The Battle Against the World Trade Organization and Corporate Rule
By Kevin Danaher
Introduction: People Making History
November 30, 1999 marked a turning point in history. Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens took to the the streets of Seattle to stop the World Trade Organization (WTO) from conducting 'business as usual' (i.e., making rules for the entire planet that mainly serve the interests of large corporations).
Seattle marked a turning point in a number of ways. Never before had so much anti-corporate critique appeared in the corporate-controlled media. The Los Angeles Times opined: "On the tear gas shrouded streets of Seattle, the unruly forces of democracy collided with the elite world of trade policy. And when the meeting ended in failure on Friday the elitists had lost and the debate had changed forever."
This penetration of the corporate media with an anti-corporate message built on a growing public distrust of the corporate "free trade" agenda. A late-1999 poll by the University of Maryland found that 78 percent of Americans thought the WTO should pay more attention to environmental and labor concerns. A Business Week poll conducted during the protests found that 52 percent of Americans sympathized with the protestors.
Seattle marked the greatest failure of elite trade diplomacy since the end of World War II. Even in 1982, when the Reagan administration tried--and failed--to force through a new round of negotiations for trade liberalization, there was at least a declaration and future work agenda issued at the end of the conference. Not so in Seattle. The Clinton team, led by U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, handled the controversy in Seattle so ineptly that the talks ended in total collapse.
This was a huge blow to the Clinton administration, which had based most of its foreign policy on pushing for more international privileges for corporations. As the New York Times reported on February 19, 2000, "Administration officials now concede that [the Seattle] meeting was among the biggest blunders of Mr. Clinton's second term."
Most importantly, Seattle was the coming out party for a new global movement for citizen power that will certainly go on to bigger and better things. A remarkable diversity of interests came together with a unified critique of corporate rule. Trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights activists, church groups, AIDS activists, family farmers, and grassroots organizers from around the world all united against the WTO because it promotes the interests of large corporations over the interests of people and nature.
There were actually two battles in Seattle. The unity of the opposition movement in the streets exacerbated the disunity among the elites inside the WTO conference. Because the groups opposing the WTO included traditional Democratic Party constituencies (especially organized labor), President Clinton tried to calm their anger by giving a speech calling for international standards to defend the rights of workers. This emphasis on labor rights scared elitist third world leaders whose main bargaining chip with the transnational corporations is to offer up their working classes at low wages.
Plus, Clinton's speech came on top of a U.S. tradition of dominating international trade talks and bullying other countries, so third world leaders were in no mood to be lectured by a U.S. president. Even European governments were reluctant to go along with U.S. insistence on lowering agricultural trade barriers and allowing the unrestricted flow of genetically modified foods. So, with the protestors outside disrupting Clinton's plan for a free trade love-fest, the delegates inside fell to squabbling among themselves and the talks collapsed.
The people's victory in Seattle has been like a huge shot of adrenaline for the global democracy movement. Planning meetings that formerly drew ten people now draw fifty. Demonstrations that previously took months to organize now come together in weeks. Almost before the tear gas had cleared in Seattle, the movement was abuzz with plans for massive demonstrations in other locations: the April 16--17 meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington; the Republican Party convention in Philadelphia; and the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles.
The First Global Revolution
We can now envision the formation of a truly global movement capable of challenging the most powerful institutions on the planet. As you will see in the concluding section of this book, progressive organizations are drawing up plans for how we could run the global economy in a life-centered way rather than a money-centered way. The money paradigm that has ruled for so long is now losing public support. And the life paradigm, which emphasizes human rights and saving the environment, is gaining support. Transnational unity at the grassroots level is strengthening, while transnational unity at the elite level is fraying.
If we look closely we can see the pieces of the first global revolution being put together. Every revolution up until now has been a national revolution, aimed at seizing control of a national government. But the blatant corporate bias of global rule-making institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO have forced the grassroots democracy movement to start planning a global revolution. It is a revolution in values as well as institutions. It seeks to replace the money values of the current system with the life values of a truly democratic system.
Just look at the various components of this global revolution, all of which are growing vigorously:
- The world's trade union movement is undergoing a double transformation. More and more unionists are realizing that organizing within a national context is no longer adequate for dealing with globe-spanning corporations, so unions must increase the amount and sophistication of cross-border solidarity. Trade unions are also expanding their traditionally narrow shop-floor approach, and are replacing it with what is often called social unionism or community-based unionism, which seeks out alliances with churches, NGOs, and other organizations in civil society. The victory in Seattle gave this trend a significant boost.
- The corporate accountability movement has developed great skill at pressuring corporations to change their objectionable policies, and now the movement is moving up to the next level: questioning the very right of these corporations to exist. People are learning that corporations exist because we, the sovereign citizens, charter them and give them a piece of our sovereignty. What can be given can be taken away, if enough citizens demand it. People are talking about organizing a campaign to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that says: "A corporation is not a human being."
- There is a diverse range of organizations working for a return-to-the-local in terms of citizen empowerment. These efforts span the political spectrum from left to right, yet they agree that as much decision-making as possible (political and economic) should take place at the local level, where people actually live. This is in sharp contrast to the agenda pushed by the likes of the WTO, IMF and World Bank.
- The traditional separation between environmental struggles and social justice struggles is being bridged by more and more groups. Activists are going beyond "end-of-pipeline" politics, whereby we react to the policies of elites by trying to soften their impact on people and nature. Instead we are saying let's go inside and change the machinery that is producing bad policy in the first place. It's like the difference between jumping in a river to save each drowning child, and going up-river to stop whoever is throwing the kids in the water in the first place.
What these various movements have in common is the goal of expanding the practice of democracy to include the economic realm. They harken back to the origins of the word democracy in the Greek roots 'demos' meaning people, and 'kratos' meaning rule. It took hundreds of years to achieve the separation of church and state, and now we are in the middle of a long struggle to achieve the separation of corporations and the state.
There will some day be a democratic global economy. The question is: will that take us 500 years or 50 years or 15 years to achieve?
This book is designed to be a tool in the struggle to democratize the global economy. It provides an analysis of what actually happened in Seattle, in stark contrast to the partial and distorted version presented in the corporate media. We also address many of the questions that now confront the movement: how do we bridge divisions of race, class, gender and nationality; how can we develop alternative institutions that can make rules for the global economy democratically; and how can we replace the dominance of money values with a system that venerates life in all its forms.
We conclude the book with resources and ways you can get involved in this historic movement. In the past, we book producers had a problem collecting enough resources to fill a "What To Do" section of a book like this. Now the problem is a better one: there are so many organizations working on these issues that we could fill an entire book with just organizational references. We have tried to provide references to key groups working on what we believe to be cutting edge issues in the struggle to democratize the global economy. We apologize to those of you we left out.