St. Basil Meets the WTO:1 The Dark Side of Global Capitalism

Henry Clark, Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics, University of Southern California

It's difficult for affluent Americans to realize how evil global capitalism is. Since our perceptions and interpretations are based on the disinformation spewed forth by the Establishment media, the conventional wisdom of an intellectual estate dominated by neoconservative ideologues and the distractions of popular culture, it's hard for us to see what an unprecedented power grab has been carried out by the big banks and the giant corporations during the past several decades. The prevailing assumptions about the nature of corporations has changed drastically: in theory, corporations have to earn the charter they receive from the state by generating safe, reliable, useful products and services which contribute to the common good -- but nowadays (particularly following the Thatcher-Reagan era) entrepreneurs feel entitled to view corporations as instruments of greedy self-enrichment. The sound-bite television culture (especially its nauseating talk-show punditry) combines with lax campaign finance practices to enable multinational firms to override the state's role in regulating private power and its role in promoting the national interest. These circumstances also conspire to disarm or wipe out the psycho-cultural restraints that used to put a limit on unbridled acquisitiveness and its accompanying callousness.

Ironic Contrasts

We all know about the manifold blessings wrought by the Invisible Hand, and we are wise to give that devil his due. The institution of private property and the operations of the free market system are important instrumental goods, and we should be properly grateful for their role in mobilizing collective effort in the vital task of wealth creation.

But blessings of the market are typically overrated and its defects badly understated. Consider the following contrasts between the myths concerning the presumed benefits of industrial/commercial enterprise and the real consequences of dysfunctional privatization and pursuit of profit at the expense of people and Nature:

Presumed Benefits

``A rising tide lifts all boats.''

Actual consequences

The hell it does: it swamps the rafts of the poor and leaves the rowboats of those who have jobs perilously rocking in a tide of uncertainty, dangerous working conditions and unfair remuneration.

Presumed benefits

The comparative advantage in international trade benefits people in all countries.

Actual Consequences

Yeah? Which people, and what percentage of the total population? It certainly fattens the purses of executives and investors, and it enables the middle-class to feast on lots of consumer goodies (thus coopting their loyalties by allowing them to imagine they are fortunate as they fill their lives with schlock). But millions of human beings are deprived, damaged, or destroyed.

Presumed benefits

Globalism creates a meritocratic world in which productive energy is efficiently harnessed, and those who flourish are entitled to their high rewards.

Actual Consequences

Really? The current world economic order is a global casino in which the biggest rewards are all too often bestowed upon those who corner markets, manipulate consumers, shuffle financial documents or search legal loopholes in order to pull off mergers, not those who create safe, humanly useful economic goods (KEY EXAMPLE: Monsanto and other agribusiness giants who produce ``terminator'' seeds and ``Frankenfoods.'')

Presumed benefits

Technological innovation can solve all the problems technology generates, so there's no need to worry about global warming, pollution, resource depletion, etc.

Actual Consequences

A partial truth that is belied by dozens of serious specifics.

In sum. we have to admit that Kelvin Bales is right: slavery is ``not a horror consigned to the past; it continues to exist throughout the world, even in developed countries like France and the United States.'' Much of Bales' book on DISPOSABLE PEOPLE is devoted to an account of atypical workers in extreme situations (e.g., sex slaves in Thailand, au pair girls chained to household drudgery in Europe, and forest workers in Brazil). But he contends that there are at least 27 million slaves in today's global economy:

Slaves in Pakistan may have made those shoes you are wearing and the carpet you stand on. Slaves in the Caribbean may have put sugar in your kitchen and toys in the hands of your children. In India they may have sewn the shirt on your back and polished the ring on your finger. They are paid nothing.

Slavery is a booming business and the number of slaves is increasing. People get rich by using slaves. And when they've finished with their slaves, they just throw these people away. This is the new slavery, which focuses on big profits and cheap lives. It is not about owning people in the traditional sense of the old slavery, but about controlling them completely. People become completely disposable tools for making money.

Why the WTO is a Menace

Officially, the WTO is an international instrumentality composed of representatives from practically every national government on the face of the earth. These officials meet regularly to agree on the rules that will govern international investment and commerce.

Unofficially, the WTO is a rich men's club that tries to regularize practices which enable international lenders and multinational corporations to maximize profits for their management officials and their stockholders -- at the expense of the average farmer, worker and citizen in every country. Any law of a member nation that constitutes a ``restraint on trade'' can be declared ``WTO-illegal,'' and heavy penalties can be imposed on such nations. This means that laws concerning safe working conditions, fair wages, the right to collective bargaining and environmental protection can be overruled by an utterly undemocratic international body. And WTO penalties are imposed by special WTO courts whose rulings cannot be appealed in any other judicial tribunal.

Here are some examples of the evils wrought by the WTO:

-- Agriculture is turned into agribusiness: oligopolistic conglomerates turn family farmers into serfs who have lost their land, their independence and their sense of dignity. They no longer own the soil they till or the land their livestock graze. Corporate managers now dictate how much can be planted, how crops and livestock are to be managed and what price the farmers must accept for their labor. Peasants in third world countries often lose not only their land but their place in society and their very identity because of the dislocations caused by biotech innovations or economic manipulations that make traditional farming impossible or illegal.

-- Even water supplies, education and other essential services normally provided by public agencies are up for privatization and control by corporations not directly accountable to citizens. If subsidies designed to promote culturally distinctive folk or popular arts are declared a ``restraint on trade,'' proud citizens in France or Greece may have to get their music from RCA and their movies from Disney instead of from artists schooled in their own cultural heritage.

-- IMF-ordered ``structural adjustment'' programs of debt-management rob people in poor countries of social services such as health care, education and safety-net welfare benefits so that investors in Europe and America don't have to forego receiving their customary dividends (or executives their insanely inflated salaries).

-- The WTO creates ecological havoc. Rainforests are destroyed, woodlands are denuded, the greenhouse effect gets worse and toxic pollution causes increased sickness in both rural and urban areas.

How the Doctrine of Radical Stewardship Can Help

So much for the dark side of the IS of contemporary life in all of its sordid reality. Now what can be said about the reforming and revivifying OUGHT that can be provided by a fresh understanding of the Christian doctrine of radical stewardship?

To be sure, there is a danger here. Any school of thought which encourages us to focus on an ethic of perfection instead of an ethic of responsibility is vulnerable to the seductive misdirection of the church's energy into one-sidedly pastoral activities. Neoconservatives are delighted to find theologians who emphasize character and personal virtue, and ecclesiastical leaders who believe in emphasizing the holiness of the religious community instead of social policy. We mustn't fall into that trap.

Even so, in a culture where it's considered cool for everybody to want to be a millionaire (or marry one), the venerable doctrine of radical stewardship is more desperately needed than ever before. Christians who understand it should be doubly appalled by the wickedness into which global capitalism has led us -- and they should be doubly armed to escape its tentacles and fight to tame the beast.

This doctrine's most obvious argument against obscenely disproportionate extremes of wealth and poverty is ethical: we ought to be consumed with guilt when we acknowledge our involvement in the new slavery; we ought to tremble for our souls when we remember the simple, matter-of-fact rebuke of I John 3:17: ``Whosoever hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how does God's love abide in him?''

The philosophical argument adds shame to this rebuke. For if Nature has poured forth all things for the use of all members of the family of humankind, then hoarding more than one's fair share, or wasting precious resources recklessly, is a crime against Nature, a sin against the Holy Ghost. We would know that our great halls and our luxurious raiment are not something to be proud of, but testimonies to our unnatural hardness of heart.

And even a secular age ought to be able to appreciate the utilitarian argument against conspicuous consumption. A knife with a golden blade cuts no better than iron, and sleep is no sweeter on an ivory bed. So why are we not more embarrassed by the fact that we are so often suckered into commodity fetishism? And if we do in some sense believe that we have an immortal soul which is subject to a final judgment, what about the cash value of spiritual salvation: don't we comprehend that great wealth contaminates the soul and endangers our readiness to give up all our possessions to realize our true destiny as co-creators of an as-yet-unfinished universe?

* N. B. -- The references to the World Trade Organization in what follows are intended to include all of the mechanisms of international trade and finance that serve to further corporate domination; e.g., NAFTA (and similar area agreements), the IMF and the World Bank.