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The public threat to private power


‘The single greatest threat to the multilateral trade system is the absence of public support.’ Thus spoke Charlene Barshefsky, Clinton’s U.S. trade representative, in the run-up to the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle.

Elite state-corporate interests sweet-talk, bludgeon, or simply circumvent the public to get their way. The general public are to be regarded as ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ and mere ‘spectators of action’, explained Walter Lippman, the early twentieth century propaganda guru. Private power would like to keep it that way.

The ‘growing manifestation of “people power” in the raw is definitely not good news for business’, warned Sir Iain Vallance in his presidential address to the Confederation of British Industry’s annual dinner in 2001, ‘particularly if national politicians hesitate in the face of threats or, just as bad, over-react to them.’

Vallance went on, ‘We need to promote the undoubted benefits we bring, if only because much of the outside world is highly sceptical that they exist at all.’ Vallance’s final point, at least, is correct.

Even in the U.S., supposedly the bastion of ‘free’ market capitalism, a Business Week/Harris poll in the run up to Seattle revealed a healthy dose of scepticism towards the incessant propaganda declaring that an accelerated global economy would benefit us all.

As campaigner Mark Weisbrot noted, ‘the American people are a lot closer to the views of the protesters than to the intellectuals who sneer at them from the op-ed pages.’ When asked to describe their position on trade, only ten per cent chose ‘free trader’. Fifty per cent chose ‘fair trader’ and thirty-seven per cent chose ‘protectionist’ – a term that is as vilified in mainstream opinion as ‘communist’.

But despite such public resistance to economic globalisation, the recent WTO ministerial meeting in Doha marked another triumph for ‘the quad’ – the US, EU, Canada and Japan – and their corporate sponsors. Overruling concerns expressed by both developing countries and the civil sector, a new round of liberalisation in trade and services was ‘agreed’ in the Gulf state of Qatar.

The new tool of corporate enclosure is the General Agreement in Trade and Services (GATS): originally agreed at the WTO in 1994. The aim is to remove any restrictions and government regulations in the area of service delivery that are considered to be ‘barriers to trade’.

‘Legitimate’ services for privatisation include schools, hospitals, rubbish collection and even water. As usual, private corporations based in the rich North have been in the driving seat, with governments clearing the road ahead.

Just how far the British government is prepared to go to help its business friends is revealed by leaked minutes of meetings between government officials and corporate representatives.

The minutes, uncovered by the Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory in November last year, record meetings of the Liberalisation of Trade in Services (LOTIS) committee and the High-Level LOTIS Group, both set up by an influential trade organisation called International Financial Services, London (IFSL). The LOTIS working groups include senior civil servants from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and HM Treasury together with representatives from Goldman-Sachs, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Morgan Stanley, as well as other organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, Lloyds of London and, tellingly, Reuters, the news organisation.

When the issue of countering the anti-GATS campaign was raised at a working group meeting on 22 February 2001, the minutes record that Henry Manisty of Reuters ‘wondered how business views could best be communicated to the media. In that respect, his company would be most willing to give them publicity.’

The media industries, of course, are big business conglomerates driven by the short-term profit imperatives of advertisers and wealthy owners, and maintained by a well-regimented army of establishment journalists, commentators, editors and publishers, with a few decent exceptions.

It is therefore no surprise that there should be an overwhelming convergence of private interests between the corporate media and the business world generally. It would be astonishing if it were otherwise. (By the way, pointing out this simple truth to mainstream commentators invariably meets with silence or patronising dismissal as the ravings of a conspiracy junkie.)

The London-based World Development Movement (WDM) has been a major player in the anti-GATS campaign. LOTIS minutes reveal that the WDM and, more widely, the rising public consciousness of corporate plunder, is taken as a serious threat by the government-business nexus:

‘Matthew Goodman [Goldman Sachs International] asked why sectors like health, education, water and energy were being singled out [by anti-GATS campaigners].

Elaine Drage [DTI] said that it was because they were seen as basic services which people had a right to receive from their governments. The WDM had, usefully for them, been able to point to some examples in the developing world where consumers had been given a bad deal as a result of privatisation. She said that we would be right to take this campaign very seriously. The Chairman [Christopher Roberts] asked whether the WDM was open to persuasion. Elaine Drage was doubtful.’

Matthew Lownds from the Foreign Office ‘noted that the [anti-GATS] campaign by the World Development Movement in particular was leading to a broadening of concerns… He also pointed to the need to coordinate business responses to the NGO’s allegations’.

Malcom McKinnon (DTI) complained that the business case is vulnerable to pressure groups asking ‘for proof where the benefits of liberalisation lay’.

Peter Maydon (HM Treasury) then undertook to circulate recent work about the supposed benefits of liberalisation and, moreover, suggested that ‘developing countries should be encouraged to refute the arguments put forward by the NGOs’. The committee decided to spend up to £70,000 to ‘counter the NGOs.’

Such government collusion in promoting the business case for GATS and undermining NGO campaigns is par for the course (see George Monbiot’s ‘Captive State’ and my own ‘Private Planet’).

Some comfort should, however, be taken from the evident threat that public awareness represents to elite shaping of policy, an echo of the spectacular public success in derailing the infamous Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998 (elements of which have sprung up again in GATS). (For more info on the uncovered minutes of the two LOTIS working groups, see http://www.gatswatch.org/LOTIS/LOTIS.html).

After Doha, attention is now shifting to Johannesburg where the third major UN Conference on the Environment and Development (the ‘Earth Summit’) will be held in September this year. It is ten years since the original Rio Earth Summit, a corporate-dominated jamboree whose effect, notes writer Michael Goldman, ‘has not been to stop destructive practices but to normalize and further institutionalize them, putting commoners throughout the world at even greater risk’.

In 1997, ‘Rio+5’ was held in New York where Tony Blair was seen ‘commanding the international stage’, according to The Independent, with no trace of irony.

In the run-up to Rio+10, corporate business is ready to ensure that, once again, its interests will dominate proceedings. The International Chamber of Commerce and the greenwashing World Business Council on Sustainable Development have joined forces to create the Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD).

BASD was launched at a UN session on sustainable development in April 2001 by Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, recently retired as Shell chairman. ‘Business’, we are told, ‘is a part of the solution to sustainable development.’

In reality, BASD is a reheated mixture of the usual suspects: Shell, Cargill, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, RTZ, Unilever, Nestle and others. As the Oxford-based activist group Corporate Watch warn, expect the BASD to deploy the ‘usual extortion tactics against government and the UN process’ at Rio+10. David Cromwell is the co-editor of Media Lens (http://www.MediaLens.org) and is the author of ‘Private Planet’ ( http://www.private-planet.com )

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