It feels like offhand cruelty is in style these days. Newscasters mention the drop in oil prices that’s expected to follow the invasion of Iraq as if they were reading a weather forecast. Activists are starting to discover that many people have already made the connection between oil and war — they just aren’t horrified. Organizers are still puffing out their chests over November’s “biggest anti-war mobilization ever” in the States, now ably matched by one of the largest American military mobilizations in recent memory. And as the dust and tear gas finally clear from a time when it almost seemed plausiblethat everything would change if we just protested hard enough, we wake up in the morning to find we still have to get up and go to work.

Sticking in my mind as an unlikely explanation for the current state of things is a talk I happened to attend given by investment guru Steve Forbes, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes magazine, at Massey Hall this past fall. The sermon itself was a bit of a trip down memory lane, and the similarities between Forbes’ anachronistic pinings and the current state of world affairs illuminate how things, are in a way, getting simpler. War is once again about tangible, all-American things like oil; despite the please-don’t-mention-it-again dot-com bust, people are once again starting to have faith in something called “the Internet;” and protests don’t change the world. What could be simpler?

The unalloyed benefits of non-stop progress, that’s what. “We’re on the cusp of one of the greatest eras of human ingenuity and liberalization,” Forbes deadpanned, exhibiting that curious ability to look forward to the distant past. “Not the kind you have here in Canada — the nineteenth century kind.” This was met by applause, and so began a fascinating glimpse into the neo-liberal mind.

That mind is the one for which war is just a series of entries in a ledger. Less than a month after the anniversary of September 11, 2001, and amidst a renewed wave of war propaganda, it seemed fitting that Forbes would lead with the ongoing war in Iraq. He seemed to find the idea of war mildly distasteful, like a company merger that presented a tidy profit but a logistical headache. Ultimately, though, the “rewards” of that confusion are worth it.

“After the war, you will see the cloud of uncertainty [hanging over the market] lift.” Forbes is confident that the occupation of Iraq will “make possible the planting of seeds of liberalization.” Just like the economic restructuring imposed by the U.S. in Europe following the Second World War through the Marshall Plan (a plan for economic “aid” which also happened to lock in American investments, and was, in many historians’ estimation, the birth of corporate globalization). And though I already knew it, it soothed my persistent fears of leftist paranoia to finally hear someone from “the other side” just come out and say it: “After the war with Iraq, oil [prices] will come down.”

And that’s about all that needed to be said about the war. It’s really quite straightforward, apparently. A bunch of Ay-Rabs (to use Bush family parlance) will die, along with a few Americans who have the misfortune to not be rich, and then the auto industry will boom. Next slide.

My mind finally began to wander, but wandered back out of curiosity when Forbes mentioned the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Was that disdain in his voice? Yes, indeed. Forbes slammed the IMF for its treatment of developing nations, and, for a moment, I assumed that one of us had gone senile. “The IMF,” he insisted, “practices economics the way doctors practiced medicine 200 years ago.” Through bleeding, he means. He is concerned about the IMF bleeding countries dry.

But his concern is not humanitarian — he decries the IMF’s insistence on raising taxes, which is apparently making it hard for investors to gore the developing economies. Forbes is not saying, “People before profits.” He’s saying on behalf of “the little guy” (like him), “We want some too.” Maybe individual rich people just resent not having the legal recourse that large companies have, such as Bechtel. It’s suing the government of Bolivia to the tune of millions, still irked that the population literally kicked it out after it privatized their entire water supply.

In the wake of another rising protest movement, Forbes’ words raise an interesting question: if the idea of abolishing the eternally-protestable IMF can trip off the tongue of America’s pre-eminent venture capitalist with no fanfare, not even a dropped monocle of surprise from the moneyed audience, it makes one wonder why protest alone is being fetishized in social justice movements. While the IMF and its ilk are ghastly and rightly protested, would anything really change if they left the stage? Maybe not.

Neither did Forbes shy away from the recent scandals in the corporate sector. “Those shocks,” as he called them, “are now anticipated in stock markets. Reforms are being put in, and the markets are forcing reforms.” The market, increasingly an organism of its own, can adapt quite readily.

As it turns out, corporate book-cooking and the whacking of favoured protest piñatas (“take another swing at that line of cops and see if any summit delegates fall out”) is not the system’s Achilles heel. It’s a head cold at best.

Potential for upgrading that head cold to pneumonia lies beyond where Northern activists have been casting their net: the realm of trying something else. Global capitalists have an unending supply of falsealternatives to offer people. We have yet to offer even one viable alternative.

Forbes didn’t mind a bit of doubt about corporations, since there’s ultimately nothing else for people to turn to. That idea — the idea of a viable alternative — is what truly scares him.

Reassuring me that he and I really are on opposite sides of the barricades, he spent the last part of his talk condemning the backwards practices of co-operation and community in the South. “Argentina,” he insists, “made every economic mistake possible. They even made a few new ones.” More laughter from the audience. Of course, those mistakes sparked neighbourhood and workers’ councils, and a call by many to kick out all the politicians, not just a few scapegoats.

He also scolded Brazil, where “four billion people own nine trillion in [undocumented] real estate,” in the form of large rural “shanty” towns. He couches it in typical libertarian rhetoric – decrying the lack of property “rights,” but ultimately just doesn’t understand why no one registers their property so it can be profiteered. “It’s insane!” Had Steve heard of the recently-evicted Tent City (a community of self-sufficient homeless people turfed from used land by landowner Home Depot), or was it just a cruel coincidence?

And then, the man who makes money by talking about other people’s money made an impossible segue to new-age morality. “Human progress has not stopped. We can reach new heights. Let’s show them what a free, vibrant and moral people can achieve.” As he left the stage, a representative from the host, Synergy Mutual Funds, replaced him, to explain what had just taken place. The aim of the speech was “to inform, enlighten and empower” investors. I noticed how both men used words that could have risen just as easily from a chanting protester’s mouth.

And as far as most people in this society can tell, capitalists are living up to their rhetoric. We have to start doing the same. The market can absorb just about any shock, but it can’t adapt to not existing. While the movement for justice can flourish in spaces where activism is linked to most people’s daily lives, it can’t weather many more mass arrests, confused rhetoric, sectarian sniping and alienation from an increasingly uninterested society.

We can knock down the prison wall with one hand, but we still need to lead the way out and to something better with the other.