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||In her book The Silent Takeover, the British author presents a stark vision of a world dehumanized by corporate rule.
ARIANA: The scope and clarity of The Silent Takeover really impressed me. It's about the impact of government policy on business and on society as a whole. How did your ideas take shape?
NOREENA: I used to be an advocate
of the new liberal orthodoxy. I even went to business school in America, at Wharton. Then I went to work
for the World Bank in Russia in the early '90s. I advised the Russian
government on its economic reforms we were basically selling free-
market capitalism to the Russians.
I began to realize that this one-size-fits-all policy coming out of Washington
to open up markets, liberalize prices, and privatize everything was likely
to have a terrible impact on many
millions of people there. People who were dependent on factories not only for jobs but for social infrastructure, like hospitals and schools.
ARIANA: What did you see happening?
NOREENA: The human condition was being lost in this whole economic blueprint. I started questioning what
I had accepted as a given up until then, so I went back to school, to
the University of Cambridge. I did a Ph.D. looking at what was actually happening on the ground in Russia. Over the next few years, I saw all my worst fears coming true life expectancy was plummeting, and the gap between rich and poor was exploding. Ordinary Russians I was close to were no longer able to afford even basic goods. I also realized that this shift in power from government
to market wasn't just happening in far-away places. It's affecting me
and my day-to-day life and the lives
of everyone around me. That made me decide to write what became
The Silent Takeover.
ARIANA: I guess people on the other side would say that what happened
in Russia is the price of change and it will even out eventually.
NOREENA: I know, but the figures are not bearing that out. In Latin America, for example, between 1960 and 1980 the per capita gross domestic product grew by seventy-five percent.
Then from 1980, when they actually embraced neo-liberal International Monetary Fund and World Bank
policies, growth fell to seven percent. Over the past twenty years, the
poor have actually got poorer in real terms. We were spun this story in
the Reagan-Thatcher era that if
countries followed all of these prescriptions, wealth would trickle down. I think after twenty-odd years, we
see all too clearly that these policies are not delivering.
ARIANA: Many people are completely alienated from politics now. Has consumerism replaced citizenship as the mode of making one's voice heard?
NOREENA: We're seeing a shift away from citizenship towards a sense of identity derived from what we
consume I shop therefore I am. People are realizing that we can use our shopping power as a political tool. In the United States, for example, there has been a fifty percent increase over the past ten years in people's willingness to boycott a product for ethical or environmental reasons. The politicization of shopping has
definitely had an effect on corporations' behavior, but to a limited degree.
It's a form of political expression
that only the rich can participate in, so it's not at all democratic. It fails desperately on that account.
ARIANA: I've started to think much more about where and how the
products I buy are made. How do you personally deal with that?
NOREENA: It's very hard. When I
went to the protests in Geneva last summer, I had to buy a new pair of sneakers. I went to a sporting goods shop, and I thought, "I don't want to buy Nike, because I've read about what happens in Nike's
subcontractor plants." I realized
that even though I think about these issues all the time, I had no idea where Adidas makes its products,
or Reebok, or the brands I've never even heard of. As consumers, however much we care about making ethical
or environmentally sound decisions, we're often stymied by a lack of
information. Clearly the government could change that. The state could make it mandatory, for example, that companies disclose where and how they produce their products.
ARIANA: In Silent Takeover you talk about the furor over genetically
modified, or GM, food. That's been a much bigger issue in Europe than here in the U.S.
NOREENA: We saw a big public response to this issue in Europe. While Tony Blair was defending Monsanto, the company responsible for developing much of this technology, supermarkets were taking genetically
modified food products off the shelves. British consumers were very clear that they just would not buy them.
ARIANA: Why was that a successful consumer campaign?
NOREENA: There were several forces coming together at once. The campaign was initially launched by Greenpeace the major environmental pressure group. And the media played a
huge role. The conservative British newspapers came on board. Our equivalent of something like the
New York Post was running stories about the GM food watch campaign.
ARIANA: I can imagine the tabloids
taking a sci-fi angle and being very alarmist. That sort of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" stuff sells papers.
NOREENA: Yeah, it's a good story mutant genes running amok. People don't want six-foot tomatoes in their supermarkets. But the whole subject was easy to mobilize people around as well. We saw this incredible union between eco-warriors people who literally trash fields with genetically modified crops and housewives. The financial institutions also came into play. Seeing this shift in consumer sentiment, they downgraded the stock of certain food companies. The analysts at Deutsche Bank were saying that
the term "genetically modified"
had become a liability. Ultimately
Tony Blair had to backtrack on his defense of Monsanto and admit
that the technology was potentially dangerous.
ARIANA: It's an interesting conjunction of forces.
NOREENA: Yeah. The problem is there
are lots of things going on all the
time which are not getting that level
of public attention. The right to form unions in developing countries,
for example, is not an issue that
gets the same kind of front-page
coverage in newspapers.
ARIANA: Do you think that someday there could be international or
NOREENA: I strongly believe in the
need for more global governance, not government. What we have at the moment is a global system in which trade interests the interests of multinational corporations are
subordinating everything else. They are subordinating human rights,
environmental issues, labor standards. We need to have some kind of global counterweight. It could be a world environmental organization, which even Renato Ruggiero, the former head of the World Trade Organization, has called for. Or it could be a world social organization, which would bring together labor and environmental codes. I do think that trade unions themselves need to think beyond their own borders. We need to move to a much more cosmopolitan notion of rights, in which everyone is entitled to basic human and environmental rights, wherever they live.