Thursday, October 23, 2008

The view from the underside

Beijing — As I said last week, although the theme of the 7th Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) is “Social and Ecological Justice”, there was no escaping the current global financial crisis that began in the posh financial enclaves of the world and in the brains of its overpaid architects in expensive suits.

And so even with 33 workshops on different crucial topics, the AEPF Asian and European participants spent night hours outside of the workshops deciphering this financial meltdown.

We called it “Beijing Nights”. Anyway, there was no escaping for a night in town because the venue—sprawling Dragon Spring Hotel with its lovely willow trees and lagoons—was outside the city. Beijing Nights meant there was work to be done in the session rooms and bottomless tea.

AEPF, held every two years, is like an overture to the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) of heads of state. It’s the people’s version, and resolutions arrived at here are sent to ASEM for state leaders to consider when they meet a week later. Will they seriously listen now?

In Helsinki in 2006, the AEPF thinkers-doers and worried civil society delegates already warned about unbridled neo-liberalism. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 was not to be forgotten. There was a lot of discussion about free trade agreements and globalization. A Filipino professor gives this layman’s definition of the much discussed fount of evil called neo-liberalism: “A night watchman’s concept of the state, it means privatization, deregulation, liberalization, with minimal state intervention in the economy.”

AEPF seeks to defend the weakest Asian economies and to seek alternatives to the Asian-Europe free trade. But in Beijing there were other issues to tackle as well—peace, alternative energies, climate change, food security and food sovereignty, water, foreign debt…

The handwriting had been on the wall. Suddenly the world changed in September 2008. The financial behemoths crumbled to the ground.

As one AEPF organizer said, quoting an old Chinese saying, “The sky is high and the emperor is far.” But the sky has its limits, she added, and the emperor is gone. And one Chinese speaker said that crisis in Chinese means both danger and opportunity. Now we must find our way out together. Regional formations is one solution, it was suggested. It is now clear that the people must not leave everything to the state and that civil society must play a central role.

One of the awaited speakers, the Philippines’ Dr. Walden Bello of the Focus on the Global South and Freedom from Debt Coalition asked rhetorically, “Is it greed?” The answer is yes. It is also because of lack of regulation. He also hinted at overproduction.

Now we will be forced to look into agriculture and reinvigorating it, Bello said, and the industrialist, anti-agriculture paradigm must be reversed.

Malaysian Dr. Charles Santiago, an AEPF stalwart who heads the Monitoring Sustainability of Globalization and now a member of parliament, gave a sweeping view of the financial crisis from the underside. (I could email it to those who want the whole thing.) Excerpts:

“The high priest of free market ideology Alan Greenspan, the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve for 18 years, in his book ‘Age of Turbulence’ heaped praise on the magic of financial markets and criticized as foolish those who called for greater regulation…In fact he asked ‘Why do we wish to inhibit the pollinating bees of Wall Street?’

“One year into the publication of the book, world financial markets have been gripped with panic…Global stock markets have hit rock bottom and are in a free fall. Wall Street lost its top five investment banks. The US Congress passed a $700-billion rescue package fearing that the US financial system might collapse and it constitutes the biggest US government intervention in history…

“The Chairmen of the failed Lehman Brothers is reported to have received about $484 million in various kinds of compensation even when the company was in trouble. In fact the captains of industry continue to cheat and plunder because they do not pay for the crisis. The victims are workers who might be out of job and who might have lost all savings. This is your classic socialism for the rich and free market poverty for the poor.
“What is peculiar about the 2008 financial crisis is that it is taking place alongside a food, energy and an ecological crisis. (I)t humbled the world’s economic powers. They are asking developing countries like China to help solve the credit crisis through coordinated interest rate cuts…

“But if we are to seriously combat the current system, if we are to offer comprehensive and not piecemeal alternatives, then it is also vital to look below the surface—beyond even today’s pressing financial, food and ecological crisis—and understand the deeper processes that are at work… (Here he goes into detail.)

“It should be clear to all of us that the very developments that are supposed to reinvigorate capital are actually the sources of catastrophic crises. And it is at the very moment of crisis that the artificial separation of economics and politics collapses before our eyes… Governments, regional organizations, international institutions like the IMF and World Bank this past weekend—all scramble in unseemly haste to bail out their benefactors through subsidies for the rich. How ironic that the ‘free markets’ are today totally dependent on state intervention…

“Meanwhile, it is clear that the social costs of stabilization are being borne largely by working people…it seems to me that the scale of the crisis and the popular outrage today provide an historic opening for the renewal of the kind of radical politics that advances a genuine alternative to capitalism….”