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Books: The Agony of Mammon and the Fifth Anniversary of the Battle in Seattle
Alex Steffen, 22 Sep 04

In about a month here, we're going to start seeing "five years after" stories on the Battle in Seattle -- the watershed anti-globalization protests here during the 1999 Seattle Round of the World Trade Organization talks.

It's a natural, really, from a media point of view -- heck, we considered doing something about it ourselves: call up a bunch of leading thinkers on globalization, people like Vendana Shiva, Klaus Schwab or Naomi Klein, and get them to speak with consideration on "Seattle's legacy," and go all visionary on the future of globalization.

But we don't have the time and resources to do that (though it would be fun). Instead, I'll just say that I don't think anyone's yet done a better of summing up the problems and contradictions of globalization than Lewis Lapham.

In The Agony of Mammon: The Imperial Global Economy Explains Itself to the Membership in Davos, Switzerland,Lapham managed to both skewer the corporate leaders assembled in Davos for the World Economic Forum, and, simultaneously, and somewhat sympathetically, identify with the conundrums they face.

It's scaldingly funny stuff, as you might gather from his first paragraph:

"Although in many ways bountiful and in some ways benign, the colossal mechanism that generates the wealth of nations (a.k.a. "The Global Economy," "Moloch," and "The Invisible Hand") lacks the capacity for human speech or conscious thought, a failing that troubles those of its upper servants who wish to believe that it is they who control the machine and not the machine that controls them. Their amour propre forbids them from picturing themselves as mere stokers heaving computer printouts and Montblanc pens (or shopping malls, movie studios and Mexicans) into a blind remorseless furnace. They seek a more gracious portraiture (as masters of markets, captains of commercial empire), and so, every year in late January, they make their optimistic way from the low-lying places of the earth to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where, high up on the same alp that provided Thomas Mann with the setting for The Magic Mountain, they brood upon the mysetries of capitalist creation.

And it only gets funnier (Lapham's definition of "austerity," for instance: a "healthy and invigorating program of financial exercise for people who cannot afford to go to business school."). But what saves Lapham from being another simple-minded, slogan-waving critic of globalization -- other than his wit -- is that he understands that these are smart, mostly ethical people, wrestling with complex problems to which no one has simple answers; a state of affairs which is troubling to those used to extraordinary success:

"[A] high percentage of them were a good deal more intelligent and considerably better informed than their analogues in the academic and literary guilds.... [but] they were a parliament of managers, and Africa was beyond the pale of management; so were most of the other global propositions (terrorism, environmental degradation, ignorance, and war) brought to the podium with the pomp and fanfare of simultaneous translation and overhead projection. ...And if the wealth of nations came and went at the pleasure of the "free market," in many ways great and glorious but in other ways as mindless as a ballbearing, then what happened to the fond belief that it was the corporate magi on the magic mountain who controlled the engine of the global economy and not the other way around? How did they escape the thought that even they, the men of Davos, danced like red-hatted monkeys to an organ-grinder's merry witless tune?"

So, by all means, celebrate the upcoming N30 anniversary with a binge of punditry, but remember that no one really understands this thing we call globalization, that the sides are never as clear as they look through the tear-gas, and that it's not at all obvious what we ought to do about this gigantic wobbling top we've built our economic futures on -- that, in short, the bells of Davos toll also for thee.

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Without my experience in the original WTO protests, I probably would never have started a domain. Here's a link to my letter I sent to everyone I knew immediately after the event which the Corpse later published:

Posted by: dr. menlo on 22 Sep 04

Great piece!

Reminds me that someone needs to shake up Lapham and Harper's about making more of their stuff available online.

Posted by: tonx on 23 Sep 04



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