The antiglobalization battle plan
To fight corporate power around the world, protesters must know the enemy and start organizing instead of just shouting
There are a few standard ingredients that no self-respecting protest book with an eye to the bestseller lists should be without. "The Silent Takeover" a book that has rapidly made its author one of the world's most prominent critics of globalization blends these into the literary equivalent of a gourmet meal:
1) Select a writer likely to have popular appeal. Although at first glance a Cambridge University academic may not seem to fit the bill, Noreena Hertz is in fact the ideal candidate. Having worked for the World Bank advising Russia on its transition to free-market economics, she has all the cachet of the "convert," able to argue from hard-earned lessons and firsthand experience.
More important, she is blessed with youth, beauty, and charisma. Even serious political debate can no longer escape the demands of the 24-hour media, as Hertz's publisher seems to admit with the large sultry photo of her clad in leather pants gazing out from the inside back cover. (The US audience has been spared the even bolder British version, which features her in knee-high boots and a fur coat reclining on a leather sofa, bizarrely surrounded by fallen leaves.)
2) Choose the largest theme you possibly can. Hertz's approach is exemplary: Not content to argue simply that corporations are undermining democracy around the world, she also mixes in a general criticism of contemporary economics (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer), her thoughts on human rights (they are being trampled on by corporate interests), her analysis of the future of the "international protest movement" (it will grow but should focus on reclaiming the power of the state), and finally throws in a six-step plan to fix the world's problems. Proving her extraordinary talent for the genre, Hertz fits these proposals neatly into just three pages.
3) Flavor with as many juicy anecdotes as you can. Instead of saying simply that lower tax rates might entice people to move abroad, Hertz feeds the reader tantalizing details of a Victoria's Secret lingerie model who offended her French compatriots by resettling in Britain, with its more generous personal income allowance.
Instead of warning that corporations might not really care about the public interest, she describes at length the 1973 sci-fi movie "Soylent Green," set in a world in which a company makes food out of human bodies. And she even tops it off with a delicious piece of hyperbole: "These are essentially the issues we face.... Are we heading toward the world of Soylent Green? A world in which the corporate interests literally or metaphorically feed off our carcasses?"
But while the question is sensationalistic, Hertz's answer is not. And that's why, thanks to the combination of her populist style with a rigorous political commentary, "The Silent Takeover" is fast becoming the central text of the antiglobalization movement.
Hertz argues that politicians have become estranged from their constituents because big business increasingly plays governments off against each other, constantly searching for the best investment environment and threatening to leave if their demands are not met. If a politician wants to challenge this, the campaign finance system is likely to block their path. Big-budget elections, says Hertz, make corporate support a vital prerequisite to ballot-box success.
Furthermore, corporate control of the media limits the public's access to information. By paying to sell their message, companies have an immediate advantage over their poorer political opponents.
Hertz does, on occasion, get carried away with her thesis. She doesn't mention instances where countries have successfully managed to "go it alone" for example, France's recently introduced 35-hour working week. She is also prone to generalizations, using the example of a Fox TV station that refused to cover a story criticizing one of its sponsors to illustrate her sweeping contention that even public radio and television are produced with corporate interests in mind.
Nevertheless, the picture she paints is a compelling one. Hertz's sense of outrage is palpable, but so too is her optimism that all is not lost that ordinary people can still change the world for the better. The book's second half is spent celebrating the global protest movement that has had hundreds of thousands demonstrating at international meetings in Seattle, Prague, Washington, and Genoa over recent years.
For fellow critics of the status quo, Hertz's most important message is strategic: "Such protest does not provide a long-term solution to the Silent Takeover," she admits. The movement needs to institutionalize itself to avoid being seen as an irrelevant band of protesters. It should present concrete alternatives, rather than merely organizing around a shared discontent. It should adopt democratic procedures, instead of giving a voice only to those who shout the loudest. In short, it should adopt the characteristics of a good old-fashioned political party. The proof of whether protest writing can still influence actions as well as bestseller lists may well lie in whether protesters embrace the prescriptions, and not just the rhetoric, of "The Silent Takeover."
Tristan Jones is a graduate student at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.