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The Financial Crisis Is Too Dire to Be Left to Politicians

Current leaders of the world's nations have utterly failed to develop a solution. Now it's up to ordinary citizens.

Editor's Note: As tens of thousands of activists from around the world gather in Belem, Brazil, for the World Social Forum, social movements everywhere are debating how to respond to the ever-deepening economic crisis. This article is excerpted from the longer discussion paper"Globalization From Below" Tackles the "Great Recession"  prepared by Global Labor Strategies.

At the pit of the Great Depression in 1930, an American country music group named the Carter Family recorded a song called "The Worried Man Blues." It began:

"I went down to the river and I lay down to sleep,
When I woke up there were shackles on my feet."

Though many subsequent verses describe the horrific outcome, there is no explanation of what had happened or why -- just an awakening to a seemingly endless catastrophe. The song immediately became an unprecedented national hit. It's hard to imagine that its success didn't have something to do with capturing the sense of being the helpless victim of incomprehensible disaster that so many felt in the face of the Great Depression.

The seemingly sudden collapse of the global economy in 2008 has similarly left millions, indeed billions, of people all over the world victims of a catastrophe that appears both inexplicable and unending.

But what's now being dubbed the "Great Recession" is neither incomprehensible nor irremediable. On the contrary, it can be understood as an expectable result of a capitalism that has been globalized and at the same time "freed" by neoliberalism of control in the public interest.

The economic globalization that transformed the world at the turn of the 21st century promised, according to its advocates, a glorious vista of prosperity that would provide unprecedented economic growth and raise billions of people out of poverty. In practice it generated personal and national insecurity, growing inequality and a race to the bottom in which every community, nation and work group had to reduce its social, environmental and labor conditions to that of its most-impoverished competitor.

But economic globalization also gave birth to a new convergence of global social forces that opposed this kind of globalization. People all over the world fought back against this "globalization from above" with their own "globalization from below." They used asymmetrical strategies of linking across the borders of nations and constituencies to become a counterpower to the advocates of globalization. They created a movement -- variously known as the global justice movement, the anti-globalization movement, global civil society, or as we call it, globalization from below -- that some in the media even characterized as "the world's other superpower."

The anti-globalization/global justice/globalization-from-below movement developed in response to the expansive phase of globalization and neoliberalism. Now the global economy has entered the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The financial crisis has turned out to be the start of a cascade of other economic crises that are reshaping the global economy as definitively as an earthquake reshapes a city. Current leaders of the world's nations have utterly failed to develop a solution. The likely impact of their failure on ordinary people around the world is incalculable.

The advocates of globalization from above propounded as an article of faith that markets are self-regulating and that all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds if only governments, labor unions, citizens organizations and the unruly mob let them alone to do their thing.

The times, they are a-changing. U.S. government officials long known as market fundamentalists seize banks, buy mortgage and insurance companies and commit $7.7 trillion -- half of the U.S. annual product -- to government intervention in financial markets.