Saturday, February 09, 2008

Corporations vs. the nation-state

Exxon has just launched a direct assault on the sovereignty of Venezuela. It's a movie we've seen many times before, from Sanford Dole and the overthrow of Hawaiian autonomy, to the United Fruit Company and the overthrow of the democratic government of Guatemala in 1954, to more recent corporate-backed violence and subversion. But times have changed: what's good for Exxon, Metalclad, Ethyl Corporation and a host of other transnational corporations is not always decided by Marines or proxy wars. Finding complaisant courts is less costly, after all, and less bloody.

The weakening of the nation-state is by now a matter of historical record, as the unelected committees and tribunals of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, NAFTA, etc., have largely taken charge of international and domestic economies. Venezuela is one of several countries that has elected to fight back--the scoundrels!--moving to take over their own resources. Evo Morales' Bolivia comes to mind as well: one of the poorest countries in the world, sitting on some of the richest reserves of natural gas and oil, wants control of them.

What perhaps should not surprise me is the unswerving loyalty and support that certain conservatives and libertarians (the comments at Kate's place, as always, are instructive) give to the multinationals in the latter's desperate hours of need. Conservative philosophy wraps itself in values of individualism, autonomy and freedom, but when the gloves are off, the underpinnings of that value-system become apparent--it's all about the survival of the fittest, the conquest and exploitation of the weak by the strong. In fact, shorn of nuance, the ideology can be summed up in a single phrase: might makes right.

As Exxon positions itself for arbitration, claiming that it has now frozen $12 billion in Venezuelan assets around the world, it turns out that the greedy, polluting transnational giant might have overstated things a little. The Venezuelans have been left scratching their heads. Almost certainly the numbers are inflated by the corporate propaganda machine. But Exxon's naked assault on national autonomy is troubling, nonetheless, for anyone who takes quaint notions like sovereignty, democracy and accountability seriously.

On the other hand, it is refreshing in a way to be able to see in clear outline what corporate globalization is all about, minus the chatter, the fairy-tales about "development," the continual mystification, and the plain deceit that have accompanied this seemingly inexorable process.

It's about power, always has been. So, then--which side are you on?

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