Sometime in the 17th century, there developed the notorious “Triangle Trade”: rum and shoddy goods from New England to Africa; slaves from Africa to what would become the Old Confederacy; tobacco, sugar, molasses and cotton from the South to New England.
In the Era of Globalization, there has developed what I think of as the “Sexagonal Trade.” The only commodity involved is engraved paper and proxies therefor. Think of it in terms of one of Rube Goldberg’s fantasy gadgets: 1) I.M.F. money is sent to countries in trouble, where it is 2) confiscated by local kleptocracies, or appropriated by a variety of agencies fronting a game of credentialed usury, and 3) manumitted to a currency laundry like the Cayman Islands, then 4) to a “clean currency” market and 5) thence back to the I.M.F., to be put to work again 6) “structurally adjusting” the economic affairs of some other beleaguered Third World nation to begin the cycle all over.
Like its triangular forebear, the Sexagonal Trade involves, principally, persons of color. Like its three-sided predecessor, our six-sided model involves the enslavement-actual in some cases, virtual in others-of those persons.
If you want to see how it works, you cannot do better than to put pedal to the metal and go see Life and Debt , a prize-winning documentary by Stephanie Black now playing at the Screening Room. I read about it in the New York Press -unaccountably, I missed Stephen Holden’s glowing five-star review in the Paper of Record-and rushed to the theater where it was then playing.
I did so because Life and Debt is about Jamaica, and what the I.M.F. and the W.T.O. and bent pigs like Carl Lindner of United Fruit have done to the place. Anybody who has read this column for any meaningful portion of the 14 years I have been writing it must know how I feel about Jamaica. We are talking about a 40-year love affair.
But that’s not the whole story here. Yes, after seeing it, I got on the phone to other people who have houses at Round Hill and Tryall to tell them that anyone who has an investment of heart or wallet in Jamaica has got to see this film. Yes, I hope that Bob Pittman, who loves the island as I do, will find a way to get it on HBO. Yes, I hope that Ralph Lauren, who’s the “king” of Round Hill, sees it. Mr. Lauren uses Jamaica all sorts of ways in his fashion-and-lifestyle empire, but not as a manufacturing resource, and maybe this will make him think about that . Yes, I hope that any of us with a shred of clout or influence will do what we can to make it hot for the corporatist sonsofbitches that do what’s been done to Jamaica.
What makes Ms. Black’s film so interesting and so provocative is that it is both site-specific and yet transcendent. It isn’t the whole story: It contains an on-camera interview with former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, shot not long before he died, in which Manley is incisive about the I.M.F. but somehow fails to mention his ill-judged flirtations with communism and Castro in the 70′s, which brought down a mess of trouble upon his unhappy country. Nor is the ascendancy of the narcotics trade in the Jamaican economy given due weight. But one cannot ask for everything.
Be thankful for what Ms. Black has given us: not a political-protest film, not in tone or attack similar to the Seattle protests or the anti–Big Mac movement in France. In only one scene do people take to the streets, and I think Ms. Black includes this moment in a measured, cautionary way, to remind us that when you grind virtually the whole of a population down to zero economically, then the few who are left with anything to lose stick out. As I tried to remind those silly young people who put together Bright Young Things -a disgusting book that is the single best argument for a 100 percent inheritance tax that I know of-if you insist on calling attention to your wealth and advantages, it will occur to others to come and take them away from you. A lesson I would not think lost on one of the authors, the child of a principal lawyer for the Rockefellers, a family not known to favor boastful, worldly ostentation-but we seem to be living in an era when the thirty- and fortysomethings appear to have forgotten what little they bothered to learn at Brown or wherever they went to study Gucci.
There are no manifestos flashed on the screen in Life and Debt , no angry young people. The Jamaicans we meet are mostly people of a certain age, who went decently and honestly about their work for decades and now find their lives in ruins-the kind of “ruin” Adam Smith may have had in mind when he speculated as to how much ruin may be in a country. If I may paraphrase another great American with a hand in Jamaica’s plight, former Citibank chief executive Walter Wriston, the old petrodollar recycler: “Countries don’t go broke, people do.” Of course, if you can find enough people, it adds up to a country.
Life and Debt shoves no politics in our face, which makes it all the more riveting. It just gives the facts. It shows the human face of “structural adjustment” (along with “family tennis” and “native entertainment,” the most ominous word rubric in English). It counts the money costs and then personalizes them.
Powdered milk costs 57 cents per whatever to produce in this country; thanks to the I.M.F., it is sold-if it were the “free-trade” U.S., the phrase would be “dumped”-in Jamaica for 27 cents, decimating the local dairy farmers and causing their herds to be sent for slaughter. Stanley Fischer of the I.M.F. speaks in reasonable tones-I would call him a reasonable man, in the same wise that Marc Antony described Brutus et al. as honorable men-but his soft, superior voice, with just a hint of Afrikaans about it, prescribes calamity for those nations unlucky enough to have no friends in court or in Congress.
What this movie is about is what I believe to be the great issue of our time: whether we are going to let giant corporations, with governments and governmental agencies and cooperatives fronting for them, run our lives. Whether we are going to permit them to continue to earn hatred for this country around the world as they search for that extra mill or farthing for the bottom line. Whether it is the I.M.F. in a place like Jamaica, or the Federal Appeals Court for the District of Columbia in the matter of U.S. v. Microsoft, the outcome seems clear. The object of the exercise is to clear the way for corporations to do as they please. If they encounter resistance, the shock troops of the “free market” are sent ashore-peacekeepers commissioned by Uncle Sam.
This is what has concerned me about the Bush Project from the day of his nomination. There are too many Big Company men and women on the team. I know about Big Companies. I have sat on their boards, helped arrange their finances. I came of age in the Era of the Organization Man. I can think of no group of people better equipped-on their own say-so, if nothing else-to fend for themselves. I know of no group of people less acquainted with the notion of the “public good.” Most of them don’t know how to spell it, any more than they acknowledge that U-period-S-period spells “us” and not just ” Us! ” (the plural of “Me! Me! Me!”).
From 1962, when Jack Kennedy took on the steel companies, until the 1980′s, Big Company thinking-what’s-good-for-General-Motors thinking-was relegated to the margin. But the entrepreneurial interregnum is over, partly a homicide victim (the complete abandonment of antitrust), partly dead by its own hand (the dot-com bubble). The men in gray flannel are back. At the I.M.F., they wear gray, too.
See this movie, Life and Debt. Then tell yourself that, of course, something like that could never happen here. And keep telling yourself.