The Misery of Privatization
Or What Happens if GATS wins. Urgent Warning of the Consequences of a Set of Agreements that threaten to subject all areas of life worldwide to the dictates of neoliberal fanatics
By Peter Huemer
[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,
http://wwwderstandard.at/druck.asp?id=1419281. The historian and journalist Peter Huemer gave this excerpted address at the Bruckner festival. Der Standard is an Austrian journal.]
More than two years ago the economic magazine Fortune advised its readers: "If you seek a secure stock investment that promises constant profits, consider the ultimate alternative to the Internet: water."
As everybody knows, water is not the only target. What is at stake is the shattering of our education- and public health system and ou9r energy supply, areas "that were never seen in the past as subjects of trade policy" according to the ex-WTO director Renato Ruggiero. Education, water, medical care, public transportation, everything that one can buy and sell, should pass into private hands in the future and be treated like all other commodities.
The worldwide agreement that I describe is called GATS, the abbreviation for General Agreement on Trade in Services. The liberalization and privatization of public services is uppermost. Negotiated in the framework of the World Trade Organization WTO, the driving forces are the US and world-embracing corporations.
It is quite possible that you have heard little or nothing about this most important worldwide agreement because the negotiations were conducted secretly and the participants were intent that little reached the outside. This is understandable because a worldwide storm of shock and indignation would have arisen. As a result, there was agreement on a procedure absolutely identical with the secret diplomacy of the 18th century when cabinets on order of their feudal lords decided the fates of whole peoples in top-secret negotiations. This is happening again.
The disastrous experiences worldwide with past privatizations of the infrastructure aren't mentioned at all. The English train system and the power supply in California are legendary. The list of failures could be easily extended. These are catastrophes for the general public, not for the shareholders. Thus privatization continues.
The area of culture is obviously threatened if subsidies in the future are regarded as distortions of competition. European film will be destroyed. Our theater- and radio system will be put in question along with the little cultural initiatives. The Bruckner house will be 30 years in March 2004 and can be proud of its history. However its future is doubtful if GATS wins. A new museum could not open up under these circumstances. No one can guarantee that museums will be exempted from the agreement in the long run. No service sector will be generally spared from GATS.
A current little example from the US shows what privatization of culture means in practice. At the end of July 2003, we learned from the Frankfurter Allgemeinen and Suddeutschen Zeitung that the endowment of the late oil heiress Sybil Harrington sued the Metropolitan Opera for the return of $5 million because the "Tristan" at the Met financed from oil money did not correspond to the ideas of the deceased billionaire. Dieter Dorn, the director of the Munich royal theater, truly not a young maniac as we know, staged this performance. However this "Tristan" was not conventional enough for the Harrington foundation. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Now I ask you: Do we want these conditions?
GATS is a massive threat to European cultural life. The present shameful shortage of money of our universities, museums and libraries is only a foretaste of what will happen when GATS takes effect.
Understandable rage about this threat inadequately summarizes our feeling. We suspect that the future of the world is at stake here. But we don't know much more. We are dependent on what the German government is willing to defend in public assets and public interests. While this government is extremely eager for privatization, it supports non-inclusion of art and culture in negotiations. This is important.
Pasolini described this capitalism 30 years ago. In his essays he tackled the radical cultural destruction by the consumer society. This was the "first true revolution from the right", he wrote. The old values family, native country, frugality and church are shattered. "There may be no other ideology than consumption."
End of History
What prophetic words! We can actually choose between more kinds of butter and cheese today than ever before. Shops sell two suits for 99 Euros. Telephone use has also become cheaper. However a tiny minority makes the great decisions affecting the life of people and whole continents. In addition, a planned element of the agreement of GATS is that the process of privatizations should not be reversible any more regardless of its devastations. Such an attempt at excluding all learning processes through a set of worldwide agreements is unparalleled in the history of humanity. Prohibiting people from learning would actually be the "end of history".
The neoliberal fanatics currently in power seek to realize their worldview unconditionally - with the blessing of world-embracing corporations that earn great sums but unfortunately don't pay taxes any more.