From Populism Toward Anti-Capitalism

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Gerard Greenfield

THE RECENT ATTEMPT to ban ski masks and scarves in Quebec City during the Summit of the Americas provides a useful insight into the way antiglobalization movements are perceived by the powers-that-be.

Much has already been said about excessive police powers and the violation of civil liberties.  This is clearly an important issue.  But there’s a deeper, more powerful symbolism involved.

By trying to make it illegal to “wear or have in your possession a mask, hood or ski mask, or any other object of the same to cover one’s face,” the rich and powerful have sent us a message.

They’re afraid—afraid of the recent successes of the antiglobalization protests—and in an attempt to limit the damage, they want to identify the troublemakers.  Unmasked, these opponents of globalization will somehow be disarmed.

What this comic-book logic suggests is that they just don’t understand what’s going on. What they see as antiglobalization protests are in fact expressions of diverse, organized and often deeply-rooted popular movements.

In addition to diverse politics and fashions (lacking a ski mask or hood I’d only qualify for “any other object”), the fact is these movements aren’t about a handful of troublemakers in masks.  They’re about ordinary people struggling against injustice, oppression and exploitation, all making trouble in different ways—with or without a mask.

Maybe the symbolism that worries those in power is the association between black ski masks and the Zapatista.  We can only speculate.  What we do know, however, is that the masked protester is a stereotype used by the mainstream press—especially the financial press—in an attempt to generate a sense of danger and criminality.

Ruling-Class Panic Attack

A good example of this is Forbes, a leading U.S. business magazine, which last November dedicated its glossy cover to a photo of a masked protester.  Typed across it in large red print are the words: “CORPORATE SABOTEURS.” This is accompanied by a warning to its readers: “They wrecked Monsanto.  Now they’re after the U.S. drug industry.  Is your company next?”

Your company?  Well, Forbes magazine has always described itself as the “capitalist tool,” so it’s pretty clear who its readers are. Adjacent to a one-page photograph of another masked protester with fist raised high, the lead article begins with a dire warning for Forbes‘ capitalist readers:

It started just about when the world’s capitalists were congratulating themselves on the defeat of communism: a new wave of anticorporate populism.  What happened to tobacco companies, what is happening to genetic engineering companies, is beginning to happen to the drug industry.  The effects could be devastating.  (Forbes, November 27, 2000)

We are then introduced to one of these corporate saboteurs: a street protester in Prague, who isn’t wearing a mask, but is armed with a pretty good analysis of what’s going on:

The new enemy of the free market has a face a lot like Katika Kuhnreich’s—freckled and delicate, with hair pulled back in a pony tail .  .  .  “The root of profit is in the exploitation of the working class,” says Kuhnreich, her jacket sleeves rolled down to reveal her mantra in black block letters, Kapitalism Kills, Kill Kapitalism.

Without dwelling on the implications of what Kuhnreich is saying, Forbes continues its survey of anticorporate populism and takes us in an unexpected direction.

In addition to the militant street protester, three other corporate saboteurs are identified as having potentially devastating effects on readers’ profits.  Ironically, the street protester now appears to be the least dangerous.  A greater danger lies in the “Third World” where capitalist entrepreneurs are accumulating profits at the expense of U.S. corporations:

Half a world away, in Bombay, India, the biggest threat to capitalism isn’t an anarchist.  It’s a 64-year old entrepreneur named Yusuf Hamied, who is undermining the pharmaceutical industry by selling knockoffs of patented drugs for one-tenth the price or less.

Having focused on the threat faced by U.S. pharmaceutical corporations, Forbes identifies yet another kind of corporate sabotage.  This is manifested in a “rage on the streets” by frustrated American consumers whose reaction to excessively high prices for prescription drugs leads to “fiscal disobedience.” This constitutes the third corporate saboteur:

.  .  .  retirees who are so fed up with the high cost of prescription drugs that they’re boarding buses to Canada, where they can buy their medicines more cheaply.  The same act of fiscal disobedience is repeated by elderly Arizonians, who spend three hours on buses to Mexico, where they can save hundreds of dollars on their monthly prescription bills.

Finally, Forbes warns of the fourth—and most dangerous—corporate saboteur; one which has tapped into popular anger and resentment against U.S. corporations by pushing a populist agenda of breaking up monopolies and restoring competition and competitive pricing:

We’re not talking about fringe politicians or Naderites as the enemies of profits.  We’re talking about Republicans.

To justify this claim, Forbes points out that a majority of Republican congressman and senators backed laws that reduce drug prices and undercut the mega-profits of the U.S. drug corporations.  There’s also a renewed push for antitrust legislation by free market technocrats.

Ambiguities of Anti-Globalization

Although the journey from street protesters in ski masks to Republicans is a fascinating one, Forbes simplifies complex struggles and issues, reducing them to business policies and practice.  There’s a lot of confusion about what people are against and why, and very little sense of what’s at stake.  (That’s not something we should be looking for in the business press anyway.)

Nonetheless there is a very important point in Forbes‘ analysis that must be taken seriously: The new wave of anti-corporate populism isn’t necessarily anti-capitalist.  In fact, there are significant conservative forces attempting to (re) shape anti-corporate sentiment.

It’s precisely because Republicans (and Democrats) are defending the capitalist system that they are against monopolies and monopoly pricing.  This kind of anticorporate populism is based on the recognition that the capitalist system needs competition if it’s to be efficient, effective and constantly expanding.

Naturally, as the corporate political donations roll in, political practice diverges from this ideal.  Free competition, like the free market, is a political strategy, not a reality.  The point is that popular concern about big corporations is translated and twisted into a populist notion of trust-busting (temporarily breaking up cartels and monopolies) while maintaining a powerful procapitalist ideology.

A similar point can be made about anti-globalization movements.  The protests against globalization are not the exclusive domain of radical and progressive left forces.  Right-wing politicians and a populist rural right are also against the WTO, IMF and the World Bank.

With more WTO rulings against the United States (like the recent ruling against the U.S. antidumping law on steel imports), there’s growing right-wing hostility to the WTO’s interference in the workings of American capitalism.

This is likely to translate into nationalistic calls for a return to aggressive U.S. unilateralism.  More importantly, the right has directed its populist appeal to segments of the working class in an attempt to build a reactionary response.

Corporate Damage Control

Given these conditions, the anticapitalist left is faced with a serious challenge.  Critical popular education and organizing among working-class people in the antiglobalization movement must recognize this and deal with it in a way that goes beyond populist versions of “global corporate rule” and the WTO “monster.”

The defenders of capitalism recognize that unless anticorporate populism is effectively managed and appropriate concessions are made, then there’s a real danger that it could move beyond the current populism and actually become anticapitalist.  That’s precisely why Forbes warns at the outset: “The effects could be devastating.”

Part of the response that Forbes advances is the need for big corporations to increase their charitable donations and work with international and local NGOs. Given that “the ten largest pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. have had collective sales of $179 billion over the past twelve months and collective gross profit of $121 billion,” they can easily donate a few hundred million to establish themselves as good corporate citizens.

Treating the HIV/AIDS crisis as a business issue, Forbes uses the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome as an example.  By selling its Combivir HIV/AIDS drugs at a lower price in the Third World, Glaxo can ease the pressures of anticorporate sentiment.  Forbes notes that these price cuts “shouldn’t shave too much off the US$1.5 billion a year the company gets from AIDS drugs.”

It’s in the context of damage-control strategies that Forbes highlights the success of Shell in Nigeria, where it has donated tens of millions of dollars for community projects like roads, schools and hospitals.

The aim is to restore its image after its genocidal attack on the Ogoni people and its complicity in the execution of the movement’s leaders in 1995, including the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Under Shell’s “community development program” in Nigeria, the explicit purpose is “to find local organizations that are working to better people’s lives but don’t have an anticapitalist agenda on the side.” (Forbes, November 27, 2000, 166) That’s the strategy.

In this sense the political distinctions within anticorporate populism inform capitalist strategies.  By financing those organizations which are not anticapitalist, there is a greater chance of delinking anti-corporate populism from anticapitalist struggles.

To cite an example, Forbes praises NGOs like Oxfam International for taking the fight to the conference room and not the streets.  (Notably, this section of the article is entitled “Power Without Firebombs,” implying that the masked street protesters have firebombs.)

To reassure its readers of the distinction, Forbes quotes Oxfam Great Britain’s campaign manager, Harm-Jan Fricke, as saying: “We don’t want to get rid of the World Bank or IMF, because if you didn’t have them the situation would be a heck of a lot worse.” (159)

Through these reassuring comments, Forbes illustrates the vast divide—in terms of analysis, goals and action—between the street protester in Prague and NGOs like Oxfam.  This in turn becomes a roadmap through the dangerous terrain of anti-corporate populism.

The “Wrecking” of Monsanto

The agro-chemical and genetic engineering corporation, Monsanto, apparently failed to survive this anticorporate populism.  Deemed by Forbes as a victim, the “wrecking” of Monsanto is held up as an example of how devastating it can be. As a result of the popular backlash against genetically engineered crops, Monsanto lost billions and was forced to restructure and merge with the pharmaceutical giant, Pharmacia.

There are two ways of looking at the wreckage.  The first is to point out that the struggle against Monsanto was much more than a series of well-organized anti-corporate consumer campaigns.  There were other kinds of struggles against Monsanto which—in terms of challenging the capitalist logic of Monsanto’s activities—were far more devastating.

In India, for example, tens of thousands of peasant-farmers mobilized in the Monsanto Quit India campaign launched on August 9, 1998.  Genetically engineered test crops were uprooted and destroyed.  And under the slogan “Cremate Monsanto” fields of genetically modified crops were burnt.

The refusal by peasant-farmers to become dependent on genetically modified seed and agro-chemicals was combined with resistance to Monsanto’s expansion into other industries—including water.

Ultimately, the land and livelihood issues underpinning these collective survival strategies directly challenged Monsanto’s commodification of living organisms (through genetic engineering), as well denying the legitimacy of patents as instruments of private property.

Yet “wrecking Monsanto” also shows how corporations, as powerful as they are, are only vehicles for capitalists.  In other words, they are a means to an end. The end result is that while Monsanto shareholders suffered temporary losses as it was forced to restructure and reorganize, the capitalists behind it were far from wrecked.

Shortly after its US$41 billion merger with Pharmacia, Monsanto’s arthritic drug Celebrex (which made US$1 billion in sales in the first ten months of its release) continued to be sold. The head of Pharmacia, Fred Hassan, remarked that the merger “gives us a lot of power.”

Less than a year after it was wrecked, Monsanto announced a new global target for genetically modified Roundup Ready corn of 200 million acres.  New markets were opened up in Brazil and Eastern Europe.  In China a series of large-scale genetically modified test crops were planted.

Profits grew steadily in 2000-2001, and the company’s share prices rose as a new global strategy for its agro-chemicals and genetically engineered seed was launched.  In other words, the capitalist logic of what it does—regardless of the corporate name it takes—is still in place.

The Importance of Anti-Capitalism

In a sense Monsanto’s recovery reflects the intrinsic weakness of anticorporate populism.  It’s often assumed that corporations are a power in themselves, rather than a particular way in which capitalists organize their wealth.

As long as capitalists remain invisible, why a corporation does what it does and the logic driving tends to be obscured.  Where this is attributed to “corporate greed” we are left with a moral argument rather than a political strategy.  Indeed, the whole notion of “good versus bad” corporations encourages an acceptance of capitalism’s potential to be kinder and gentler.

One of the problems we face is that while antiglobalization movements have raised a critical popular awareness of Trans National Corporations (TNC) and the social and ecological costs of “global corporate rule,” it has been limited to the behavior of TNCs as powerful entities in themselves.

As a result, the response to TNCs is often based on a narrow view of how much profit they’re making, rather than the system which drives them to constantly increase their profits.

The fight over drug patents, for example, is not just about monopoly pricing and mega-profits.  It’s about private property rights and commodification—where access to essential medicines is not constituted as social rights, but as commodities bought and sold for profit.

That’s precisely why capitalists view some governments’ support of generic drugs through compulsory licensing as a transgression of these private property rights and a form (though very limited) of de-commodification.  Declaring that pharmaceutical corporations’ patents are “endangered,” Forbes insists that mega-profits must be reduced in order to protect more fundamental private property rights from expropriation.

This link between private property, commodification and profit provides a useful way of connecting a critical awareness of TNCs and corporate power to an understanding of the capitalist system.  Doing so offers a possibility of shifting the energy of antiglobalization movements to a more constructive struggle for anticapitalist alternatives.

This is possible, but not inevitable.  The necessity of such alternatives can only be realized if there is a critical understanding of how capitalism shapes class exploitation and utilizes oppression based on race and gender.

Of course, this conclusion is far from new. But as long as capitalism persists, it’s worth repeating.  The warning on the cover of Forbes is also worth repeating:

“CORPORATE SABOTEURS.  They wrecked Monsanto.  Now they’re after the US drug industry.  Is your company next?”

If we accept that we must engage in a struggle for anticapitalist alternatives and not restrict ourselves to attacking specific corporations, then our answer would probably be something like this:

“Don’t worry, your company isn’t next. We’re going after the system!”

Gerard Greenfield is the coordinator of Social Action Workshop for Alternatives in Asia, a regional network of research activists in Asia concerned with action-research and popular education in support of anti-globalization strategies and popular local alternatives.

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)

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