Published on Wednesday, January 31, 2001 in the Toronto Star
Corporate Leaders Fear Free Ideas
by Richard Gwyn
`WE WERE not born to live in a corporate globe, yet that is the world we are moving towards.'' - Eric Kierans, former communications minister, in his soon-to-be-published memoir, Remembering.
Each year at this time, every international corporate leader who is anybody, as well as attendant politicians and public officials and a few academics and journalists, gather at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to ponder such topics as Whither Humankind and How To Make More Bucks.
This year's gathering is as elegant, expensive, sedate, high-toned, and as smug, as all the previous ones. Except in one respect.
Circling the Congress Centre in Davos there are now a series of high steel barricades. These are topped by barbed wire. At all the entrances, more than 300 police stand on guard, some carrying a rifle and rubber bullets, while others are equipped with full riot gear including water cannon. In reserve behind them there are 600 soldiers.
There is something almost engagingly ridiculous in the spectacle of corporate leaders needing to be protected - by the state, in a neat irony - against a few demonstrators saying rude things about how it might be better if the world's income gaps weren't so obscenely wide and getting ever wider or brandishing placards protesting genetically modified foods.
There is also something ridiculous, but this time in a very serious sense, in the contrast between the way all those corporate leaders will spend a week telling each other, and the world, about the importance of free markets and free trade and, just about, freedom from taxes, and their own fear of free ideas.
This admission by corporate leaders of their fearfulness in engaging in debate with those who don't agree with them represents, I believe, the single most significant achievement - unintended of course, and so all the more revealing - of all these annual Davos conclaves of recent years.
It demonstrates that the anti-globalization movement - more precisely, the anti-corporate globalization movement - which first attracted widespread attention with the so-called Battle of Seattle a year ago, has reached the level where it can put the globalists on the defensive.
Beside the steel barriers and gun-toting police, there were several telling signs of defensiveness at this year's Davos meeting. The title for the gathering was ``Sustaining Growth and Bridging the Divide.'' This was paying the anti-globalists the tribute of hypocrisy, since corporate leaders are not in the least interested in ``Bridging the Divide'' - that is, in narrowing the income and power gaps between themselves and everyone else.
As well, the corporate types got United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to come among them and say all the right things about how, ``For far too many people in the world, greater openness looms as a threat'' and how, in order to reassure the public, corporate leaders should commit themselves to a Global Compact expressing just how much they, too, were worried - were really, really worried - about things like labour standards and the environment.
In his forthcoming memoir, Kierans makes as good a case as anyone has done why it should be that the globalists now find themselves on the defensive.
His core point that human beings were ``not born to live in a corporate world'' is dead on. Economics, profits, incomes, money all matter immensely, of course. But they seem to be becoming the totality of life itself, or the only things that matter with everything else marginal, disposable, forgettable.
Kierans is also dead on when he writes that at some point, ``The controls of the civil state will no longer apply.'' This is to say that governments, or those we elect to express our will, will become marginal and disposable and forgettable.
More accurately, perhaps, governments and corporations will become a single, indistinguishable whole. It can't be a coincidence that at a time when corporations have never been more powerful (and wealthier, and larger) that the most pro-business administration in modern U.S. political history, that of George W. Bush, should just have taken power. And this happened following an election that was both the most money-dominated and the least democratic (the winner actually lost the election) in U.S. history.
And yet the anti-globalists have so forced corporate leaders onto the defensive that they can now only meet inside the equivalent of a gated community where no one who doesn't think like them is allowed in to disturb their peace.
Mutely, unintentionally, those corporate leaders are admitting that they, too, recognize that human beings were not born just to live in a corporate globe.