Those pesky anarchists plotting havoc in the streets of Seattle will probably create quite a nuisance for the ministers and bureaucrats of the World Trade Organization. Their banners and slogans, accompanied by a whiff of tear gas, are likely to evoke a twinge of ’60s nostalgia even in the corner offices at Microsoft. They will surely raise consciousness about the world’s exploited children, the zoo of endangered species, the dwindling forests, the homogenization of native cultures and the specter of genetic engineering.
But what they won’t do is turn back the economic and
technological forces that are gradually
creating a global society. Even if that goal were truly desirable, it is simply far too late to rebuild the old barriers that have been torn down. Humanity’s increasing capacity to move people, goods, services, wealth and ideas across old borders cannot be shouted down or argued away.
Yet the questions raised by the Seattle protesters are not only pertinent but utterly fundamental. And no satisfactory answers have been heard so far from the self-satisfied proponents of free trade, whose policies have caused one disaster after another. How can market forces and technological progress be directed to serve humanity, instead of enslaving humanity to markets and technologies? How will democracies function if their most important laws are subject to an unelected international bureaucracy? Why are the rights of investors granted precedence over the rights of workers and the preservation of the natural environment?
Although the Clinton administration has promised more than once to give those issues the prominence they deserve, the results to date have been worse than disappointing. In nearly every round of international trade negotiations, American diplomats have achieved “success” by relegating the interests of workers and the environment to secondary status. So far, the rise of social democratic governments across Europe has made little difference in this discouraging pattern.
Indeed, Western pretensions of concern about the rights of labor have been openly mocked by the autocratic governments of countries such as China and Mexico, which have obstinately refused even to establish a “working group” on that touchy topic. If the United States and its allies in Europe were truly determined to achieve even that minor concession — as determined as they were to protect copyrights, for example — it is hard to imagine that they would have failed so completely.
So it is even more difficult to imagine that the World Trade Organization could someday become a tribunal for the rights of the world’s workers and the protection of the global environment — but that is the feat of imagination that the future requires.
Consider the actual history of economic expansion in the century that is about to pass. As democratic nations improved the social and environmental conditions in their societies, corporate investors fled whenever possible to other, less developed countries where their managers could profit from child labor, shoot union organizers and despoil the air and water at will.
In the United States, workers who organized for better wages and hours were likely to see their plants shut down and moved someplace where unions are outlawed. Communities that tried to punish polluters were threatened with the loss of jobs and tax revenues. In short, capital has been mobile for decades, evading and often defeating attempts to control the social costs of industrial production.
But with their demand for the complete opening of formerly closed societies to new investment and trade, the corporate elites may ironically be shutting off their own escape from responsibility. Since the founding of the WTO in 1995, the ideologues of free trade have established a worldwide forum in which disputes over tariffs and other commercial barriers can be adjudicated. They have never explained why that forum should be dedicated solely to the narrow concerns of investors and managers. And there is no reason why it should. The logic of an international trade regime is that one country shouldn’t be permitted to boost exports and restrain imports by unfair means.
Critics of free trade have traditionally warned that the inevitable result will be the erosion of the social contract that governs most of the developed world, bringing everyone down to the level of the most impoverished and oppressed. But that outcome will ultimately depend on the definitions of what is and is not fair in the global marketplace. And those definitions are subject to the political will of the WTO’s member nations.
Obviously, “fairness” and “freedom” are terms that lend themselves to many interpretations. Isn’t the violent suppression of labor unions by Indonesia an unfair trading practice, when South Korea lives by a more democratic standard? And isn’t the incineration of the Amazon rainforest an unfair practice by Brazil, when the rest of the planet must suffer the consequences? Those are issues that should rightfully be brought before the WTO — an organization that now devotes much of its energy to determining how much cheese France can send to the United States and whether India is infringing on pharmaceutical patents.
In a political system as dominated by corporate interests and ideology as ours, it may seem rather naive to think that American leaders would ever use this country’s international power to improve labor and environmental standards. And that may never happen, unless the labor movement and its allies develop a sophisticated global strategy to reform the WTO. The only thing that is even less likely to occur is a return to the good old days.