As someone who's spent years living and working overseas, and who is committed to the experiment we call "democracy", I am disappointed in the extremist arguments presented in newspaper columns defending or attacking the WTO in the wake of the recent Seattle protests.
Some writers have hailed free trade as a panacea for global problems and portray anti-WTO protesters as either ignorant or malicious. Others have suggested that human rights violations, worker exploitation, and environmental abuses by transnational corporations justify shutting down the WTO, or even dismantling corporations altogether. My first-hand experience causes me to deem all those views unrealistic.
Trade does create wealth, and the WTO is here to stay, as are transnationals. But needless abuses are being tolerated in the name of wealth, and limits are needed.
A former newspaper journalist and former communications director for the Texas AFL-CIO, I recently returned to the USA (and Austin) after living overseas since 1994. Most of that time I spent advocating for human rights and worker rights at the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) in Paris, in the former Eastern Bloc countries of Europe, and in developing countries from Asia to the Caribbean. The experience gave me a close view of the organizing power of transnational corporations, and of the results of organizing a "global culture" based on economic rather than political values.
While tribalistic barriers of nationalism, cultural identity, language, ethnicity, and religion pose tough problems in creating international agreements, money has a way of dissolving those barriers. For example, translating human rights based on the U.S. Constitution into human rights based on quasi-martial Malaysian law is difficult, but translating dollars to ringgit is an easy transaction. Thus transnationals accomplish agreements with relative ease by appealing to a human universal: desire for wealth.
So while the United Nations struggles with sticky democratic political values, the WTO and transnational corporations try to avoid such conflict by keeping human and environmental concerns off the table. They want "free markets" unhampered by non-commercial concerns.
In truth, though, the "free" markets allegedly embraced by the WTO are based on a treaty with countless protectionist clauses. Almost all the clauses directly or indirectly protect corporate financial interests, while almost none protect the civil liberties of working people or the natural environment. So the markets aren't really "free" of costs, both social and economic; it's just that corporations, as profit-taking entities, try to avoid costs.
Those who claim the WTO and transnationals are dramatically improving the lives of working people throughout the developing world are presenting a half-truth. In many of those countries, where oligarchies and virtual dictatorships hold power, a small group at the top are reaping great wealth by repressing its own citizens, who work under dire conditions for transnationals which decimate ecologies with unregulated abandon. Widespread development is retarded by a few who hoard wealth while corporate leaders frankly say, "Democracy is not our business."
Despite the commercial bias of the mainstream media and D.C. Beltway politicians, the average informed American knows this for a fact. So while American politicians and media seemed taken by surprise at recent events in Seattle, average working Americans watched nodding their heads, as if to say, "Well, they should have seen that coming."
In fact, we raise a fundamental issue by using corporations as the primary organizing structures in globalization. A main threat to this experiment we call "democracy", both within the USA and around the world, is unregulated power in the private sector and the "free market" ideology pushing it. Democracy is often inefficient in economic terms. The human rights protected by democratic principles sometimes diminish corporate profitability. In the USA, we've to an extent accepted this as a necessary cost of justice, and corporations have had to adjust. But in many developing WTO nations, transnationals backed by a few powerful (and increasingly wealthy) in-country officials resist the same adjustment. The people there needlessly suffer, and justice is denied.
That is precisely why activists in Seattle so vociferously demanded that protections for workers and the environment be folded into the WTO treaty. Justice, they argued, is worth the cost.
In this nascent period of inevitable globalization, the question is not whether a global economy will emerge (it already has) or whether transnational corporations will be the primary organizing structures for it (they already are), but whether human beings will be protected globally from the inherent non-democratic values of corporate power. Advocates of "money first, people second" say no, but the impulse of human dignity demands protection from such abuses, as it always has. Very loudly.
Christopher Cook is a writer in Austin, Texas.