Let ordinary folks shut down WTO decision-makers’ tent

By Robert Jensen

Published in Houston Chronicle · November, 1999

[This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle, November 30, 1999, p. 27-A.]

It is a strange democracy when a high government official can chastise the public for not holding the right opinion. But consider the remarks of U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky on the public protests of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle:

“Not to move forward on those issues puts the global trading system at peril,” she said, “because the biggest threat to open markets is the lack of public support.”

If we understood democracy actually to mean rule by the people, then a lack of public support for a policy should make officials stop and consider the wisdom of the policy. But Barshefsky and others in the Clinton administration have no time for such idealistic notions of the relevance of citizen concerns. Instead, they are worried that an outbreak of democracy could derail plans to solidify corporate control over the world’s economy at this week’s WTO meeting.

And make no mistake, that is exactly what is on the table in Seattle, which is why people are taking to the streets by the thousands around the country to express their displeasure at the attempts to shove corporate domination down the throats of regular folks. Ordinary citizens quite clearly are telling the administration that we won’t buy the empty rhetoric about free trade and open markets, and that we want fair trade and an economic system that serves the needs of people, not corporations.

The WTO was created in 1995 out of the “Uruguay Round” of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The 134 member countries agree to abide by the WTO’s rules, which go far beyond tariffs to address “non-tariff barriers to trade” in an attempt to deregulate international commerce and force open domestic markets to foreign investment. In short, the WTO strengthens the power of corporations and weakens the ability of governments to protect workers and the environment.

Under WTO rules, countries can challenge each others’ laws and regulations as barriers to trade. When a country loses at the WTO, it can change laws to conform to the WTO requirements, pay compensation to the other country, or have non-negotiated trade sanctions forced on it. A panel of three trade bureaucrats decide the cases, and in the first four years those decisions have gone for the corporations and against workers, public health and the environment.

So, the WTO is an attack on democracy because non-elected power brokers constrain the actions of democratically elected governments. That attack is even more dramatic because the WTO tribunals operate in secret; proceedings and documents are confidential, with no right to outside appeals.

In the United States, this will undermine environmental regulations and hamper the efforts of working people to organize for better pay and working conditions. But the people who really will suffer will be in the Third World. WTO regulations will force open even more dramatically the markets of Third World countries to the multinational corporations from rich countries. The policies often demanded of these countries by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank — slashing social spending and accommodating foreign investors — will be intensified under WTO rule. That means a continued erosion of basic health and human services in those countries, while governments also will be thwarted in attempts to protect domestic industries and agriculture.

All this is justified by the unsupported claim that “free trade” benefits everyone. Never mind that even a cursory look at history shows that every advanced economy, including the United States’, was built not on free trade but protectionism. Never mind that only when rich nations have great advantages do they sing the praises of free trade.

As economist Robin Hahnel points out in his new book Panic Rules!, increases in trade and international investment do not necessarily produce efficiency gains. And when they do, they almost always aggravate the already profound and immoral inequalities within countries and between rich and poor countries.

How does the administration answer these citizen concerns? Clinton offers to “bring inside the tent” the dissident voices. But the goal of the movement against corporate-sponsored globalization is not to come into the tent for Clinton’s dog-and-pony show. We’re saying that it is time to shut this tent down.

The question is not globalization, about whether or not we all now are connected in new ways brought about by changes in politics, economics, and technology. The question is, on what values will a global economy be based? The inherent dignity of all people to live meaningful lives of their own choosing, or the rights of corporations to make those choices in the quest of ever-higher profits?

In a democracy, those choices are made by the people, in the people’s tent. Not by Clinton, Barshefsky and the rest of the bought-and-paid-for barkers in the corporate tent.