ABCs of the WTO

Global capitalism threatens democracy, workers and the planet; but the tide is finally turning…

Because of Seattle, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has become a household word, synonymous with \”undemocratic\”, \”secret\”, \”anti-worker\” and \”anti-environment.\” But the WTO is but a single institution in the web of economic globalization designed to ensure corporate domination based on \”free\” trade, the myth that economic growth can continue forever, in spite of the limits imposed by nature.

The WTO was created in 1995 with power to impose trade sanctions against any signatory country which \”maintains barriers to trade.\” These \”barriers\” can mean almost anything, including protective tariffs, which aim to protect local industries and farms from competing goods imported from countries where human rights and welfare standards are lower. Many other laws, including those which impose labor or environmental standards on industrial production, are also considered \”barriers.\” For instance US laws which prohibit the sale of shrimp caught in nets that endanger sea turtles are considered \”barriers to trade\” by the WTO.

Any member country can request that the WTO take action against another country which has laws which are allegedly \”barriers to trade.\” WTO trade experts, drawn from big business and not elected by any government, then meet in secret to decide if the challenged law is a \”barrier to trade.\” The WTO\’s decision is not subject to appeal and an \”offending\” nation must decide between repealing its law, which may have been democratically passed, or suffering crippling trade restrictions.

The WTO is the main multi-national body charged with promoting free trade, but the process of globalization also depends on actions taken by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and most importantly, a few hundred multi-national corporations which are rapidly transforming the lives of billions around the world.

\”Globalization\” is the process by which the entire world is being merged into one huge market, based on \”free trade\” economic rules favorable to \”growth,\” and the centralization of wealth and power into a few, massive transnational corporations. \”Free\” trade generally means freedom for huge corporations to produce and sell products without regard for the welfare of people or the environment. Under free trade, transnational corporations are free to find the cheapest labor available, and then move their factories to that area to exploit the cheap labor.

Labor is cheap in these countries because workers lack the freedom to organize independent unions and government structures are undemocratic and unresponsive to worker safety or environmental health. Labor is also cheap because hundreds of millions of people who formerly lived off subsistence agriculture have been forced into the employment market.

The IMF and World Bank have forced poor nations around the world to raise quick cash to make debt payments by exporting raw materials and agricultural products. Cattle ranching, clearcutting and plantations have replaced farming for local use. Free trade advocates argue that the poor masses in the third world want jobs at Nike, but only in the sense that workers everywhere, when stripped of any other way to get food, are forced to become wage slaves. There is no free choice between maintaining traditional, subsistence agriculture and becoming a part of the world economy.

The alleged goal of the globalization process is to foster \”development\” in the third world and economic growth in the developed nations. However, it is far from clear that either development or economic growth actually benefit the population of the world, although both are essential to keeping profits up for transnational corporations.

Market-based capitalism requires that the economy grow every year. Any company that doesn\’t grow is deserted by its stockholders (who seek short-term returns on their investments), bought up by its competitors, or forced out of business. Constant competition enforces the rule: grow or die. This process operates regardless of whether this growth benefits or hurts human beings or the environment.

For example, in \”developed\” countries, the use of oil and cars expands every year-an indicator of economic growth. But does this make life better? More time spent in traffic, more noise, more pollution. More people moving from place to place, to be sure, but does it help people live more fulfilling lives?

Continued growth means that people in developed countries have more and more stuff and services every year. Western culture assumes that no one ever has \”enough,\” and the media assumes that we never stop buying.

Continued growth is also not sustainable. The amount of resources consumed and the amount of waste produced by \”developed\” economies has already exceeded the ability of the earth to regenerate the resources and absorb the waste. Witness global climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, topsoil loss, toxic waterways, depleted fishstocks, and mass extinctions in the natural world.

So even if economic growth makes life \”better,\” and even if one never has \”enough stuff,\” a system with no goal but growth is a doomed system.. At some point, the economy can\’t grow any more because of limits by nature. Again, transnational corporations and the capitalist system structurally have no ability to deal with this reality.

Because the \”developed\” world already uses most of the world\’s resources, developed economies need to considerably reduce their size, and reorganize around principles other than continued growth. Since almost all the benefits of economic growth go to the most wealthy tiny percentage of the population, it is likely that developed countries could stop growing and reduce resource use and still raise the poorer segments of the population out of poverty by redistributing the wealth.

Free trade agreements and policies probably do increase economic growth, but such growth is an inappropriate goal. It is clear that free trade policies strengthen the power and wealth of transnational corporations, which become better able to push even more growth. Simultaneously, free trade policies weaken each nation\’s ability to put any limits on transnational corporations, economic growth, or ecological destruction. Any local, state or national body that tries to impose standards can easily be abandoned by corporations, which can withdraw investment and jobs, but which will still be permitted to sell products-limiting opportunities for local production and autonomy. This is the essential coercive force of \”free\” trade.

What Is To Be Done

Given the powerful forces at work, and the complex web of problems with current economic, development and trade policies, it is extremely encouraging that the Battle of Seattle has finally spurred discussion within the US of economic issues in general, and the WTO in particular.

It is, however, far from clear how to harness the energy, courage and creativity displayed on the streets in Seattle. Corporate domination is all around us in every country, yet it is difficult to know how to effectively strike out against it. However, consider the following:

    International Alliances
    The most important aspect of Seattle is the possibility it suggests for an international labor/environmental/citizen coalition against corporate dominance, the dominance of growth over nature and the supremacy of profits over the lives of people. It was amazing to see thousands of people from all walks of life together in the streets in Seattle, bravely standing up to the WTO and its police.

    Labor leaders mobilized massive numbers of their constituency to participate in the protest. Despite the fact that they started backpedaling on November 30, realizing their own rank and file were getting beyond the reformism of the Democratic Party, sell-out unions, the labor march \”monitors\” couldn\’t stop thousands of steelworkers, teamsters, longshoremen, and other workers from getting a radical education in the teargas-filled streets. Despite lifestyle differences, workers and environmentalists have common enemies and common goals.

    Even more significantly, Seattle propelled US workers and environmentalists into a global coalition against globalization with movements worldwide. Workers in Europe, Asia and Central and South America have been opposing what is often known as \”neo-liberalism\” for years, while amazingly, the topic was completely absent in US public discussion. No more. As corporations and government goes global, our resistance must also go global.

    The US government has been the main proponent of the WTO and free trade from the start. It must be clear now to domestic movements in countries around the world that there are splits within American society on globalization. The task of the international movement against globalization is now to crack those splits wide open. We must learn how to combine opposition to globalization from the \”South\”, \”developing\” nations who suffer from trans-national corporate colonialism, with movements in the north

    Reviving Localism
    The alternative to globalization is a return to the local. This means local control over politics, production and resources and a return to self-sufficiency on a local basis. This doesn\’t mean that there would be no trade, just that people in a particular region shouldn\’t have to \”compete\” with people around the world in every human enterprise from farming to factories. Workers and citizens around the world should cooperate to realize common goals: human happiness, meeting human needs for food, housing, health care, mobility, and creativity, and maintaining the natural environment on which we depend.

    Localism means valuing diversity. Cultures around the world have evolved beautiful and important differences in tastes, food, music, values, etc. which are quickly being destroyed through globalization. A city in Asia shouldn\’t have the same chainstores as one in California. The \”free\” trade economists assume that a peasant in Indonesia wants all of the clutter found in an American subdivision (TV, products, clocks). Advertising is beaming consumer culture around the world to ensure normalization of desire. For sure, there are many benefits to development, but there is no opportunity for societies to choose and reject the shape it will take.

    Localism means using appropriate technology and resources, eating food that can be produced locally, and using energy sources that can be locally produced and controlled (without exporting the waste). Modest alternatives like Community Supported Agriculture, local currencies and barter, should be encouraged.

    E-commerce, the media darling of the hour, is a terrible threat to local self-sufficiency. It centralizes commerce into a few powerful, distant corporations and completely removes commerce from local accountability. At the next riot, how about targeting a webvan.com truck?

    New Value System
    Underlying all of this, we must develop an \”ethic of resistance\” to global corporate domination of our lives. The economy long ago abandoned serving human needs, and took on an internally destructive \”logic\” of its own. Every day our jobs serve not ourselves or our neighbors and family, but a system which is enslaving us and destroying the earth. The time has arrived to resist the machine with every tool available to destroy it. Perhaps Seattle was the first sign of a new culture growing out of the ruins of the old.