Living Together: Our Future and the World Trade Organisation

by John Spragge

Last fall saw two events in which Americans and their political leaders dealt with the demands of an evolving world. The American people came off much better than the politicians, to the surprise of nobody who knows Americans.

The U. S. Senate had to deal with the comprehensive test ban treaty. They voted it down in the same week Pakistan's military carried out the world's first full coup d' état in a nuclear power.

A few weeks later, the World Trade Organisation came to Seattle, and Americans found a way to express a sense of increasing unease with the growth of multi-national institutions that have no democratic accountability. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated, and hundreds rioted. The riots made for better television. They also made for more plaintive comments about the irony of Seattle, famous for its civility and relaxed style, playing host to mayhem. In between the easy and obvious comments about the violence, some newscasts found room to mention the determination and organisation of the protestors.

Most of the protests in Seattle peacefully expressed widely held concerns. One commentator mentioned that Boeing workers, who make their livings building aircraft for export, had marched against the World Trade Organisation. This should surprise nobody; if Americans traded their democratic institutions for bigger pay cheques, the United States would not exist.

Contrasting the intelligent expression of popular concern about the process of "globalisation" with the antics of the United States Senate over the comprehensive test ban treaty, Americans clearly appeared more impressive than the legislators they elected. The protestors in Seattle have asserted their, and our, right to a voice in the discussions of world trade. The question now arises: what kind of voice will we have?

From nationalists on the right to bio-regionalists on the left, some people want to stop global economic integration altogether. While their ideas may seem absurd, they have a point. Some kinds of work can only take place on a global scale by sacrificing almost everything that makes them worth doing. Consider the fate of culture. More people watch "Baywatch" than any other television show because the spectacle of bronze sculpted bodies on a beach comes as close to a "universal language" as humanity gets. I would certainly never ban "Baywatch", but I think it shows the reasons not to apply the standards of global trade to culture. Longer production runs and more efficient production can mean a decent standard of living for everyone, or it can mean the more efficient production of shoddy products, bigger mountains of garbage, and less happiness for everyone.

Unfortunately, we cannot avoid our problems by rejecting economic integration. Building walls around nations or regions doesn't guarantee economic development on a human scale. Often, protecting a political, industrial, and cultural establishment only makes it arrogant. Global competition has both positive and negative aspects. It means giving workers and entrepreneurs everywhere a fair opportunity to compete for markets. It also means allowing international corporations to use the desperation of workers in poor countries against those in wealthier ones.

Making global economic integration work takes not one single great idea, but many wise decisions. That makes the question of who makes those decisions important. It also makes it particularly important to have a way to hold the decision-makers accountable. The protestors at Seattle have addressed this problem, but they have not solved it. Nobody yet has proposed an effective, democratic and yet just way to make important decisions affecting the lives and fortunes of people around the world.

The protestors at Seattle have made it clear that an international trade system run by a select group of expert economists and the chief executives of international corporations will not do. Direct elections for the world trade governing body would probably not work. Not every country would agree to hold the vote. In a world trade legislature, each member would have to represent about ten million people. We often think of our planet as a small one, but the sheer scale of world trade may well overwhelm traditional representative democracy.

To deal with these difficulties, some theorists have proposed the idea of a "civil society", made up of broadly based and thoughtful groups with particular interests and areas of expertise. Making the world trade body answerable to a "civil society" seems to make sense. It allows people interested enough to make a case to the world trade body a formal means of raising the issue. A public airing often suffices to right an unjust decision. A formal method of accountability would also make it possible to investigate the basis of the World Trade Organisation's decisions, and the personal and political interests of the people making them.

We do not yet know if "civil society" will prove sufficiently accountable. If we give civic, professional, and popular organisations a role in making decisions affecting trillions of dollars in trade, will power corrupt them? If the power doesn't corrupt them, people whose fortunes ride on these decisions will certainly try to. We have no reason to believe civil society, or any other approach, offers an answer for the dilemmas of world trade.

Still, we owe the thousands who marched, organised, and protested at Seattle a profound debt. Two years ago, politicians and business leaders tried to promote a major treaty on investment. The multi-lateral agreement on investment, or MAI, would have given investors the right to make direct challenges to any government action that could have affected them. Since almost anything a government does can affect some investor, the MAI could have replaced democracy with plutocracy in any country agreeing to it. Before public pressure derailed this monstrosity, the economic experts and corporate chiefs who pressed for it claimed the public need not worry, much less get involved in matters far above our limited capacity. Today, a few experts still speak of the need for politicians to "educate" the people rather than listen to them. One economist accused Bill Clinton of "caving" into the concerns of the American people. But the collapse of the MAI and the Seattle talks have proven that the public still remembers that in a democracy, the decision makers, not the people, have an obligation to listen.

I can think of no more important message to send on the cusp of the new millennium. The people have not forgotten our birthright, and you cannot buy it for a "Discman" or a "Gameboy".

John Spragge is a Canadian software developer presently living and working in the U.S.