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Part A
Text selected
Relevant Info:
Reading comprehension
by Patricia Cusi
1132 words, suitable for Angles 3
Source: The Guardian
Argumentative text
Stop. I want to get off
So-called progress is the new ideology. But how progressive is it and why can't it tolerate dissent?
Madeleine Bunting Monday November 29, 1999 The Guardian
Expect out of Seattle's World Trade Organisation meeting this week lurid reports of
multicoloured-haired, body-pierced, tattooed anarchists. In gleeful detail, we will hear of the
wilder shores of environmentalism and anarchism among the 150,000 protesters Seattle police and
the FBI are bracing themselves for. We have been warned of reheated 60s hippies with a sinister
twist of violent far-right elements. There is nothing more repulsive than such a combination political naivety in bed with fascism.
This is a colourful way of reporting a tediously difficult trade summit, but it is a gross distortion of
a crucially important event. The protesters in Seattle cannot be dismissed as nutters; you could
hardly describe the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
or many of the other 1,200 environmentalist, development and human rights groups who signed a
petition to the WTO in advance of this meeting as extremists.
What is depressing is that this distortion serves only one interest. The wise chief executive of a
global multinational will put up with a bit of tear gas floating over his lobster lunch this week. It
gives him the perfect opportunity to dismiss his critics as fanatics, as he tells those trade ministers
between sips of chardonnay about corporate social responsibility; meanwhile his oil company
continues to pour effluent into remote rivers and cut down virgin forests.
The biggest danger in Seattle is that reports of fascist "deep ecologists" will distract from the real
issue. The Pacific port is the stage for a set-piece confrontation displaying the ideological divide
which is emerging in the wake of the cold war split between capitalism and communism. What is
slowly emerging is a riposte to global corporate capitalism and its perceived henchmen - national
governments. The fragments of this critique are scattered across the globe from the Zapatistas in
Mexico to Greenpeace's humiliation of Monsanto. It may currently lack organisation but the
ideological divide is as stark as it ever was in the cold war - there is little common ground, there is
considerable mutual contempt. The divide can be summed up as progress: do we or don't we
have it?
That this ideological divide should show up so sharply in Seattle is no coincidence because the
WTO has claimed for itself the role of architect of progress. The WTO conflates progress and
globalisation, and argues that they will generate wealth and peace. Mike Moore, the WTO
director-general, upon whose broad shoulders the success or failure of the Seattle talks rests, is
driven by an evangelical zeal. In books and speeches, he powerfully articulates the ideology of
progress: we are getting richer, we are living longer, we are finding cures to terrible physical
suffering and more people live in democracies with some measure of political freedom. Bill
Clinton and Tony Blair sing from this hymn sheet, adding sexual and racial equality, children's
rights and an emerging international order in which human rights are protected (though this last
looks threadbare as Kosovo fades and Chechnya takes centre stage).
The counter argument is that while some of these achievements are worthwhile - sexual equality
for example - they are dwarfed by the disasters we are busily hatching for ourselves. How can one
talk of progress when environmental catastrophe could be only a few decades away? Trade may be
making some of us richer but at the cost of the environment and of billions more people getting
poorer. Liberalisation only opens up more people and environments to the exploitative
multinational corporations. Besides, what use is more money when we are all unhappier? The
World Health Organisation claims that treatment of mental ill health such as depression will
consume more resources than heart disease by 2020 as the world copes with unprecedented social
Each argument is perfectly coherent within its own frame of reference; they are two profoundly
different ways of looking at reality. The worrying thing is that those who believe in progress hold
all the cards; they run the WTO, they run the multinationals and run governments. The Noprogress have a fragile purchase on the political culture of any western nation. If they turn to
violent protest, they, like any marginalised political group before them, do so because of their
impotence in the face of an all-pervasive ideology.
What is terrifyingly totalitarian about the progress groupies is their dangerous characteristic of
claiming inevitability. Be it globalisation, the knowledge economy or even the single currency, the
trump card is "You have no choice, this is inevitable." Blair in his conference speech articulated it
with chilling clarity: "These forces of change driving the future don't stop at national boundaries.
Don't respect tradition. They wait for no one and no nation. They are universal." This is the
ultimate political turn-off; the only role Blair gives us is as powerless passengers, along for the ride
whether we like it or not. With that kind of political message, it is not surprising people don't
bother to vote in the Kensington and Chelsea byelection.
Politics is supposed to be about negotiating choices. But look at the "choice" Blair offered at
Bournemouth: ". . . a nation masters the future. Fail and it is the future's victim." For a culture
which fetishises choice, this is a rum deal: keep up or drop out. An advertising executive of 18
years' experience working with major IT companies commented recently: "Working for IT clients
means disturbing exposure to a fanatical totalitarian mentality. No briefing is complete without
thumping of boardroom tables and wild-eyed references to the 'relentless', 'unstoppable', 'ruthless'
nature of the e-commerce revolution." Advertising, he believes, has become dangerously close to
propaganda: it is not about choice any more but about promotion of a doctrine, globalisation.
Of course as with any ideology, language is refashioned to make any alternative impossible even to
articulate. Part of progress is modernisation; New Labour busily "modernises" the welfare state,
the nation and anything it can get its hands on, but what does modernisation actually mean?
Answer: anything Mr Blair wants it to mean. Strip away such non-words and what does Blair's
progress amount to? Britain must keep up in the global ratrace so that some of us get richer, and
New Labour will soften the rougher edge with a modest redistribution of wealth and a bit of
international debt relief.
This sounds like pure pragmatism of the "you can't buck the market" variety made palatable with a
rhetoric about hope, "young country" and equal worth which skims over contradictions. Why
should globalisation give us hope? Nowhere has it produced equality. The millennium ferris wheel
looming over the Palace of Westminster is the perfect illustration of this kind of no choice
progress politics - once on, you can't get off and you will end up going in circles. (1132)
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999