The WTO and Democracy

The Idler June 2000

Never before in history has there been anything like the protests in Seattle. Never before have so many different movements from all over the world all united in one mass-action in one place.

I was very excited to be in Seattle during WTO-week, too. First time I've ever been at a bit of yer actual, real, proper history. I was especially pleased about this, because I'd just been reading Eric Hobsbawm's history of the twentieth century Age Of Extremes before I left. If you've read it you'll know how it makes you feel a bit inadequate and unlived, 'cos Hobsbawm's been everywhere and he keeps popping up in person at major events in world history. You get stuff like: "As Fidel Castro announced to a crowded, thronged square in Havana that the revolution had been victorious, this author remembers that the atmosphere was electric." He's so cool, I mean, it's like he's everywhere, man. The L.A. Riots.... "Such was the people's control of the streets, I myself carried a Nicam Digital Stereo three blocks back to my hotel!"

WTO protesters

They came from factories in Mexico and South Korea, from rural family farms in Iowa and Bangalore. Ethiopian economists, Harvard lawyers, direct action networks and French academics, the Raging Grannies and the Zapatistas. Cab drivers in Seattle had been giving out anti-WTO leaflets for weeks before and went on strike in support. Every dock and port along the West Coast of America from Alaska to Los Angeles and Hawaii was shut down.

How was an obscure outfit like the WTO able to arouse such passions and mobilize the biggest, broadest citizen's alliance in history? Maybe the official Chinese observer in Seattle for the WTO got nearest the mark when he commented, "This is as significant for the West as Tiannenmen Square was for us..." His comparison is right on the money. Seattle was above all else a pro-democracy protest. But, unlike Tiannenman Square, a global one.

Just why the Battle of Seattle was a pro-democracy protest becomes clearer when you look more closely at the WTO (World Take Over) itself.

In 1816 Thomas Jefferson warned of "a single and splendid government of an aristocracy founded on banking institutions and moneyed incorporations" which would mean "the end of democracy and freedom". By 1999 his worst fears had come true and No Globalisation Without Representation was on banners and placards all over Seattle. Jefferson, however, was only thinking of the United States, not the world.

"The WTO is writing a constitution of the global economy," declared ex-president of the World Trade Organisation, Renato Ruggiero. The constitution of this "single and splendid government" makes scary reading.

Here is a snippet:

"Each Member [nation] shall ensure the conformity of its laws, regulations and administrative procedures with... WTO objectives."

Meanwhile all existing or future laws of member nations can be challenged, says the constitution, if "the attainment of any WTO objective is impeded."

You may think that when you go into a polling station you can vote for whichever manifesto takes your fancy - you can't. You may think you live in a democracy - you don't.

The WTO even bans certain objectives from domestic legislature. These include subsidies for energy conservation, sustainable agriculture and alternative technologies. The people of Massachussets, to give another example, passed laws identical to the old anti-apartheid legislation, banning state procurement from the military dictatorship in Burma. The WTO over-turned the democratic rights of these US voters in favour of the anti-democratic rights of Myanmar generallissimos.


But is this quite "the end of democracy and freedom" which Thomas Jefferson predicted? Our media commissars have put the case that the World Trade Organisation enhances global democracy. But how democratic is the WTO itself?

The dozen members of the WTO's trade disputes panel are unelected. All documents, transcripts and proceedings are secret. There is no required disclosure of conflict of interest. No media and no citizens can sit in and observe the proceedings. And there is no outside appeal or review available. Or to put it another way, in the words of WTO president Michael Moore: "The World Trade Organisation is about as democratic as it gets."

The WTO lowered El Salvador's minimum wage fom 60 cents an hour to 36 cents an hour (at the request of a very famous high street clothing brand). If, however, the WTO really is "about as democratic as it gets", then we must assume that El Salvadoreans voted themselves a near 50% cut in wages. Probably they were dizzy with all the silly money and experienced Dave Stewart-type "paradise syndrome" problems. Perhaps, just one too many El Salvadoreans had woken up in a jacuzzi, stared dejectedly at empty champagne bottles bobbing on the foam, at the coked-out supermodel slumped across their satin sheets, and yearned for the simple life they used to know before the sixty cents craziness years. And so, smiling as they changed from Armani shark-skin suits into the dear, old overralls they used to wear, the people of El Salvaor heard the polling day church bells ring...and each knew what to do.

Yeah, that's probably it.

On November 30, the aristocracy of banking institutions and moneyed incorporations were in town having bankrolled the WTO Seattle ministerial. In return the WTO's Seattle Host Organisation had promised them "the greatest possible interactions" with decision-making. The moneyed incorporations each had specific policies in mind when they bought a seat at the table. The American Electronics Association (AEA) for example - whose members include Microsoft, Intel and Motorola - was getting the WTO to ban an EU proposal to control electronic pollution. (When computer equipment is chucked out its toxic components leach into groundwater and are hard to store safely in landfills... Not that anyone does ever throw out computers of course: a Microsoft product is a product for life.) The EU proposal suggested three things.

  1. A modest 5% recycled rule for plastic components.
  2. A ban on lead,cadmium, mercury, hexavelent chromium and halogenated flame retardants in computers.
  3. The computer companies should pick up some of the cost for the pollution.

The AEA were pretty confident too. In its five year history the WTO has overturned every single environmental law that has come before it. Every single one. (By the way, the WTO is based in Geneva on a legal technicality: its courts would be illegal in London, Paris, Berlin or Tokyo because there is no public disclosure).

Well, the AEA didn't get what they wanted because the delegates couldn't get to the Convention Centre. The roads were blocked by heroic young women, old Quaker ladies and grown-men dressed as turtles who held their ground in a hail of CS cannisters and rubber bullets. Many received head wounds from baton-wielding soldiers and several small children were injured as I clambered over them to run away from the tear gas.

Inside the Four Seasons Hotel, Bill Clinton was telling the TV cameras of the world's biggest media corporations: "I wanna hear the views of those protestors." Outside the Four Seasons Hotel, there was a dawn-to-dusk curfew, No-Protest-Zone, lock-down of all public meetings, and suspension of civil liberties with martial law declared troops and tanks on the streets. This was all done so that the man whose middle name is Jefferson could talk about "learning the lessons of the fall of the Berlin Wall." But he was very selective about which lessons to learn from the rotten collapse of the Soviet Union. He excluded , for example, the main one. The main lesson from the fall of the Berlin Wall is, clearly, that economic centralisation is both environmentally and democratically unsound. And yet what is corporate globalisation other than an attack on democracy and the environment in the name of economic centralisation? (Check Ceefax for latest mega-merger). Well, okay, it's also an attack on the poor. The UN calculates that since the WTO was set up the least developed countries have lost $2 billion dollars in trade to the rich countries.

Never mind that. Still our pundits lapped up Clinton saying that taking global economic liberalisation to the max leads to freedom and democracy. This from the man who in 1994, while on a visit to China, ended the historic link between a country's human rights record and its favoured trading status. But then in 1995, after a threat to property rights - McDonald's leases and Mickey Mouse's royalties - Clinton's administration threatened China with $1 billion of trade retrictions. The Chinese government changed its policy to enforce intellectual property rights.

The night before in a packed Seattle Symphony Hall, Professor Susan George got to the heart of this contradiction: "If the Cold War was the Third, this is the Fourth World War, and it's a war being fought between private power and civil society."

Institutional corporate bias, however, made the news-media unable to twist its melon round the idea of single issue movements finding common cause and realising that all our social and ecological problems have their roots in corporate globalisation. The news-commissars' fixation on the small picture instead saw the WTO crisis in terms of different countries wanting different things. That was the problem. Nations squabbling. That's what it was all about. G&T anyone? If these cunts ever did their fucking job they might have got round to reading the WTO's own brochure on the benefits of joining the organisation which states:

"Quite often governments use the WTO as a welcome external constraint on their policies: 'We can't do this because it would violate the WTO agreement'."

Hence, Desmond O'Rourke, President of Washington's Trade Department saying at a meeting of the Business Roundtable of CEO's in Seattle:

"We usually invite the Japanese to challenge one of our laws as a trade barrier, and they invite us to appeal against one of theirs."

They might even have read the director of Washington's Centre for International and Strategic Research put it another way:

"Nation states have already lost their role as meaningful units of participation in the global economy. In the final analysis what matters is how effectively the surrender of governments to the global markets is carried out."

And it was all looking like such a shoe-in to them as well. But standing on a dumpster in the middle if the 3rd and Pine cross-street, a headscarfed Puerto Rican B-girl leads a couple of hundred of the fifty thousand people on the street in a chant. "Ain't no power like the power of the people, 'cos the power of the people don't stop!"

WTO protesters

The brilliant, millennial, epochal, Age of Extremes significance of Seattle was the emergence of a transnational resistance. Or "a resistance as transnational as capital" as the People's Global Action slogan goes.

And yet here in Britain we are still behind France, India, US and the rest of the world in mainstream public recognition of corporate globalisation as the biggest threat to democracy and human rights since the Second World War, of how it is the rollback of a century of social progress. But this, too, is beginning to change and change fast. (After all, what is the battle between Dobbo and Ken really about if not corporatism versus democracy? A choice between being subject or citizen?) As one Republican Senator who had previously been a WTO supporter said after meeting protestors in Seattle; "This is what democracy looks like."

But even though this rollback destroys lives, jobs, environment and human rights in the Northern Hemisphere, the suffering this system inflicts on the South is incalculable and incomparably worse. And we have a moral duty to bring about change through non-violent direct action and campaigning.

The next ten years are, I believe, the most crucial in human history. Across the world people are waking up to the fact that that even in the face of imminent ecological collapse capitalism cannot change its ways.

We are poised between two choices.

Moby, the Christian Right, corporate placeman and ugly poshboy tells the world's interviewers that the World Trade Organisation is marvellous and the CEO's know what¹s best. Accept. Consume. Obey. Egyptian activist and writer Nawal El Saadawi is a woman who describes the other way we may want to go:

"My cousin Zeinab looks old and sick, when I hold her hand I can feel horny knots and cracks caused by long years of labour with a hoe. She whispers: 'When I was a child I dreamed of escaping from this awful life but now I've lost hope. Now there are no jobs, and our debts keep growing. Now we eat fava beans canned in California instead of growing enough ourselves.' I see her eyes questioning. .. Can I tell her that 443 people (men) own as much wealth as half the people of the earth? ....Can I tell her that the peoples of the world are learning how to work together and that many Seattles everywhere, in the North and South are my wish, and my hope?"