WTO, Globalization, and Alternatives

Q: Michael, the WTO is set to come to Hong Kong for its next ministerial in December 2005. Could you describe briefly just what the WTO is, and also the process of ‘globalization’ that it fits into?

MA: The WTO is an international organization whose purpose is to govern trade and more general exchange norms between countries. Globalization, the increasing interaction and ties among nations, is of course desirable. Corporate globalization, however, seeks to continually adapt those ties on behalf of the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak. Corporate globalization is what people like myself oppose. In this context, the WTO exists largely, not exclusively, to enforce the idea that competitive market logic (as defined by the most powerful actors) should override the desires of weaker countries and constituencies. Corporate globalization puts profit before people. It elevates the few and disenfranchises the many. It reduces and even obliterates participation and democracy.

Q: And what about the ‘anti-globalization’ movement, what does this term mean and who does this comprise of?

MA: In this case the goal is opposite. Anti corporate globalization movement activists, or internationalists, value people over profit and participation over centralization. We of course want steadily richer and more diverse ties among nations. But we want to define the character of those ties so that the gaps in wealth and power between nations, and inside each nation as well, are reduced rather than enlarged. Rather than market competitive logic trumping all else, for internationalists the criteria guiding norms of exchange should be equity, justice, and having decisions be made by those affected. Corporate globalization, as but one example, puts power in the hands of very distant, totally unaccountable, elites. A dam may be built in your vicinity, washing away your home and neighborhood, due to decisions that are taken ten thousand miles away by people who never experience the effects of their choice, other than profiting, and with you having no say whatsoever.

Q: There has often been a fear expressed in some of the Hong Kong media that ‘the WTO protesters’ will be coming from abroad to cause havoc in the city and that the police are just here to protect ‘normal’ people against them.
Perhaps somewhat related to this, I sometimes get the sense from talking to people that ‘we’ benefit from this economic system, that corporations ‘provide jobs’ and give ‘us’ ‘more choices’- so why should we therefore challenge it?
So why do you think that someone in HK or the US or other more ‘developed’ parts of the world should care about these things?
And should people in HK see the ‘anti-globalization’ movement as an impending threat or something that they are part of?

MA: The police will be intent not on protecting normal people but on protecting rich and powerful elites and their favored institutions. Does any normal person, anyone working for low wages at a position without power and status, really think otherwise? The protesters don’t seek havoc against the people, but seek to pressure elites to reduce havoc against the people. Havoc among the people is poverty. It is ecological nightmares. Havoc among the people is being pushed this way and that with no say. It is what the WTO imposes on whole populations so that elites can have a very narrow and self serving type of stability – a stability of riches flowing to them from others.

Slaves benefited, in a very narrow sense, from slavery. That is, slaveowners gave the slaves their housing and food, while imposing soul deadening conditions. Yes, as long as corporations are the means by which production and distribution occurs, of course what we get, we by definition get by way of corporations. But this is not evidence that corporations are good or desirable. It is only evidence that they are now everywhere. Do people get a fair share? Are people enjoying appropriate conditions of labor and control over their lives? Some people, many people, don’t survive. Some people, a huge number, barely survive. Some people, maybe one in five, get by comfortably beyond destitution but still very far from dignity and self management. And some, maybe another one in five, enjoy riches, or even (one in fifty) great riches. To me, none of this is just. But yes, I understand that some of the people that get by well, or get by tremendously well, will
ignore the plight of those who suffer. This is not admirable, however. I am no more impressed by their morals than by the morals of slaveowners, who also did quite well. Nor am I any more convinced by those who are not doing well but don’t want to risk the little they now get than I would have been convinced, had I been alive at the time, by slaves who said not to rebel against slavery for fear things could get worse. I understand it, of course. But I don’t agree.

So the people of Hong Kong who work in rote and tedious jobs and who have virtually no say in their life circumstances should see the anti-corporate globalization activists as allies, I believe, and should consider joining with them, both for their own advance, and for that of the vast numbers of other people around the world who are suffering intolerably. And the people who have some say in Hong Kong, and some wealth, should too, partly to do better in those dimensions, but mostly to do better in having solidarity and morality that they can enjoy and be proud of. And those at the top, well, of course they should also should renounce the current system – not to get ahead, but to be better than a rich thug – just as slave owners should have denounced slavery, as kings and princes should have have denounced royalty, as dictators should denounce dictatorship, and so on. But we shouldn’t expect to see much of this.

Q: This ties into the whole notion of a ‘free’ market, perhaps. China’s entry into the WTO, and the increasing corporate activities there, are often hailed as a step towards ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ by the business press. So what are markets, and why does the word ‘free’ get associated with them?

MA: Markets are a means of economic allocation. Each owner, worker and consumer strives for advance regardless of the impact on others. Markets teach and produce anti-sociality. They instill in us the most greedy and self centered outlook people have historically ever adopted on a wide scale. Nice people finish last.

Markets misprice most items due to not accounting their wider implications, with the result, among others, of ecological crises that can crush whole communities and even nations under tremendous health and safety burdens. When you buy a car, for example, the producer’s desire to profit is manifested, and your desire to get around. You each assess impact on you. But those who breathe fouled air don’t get a say.

Markets produce class division and facilitate production for profit rather than human need. They impose on workplaces priorities and structures to compete that are antithetical to equity and solidarity.

The word free is attached to markets to make them seem positive. Markets, however, lead to huge centers of power that determine world outcomes without most people who are impacted having any say at all, which is the opposite of democracy. Is there anyone, anywhere, who thinks that corporations don’t rule outcomes far, far more than
fragmented citizens?

Markets are a very large topic and a controversial one. So that people know the position exists, let me just say that I am a market abolitionist. I know markets are going to be around for a time, but I believe they are horrendously destructive institution that needs to be utterly replaced.

Q: On the other side, official sources in China often cite WTO entry as a part of the path to greater wealth and prosperity for all in the country. I’m not sure how familiar you are with specifics inside China, but in general would you say that this is an accurate prediction?

MA: No. I think even paying attention only to material things, many people will actually suffer greatly relative to their current position, becoming unemployed, suffering fumes and harsh conditions and speedup at work and low income levels, and so on. Many other people will gain, but not much. Some additional people will gain quite a lot, and a very few will gain immensely. Justice will suffer. Solidarity will suffer. Sociality will suffer. Democracy will suffer. Dignity will suffer. Ecology will suffer. These things matter.

So let’s say, for a minute, to perhaps make the broader point, that a vicious dictator could accomplish the following. From a condition of gross inequality and deprivation the dictator and his ruling allies lift the country’s overall wealth considerably. More, while most of the gain goes to those at the very top, and a whole lot of the remaining gain goes to about 20% more of the population, and only very little gain goes to the rest – still, some does go to the rest, so that everyone is somewhat better off. Now, for this distribution of material gain should we gladly let a dictator and his allies rule over us? Should we let them exploit others in other places? Should we let them deny us far greater gains that could be had by different social arrangements? And further, beyond the purely material, should we let them destroy participation and democracy, destroy honesty and integrity, impose alienation and anti-sociality? Why should we make such choices?

In fact, we can expect that in China large numbers of people will suffer worse conditions, but the larger point is that some gain accompanied by disenfranchisement and powerlessness, alienation, ecological devastation, mutual acrimony that destroys social solidarity, and widening income and wealth differentials that enforce gross violations of justice and fairness, is not a package that anyone should consider even bearable, much less desirable. If it is all that could possibly be had, okay, weep over the limitations…but take it. But if much, much better is possible, why should we accept such a degrading condition?

Q: If we are talking about ‘anti-capitalism’, many in China might automatically assume that what you are talking about is ‘socialism’, in the form of the People’s Republic – a very powerful state and a centralized bureaucracy controlling economic decision making. First of all, how do you define ‘socialism’ and how does the system in China fit into this picture? Secondly, do you think this is a desirable alternative to capitalism?

MA: The word socialism is used in two ways – like the word capitalism, for that matter. On the one hand there are lofty values that we can pretty much all support. Socialists favor equity, justice, participation, self management, and so on. So do I. For that matter, capitalists say they favor democracy, participation, justice, and so on. So do I. But the
second meaning of each term is embedded in the institutional commitments of the systems referred to. I don’t support capitalism on the basis of the lofty value claims its advocates make because I know that capitalist institutions obliterate those values. I reject those institutions, and thus I reject the system. Well, the institutions associated with the label socialism are a one party state, markets or central planning for allocation, corporate divisions of labor for workplace organization, hierarchical decision making, homogenized cultural structures, and patriarchy. I reject all of that so I reject the system, too. All of that obstructs rather than facilitating the values I hold dear: equity, diversity, solidarity, self management, sustainability, etc.

I am a revolutionary regarding capitalism. Had I lived in China, before or now, I would have been and would be a revolutionary there, too. What I advocate is not what China has endured or now endures but a completely different social system.

Q: Then what other alternatives do you think there are? You have written about the need for different economic institutions that produce different outcomes to today. Could you briefly describe what you have written about in your work on Participatory Economics? And where could people read more and discuss about this?

MA: Participatory economics is a full and I hope worthy and compelling alternative both to the economic system that exists in the U.S. today under the name capitalism, and to the system that has existed in China, Russia, etc., under the name socialism. In place of the institutions of those economies it incorporates workers and consumers councils, what are called balanced job complexes, remuneration for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of labor, self managed decision making, and participatory planning. I can’t describe all these features in detail here. The claim, however, is that they create an economic environment of mutual solidarity that fosters diversity that attains real equity, that is classless, and that conveys to each worker and consumer a say in decisions in proportion to the extent they are affected by decisions – the fullest possible democracy, called self management.

Those who are interested can find full descriptions of this system and its properties and likely implications for material and social daily life in various books, etc., and also, for those on the internet, via the link www.parecon.org. A still larger site is ZNet, www.zmag.org with much on participatory economics, but on many other topics as well.

Q: Briefly, if possible, any thoughts on how we get from here to there?

It is another huge question. Of course I have written much on the topic, some available, again, on the site mentioned above.

I think we organize to win modest changes now – these are called reforms – which improve people’s lives. Constraining or replacing the WTO, World Bank, and IMF are examples, as are affecting income levels, taxes, pollution controls, wage rates, conditions at work, conditions for minorities and women, and a great many other possibilities, not least preventing or ending wars, of course.

We win these gains with movements that fight in ways that keep increasing their wherewithal to win still more gains, and their support and membership in society.

We pay attention not only to economics, but also to political structures, to matters of gender and sexuality, and to matters of culture, religion, race, science, art, education, and all of social life.

We create local and workplaces organizations, including councils and assemblies as well as movements that embody the seeds of the future in the present – real participation and self management, real equity, etc.

We overcome the belief that nothing better is possible both by describing a better world and especially its defining institutions, and by foreshadowing them in projects and movements today.

We avoid the pitfalls of being against capitalism but for new systems that are equally bad or even worse by knowing what we want and accepting nothing less.

We avoid the pitfalls of sectarianism by being always open to new insights and even orienting toward constant growth and diversification rather than to defending what we said yesterday.

There is much, much more to it, of course, too much for a short interview answer, I think.

Michael Albert is a longtime activist, speaker and writer from the US. He is the editor of ZNet, and co-editor and co-founder of Z Magazine. He also co-founded South End Press and has written numerous books and articles on the economic vision called Participatory Economics.

Pranjal Tiwari is from Hong Kong and edits ZNet’s China Watch section.

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