What If They Threw a World Trade Organization Party and Everybody Came?

By Ben G. Price NebecirP@aol.com

Over a three year period (1995-98) of editing GROUNDSWELL, A Monthly Almanack of Anti-Authoritarian Views, I wrote and proofed countless essays that critiqued the dangers to democracy that go unchallenged in an era that appeases unbridled corporate power. Shortly after we started publishing, Ronnie Dugger wrote a seminal piece in The Nation titled "Will the Real Populists Please Stand Up?" In it he outlined the abdication of democracy that is now a fait accompli, and he wondered if there were any people out there who still cared about political, economic, and social liberty. The overwhelming response of readers to that essay could not be ignored, and from the list of people who answered Dugger's call, The Alliance for Democracy was born. Today it has 55 chapters throughout the country, and affiliations with like-minded organizations that have begun to work toward the re-establishment of people-run society. Richard Grossman's Project on the Corporation, Law, and Democracy (POCLAD) has challenged the questionable 1886 quip by Supreme Court Justice Waite that gave corporations protection under the law equal to that of living persons. Across the country, grass roots organizations have been openly questioning whether the legacy of the Cold War should really be the ensured hegemony of multi-national corporations. Ethical Spectacle contributor Peter Bearse and I have conducted a tag-team dialogue on-line, debating trade policy and especially the importance of citizen involvement in reclaiming the reins of government. But until November 30th in Seattle, all of these concerns, held by a patchwork of activists, writers and unconnected citizens, did not exist in public discourse. Even the broad-stroke issues had no profile on the political horizon, not until these disconnected and peripherally associated groups met on the streets of Seattle.

If we could summarize in one word the "Battle in Seattle," the WTO's Third Ministerial Meeting, and where they intersected with public consciousness it would have to be: "Surprise!!" Over three thousand WTO members from 135 nations disharmoniously converged with fifty thousand protestors who not only had prior knowledge of their coming and no invitation to join them, but they represented a relatively unsuspected coalition of organizations, insiders to the best-kept secret in world politics: if you try to legislate rules that effect people's lives, you had better check with them first.

The first surprise was the size of the turn-out. The reasonableness and civility of all but a few was also noted with serendipity. The failure of the opening session of the WTO to occur could not have been predicted, and that it was shut down by a group of diverse people representing many nations, unions, environmentalists, consumer activists, human rights workers, legal challengers of corporate power and WTO legitimacy, religious leaders and congregations, not to mention a few anarchists, clearly left organization delegates in a quandary about how their self-assumed authority had been so abruptly and effectively challenged.

The media was visibly off-balance, with not a single commentary on the protest seeming to have the depth of familiarity with the issues. It seemed almost to be a studied ignorance, one steeped in the arcane etiquette of commercial broadcasting that is very much kith and kin to the corporate Goliaths being jeered in the streets. On the left and on the right, commentators reeled-in stereotypes from the stratosphere of the on-going political dog fight, and they tethered them to the tongues of microphone-toting gas bags who followed the marchers like dirigibles in the Macey's parade. The pundits filled their caricatured balloons with captions for the marchers to seem to have said: imagined complaints and canned analyses. Until they'd heard a few speeches by labor leaders and comments by individual marchers, reporters and news readers were rudderless in the first few hours, able only to remind their audience of "the sixties," and the Democratic Convention in Chicago. On the first day of the protest, the usually well rehearsed Rush Limbaugh still hadn't been cued by his Republican ventriloquists what to seem to think with the one-half brain he admits to using. By the second day he was sure: the protest was just a bunch of socialists whining because they can't stand the fact that some people are actually succeeding in this post-Cold War capitalist promised land. The TV talk shows were no better, with pundits and party puppets falling back on stump speeches and cliches that amounted to complete non-sequiturs.

The Sunday following the events in Seattle, the Washington Post editorial section "Outlook" ran the banner: "What Was That All About?" and a cross section of head scratchers including Tom Hayden tried to make sense of it with two days of hindsight to help them. How was it possible for there to be such an up swelling of public anger toward what seemed to most people an esoteric economic organization without there being some broad understanding of the issues in question? How was it possible for politicians, CEOs, police, the president, to be so utterly taken off-guard by tens of thousands of citizens willing to postpone work, family and commitments to head to Seattle and insist they be heard? What was it they had to say, and were they right?

Because it was a coalition of organizations, the protest was constellated around a set of complaints that each group prioritized a little differently. But it did center on a few key issues that all agreed upon. Primary among them was the non-democratic nature of the WTO and its unaccountability to those whom its decisions effect. Union workers focused on labor laws and workers' rights, and they damned the WTO for tolerating child labor, slave labor and poor working conditions as acceptable trade-offs for profiteering by ultra-national corporations. Critics of labor, and developers in Third World countries countered such arguments saying that even the low-paying jobs that "free-trade" creates are better than pre-existing conditions of poverty and unemployment. And, of course, they accused the protesters of being protectionists and isolationists.

Environmentalists and consumer advocates accused the WTO of overturning clean air and water legislation and food safety laws. WTO minister Michael Moore argued that the organization has no power to legislate and can not impose or overturn laws within member nations. But he was ingenuous in his protestations for not having come-clean about how the WTO really does effect, indirectly but efficiently, the implementation or nullification of the domestic laws of member states. By ruling a nation's environmental, safety, or labor laws an impediment to "free trade," the WTO has the power to impose severe economic sanctions on member states. Such sanctions can have the effect of coercing the target country into changing or overturning its democratically (or autocratically) adopted laws.

Sovereignty gained prominence as an issue, boosted as such by sound bites from the poster children of conservatism Pat Buchanan and Allen Keyes. That these two presidential candidates could find common voice with the marchers and protesters in the streets of Seattle is emblematic of just how surprising the event really was. Less than a year after the impeachment that polarized political discourse into partisan bickering on every level of society, some sense of accord between unlikely allies was found to underlie the arguments being made against the unrepresentative WTO. Despite a litany of differences, opponents of the WTO took their case to the streets, where the corporate run media could feign ignorance, but could not refuse to tell the story. In telling it badly, in focusing on the tear gas, the rubber bullets and broken windows, the causes of anger and frustration that brought the protesters out could not be completely ignored, and even in the diminished context that news as entertainment affords, some of their message got through, if only as a preface to a much longer discussion that now must take place.

A year ago I wrote a few fictional "excerpts" from a non-existent future reference book, The Encyclopedia Terra Nova. In these excerpts I projected a highly speculative future history of the next century, which I envisioned to be characterized politically by a struggle between the forces for democracy and the entrenched hegemony of unresponsive, corrupting and irresponsible corporate power. After "The Battle in Seattle" I remain convinced that this will be the history-making struggle well into the next century. But I am somewhat encouraged to think that my time frame might be wrong, and that a victory for people over corporate corruption, corporate welfare and corporate usurpation of political power might come sooner than I had envisioned, if the energy and focus generated in Seattle is not wasted.

What about the WTO? Does it need to be disbanded? Can it be reformed? I would argue that some mechanism for mediating trade disputes and for improving the economies of undeveloped and developing nations is needed, but it must be an organization that is responsible to everyone whom its actions effect. And I would like to propose that in place of draconian "austerity programs" being enforced on nations by the likes of the IMF, where in exchange for loans sovereign countries agree to cut social programs to ensure usurious payments to the lenders, an innovative "Marshall-Plan" for the opening decades of the new millennium should be adopted. For a specified duration that would be subject to review, the vitalization of a truly global economy could be nurtured, with loan forgiveness being extended to participating countries, in exchange for fair labor and environmental policies, and the cost of development loans being subsidized by financial institutions and corporations entering new markets. In exchange for such "philanthropy," the governments of industrialized nations would agree not to turn out the lights on the rainbow of corporate welfare, such as subsidies, bargain-basement access to public resources, and tax breaks, that are already in place thanks to the soon to be shut down (just wait and see!) open air market of legislative influence peddling. And I propose the converse as well: that corporations unwilling to participate in subsidizing the development of world economies and social infrastructures should be taxed in full, and should forfeit subsidies of every kind. They should, in fact, be compelled to pay their fair share in the publicly owned marketplace where corporate charters are a privilege, not a right.

Such a proposal is extremely tentative, but I think we must begin to listen to alternatives that challenge the presumptive sanctity of corporate profits, and we must overcome the obstacles that dictate a continued public ignorance and institutionalized blindness to any but corporate solutions. We must not be prevented from deciding, as free people, on methods and programs that may be at odds with the profit motive but that value human dignity just as flamboyantly.