Going To Greet The WTO In Seattle


Almost every day since I bought my plane ticket to Seattle to protest the November 29 through December 3 meetings of the World Trade Organization I have read something in the mainstream press that stirs an adrenaline rush. In the Seattle Weekly I read: "It’s historic. The confrontations in Seattle will define how the bridge to the 21st century will be built and who will be crossing it? Transnational corporations or civil society… The opening talks of the Seattle Round of WTO consultations will be a benchmark, a huge protest of corporate dominance of the global economy that will give politicians pause and CEOs cold sweats. There will be teach-ins and alternative conferences and press conferences and rallies and marches and blockades galore. Farm groups like the Northern Plains Resource Council, Western Sustainable Agriculture, the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, and the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America will be bringing outrage. There is talk of a procession of tractors. The Zapatista-originated Peoples’ Global Action is bringing caravans across North America to descend on Seattle. Thousands will be coming down from Canada, many veterans of protests in Vancouver against the 1996 Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings where heavy-handed riot police used pepper spray and preemptive arrests. Art and Revolution is bringing its giant puppets and public spectacle from the streets of San Francisco. The AFL-CIO, teamsters, longshore people, and other industrial unions are all conducting mobilizations. The steelworkers’ union has reserved 1,000 hotel rooms in Tacoma and Bellevue. Evergreen State College might as well close the campus they’ll all be in Seattle, as will students from around the country led by the Boston based Center for Campus Organizing. All in all, Seattle will see traffic snarled and resources stretched to their limits by a week of international protests mingling with trade ministers, heads of state, and both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Republican King County Council member Brian Derdowski calls the scenario ‘a security nightmare,’ and ‘the greatest security risk this region has ever known’."

In the Seattle Post Intelligencer under the headline "Political Leaders Fear Opponents Have Gained Upper Hand" I read to my delight: "Concerned that critics of the World Trade Organization have taken over the debate and may eventually take over the streets, political leaders in Seattle and Washington DC are expressing growing consternation that the Clinton administration isn’t doing an adequate job defending global trade. At a Senate hearing to discuss preparations for the WTO meeting in Seattle several top administration officials and senators agreed that U.S. public opinion has turned against unfettered global trade. `To be frank with you, this has not been an easy sell,’ Commerce Secretary William Daley said. "Many people see only layoffs. They don’t see the payoffs of this open trading system.’ Clinton officials promise high-ranking Cabinet members will visit Seattle soon to outline the case in favor of global trade. But Washington State Democrats, who generally are in lockstep with the Clinton administration on trade policy, say they have two sets of concerns: that the mainstream environmental and labor groups planning peaceful protests are raising legitimate criticisms that are not getting adequate attention from the administration and that the more radicalized protesters planning disruptive activities will sully Seattle’s reputation in the eyes of the world. In an interview yesterday, Senator Patty Murray said she remains concerned that disruptive protests could harm Seattle’s image. `The labor community is going to have a demonstration, and that’s great, the environmentalists will do the same, and that’s a good way to express opinion, but what I don’t want the outside world to see is burning of cars or something that presents the wrong image,’ she said."

If there was ever need to confirm that the best punch we can pack is the combination of mass and militant, all one need do is listen to Senator Murray. If you want to stop people from doing something that is in their interests but contrary to yours, you have to raise the costs to them of proceeding. When they go out of their way to tell you what they find costly the least we can do is listen.

The best news of all, however, was delivered by C. Fred Bergsten, a mainstream icon in the field of international economic policy, and director of the Institute for International Economics, in his oped piece in the Washington Post on September 30: "Global trade liberalization is dead in the water. No serious reduction in barriers is being negotiated anywhere in the world. The resulting policy vacuum is extremely dangerous. History clearly reveals that trade policy either moves forward toward greater openness or retreats in the face of protectionist pressures. Restoration of positive momentum is urgently needed." If the sight of C. Fred breaking out in a cold sweat in public was not enough to warm my cockles, he went on to explain that, from his perspective — which is the exact opposite of mine — things were likely only to get worse.

"Worrisome signs abound. The European Union has restricted numerous agricultural imports. The Brazilian crisis has triggered new barriers in Latin America. Japan has blocked an effort by APEC to liberalize a number of major sectors. The central problem, however, is the stalemate over trade politics in the U.S. The president and Congress have been unable to work out new negotiating authority for five years. Hence the U.S. cannot provide effective leadership of the international trading system. This policy drift in the U.S. is particularly alarming because it coincides with our robust economic performance. It has also occurred when many of America’s strongest competitors are in deep economic trouble, further improving our competitive position. The outlook for American trade policy is thus extremely worrisome once the economy slows down and unemployment begins to climb, and when our competitors make their inevitable comebacks.

Which brings C. Fred back to Seattle:

"Most hopes for restarting trade progress are pinned on the Ministerial Conference of the WTO in Seattle in December. The major powers, including the U.S., have agreed to launch a new global negotiation. However, they remain far apart on what it should contain. A number of developing countries oppose the whole project. And the anti-globalization groups will be out in full force in Seattle."

You got that right, C. Fred. But while I am under no illusions that corporate sponsored globalization has been significantly slowed, much less stopped, I don’t mind seeing C. Fred shed tears over any lumps his pet project may be taking – even if they turn out to be crocodile tears. However, the important question is not how much trouble the neoliberal bandwagon may be in, – because neoliberals are still very much in the drivers seat regarding international economic policy. Nor is the important question how massive and compelling the protest against corporate sponsored globalization in Seattle will turn out to be – because no matter how impressive our demonstrations in Seattle, at best they can only mark the beginning of a campaign that will have to grow for decades before international economic relations start to become democratic, equitable, and sustainable. Instead, the important question right now is: What kind of anti-globalization movement should we be building after Seattle? I offer a few observations and suggestions.

During the first two-thirds of the 20th century Marxists called it the anti-imperialist struggle. In the 1970s the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations called it their campaign for a New international Economic Order. In the 1980s and 1990s thousands of local environmental, labor, indigenous, consumer, citizen and women’s groups in the first and third worlds, led by a hodge-podge of Non-Governmental Organizations, have attempted to coordinate their struggles to protect their various constituencies from the ravages of corporate-sponsored globalization gone wild. All of which means that different people, in different places, at different times, have struggled against different detrimental effects of the global expansion of capitalism in different ways, guided by different analyzes. What have we learned from all this?

Crisis prone? Yes.

Apologists for capitalism would have us believe that private enterprise market economies always hum along providing maximum incentives for socially useful activities and innovations, allocating scarce productive resources to wherever they are most useful. Beside ignoring the fact that capitalism inevitably places the economic destinies of the many in the hands of a few, and the fact that capitalism is incapable of distributing the burdens and benefits of social labor equitably, these apologists err in two further ways. (1) Even if all markets were competitive and equilibrated instantaneously, capitalism would still allocate productive resources inefficiently, embrace socially counter productive innovations while failing to implement socially productive ones, and drive us to work too long and hard, consume too much, and overly despoil the natural environment. (2) But capitalism is not merely a system that connects private producers and consumers through markets for goods and services. It is an economic system where the logic of wealth management in a system of credit and finance ultimately determines what will be produced and consumed, i.e., what happens in the "real" economy. Combined with disequilibrating dynamics that can occur even in markets for ordinary goods, the capitalist credit system inevitably holds the seeds of potential crises. Failing to understand that even well regulated financial systems — much less highly leveraged, unregulated financial systems like the present system of global finance — are prone to crises, apologists for capitalism are invariably surprised by each crisis that occurs, and easily convince themselves that it will be the last, taking the winds out of the sails of financial reform efforts. The truth is unpredictable financial crises will occur in capitalism, and only their frequency and severity are amenable to prudent financial policy reforms.

Programmed to Break Down? No.

Many Marxists have theorized that intensive capitalist growth contains the seeds of its own destruction, and therefore capitalism must conquer new global markets or collapse. But all theories tracing the demise of capitalism to its own dynamics — for example, the substitution of unexploitable "dead" labor for exploitable "living" labor, or overproduction as restraints on wages prevent consumer demand from keeping pace with the growth of productive potential–have proved theoretically and empirically bankrupt. While capitalists will always want to extend their reach to find cheaper raw materials and labor, and more buyers for their commodities, it is simply not true that capitalism must conquer new markets or collapse. Unfortunately capitalism does not destroy itself. Instead it destroys the natural environment, degrades the lives of the exploited majority, and warps the lives of those who exploit them, all the while spinning a myth that commercialism is both inevitable and superior to all other ways of life. Unfortunately corporate dominated globalization will not stop creating more environmental destruction and human misery until those negatively affected combine to prevent it from doing so. But stopping global expansion will not destroy national capitalist economies. It will strengthen labor relative to capital in the more advanced economies, and reduce exploitation of third world economies through international trade and investment that aggravate global inequalities.

Progressive? No.

Many opponents of global capitalism nonetheless consider it "progressive" and see no reason to support pre-capitalist forms of resistance to its onslaught. This is a terrible mistake and unforgivable betrayal. Commercialism is a way of life as much as a system for making economic decisions. It is a way of thinking and relating to others, a system of values. It is a life driven by fear and greed, a life of forever competing against others and fearing the consequences, a life whose guiding motto is "do in others before they do you in." It is not a life of consciously coordinating our interrelated economic activities, a life of equitable cooperation with our fellow human beings. Therefore globalization is not just the spread of the market into new countries and regions, penetrating deeper into areas of life that were previously governed by other systems of social rules. Globalization is also the replacement of diverse modes of human intercourse with the single mind set and values of universal commercialism. True enough, not all social relations that commercialism undermines are themselves laudable. When commercialism undermines feudal or patriarchal relations, for example, the effects are not altogether negative.

But there are two reasons why globalization as the spread of commercial values cannot be considered progressive. While not the only inferior way of life the human species is capable of enduring, we can do far better. Equitable cooperation is humanly feasible, politically achievable, and superior to the commercial way of life. But commercialism is also the enemy of diversity in our time. We no longer need worry that cultural homogenization will be imposed by totalitarian Communism. Even in China, universal commercialism is the most serious threat to cultural diversity as the new millennium begins. Unfortunately, the danger of all encompassing commercialism is real. This means we must distinguish between helping the less successful in the world economy become more economically successful, from helping those who are less commercially oriented to become more so. We progress if we achieve the first. We regress if we promote the latter.

Demand Equitable Terms of Trade and Interest Rates

I fear that some who fight for stronger international labor and environmental standards in proposals to liberalize trade and investment deceive themselves about what can be accomplished through these means. Of course higher and more universal standards are better than lower standards with more exemptions. But even if we won high universal environmental and labor standards, more free trade and international investment would continue to aggravate global inequalities as long as living standards are lower in some countries than others. Therefore, we must demand terms of trade and international interest rates that reduce global inequalities by distributing more of the efficiency gains from globalization to the lesser developed economies rather than to the more developed economies as occurs under free market conditions today. More to the point, until we have achieved a credible commitment to set terms of trade and interest rates on international loans according to equitable criteria, we must steadfastly oppose further expansion of international trade and lending irrespective of any concessions granted regarding labor and environmental standards.

In the first world capital is relatively abundant. In the third world labor is relatively abundant, and a great deal of it is employed unproductively in traditional agriculture. Suppose working conditions and environmental laws were made the same in all countries before we liberalized investment and trade? Capital would still move from first to third world countries because labor there is cheaper. And free trade in goods and services would still lead businesses to specialize in producing capital intensive goods in the high wage countries and labor intensive goods in the low wage countries. How would all this affect income distribution? As long as capital is scarce relative to labor globally, free market interest rates for international loans and free market prices for goods traded internationally would continue to distribute more of the benefits from trade and investment to the advanced economies than the underdeveloped economies, and thereby aggravate global inequalities.

Inside the advanced economies both capital outflows and shifting production to capital intensive goods would reduce the demand for labor and depresses wages while raising profits, and thereby aggravate inequalities within the advanced economies. The effects inside underdeveloped economies would be a little more complicated. On the one hand increased capital inflows and shifting production to labor intensive goods would increase the demand for labor. On the other hand the shift from traditional to export oriented agriculture that liberalization of trade and investment stimulates would throw peasants out of work in traditional agriculture. In most third world countries many more have been thrown out of work in traditional agriculture than have been able to find jobs in labor intensive manufacturing in overcrowded cities as a result of liberalization of trade and investment. Strengthening third world environmental and labor standards would only increase net supply in third world labor markets, and thereby depress wages and aggravate inequalities within those economies more than has been the actual case. Even with uniform labor and environmental standards liberalized trade and investment would aggravate inequalities between first and third world economies, aggravate inequalities within first world economies, and aggravate inequalities within most third world economies as well. So the solution cannot be merely to raise environmental and labor standards in the third world to first world levels. Demands for more equitable terms of trade and credit must be put back on the front burner in all negotiations as well.

Pragmatic Liberal Politicians Are the Greatest Present Enemy

The fact is that Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder are leading the charge for corporate sponsored globalization. It is no longer Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl who are the most consistent and effective political mouthpieces for global corporate interests. Moreover, there is no reason to expect Al Gore or Bill Bradley would be better than George Bush Jr. on this issue. So it is not our fault that we must hate self-described pragmatic liberal politicians as much as we have always hated reactionary conservatives. They made us do it. They seized control of ossified reformist political parties and placed them at the beck and call of corporate interests, using traditional reformist rhetoric to play upon the sympathies of traditional supporters who are now their victims. They blatantly serve their corporate donors at the expense of the interests of their traditional voting constituencies. There is no longer any need for progressives to debate among ourselves whether liberal politicians are any better than conservatives on the issue of globalization. At the moment they are not, and we must ignore their hypocritical, empty rhetoric and regard them with equal contempt and skepticism. The fact that the same now holds true for the issue of war and peace has the advantage of prompting mental clarity on the important issue: know your enemy.

Inside the Movement Liberal and Radical Organizations Both Lose When They Attack One Another

Here are two examples of dangerous fissures between liberals and radicals in the coalition against corporate sponsored globalization as we head for Seattle. After assessing the effects of press coverage of demonstrators at the G-7 meetings in Bonn last summer where official delegations completely ignored opponents of corporate sponsored globalization, the Clinton administration decided to engage the "more responsible" organizations and individuals in the anti-globalization movement by inviting them to a day of dialogue before the WTO meetings begin in Seattle. The administration self-consciously chose a "divide and conquer" strategy and shoved it down the throats of some of its hard line international allies who wanted to see less, not more of the demonstrators. If radical organizations left off the invite list accuse more liberal organizations with invitations of "selling out" merely for attending, and if liberal leaders come out of the dialogue praising their administration opponents as reasonable while denouncing their radicals allies as obstructionists, radical and liberal leadership within the coalition will have fallen into the trap the administration has set for them. Another fault line runs through organized labor having to do with the Gore presidential campaign. Geov Parrish reported in the September 30 – October 6 issue of the Seattle Weekly that "unions are scaling back protests against free trade and the WTO for fear of hurting the presidential aspirations of Al Gore." Parrish writes that "according to local activist Sarah Luthens, the efforts of two national organizers assigned by the AFL-CIO in July to work full-time on WTO mobilization `have largely been invisible to local rank-and-file activists. Their apparent paralysis seems to reflect ambivalence within the upper AFL-CIO as to how much resources to dedicate toward mobilizing." And according to Parrish "march and rally plans seem to be scaling back accordingly. Last week labor backed away from earlier interest in reserving the Kingdome for its rally and has instead booked the much more modest – and outdoor (note to national organizers: Seattle’s Novembers are rainy and cold) – dimensions of Seattle Center’s Memorial Stadium. Of course it will be unfortunate if organized labor pulls punches in Seattle for fear of hurting their preferred presidential candidate – who just happens to be a committed supporter of global sponsored globalization. On the other hand, organized labor always plays the lesser evil game in presidental politics with a great deal of seriousness. As unfortunate as this policy is, it should come as no surprise. If radical organizations were unwilling to participate in a coalition with groups capable of such behavior they should never have joined a coalition with organized labor in the first place. Scathing attacks on "sell-out" labor leaders at this point teach little people don’t already know, and will only diminish labor participation and therefore the power of the anti-globalization message that comes out of Seattle. Better for radicals to express regret, both in public and in private, over any pull back by organized labor, but quickly move on to the main topic: the pernicious effects of corporate sponsored globalization, including the terrible effects on U.S. workers and the U.S. labor movement.

Radicals in the anti-globalization movement can ill afford to treat liberal organizations within the anti-globalization movement the way we should treat so-called liberal politicians like Clinton, Gore, and Bradley who push corporate sponsored globalization harder even than many conservative politicians. Liberal organizations like the AFL-CIO, Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club have joined the anti-globalization coalition. That makes them allies not enemies as far as globalization is concerned. Of course we radicals know they are frustrating allies. They are prone to settle even when opponents offer concessions insufficient to make settlement in their own interest. They are more prone to settle when their constituency is reasonably compensated even though other constituencies have not been. And since few mass liberal organizations are fully committed to the entire program of fighting all kinds of global inequality, promoting economic democracy for everyone, and making whatever changes prove necessary to shift to environmentally sustainable development, they can be counted on to cave when we radicals understand it is most critical to stand fast. But radical organizations always face these frustrations when working with liberal organizations in mass movements. It was, and is true in the labor movement. It was, and is true in the women’s movement. It was, and is true in the anti-racist movement. It was true in the more successful movement against the Vietnam war, and has remained true in the less successful movements which opposed U.S. military aggression in the Persian Gulf and in Kosovo/Yugoslavia. This kind of frustration simply comes with the territory. We radicals in the movement against corporate sponsored globalization need to remember that if our analysis, program, strategy and tactics prove superior, the movement will grow more powerful and successful, and those who joined because of their allegiances to liberal organizations will move closer to us. Seldom does this mean the majority of liberal constituencies, much less the leadership of liberal organizations will join us no matter how brilliantly we radicals acquit ourselves in any particular campaign. But no positive purpose is served by berating those who do not.

On the other side, liberal organizations almost always hurt their own cause when they turn on radical activists working inside a coalition. The temptations for liberal organizations to turn on those who have a more radical analysis of what is wrong and needs fixing, a more far reaching program, or more militant tactics are obvious. Liberal leadership fears that radical presence alienates the general public and some of their members. They fear radicals makes it more difficult for them to seduce their opponents to the bargaining table. And there is reason for them to fear the consequences when some of their members becoming "radicalized." But the presence of more radical organizations within coalitions provides liberal organizations more benefits than headaches. First, we make them look reasonable by way of comparison. (Liberals should never tire of warning their opponents that if they do not negotiate seriously with them, they will have to negotiate with less reasonable "crazies" waiting in the wings.) Second, we take the heat off liberals. (When there are no communists, socialists, or radicals for their opponents to vilify, "liberal" becomes the operative four letter word.) Third, radicals raise the cost to opponents of stonewalling on reformist demands beyond what liberal organizations can impose themselves. (Liberal organizations can petition, lobby, vote, and demonstrate peacefully. They cannot engage in civil disobedience and disrupt, much less burn cars in the streets of Seattle. But their opponents do weigh the costs of these threats which liberals’ scruffier allies can carry out.) While militancy can backfire, when used judiciously in combination with peaceful mass protest it generally makes for a more powerful combination punch. In any case, liberals will only lose by adding their voices to the chorus of howling globalizers who can be counted on to denounce radical tactics in Seattle in an attempt to change the focus of public debate away from the negative effects of globalization. Instead of denouncing militant actions in Seattle, liberal leaders will better serve their own interests by stating publicly that while they personally disagree with those who engage in militant tactics, they are not surprised that people are driven to such desperate measures by the terrible effects of globalization and the intransigence of those promoting globalization. In effect, liberals lose nothing and gain much by insisting that globalizers are responsible for the predictable responses of militants, just as they are responsible for the suffering their neoliberal policies create.

The Movement is Everything

It is more important to build a social movement correctly than to have "correct" analysis or a correct set of demands. Organizing opposition to corporate sponsored globalization "from the bottom up" is the right approach. Organizing all constituencies negatively affected to fight for their own interests while they learn why their own success necessarily hinges on the successes of other constituencies against whom global corporations will constantly pit them is the right approach. Incorporating first world constituencies together with third world constituencies in the campaign against the global "race to the bottom" is the right approach. Basing the movement on grassroots organizations, unions, and independent institutes and coalitions rather than principally on politicians and governments is the right approach. Adopting the "Lilliput strategy," where each constituency struggles to tie its own string to contain the Gulliver" of global capital knowing (correctly) how weak and vulnerable that single string is without the added strength of tens of thousands of similar strings around the globe, is the right approach. Our biggest advantage is that somehow the international movement against corporate sponsored globalization in the 1980s and 1990s has largely taken this form. It is noticeably different from the campaign for a New International Economic Order in the 1970s where heads of states made grand speeches at conferences only to be ignored by first world powers. If there is some group of wise activists who deserve responsibility for this fortuitous turn of events, I would like to nominate them for the progressive movement equivalent of a Nobel prize. But even if the improved composition, form, and strategy of the movement are largely accidental it is important to appreciate and nurture our one great advantage for the moment.