Perspective Is Everything

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Perspective is everything, say those ads for The Globe and Mail. So I’d like to offer mine on an event of the past week: last Sunday’s election as Brazil’s president of Lula, former steelworker and union leader, founder of the country’s Workers’ Party, by a huge margin, in a runoff.

CBC Radio ran it way down the list in its Monday morning newscast. The Globe — which did on-the-spot thorough coverage of the earlier part of the election — put the result on Page A10. Most treated it as a typical left-wing victory, like, say, Bob Rae in Ontario in 1990, François Mitterrand in France in 1981 or Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970. My perspective is that it was about something new, easily the most important story of the month, way more than the Washington sniper (if anyone remembers him).

Let me elaborate. The major current of world affairs in the past twenty years, in this perspective, has been the unstoppable rise of corporate power and the achievement of its main goals: deregulation, privatization, free trade etc., through governments such as those of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and their imitators in virtually all parties. Along the way, the competing model of Soviet communism self-destructed, which didn’t hurt. Nothing seemed to impede this force.

Canada is a poignant case. In 1988’s free-trade election, we almost did stop it — and people in many parts of the world were watching to see if we might. A majority voted for parties opposing free trade but, due to our electoral system, free trade went ahead anyway. Since then, its tide has never ebbed.

Now this — 175 million people, in the world’s ninth-largest economy, elect the leader of a party clearly opposed to corporate globalization, allied to Brazil’s landless peasants’ movement and its radical unions. They hold power in many cities and three of twenty-six states, including Porto Alegre, which has held two huge anti-globalization conferences drawing tens of thousands of delegates from everywhere.

It’s true that Lula, who lost three elections previously, modified his stand against a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in order to get elected, and I’ll get to that. But the sentiment behind him is massively critical of it. A September plebiscite was held in which more than ten million people voted ninety-eight per cent against joining such a deal. This easily stands as the greatest challenge and rebuke yet to the Reagan-Thatcher-neoliberal whatever you want to call it of our time. It wasn’t about left versus right in the old sense: It was about globalization.

It’s all the more striking since it happens at a time when the bloom is off that rose. (Apologies for the cliché; the subject does not inspire poetic imagery.) Let me count some of the petals as they fall: Enron, Walkerton, Kyoto, urban infrastructure, public schools, health care. People increasingly notice that, in general, things, including their incomes, have deteriorated during this period. The agenda no longer seems inevitably beneficial or even inevitable.

As I mentioned, Lula has wobbled on key issues such as free trade, though the alterations he wants would amount to turning the thing into its opposite. Still, I grant he sounds like Jean Chrétien just before plunging into the arms of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But at least the wobbling acknowledges an unavoidable, despicable reality: You cannot be elected in national politics without major concessions to corporate power; otherwise, they will shoot you down before, or after, you win; they have shown they can do either.

There is an important lesson being learned here: Electoral politics is not sufficient to combat global business; it will take a combination of formal governments with popular movements, pushing those governments just as the corporations do. That Brazilian plebiscite on free trade was opposed by Lula’s party, but you can guess that he welcomed the result. This reconfiguration in politics foretells the shape of the future, and is another reason that Lula’s election was noteworthy.

Perspective is an odd phenomenon. It arose as a drawing technique in fifteenth-century Italy during the Renaissance, along with humanism and individualism. Till then, it was assumed that God saw everything, at once, and explained it all in his revelation(s). Individual perspective, you could say, was nothing, and therefore not really required. That absence of varying viewpoints has lasting appeal, as we can see from the strength of religious fundamentalisms in our own era among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . .

Which brings us, as so often, to September 11th. I know there are people who see the war against terror, or the clash of civilizations, as the main feature of our time, rather than the crusade of corporations. I guess that just proves perspective is everything.

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