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Maria Livanos Cattaui


‘The events of 11 September are likely to have a short- to medium-term effect on the costs for business,’ said Maria Livanos Cattaui just a few weeks after the events in 2001. She was responding to a question about how they might impact on her concept of ‘globalization’. ‘Higher insurance costs, delays at customs, heightened security measures and concern among companies about risks they can take in furthering their activities in many developing countries.’

Maria Livanos Cattaui, Secretary General of the ICC since 1996, could never be accused of lacking focus. She is a passionate and efficient believer in the virtues of business. These she extols on any conceivable topic, from the salvation of Africa to the wonders of a security system that tracks individual shipping containers. She recommends cost-benefit analysis as the best approach to the ‘war on terror’.

Two things distinguish her from run-of-the-mill business propagandists. The first is that she is a woman. The second is that she has never worked in business. Of Swiss nationality and Greek origin, she was educated in the US (Harvard), then went on to editorial supervision at Encyclopaedia Britannica and Time-Life Books. In 1977 she joined the World Economic Forum in Geneva, where she worked her way up to become Managing Director. Her special area of responsibility was for the notorious annual meeting of the Forum in the upscale Davos ski resort.

Lest we forget, this was the heyday of the Masters of the Universe. The mood was captured well enough in the film Wall Street or the novel Bonfire of the Vanities. It was as if divine revelation had spawned a new cult, its high priests gathering every year in the snows of Davos to be attended upon by nodding intellectuals, governments, anyone with any ambitions at all in the power-broking, money-making game. Manifest destiny lay in corporate globalization, culminating symbolically with the closure in 1993 of the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, which still had mild regulatory ambitions. All the while, there was Maria Livanos Cattaui servicing the ritual.

So complete was the triumph of corporate power over democratic control that it became a new orthodoxy – which, like all orthodoxies, then had to be protected from itself. At this point Cattaui moved to the ICC, the world's largest corporate lobby group. While a plethora of powerful business ‘dialogues’ had flourished alongside the Forum, the ICC remained relatively comatose, scarcely organizing a single international gathering.

Cattaui changed all that. Grand ‘global’ shindigs and specialist hit squads were launched by the ICC. Renewed regulation of any sort had to be slaughtered at birth. Any policy discussion – especially on the environment – that might lead in that direction would be headed off at the pass. The innate virtues of business made voluntary self-regulation more than sufficient. Corporate influence over such institutions as the World Trade Organization and the UN itself needed to be institutionalized. In July 2000, no more than seven years after the closure of the Centre on Transnational Corporations, the UN duly signed a ‘Global Compact’ with private corporations. Most observers credited Cattaui with a remarkable coup.

Make no mistake, she is a smooth and supple operator. She no longer claims to favour ‘free’ trade. She prefers ‘rules-based’ trade – given, of course, that the rules are made by business. For her, business is part of ‘civil society’, perfectly entitled to wield influence in the same way as, say, the Church – although it’s a civil society that excludes troublemakers, particularly anyone who ‘trashes cars’.

She scorns the idea that corporations have become more powerful than governments. ‘Oh, that’s crazy!’ she protests. ‘Who can raise taxes? Who can spend [them]? Who can set up a judiciary? Who can incarcerate? Who can raise an army? There’s no company in the whole world that does that! This is the job of government! And they do it, more than they ever have before.’

So that’s all right, then. Cattaui knows exactly what governments are for – to keep everyone in good order for business. Meanwhile, there’s an expanding area of corporate territory that self-styled democratic governments, as if by telepathy, no longer dare or desire to enter. In truth, there’s nothing telepathic about it. Maria Livanos Cattaui sees to that.

New Internationalist issue 370 magazine cover This article is from the August 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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