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Here Was an Effective Challenge to Utopian Materialism


By William Pfaff - International Herald Tribune

PARIS - It probably would have been better if the Seattle WTO meeting had collapsed of its own irreconciled conflicts, unaccompanied by street drama and the attentions of self-proclaimed anarchists. What happened allows many to claim that people's power and a politics of confrontation brought down the confabulations of wealth and greed, which is not exactly the case.

Established opinion is allowed to claim that the world's serious work is blocked by irresponsible protesters, and even by ''liberal intellectuals'' who fail to understand that globalization is good for the poor. In both cases there is self-serving misinterpretation of the meaning of what happened last week.

By an unintended combination of circumstances, the Seattle meeting produced an important confrontation in a public conflict of values that has steadily intensified during the last 10 years. The issue is one that was once rather well put by the statement that man does not live by bread alone.

One side in the debate says that trade and wealth make improvement possible in humanity's affairs. Therefore, the interests of wealth producers should prevail. The other says that the current emphasis in the advanced countries, and certainly in the United States, on giving priority to material values and ends, and at sometimes severe costs to the neglected social sectors and values, diminishes humanity.

Seattle was about a choice of society. Worth noting is that for many in the former Communist world, this choice seemed already made by an idealized West and was confirmed by communism's collapse.

During the years that preceded 1989, the Cold War was perceived as a conflict between an allegedly scientific dialectical materialism, expressed in Leninism, and a West that defended the priority of nonmaterial values.

The Western powers condemned the Soviet system not only because it was a political and military threat claiming that in due course its progress would ''bury'' the West, but also because communism was spiritually and morally sterile, hostile to human liberty, aesthetically repressive and philistine, committed to the proposition that material forces determine destiny.

This moral sterility is what eventually destroyed communism - or so commentators and politicians in the West insisted after 1989. Existence had proved too rich in possibilities to be confined within Marxism's categories. Progress and prosperity depended on the exercise of political liberty.

All along, there had been Westerners with their own version of determinist materialism, usually naive. Some thought that Western propaganda could win the Cold War by showing communism's victims how rich the West was.

I remember a project, hatched in U.S. political warfare circles, to send Western mail-order catalogs by balloon over the Iron Curtain so that the people who found them would be inspired to overthrow their oppressors.

There are those who still believe that communism was defeated by outspending Moscow on arms. Those who say this understand nothing of the spiritual malaise that existed even in parts of the Soviet elite during the later postwar period. Glasnost and perestroika were the result of that anxiety, as earlier had been underground samizdat literary works, subversive because they asserted values that the Soviet system tried to suppress.

When communism did collapse, union with the West was expected to result in moral revolution and spiritual revival in the former Communist countries. The West instead offered a new materialism. Worse, it was a materialism that often worked badly for them, and in Russia's case worked not at all, leaving millions convinced that they had been swindled.

The formal issues for the WTO to negotiate are material ones (properly so): competitive agricultural subsidies in Europe and America, wages and working conditions in the developing countries, control or taxation of speculative international financial transactions, the treatment of art and intellectual work as a commodity, etc.

The underlying issue at Seattle was the social choice. Should the interests of industry, financial institutions, and international corporations, all of them producers of wealth, take priority in politics and international relations? The respectable argument in favor says that wealth creation makes everything else possible, including human progress. The unrespectable one is that shareholder profit is all that counts.

The argument against says that wealth creation, like most things, has its trade-offs and downside. It says that unqualified priority to wealth creation impoverishes human society in important ways. That these include threats to the sea turtles and the rain forests does not make them ridiculous. It underlines how extensive and interrelated they are.

It is a serious matter that the main thing the United States has offered the world during the last decade, since Soviet and European communism perished, has been its own version of utopian materialism, a naive and groundless optimism about how money not only lifts all boats but inspires democracy, washing away the social and political sources of human conflict and contradiction.

Seattle saw a rebellion against that - in part reasoned, in part inarticulate, in part surrealistic, but effective.