(Commentary originally published by YES! Magazine, October 5, 2021)
As the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center approached, I wasn’t paying much attention. But then I received an email from my longtime colleague John Cavanagh, former director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. It was a private message recalling the “Justice, Not Vengeance” initiative that the institute and YES! Magazine organized along with Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover a few days after the historic attack.
We gathered signatures from our nation’s leading progressives for a statement calling on Americans to resist the rush to war in Afghanistan. As I reread our statement in response to John’s email and reflected on the 20-year war that followed, I was struck by three things. One was that the U.S. failures in Afghanistan that we now so clearly see were in fact foreseeable. We spelled them out in the declaration. The second is the extent to which the outcome of 9/11 was a win for Wall Street and a loss for the United States and global civil society. The third is that 9/11 and its aftermath is one element of a much larger story helpful in understanding the choices now at hand.
When important actions, like our military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, seem misguided, it is often informative to ask: “Who benefits?” Regarding these wars, three answers come to mind. First, they served the political interests of President George W. Bush, whose approval ratings skyrocketed shortly after his invasion of Afghanistan. Second, they enriched military contractors. Third, they benefited corporate interests more generally by disrupting the momentum of a global citizen resistance against international trade and investment agreements that only benefit transnational corporations. The first two beneficiaries are well known. The third, and perhaps the most important, merits further explanation.
The 9/11 attack came as a globalizing civil society was awakening to the dangers posed by a growing concentration of unaccountable corporate power. I had experienced my own gradual awakening years before. In 1990, I published Getting to the 21st Century, which drew attention to the failures of development policies promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It drew on my experience in low-income countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where I had lived and worked for much of my adult life. I observed these policies pushing people off the lands on which they had depended for their livelihoods and reducing them to itinerant agricultural workers or overworked, ill-paid factory workers.
At that time, I had not yet realized that similar trends—toward more inequality, and toward consolidated corporate control of essential resources undermining democracy and threatening environmental health—were playing out in the United States, Europe, and Japan, which I had long seen as economic success stories. The fact that both high- and low-income countries shared trends in common indicated that the source of the trends I observed in Africa, Latin America, and Asia went far beyond the flawed policies promoted by neoliberal economists working for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
As I was exploring these issues in the early 1990s, I was invited to join a meeting of what became the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), a new global alliance of influential intellectual activists focused on the economic forces playing out around the world. The IFG held its first meeting in early 1994, just after the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted. At that meeting and those that followed, we each shared the experiences of economic failure that we saw playing out in the specific contexts with which we were familiar. The similarities were stunning.
We then focused on identifying the systemic causes of what was clearly a global economic failure. Later we spread those insights to expanding circles of global activists though conferences, books, articles, and media. I worked them into the first edition of When Corporations Rule the World, on which I was then doing final revisions.
It was a moment when many people were asking: “What has gone wrong with the economy that had temporarily brought middle-class prosperity to so many people?” In providing answers to that question, When Corporations Rule the World became an international bestseller when it was published in 1995.
A defining lesson of my business school education was that if you treat only the symptoms of a problem, the problem will likely continue to appear. To eliminate the problem, you must identify and correct its systemic causes. That lesson was at the forefront of my mind in 1996, when I joined in founding YES! Magazine, a publication devoted to systemic solutions.
Our IFG discussions later turned to framing systemic alternatives. We jointly authored Alternatives to Economic Globalization (2003, 2004), which to this day provides the best available framework for the economy of what we’re now calling an ecological civilization.
Between 1995 and 1999, growing numbers of people around the world rallied to demonstrations against corporate rule and the international trade and investment agreements that corporations were using to advance their growing global power. This led to the 1999 “Battle in Seattle,” which drew 50,000 demonstrators, including from labor unions, environmental organizations, and religious institutions.
The protest shut down an intergovernmental meeting of the World Trade Organization. Some of the demonstrations and workshops were organized by IFG members, and the IFG hosted a parallel conference in a Seattle concert hall that drew 5,000 participants. YES! hosted a lively reception for IFG members and other conference speakers and resistance leaders.
The impact of the Seattle demonstration, combined with news coverage of the violent police response, caught global attention and energized demonstrations around the world involving many hundreds of thousands of people. They forced the abandonment of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a step-up from NAFTA to include all of North and South America. They also forced the architects of the globalization of corporate power to begin holding their meetings in small countries governed by autocrats ready to use extreme force to suppress any expression of dissent. Participating in the 1990s in shining an early light on an imperialist corporate dominated economic system was a defining experience of my life.
Then came 9/11. Nineteen suicide bombers armed with box cutters turned airplanes into weapons to bring down New York City’s World Trade Center towers, the symbolic headquarters of global corporate rule. In an instant, global sympathy for those who died, and their bereaved families, turned Wall Street from villain to victim. Declaring a perpetual war against terrorism, the U.S. government began rolling back civil liberties and branded dissent as support for terrorists.
Corporate-friendly governments followed the U.S. lead in equating dissent with terrorism and used police and military power to suppress all protest. The voices resisting corporate globalization fell largely silent.
Looking back on these events, the ironies are endless. The deaths that resulted from the collapse of the towers made Wall Street a subject of global sympathy. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq weakened the United States and the crackdown on dissent fragmented the global progressive movement.
Massive demonstrations to disrupt global meetings of the corporate power brokers largely ceased. The hijackers attacked the World Trade Center as a symbol of western colonialism and capitalism. They committed mass murder, but by justifying a global crackdown on dissent, they strengthened the forces of Wall Street they intended to weaken.
There is a yet deeper irony. The global corporate agenda is destroying Earth’s capacity to sustain life. That is an act of collective suicide from which no one escapes. We call the suicide bombers who brought down the World Trade Center terrorists, but the terror they evoked was minuscule compared to the global terror evoked by unrestrained climate change, including massive wildfires, droughts, floods, and hurricanes, which trace directly to the excesses wrought by Wall Street.
While making modest pro-environmental gestures, Wall Street has a deep financial interest in maintaining the system that is causing the crisis, and many among Wall Street’s champions believe that even when the economy and human society are collapsing under the weight of climate change, they will come out the winners.
But there will be no winners on a dead Earth. Wall Street interests have yet to recognize that their quest is ultimately suicidal, much like the attack by Bin Laden’s suicide bombers.
A look at 9/11 and its aftermath within the context of a much larger human story is helpful in recognizing that we are at the midpoint of a great transformation.
Post-9/11, progressive movements have focused attention on the many ways an imperialist approach to organizing human societies has wounded Indigenous people, Black people, Hispanics, Asians, refugees, women, and LGBTQ people. Awareness is now growing that a system that advantages the wealthy at the expense of everyone else dehumanizes the oppressors as well as the oppressed.
Bottom line: the current system is not working for anyone. Rich and poor alike share a common interest in deep and rapid transformation.
We are also coming to see that the institutional drivers of current social and environmental collapse are not limited to the institutions of business. The institutions of government, religion, education, and science share responsibility. All are products of an imperial civilization that continues its reign. All require significant critical examination and restructuring in ways we have scarcely even begun to discuss.
The emergent ecological civilization we seek will be a world that has moved beyond divisions by class, gender, and ethnicity. It will be a world in which every person has a meaningful role in assuring a fulfilling life of material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all on a beautiful, healthy, living Earth.
We stand at a point of civilizational transformation comparable to the human transition from wandering bands of hunter-gatherers to settled agricultural communities some 10,000 years ago. It’s also comparable to the transformation from relatively peaceful egalitarian farming communities to societies organized around violent, exploitative imperial hierarchy that occurred some 5,000 years ago.
We now stand at a decisive moment in a third great transformation. The present transformation began some 250 years ago with the American Revolution and the many movements for justice that followed.
Looking at the events surrounding 9/11 in the context of the larger human story gives us a deeper perspective on the source of current system failure. The integrative movement against the global consolidation of financial and corporate power that 9/11 disrupted was a crucial step toward global unification of citizen movements in search of alternatives to a dying imperial civilization.
The many people-power movements that arose in its stead, including Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock Sioux, and the countless mobilizations around climate action, gender equality, and other causes, temporarily drew our focus away from their common source in the values and institutions built on a foundation of oppression and exploitation. However, they made an essential contribution to building awareness of the scale of the injustices and exploitation that those values and institutions have wrought.
As the imperative for emergency action becomes ever more apparent and urgent, I sense that attention is beginning to focus once again on root causes of the deep cultural and institutional failures that include, but extend far beyond, the institutions of Wall Street.
We face painful times ahead. The disruption that comes with the collapse of a society’s primary institutions is an inherently disruptive process. The faster we move on bringing forth the new, the faster we can get through the pain and settle into the new ways of being with one another and Earth, on which our common future depends.
It is now evident that the resistance against the global consolidation of corporate power was just one step toward unleashing the transformational power of a global movement dedicated to advancing the human transition to an ecological civilization. The challenges ahead are daunting. We have many sources of insight, but we have no proven model for the global civilization we must now bring into being. Drawing from all our sources of understanding, we must learn together as we engage in creative dialogue, community building, and testing and sharing alternatives as we go.