The Fences of Global Trade

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The last time I ran into Linda McQuaig, we were behind the fence in Quebec City last April, watching phalanxes of riot cops lob canister after canister of tear gas at a largely passive crowd outside the barrier. Two or three performance artists were dodging rubber bullets and throwing back errant canisters at the police. But for the most part, nearing as it was the end of the Summit of the Americas, it was a largely symbolic confrontation.

Nonetheless, that symbolism of exclusion had already been imprinted on the public mind. The fence, the over-the-top security and the tear gas had handed the tens of thousands of protesters a moral victory.

In this surreal atmosphere, I asked the celebrated journalist and six-time author of dogma-debunking exposés when we could expect her next book. Next fall, McQuaig said. What’s it about? Well, she replied, I’m calling it All You Can Eat: Greed, Lust and the New Capitalism.

Fast forward to yesterday: the book is out and over a morning coffee, we agreed Quebec City seemed a very long time ago. In the wake of September 11, anyone who opposes the international- trade agenda is being written off as a fellow traveler of terrorism. And the continued privatization of public space that is pushed by that agenda is being sold as an integral part of the war on terror.

Growing Impact

“There is no question there was a building movement that was having an impact,” McQuaig says. “It was reaching ordinary people and filling them with some skepticism. This whole triumphant attitude since the fall of the Berlin Wall that globalization, while it had its problems of adjustment, was basically taking the world up; I think the protest movement threw that thinking sharply into question.”

“For instance, at the end of the Genoa G8 summit (last summer), the leaders had even put world poverty as the top item on their agenda for next year! I didn’t think then that, ‘Oh good, there goes world poverty ’ But what it does mean is that the pressure was getting to them.”

Now, of course, worrying about poverty is denounced as appeasing terrorism. “There are definitely people who are taking advantage of the rallying-around-the-flag mentality to squelch debate and to push forward the global corporate agenda much more aggressively,” she says.

“I would argue that it’s a little naive to think that having over 2 billion people living in conditions of desperate poverty isn’t going to cause us some problems in the future, even from a purely self-interested security point of view. If people are desperate enough, without hope and feeling powerless, I think they are much more susceptible to the kind of messages that a bin Laden type delivers.”

In some ways, the timing of McQuaig's book couldn’t have been better. The World Trade Organization will be trying to launch a new trade round this weekend in Doha, Qatar. And the International Monetary Fund and World Bank bring their postponed meetings to Ottawa the following Saturday. The sidelined debate has an opportunity to get back on track. And her work is extremely valuable for anyone who wants a historical understanding over what is pushing the seemingly unstoppable forces of globalization.

For those new to the debate, these trade deals are not about trade at all but about the privatization of public goods and services. In other words, forcefully reducing all human activity to a market-based, profit-making exercise.

As McQuaig writes of the enclosure movement as England moved out of the Middle Ages, “It’s hard to imagine fully the terror that can be caused by the sudden appearance of a regular garden-variety hedge.”

First wave

This was the first wave of privatization, she writes. Land that had been available was suddenly cut off from public use. Behind the hedge was much that farmers needed and had previously had easy access to: pastureland for cattle to feed on, fuel for heat, building materials, fertilizer and food. In the same way today, all of our modern “commons” — health care, quality education, social programs, even our postal service — are under threat. Modern-day “trade” agreements target their removal from the public sphere where they are accessible to all, and not only to the super-rich.

Whether it is a garden-variety hedge or a chain-link fence, the exclusion is just as effective.

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