World leaders can't seem to hold an economic summit without security forces at the level of an occupying army running roughshod over the host city. This is both a symptom of what's wrong with our global economy — predicated on war, domination and scarcity — and a metaphor for how it works.
So as delegates to the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last week tinkered with environmental issues and Third World lending and took a few marginal but high-profile steps to tame the beast, 4,000 police officers dressed in riot gear, recruited from around the country, demonstrated its fangs. The heart of global economic order — lest we forget — is protecting the interests of the wealthy few.
The public cost of such order in barricaded downtown Pittsburgh last week was at least $20 million; 190 people, including a number of journalists, were arrested. Students and passers-by were peppered-sprayed and beaten in a mass sweep through the University of Pittsburgh campus.
"For three days, thousands of militarized strangers took possession of our city, ostensibly to ‘protect' foreign and domestic leaders most of us would never see, much less meet," Tony Norman wrote on Tuesday in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "As one critic of the police action said during a news conference . . . if the planners of future G-20 summits really want to ensure smooth, dissent-free experiences for the world's leaders, why not have the conferences at military bases?"
Why not, indeed? Doing so would make it too obvious, I guess — that the driving mythology of the global, corporate economy is exploitative and barbaric. The peace and prosperity it is capable of generating, for some, is illusory. It will dissolve when necessary into violence, but more significantly, it tolerates and preserves the de facto violence of brutal, worldwide poverty because without the abject poor there could be no super-rich.
At the core of the global economy is predatory self-interest, which creates a few winners and an enormous number of losers. The combined wealth of the world's richest 200 people hit a trillion dollars a decade ago. Half a billion Third Worlders have the same combined wealth. The desperately poor or the world, those who live on a dollar day, who have little access to education, medical care or even clean water — who are disenfranchised by the global economy, dismissed, ignored, never seen by most of us — are the cost, born by humanity's collective conscience, of doing business.
And a predatory economy is a fear-driven economy. A world that is so imbalanced and unjust is a world in perpetual crisis: a world that never stops arming itself and is always at war. Globally, military spending is well over a trillion dollars a year. This hemorrhage has the inevitability of a law of physics. Certainly it's not the sort of expenditure that's debated at a summit like G-20, any more than it's debated by the U.S. Congress, which annually rubber-stamps the lion's share of that spending.
Total U.S. military spending was about $711 billion in 2008, Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies wrote recently in Yes! Magazine. This figure includes a $515 billion Defense budget, an additional $170 billion appropriated for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than $15 billion in the Energy Department's budget for building and maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.
Pemberton also notes that, since 2001, our military budgets have more than doubled. In that period, the defense establishment, a.k.a., the military industrial complex, completed its successful transition from the Cold War to the War on Terror, guaranteeing a steady, ongoing flow of military funding that had threatened to dry up — to turn into what was briefly called "the peace dividend" — when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Oh, that flicker, the peace dividend! I remember naively waiting for it to happen, as did so many of us, in the early '90s, as though, well, how could it not? Then we all forgot about it. Bill and Hillary gave up after their one brief stab at universal health coverage was shredded by the predatory self-interest of the insurance industry. Then came Newt and the hard-liners' dismantling of the Republican Party in '94 and Clinton's capitulation to the right. L'Affair Monica gave the media a semen-stained dress to worry about and our priorities have been pretty much derailed ever since.
I bring all this up just to remind myself that the forces of militarism and predatory economic self-interest are not easily defeated, indeed, cannot be "defeated," merely allowed to reap what they sow. This is what is happening right now.
In the meantime, our only hope is that, as we rebuild, we reorient to new economic models and a mythology extolling our highest values, not our lowest: integrity, community, cooperation and reverence for a planet that, in the words of Patricia Lerner of Greenpeace, is "too big to fail." In other words, we must revive, and vastly expand, the peace dividend.