was the idea, that the Forum should be the alternative –rather like the first planetary assembly of humanity where people are represented by associations, unions, action groups and so forth and not by governments and the States that are members of the UN, who come, meet and denounce their experience of a life submitted to the pressure of globalization. The Forum started working in 2001 with great success; and also from the point of view that it should not only say how globalization affected and affects our lives but also what kind of solutions we had found against it: the Bolivian miners, the African women, the Indian farmers. That a kind of catalogue of initiatives born in popular bases be born there which have been able of slowing down and can stop globalization. With these three stages we already had a very serious identification of the phenomenon, a practice of protest that had extended worldwide, and a kind of thinking lab-center regarding future steps to take: the embryo of what could be a catalogue of the necessary changes to humanize globalization, or to destroy it, excluding violence in any case. Indeed, this year the Forum returns to Porto Alegre after having gone to Bombay. And we intend to approve the Alternative Manifest that you mentioned.

OG: How was the Bombay experience?

IR: I would say it was very interesting because it’s a way of showing that the Forum isn’t the property of a continent or of a country; it’s a planetary experience…

OG: But, I’m under the impression that it had a lot less repercussion than when it was held in Porto Alegre.

IR: I personally favored that the Forum be kept in Porto Alegre because a certain brand name had been created. Porto Alegre had a meaning in itself and besides being a city it was also a movement. But you have to accept the idea that permanently keeping the Forum in just one place is also a fragmentary and definite way of seeing the phenomenon of alter-globalization; and by moving it to Bombay, the aim was that those regions –especially Asia, with all the capacity it has to protest against injustices- would join the phenomenon and the criticism to globalization. You also have to realize that by holding it for three years in a row in Porto Alegre, in effect practically all Latin America had joined the protest, or the organizations that had been mobilized; a great part of Europe; an important part of the United States; but very few people from Africa and Asia. It was therefore necessary to make this move. To a great extent, the one held in Bombay was above all an Indian Social Forum but you have to keep in mind that India is the sixth part of humanity. There are more than one thousand million people there with huge problems and the fact that most of the unions, associations, action groups and activists from all over India went to Bombay, met one another, saw the capacity they had and have to protest and join with all those present coming from Latin America, Europe, North America, Africa, was a very important thing for alter-globalization and for India in particular. It’s a way of realizing that the phenomenon of protest, the same as that of globalization, is planetary; that alter-globalization necessarily has to be planetary. This year, back in Porto Alegre, the idea is to achieve that Alternative Manifest, to achieve what the movement needs today: an action plan; and that from Japan to California, from Norway to the Tierra del Fuego, everybody defends and supports it, regardless of each group’s characteristics. At least, identify the fifteen or twenty actions which can be carried out this way, among which would be the suppression of the debt, the implantation of an international rate, the preparation of a protocol in favor of drinking water; in short, a group of goals that allow us to reach a massive consensus for the sake of achieving solutions that can truly and concretely change today’s world.

Vendedor de alfombras y escobas

OG: A panoply of alternative means has appeared as part of alter-globalization. What is your opinion regarding the efficiency of those means and the construction of networks that interact and contribute greater coherence and unity to the movement?

IR: We wouldn’t have been able to organize such extensive and strong movements without appealing to alternative means, to the networks made possible by Internet -and not just Internet because in Latin America, for instance, communitarian radio plays a crucial role. Radio allows for the mobilization of a lot of people who don’t even have access to Internet. On the other hand, we also believe that personal meetings, rallies, conferences, public debates are irreplaceable. But obviously, if email hadn’t existed, if there were no possibility of creating websites with their repercussion, to spread slogans, information and documents allowing national and international mobilization, it wouldn’t have been possible to achieve this. We were aware of that when we started to plan how to launch the first World Social Forum which, of course, had no tradition when it was just an idea. Why were people going to go to Porto Alegre? To see what? It was very important to create a website in Internet, generate information, systematically feed it and make the networks begin working. Of course, we also have to point out that this very positive aspect of the organization goes hand in hand with faults and inconveniences because much of the information that circulates on those networks isn’t always trustworthy. Everybody knows that there’s superabundant information on the network: it’s very difficult to know if what I am randomly receiving through Internet has any guarantee of being true, if they’re not paranoid elements in terms of complot theory. What I mean is that in the same media that criticize globalization, very dogmatic, very elemental, Manichaean information is placed and it’s not always good for us. What is good is that we concretely face reality and see it as it is.

OG: But, regarding communitarian radio, you pointed out that Internet and other media, even the alternative ones, are still determined by those who have access. Although it may not seem so, their reach is still very limited.

IR: Of course, we know, for instance, that less than 2% of Internet users are in Africa; that there are very few possibilities in Latin America (approximately 5,5% of the users). More than 75% of Internet users are in the three world poles of development: North America, European Union and Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. There are very few possibilities outside those three poles. This is the cruel reality.

OG: You mentioned Africa. How is alter-globalization movement expressed in that continent?

IR: Well, curiously enough, there’s a very big potential in Africa. I was in the Cotton Social Forum in 2003, organized in Bamako, capital of Mali. Other social forums have taken place in Africa. There was one in Addis Ababa, another one in Dakar, and the idea is that, since these social forums are currently pendular–one year in Porto Alegre, the following in another place in the world and then again in Porto Alegre; the idea is, I repeat, that in 2006 the Social Forum be held in an African country. We still don’t know in which, be it in Black Africa, in the South or in the North. There’s a discussion at this time but what is very clear is that it will take place in Africa because that’s obviously where the world’s most contrasting situations exist today, where injustices are most evident and impacting.

Atardecer con dique. Foto de Claudia González Machado
Atardecer con dique. Foto de Claudia González Machado

OG: That would be very important because Africa is frequently forgotten by a part of the left-wing that doesn’t include it in its speech, that doesn’t know it and, for that same reason, barely takes it into consideration or distorts its reality. Passing on to another subject, what spaces do culture and art occupy in this movement?

IR: It’s a movement that has always given culture an important space because, although economic and social issues are capital, culture today is part of the economy. You just have to see everything that mass culture includes: leisure, consumption of information, in short, everything we call culture has less and less to do with the historic sense of wisdom, of the classic. Today culture is mainly the great consumption of mass media and we find that culture and communication are much interconnected because they are consumed through the same means, the owners of which are also the owners of the mass cultural corporations. Then, this dimension is very much a part of all this alter-globalization movement, precisely with the idea that it’s necessary to defend the peoples’ cultural identities, the languages, culture in the word’s ethnographic meaning. For example, all the indigenist movement in Latin America is part of this concern that cultures, even those that are minorities, be preserved; but also with the idea that true communication prevails. That we are not exclusively informed by those that have a greater interest in misinforming us, without space for diversity or alternatives, without true freedom. This is an essential concern in our times.

OG: We come to the idea of a single way of thinking, very developed by you.

IR: In that stage in which we were trying to identify, should we say, which were the adversary’s traits, I had proposed that this be called “single thought”. The expression was well received. In truth, single though is what we call today globalization. This idea that there is only one good way of thinking, one useful way of thinking, one practical way of thinking, one modern way of thinking and that it’s a good, useful, practical and modern way of thinking, consists in accepting the catalogue of ideas of globalization in economy, in work and in everyday life.

OG: It would go hand in hand with a single behavior.

IR: Indeed, with a single behavior. Some have called this the Washington Consensus. That would be, all in all, the single thought. Globalization is the globalization of this kind of culture too.

OG: But imperialism –without this being something new in its repertoire- is each day more brutal in its aggressiveness and the people live a desperate situation. Do you discard in all cases the use of revolutionary violence?

IR: I think that up to the moment, globalization has progressed on two fronts: one we could call economic, with the idea of forcing in any country one way of operating, that is, opening the borders, establishing privatizations, reducing the State budget, suppressing all the public sector in favor of the private sector, all that is the State in favor of the market, all that is collective in favor of what is private. This is confrontation in the economic scenario and there are practically very few governments in the world that have put up resistance. Then there would be the second front, the idea that we have to persuade ourselves and others that this method is a good one. Because the aim of single thought is that people finally accept their own slavery. That’s the project: how to make a person voluntarily consent and take part in his own exploitation and in addition, to think he’s happy. Indeed, that’s the idea. This second front is that of the media or of ideology. The campaign is to transform what we call globalization into a phenomenon that they call modernization: where anyone who thinks differently is archaic because he would be using solutions that have already failed. What would be logical -following this logic of submission- is that “modern” version of the economy. The media sell this idea throughout the planet, they make it progress on all levels. After September 11, 2001, the third front was opened: the military. In fact, the central nucleus of globalization –especially in the United States, also in Great Britain and the countries that are now in Iraq- has said: it’s necessary for globalization to have a military arm because ideological persuasion isn’t enough; you have to have a military arm, there’s a way of war to achieve establishing globalization. Although they obviously don’t say this is the goal; instead, they say “fight terrorism”, “fight against weapons of mass destruction”, and so forth. But, we can’t avoid being aware of the fact that those countries could surrender and accept the phenomenon of globalization at all costs. Where it can take place, where this hyper-violence has appeared on both parts, hyper-terrorism has of course appeared –and I don’t know if you could call it revolutionary violence. Evidently, I wouldn’t call it revolutionary violence.

OG: In no way. But, there is also a resistance which shouldn’t be confused with terrorism; for instance, in Iraq.

IR: Yes, of course, but there’s the hyper-violence of the hyper-power with the preventive war or the war of destruction, we could say, of civilian objectives in a perspective of total war. Before this reality, a movement like that of alter-globalization is convinced that today our societies, or in any case many countries, are not willing to adopt violence as a way to transform the world because those who are using violence –the Al-Qaeda network, the United States- are opposite models. It is precisely what shouldn’t be done. On the other hand, it’s still very difficult to distinguish resistance because it has a lot of everything. It’s difficult for an observer to establish the difference between a resistance of national character and a resistance that joins the movement of what is radical Islamism. The phenomenon is very different today from what it was two centuries ago and even from what it was like some decades ago. Radical Islamism doesn’t have an explicit social nature, more a messianic nature, very different from that of Marxism or even nationalism. This, in spite of the fact that circumstantial alliances could happen in some countries.

Habana, 1904. Negocio en una esquina

OG: Now, I would like to propose to move on to the subject of Cuba. You have long-standing ties with our country, with the Revolution, and with our culture. How did that relationship come about and based on what motivations?

IR: Well, I think it’s quite simple. Most of the people of my generation, and for biographic reasons, became interested in the Cuban Revolution. You must realize that when the revolution takes place, in 1959, and especially during the years before, the phenomenon that takes place here is curiously a very original one. What was Fidel Castro, for instance, in 1957 or 1958? Well, it’s difficult to compare. We are before a very peculiar figure of contemporary political and revolutionary life, a phenomenon that stood out from the rigidities of the Cold War. Perhaps we could compare it with the meaning that someone like Sub-commander Marcos has in these last years, i.e., someone who immediately attracted the sympathy of all those who didn’t want to find themselves prisoners of the alternative imposed by the Cold War at the end of the 1950s. We mustn’t forget that this revolutionary phenomenon is carried out against a dictatorship that had a completely terrible image throughout the world, or that US media was of utmost importance in making that fight popular. Fidel Castro’s interview with Herbert Matthews, published in the New York Times, had a great international repercussion when it presented the then called “barbudos” as a sort of Robin Hood, whose methods were very different from those who used violence, because it was a violence that never touched civilians; a use of violence exclusively reserved to fight against the military adversary, with great generosity regarding prisoners and adversaries, great respect for farmers considering they paid them for everything they used –among other very specific features. All this ethics of revolutionary behavior, when we compare it with what goes on today with public beheadings, attempts against the innocent, taking hostages in schools; it’s radically the opposite. We’re talking about a use of political violence with a will not to steer away from the limits of the confrontation and which in no way touches society –such as happens today in many places in the world. Obviously, this was of interest to many people of my generation. I was around 15 at the time; I was a teenager; then the interest in the revolution was very widespread and, also, this revolution immediately put forth projects that seemed to be very generous: literacy campaign, which is a project that immediately wins followers; the agrarian reform, knowing what farmers were and their situation, not just here but also in the rest of the world. Before the interview began, you reminded me that I lived in Morocco for a time; well, colonization ended there in 1956, at a time when the struggle begins here. That same year, the landing of the Granma in Eastern Cuba takes place. Therefore, we had the idea that a country isn’t sovereign just because it reaches independence but when its people are sovereign and not subjected to any kind of feudality. The Cuban Revolution started to encourage this idea, i.e. a great theoretical reflection on its own action, especially by Fidel and also by Che Guevara, with all that this implied for the capacity to extend this model to other places. It was a period when there were many guerrillas, not just in Latin America but also in Africa because Africa was freeing itself at that time: late 50s, early 60s. It’s also the Bandung time and the years that followed Bandung; and for the same reason, I would say it was and is very normal to be interested in a revolution which, all in all, has been very faithful to its initial project. It has remained loyal regardless of the period of alliance with the Soviet Union which was indispensable for its survival. At some times we were afraid that the rigid model, lacking political imagination -and imagination in general- that had developed in the Soviet Union, could become established here. There were times of bifurcations where the wrong road could have been taken and it wasn’t. Here, for instance, in cultural terms, socialist realism was never well received. In short, I want to say that I believe that this interest I might have in the Cuban Revolution is similar to that of dozens and dozens of intellectuals in Latin America –a lot, probably much more than in other continents- and that it is significant and characteristic of the generation I belong to.

OG: We see today a different situation in Latin America than that of 1959. What do you think about the political and social process that is taking place in Venezuela?

IR: It’s very interesting, especially because it’s a phenomenon that forces us to think about the limits of a political democracy. What happened in Latin America at the end of the 1980s? Globally, the military dictatorships that had marked the preceding 20 years in the continent started to disappear and Latin American societies welcomed with relief –the same as the whole world- the disappearance of those terrible regimes that had been marked by repression, torture, the destruction of a great part of the intelligentsia -whether by physical disappearance or by emigration. But, as soon as those democratic governments started to rule, they accepted globalization’s “solutions” with open arms; they started to privatize massively, to apply the recipes of the International Monetary Fund; and, with time, what we are now seeing took place: deep dissatisfaction in societies which consider that democracy doesn’t fulfill its promises. Democracy isn’t just the possibility of picking between one party or the other, to take part in civilian liberties; supposedly, it is also the will to create a fairer society, to distribute wealth better, without polarizing and, therefore, allowing greater economic democracy, social democracy, cultural democracy. These three things haven’t come true and we’re seeing how in Latin America people spontaneously rise in revolt to demand the destitution of a president. For instance, in Peru, with Fujimori; in Bolivia, with Sanchez Losada; in Argentina, with De la Rua. Then, in Venezuela, the phenomenon curiously takes place before because there wasn’t a dictatorship experience, only a very previous one that ended in 1957 with the fall of Perez Jimenez, much before the cycle of Latin American military dictators. We could say there was greater democracy there than in other of the region’s countries. However, that democratic depth is expressed with the alternating in power of two parties, the social-democrat and the Christian-democrat.

OG: Both of them very corrupt…

IR: Well, which of them was more corrupt? And, a kind of government by a small minority occurs that takes advantage of the country’s extraordinary wealth. When a social-democratic leader as important as Carlos Andres Perez uses the same shock therapy Fujimori used a short time later, a sort of social satiation overcomes –that is just what we’ve seen in Argentina against Menem. And, in Venezuela’s case, that movement is also brutally repressed. During the Caracazo they figure there were two thousand victims. Officially, you will see they talk about two or three hundred, but it is believed that there were many more. This created a situation in which a movement appeared that thinks about what the solution to the problem may be. It initially found a solution of a radical nature, and later, in the 1998 elections, the will prevailed to change through ballot boxes the political elites that had ruled with anarchy that country for decades. That’s how Chavez comes to power and becomes one of the first political expressions of the on-going alter-globalization process. How is alter-globalization expressed politically? First, it was Sub-commander Marcos -when he occupied San Cristobal de las Casas on January 1, 1994- and made a declaration against the coming into force of the North American Free Trade Treaty (FTAA). This was the first concrete expression of alter-globalization in politics. The second was the takeover by Chavez. Structurally, he’s taking part in how to stop the havoc of globalization –the problem we have before us today- but he comes with a program that is a moderate social transformation that he calls Bolivarian Revolution -because it is evidently a revolution. To give the children schools, medical care to people, food, to make an agrarian reform –that’s a Revolution and Chavez and his project are a relatively concrete way –I would say – to show what can be done. Not everything can be done, of course. You have to take into consideration that part of the economy can remain articulated to the dominating capitalist world, but you also have to keep in mind that in the major domains, such as education, health care, agrarian reform, the introduction of micro-credits and respect for the identities of the minorities –among other things- it’s possible to make progress. The fact of having established, for example, an obligatory minority in Parliament that represents the primeval people of Venezuela, can be done with a little political willpower and in a completely democratic way. President Chavez has shown that each time there has been an electoral stage, he’s won the elections and he’s given proof that in a very clean way, that’s the politics that most of the Venezuelan population backs up.

El caballero de París

OG: What do you think about the behavior of some intellectuals regarding the political processes that are taking place in the Third World? I am referring to certain cardinal stances or others that are fitting to a haggard Jacobinism that is forced to define sign and countersign, past, present and future of those processes or to stigmatize them, as if it were an unavoidable Adamic job.

IR: Well, I think, on the one hand, that societies are no longer willing to accept the positions of many intellectuals as if they were gospel truths because theble position. No longer is there the unanimity that might have existed regarding great figures of other times such as Sartre in France itself; personalities like Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer, in the United States, during the Vietnam war period. The situation today is more pragmatic and that makes these positions more difficult to identify; and as a result of globalization, the most referred to intellectuals are the Americans. Michael Moore, for instance, is a universal reference. Or Chomsky, of which we obviously appreciate all his works, but he’s nothing more than a result, a reference for just one part becy have made mistakes on more than one occasion. We’ve seen it recently with the Iraq war, where there have been intellectuals in France, the United States, who favor the war (and of course, others against it). But we’ve seen how some have been systematically wrong. In fact, today’s intellectual is in a very uncomfortaause he’s very attacked even in the United States, absolutely attacked and considered by the intellectual Establishment as some kind of marginal, while for great intellectual sectors throughout the world he’s considered a great reference in many aspects. Lastly, I want to say that this situation has gotten pretty confused and that intellectuals are also the patrimony of the right. President Bush and his team, for example, have a group of neoconservative intellectuals who have created a new reactionary doctrine. They are the theoreticians of what we would have to call The Reaction, and who have indisputably produced a doctrine, falling back on antecedents, on philosophical and cultural references. They are intellectuals who might have been leftists at a certain time and who are now near President Bush. This doctrine has become extended and there are Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, and Spaniards who take part in the production of these ideas.

OG: Besides what you have told us, what is Ignacio Ramonet doing now? What are you he writing?

IR: Well, first of all, I’m carrying on with my newspaper which fills all my days –absolutely all of them. Second, I’m finishing a book on the Iraq war which is titled Iraq, The Story of a Disaster. I’m giving it the final touches at the moment. It’s about how the intervention was conceived, what its characteristics are, what is really happening in that country. I’m also working on a book that we could call The Black Book of American Imperialism: with the military interventions that took place from the 19th century up to our days, what disasters they caused in many countries. It has been rightly said that the Soviet Union made very serious mistakes; but maybe the crimes committed by imperialism are not remembered enough, especially those in the colonial period. I also want to finish a book about talks with Fidel Castro on which I’ve been working for two years and which had its audio-visual expression in the series: Moi, Fidel Castro, made by Axel Ramonet and which was screened in France. Finally, there are articles and conferences I frequently have to write and deliver, sometimes in places that are very far away one from the other. That’s how my daily life goes, more or less. No time to get bored.




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