The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

World Trade Organization:
Railing Against the WTO Doesn't Stop Imperialism's Ills

Jan 14, 2000

The third meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), held in Seattle from November 30 to December 3, had been billed as the meeting to launch the "Millennium Round" of trade negotiations which was supposed to last three years. In fact, it was a failure: the governments of the 135 member countries of the WTO did not succeed even in agreeing on an agenda for this upcoming round of negotiations.

The people who went to Seattle to demonstrate against the meeting were delighted with this failure and even took credit for it.

This failure, however, was predictable. Several of Clinton's councillors had warned him that attempting to set up too ambitious an agenda for negotiations was doomed to failure. Disagreements between the big powers, in particular harsh rivalries between the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.) about agribusiness, jeopardized the Millennium Round before it had even started. Negotiations, which had gone on for months at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, had failed to set up the agenda which was to have been ratified in Seattle. Disagreements which had not been settled during all those months were not likely to be resolved in four days in the limelight. Nonetheless, negotiations are due to resume in January in Geneva, and the whole thing has probably just been postponed.

It is not the first time something like this has occurred. It's not so easy, after all, to try to conciliate the rival and contradictory trade interests of the big powers. Three ministerial meetings like the one in Seattle were necessary to launch the last round of negotiations which finally gave birth to the WTO. That round, the so-called Uruguay Round, lasted seven and a half years, that is, twice as long as was planned.

The failure in Seattle will have few important consequences since production and trade do not stop while governments arm-wrestle, each to better defend the interests of its own capitalists. As a matter of fact, there was a consensus from almost everyone represented in Seattle that they preferred no agreement at all rather than a "bad" agreement bad for their domestic capitalists, of course. In other words, the failure in Seattle, which has been called "historic" by some people, seems to be of little concern to the representatives of the big powers.

The same thing happened a little more than a year ago when negotiations for the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) collapsed: this did not prevent capital from crossing borders, being "invested" and returning a lot of profit. The purpose of MAI had been to get an agreement from all states that their public authorities would provide help as readily to foreign investors as to national investors. In France, former Socialist Party minister of culture Jack Lang took the lead of a protest in the artists' milieu, defending "French and European cultural diversity " from inroads by Hollywood and other dangerous species. On these grounds, the whole spectrum of French politicians, from the right-wing RPR to the French CP, joined the protest. Prime Minister Jospin, leaning on "public opinion," refused to resume the negotiations which collapsed. Those who had protested indignantly that national states would no longer be free to favor their own capitalists celebrated the victory when the negotiations were abandoned. Nonetheless, these same states, which couldn't agree, and their public authorities went on competing with each other to attract investors, overbidding each other, offering advantages to one foreign investor after another despite the lack of an MAI.

The economist Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post just before the Seattle meeting, explained that the meeting wasn't necessary, nor was a new agreement: "Trade liberation is occurring without a new agreement. Gains from trade seem so obvious that many poorer countries want to get into the WTO. This requires them to cut tariffs, reduce quotas and, in general, move toward open trade....The second factor driving liberalization is the competition for international investment....companies won't go places with a hostile business climate....Many countries rich and poor are spontaneously discarding rules that restrict competition or discriminate against foreigners to attract investment."

World trade exists completely independent of the WTO, despite the importance some people accord it. McDonald's does not need the WTO today to be able to open restaurants all over the world; nor did Coca Cola need it years ago to set up its bottling plants.

Trade Relationships Are Relationships of Force

Trade existed long before there were international bodies pretending to organize it. These bodies have existed for half a century, but merchant capital had already established a long record of military, political and economic rivalries for centuries. Commercial treaties and official economic theories simply reflected the relationship of forces between the various powers and their commercial interests.

While the weaker countries often sought to protect their economy or their society from commercial invasion by more powerful countries, the more powerful ones strove to impose free trade, that is, their freedom to ruin entire countries with cheaper goods. Rivalries, relationships of forces, enrichment of some countries at the expense of others this is what capitalism has always had in store for the world, ever since its very beginning. England, which had been protectionist for a long time, became a "free trader" in the 19th century when it had become the main industrial power; its industrial goods were able to compete to England's advantage with goods from all the other countries. The United States, by contrast, during the years of England's dominance, was not a "free trader"; it was obliged to protect its new-born industry behind customs tariffs.

From the middle of the nineteenth century on, the big industrial powers rushed to conquer the earth. It was very often with guns that England and France imposed their right to sell their goods to other countries. The expression "gunboat diplomacy" goes back a long way. The so-called opium wars, which allowed the British empire to impose the opium trade on China are they part of the history of trade or of military history? When, during the same period of time, Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its ports, imposing free trade for American goods was that a military expedition or a commercial deal?

For more than a century, the big capitalist powers, which had become imperialist, had such a vital need to export their goods and their capital that they constantly engaged in wars with each other and with other parts of the world; they launched two world wars for the purpose of redividing among themselves markets that had already been conquered.

The period between the two world wars was marked by generalized protectionism. The very fact that the different European currencies were no longer pegged to gold after World War I was in itself a major obstacle to trade. In the aftermath of the 1929 economic crisis, inter-imperialist rivalries led the main powers to pull back inside their own borders and their own zones of influence, trying to push their competitors aside. This die-hard protectionism helped lead to a complete paralysis of world trade.

After World War II, the U.S., which had become the most powerful imperialism and which monitored the reconstruction of the countries devastated by the war, worked to force the old colonial powers to open up their private preserves. Having, for all practical purposes, no colonies of its own, the U.S. wanted the whole world as an arena for its trade, open to its goods and its capital. The U.S. wanted to break up the protectionist barriers that had been set up between the two world wars. Thus, it set up the predecessor of the WTO in 1947 under the name of the "General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade" (GATT). The U.S. had two major aims in setting up the GATT: 1) to progressively lower customs tariffs; and 2) to obtain a commitment from the 23 countries which signed the treaty that they would grant each other the same commercial advantages that they gave to any country not covered by the GATT.

Even though the old imperialist countries were weakened after the war, so strongly did they resist the second clause of the treaty, which aimed at undoing their old colonial ties, that the GATT authorized its members to grant particular advantages to a few countries under the condition that this would be exceptional and not the rule.

Nowadays, however, nearly half of world trade falls within this "exceptional" situation; and the world is divided between rival commercial blocs which have their own particular rules: the European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), MERCOSUR in South America, etc.

During the last fifty years, the relationship of forces which was sanctioned by the first GATT agreements has changed considerably, perpetually put in question by never-ceasing rivalries in an ever-changing world. The volume of trade has increased three or four times as quickly as production. Bilateral and multilateral agreements have followed one after the other, one reinforcing the other or... contradicting the other, ending up in a real jungle of rules. The complete list of all the agreements which have been passed by the 120 countries which were members of the GATT in 1994, when the GATT decided to create the WTO, takes up 22,500 pages. This is the result of a half century of unceasing commercial guerilla warfare during which customs tariffs were often replaced by import quotas, by so-called "voluntary" export quotas or even by national standards which were in fact protectionist barriers, regardless of the fact they were adopted under the pretext of protecting consumers, the environment or even the workers.

WTO Into the Cockpit

"Free trade" has been discussed for more than two centuries now, but it is still far from being a reality: trade is neither free nor fair, but imposed by force. This was true long before the GATT or the WTO. Today, as yesterday, the most powerful countries set the rules governing commercial relationships. What is called the World Trade Organization, and before it, the GATT, is a real cockpit, where the various state apparatuses defend their own capitalists with beak and claw. The WTO, in establishing rules for world trade, simply endorses the existing relationship of forces.

The loudest partisans of free enterprise do not object to state intervention when it comes to helping their own domestic capitalists. The U.S., which is the most powerful state in the world and which constantly proclaims its adherence to "free trade," is at the same time the most protectionist state in the world, intervening the most often to support its own capitalists. It is also the state which has the most means to impose its views on everyone else: the size of its domestic market, which it can open or close to others, gives it a huge means of pressure. As for the other national states, they try to act the same way ... to the extent that they have the means to do so.

Mike Moore, director-general of the WTO and organizer of the Seattle meeting, expressed this reality in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde: "The average customs tariffs the rich countries impose on the goods of the poorest countries are heavier than those they impose on goods coming from other rich countries. For example, the tariffs imposed by the U.S. and Canada on goods from the poor countries are twice as high." This illustrates quite well that the ability to set the rules is derived from the relationship of forces.

Another example: the rules about intellectual property, involving patent applications, are used by big corporations to hold exclusive rights to processes which have been developed. Rice Tec Company of Texas, for example, patented the processing of basmati rice. The Indian peasants who had developed the process have lost all rights now to process their rice in this fashion since they did not apply for a patent. If they continue to use the process, they must pay a fee, or the Indian state must collect the fee from them to send to Rice Tec. Another example: the big western drug companies, in alliance with their subsidiaries in South Africa, have sued South Africa because it dared to try to produce generic medicines more cheaply than the price South Africa was paying to western companies for medicines directed against AIDS, which is a national disaster, and against other diseases which strike the poor population of the country.

An Eclectic Demonstration

It is indisputable that the WTO is an instrument in the hands of the big corporations. The CEO's of Microsoft and Boeing, whose companies are both headquartered in Seattle, collected the 10 million dollars required to organize the meeting of the WTO in Seattle. The donations, ranging from $5,000 to $250,000, came from some 65 sponsors from among the world's top businessmen, who were thus enabled to participate, to greater or lesser degree, in the festivities of the WTO and reach the various finance ministers who were there.

Among those who demonstrated in Seattle, saying "No to WTO: We are not for sale" or "Stop the WTO!" there probably were people who were sincerely shocked by what the WTO represents, that is to say, an instrument which the big capitalist corporations can use to serve their thirst for profit. The capitalist system, based on the drive for profit, is such a disaster for humanity in almost all fields that there are many reasons to worry, to protest, to demonstrate. Nonetheless those who set the goals and put their political imprint on the event were defending interests which had nothing to do with the general interests of humanity.

Those who initiated the demonstration were the leaders of the AFL-CIO, along with Public Citizen, the consumer organization set up by Ralph Nader. In addition, more than a thousand other organizations from 85 different countries added their names to the call for the demonstration. There were all sorts of associations, churches, environmentalists, students, trade-unions, political parties, etc. What was remarkable was not so much the number of demonstrators, 20,000 to 30,000, but the variety of participants and of demands. Ralph Nader even rejoiced, in an interview with Le Monde that "never in the history of the U.S. has there been such a convergence among groups with such different opinions: trade unions, churches, environmentalists, consumers, students. There were even conservatives, side by side with progressives, who were opposed to the fact that the law of trade comes before other values." Nader himself helped put together the "Citizens' Trade Campaign," an umbrella organization made up of groups like the United Methodist Church, the Friends of the Earth, the Teamsters union, the Steelworkers union, etc. whose only basis for agreement was the denunciation that the WTO is "an undemocratic institution which has gained too much power over people's lives."

It was on this lowest common denominator that the demonstrators came to Seattle to defend very different values with very different means. There were those who wish to kill the WTO, those who want to strengthen its powers; those who want more rules, and those who don't want any; those who demand that the WTO take labor rights and environmental protections into account, and those who don't want protections which were set up in the rich countries to be imposed on countries in the third world. There were people who were fighting for animals' rights, and others for human rights. The aim of some of the demonstrators was to be invited to the negotiating table, the demand of others was citizens' control over the WTO. Some protested against the WTO's undermining of national sovereignty, others wanted rules to be imposed on everybody. And let us not forget supporters of the Zapatista guerillas in Mexico or those in favor of independence for Tibet or for Taiwan from China. Many said they wanted to put a "human face" on globalization. But taking their stand only against the WTO, none of them challenged the capitalist system which had produced the ills they opposed.

Governments Accept Responsibility for the Protest

In the framework of the existing system, limitations and bans are usually double-edged: favoring the interests of one group, they undercut someone else's interests. For instance, the U.S. has banned fishing for shrimp with nets unless the nets have devices to prevent turtles from being taken at the same time under the pretext that sea turtles are an endangered species. But Asian fishermen, who do not have such expensive devices, are thus prevented from shipping their shrimp into the U.S. market. This regulation to protect turtles provided the U.S. government with a means to impose a protectionist barrier the kind in which it so often indulges. Those young people who dressed like turtles in Seattle to defend the survival of this species weren't they, then, supporting Clinton's decisions to protect the American fishing industry against the fishermen from poor Asian countries?

In the same way, Jose Bove, who presents himself as a leader of French farmers, denounces so-called "Frankenstein food" as a pretext to oppose imports of American food (with no certainty that what the French food industry puts in the consumers' plates is any more healthy).

Those who demand that labor rights or measures to protect the environment be incorporated in commercial agreements necessarily support, as a consequence, commercial interests who want to use that type of restriction to reduce imports from the poor countries.

The representatives of the big powers do not hesitate to play on the ambiguity of these demands and to base themselves on "public opinion" during the negotiations. As a matter of fact, some 700 organizations were given official credentials for the meeting in Seattle, some of which had called for the demonstration, some of which did not. Many of them were delegates of economic groupings which wanted to participate as lobbies, such as the representatives from the big companies or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. For a long time now, governments have taken such representatives of "public opinion" along with them to give them more weight in international negotiations.

Certainly, the organizers of the WTO pretended to bow to the demands that the WTO be made more open and "more democratic." Before the opening of the Seattle meeting, a forum was scheduled to allow these 700 organizations to express their demands. A few weeks before, Mike Moore, the director-general of the WTO, had even met a certain number of European protestors in Geneva. In Seattle, he addressed the meeting of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Attempting to convince them that the discussion about labor rights clauses was a false discussion because it was poverty and not globalization which was responsible for bad working conditions, he warned them that they should beware of "the dark features of protectionism." Demagogically, he advised them: "We must invent again our fathers' ideals: internationalism and solidarity for this new era of globalization."

Clinton, on the other hand, expressed his sympathy for the demonstrators as soon as he arrived in Seattle, agreeing that they had raised real problems. Clinton took the demands of the American trade unions as his own, promising to work to incorporate clauses related to labor rights and environmental protection in commercial agreements.

He didn't even blush when he declared: "I'm very sympathetic with a lot of the causes being raised by all the people that are there demonstrating. It was unrealistic to assume that for the next 50 years, trade could be like it's been for the last 50 primarily the province of business executives. More people are going to demand to be heard, and I think that's a good thing."

Taking advantage of the publicity surrounding Seattle, he signed an international treaty which he portrayed as putting a curb on child labor abuses. And he proposed to create a working group about social questions inside the WTO.

Clinton was certainly indulging in some electoral demagogy on behalf of the Democratic Party, but a number of big American companies moved in behind him to create those working groups on labor rights and environmental protections inside the WTO. This is all the more hypocritical since a good number of the companies that use child labor are American ones. U.S. leaders, with Clinton at their head, have all the means they need right now if they wanted to use them to force these companies to respect rules on child labor. In fact, more than anything else, this talk of a labor code is an open threat of protectionist measures to be taken against third world countries.

In other countries, like France, for example, political leaders have also taken responsibility for part or all of the demands expressed by anti-WTO protesters.

In his time, Marx ironically castigated the hypocritical display of high-flown sentiment used by the free trading English industrialists to cover the defense of their commercial interests. "Cheap food, high wages, for this alone the English Free Traders have spent millions, and their enthusiasm has already infected their Continental brethren. Generally speaking, all those who advocate free trade, say they do so in the interests of the working class. But, strange to say, the people for whom cheap food is to be procured are very ungrateful.... The people see in those self-sacrificing men ... their worst enemies and the most shameless hypocrites." And further on, "How should the workingmen understand the sudden philanthropy of the manufacturers, the very men still busy fighting against the Ten-Hours Bill, which was to reduce the working day of the mill hands from twelve hours to ten?" (Speech on the Question of Free Trade," 1848)

Today, as then, the politicians and corporations display high-flown sentiment to better hide their pursuit of interests that have nothing to do with the interests of the people, of the workers or with public health or culture.

French speeches about French agriculture being "multi-functional" that it not only produces food but preserves a "French way of life" serve to justify the subsidies that agribusiness receives. And a person like Jose Bove, who is praised by some people as a committed protestor, defends not so much what is healthy to eat but the "good" French products, "food sovereignty," and "the right for each country to protect its food."

All those pressure groups, those lobbies with particular interests demand rules which they hope will help them defend their own interests against more powerful people. Some of them claim to speak in the name of returning to small-holding agricultural and handicraft production, or a return to national markets and even local ones. All of them ask "their own" state for protection; today, bringing their demands up to date, they ask international bodies for protection. Protectionism, national independence it is no surprise that the far right could recognize themselves in these demands. In Seattle, right-wing ex-Republicans from the Reform Party of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan delivered speeches against the WTO.

Politicians' games, electoral demagogy, rival economic interests this is the meaning of many stands taken by individuals, lobbies or associations at Seattle. Don't look therein for the defense of great principles or the defense of interests serving the peoples of the world or the workers.

Union Leaders Toe the Line Behind Their Own Governments...

In Seattle there were also people claiming to represent the interests of the workers: the unions of various countries whose speeches nonetheless embraced only the demagogy of their respective governments.

Those who set the tone in Seattle were the American unions since the AFL-CIO was the main organizer of the demonstrations and brought by far the most people. At the same time, the AFL-CIO was also among the sponsors of the WTO meeting, donating $25,000 for the opportunity to get in touch with a certain number of politicians and businessmen. Whatever "social" rhetoric the federation produced relating to labor rights, etc., the AFL-CIO's main demand was that the WTO associate unions and environmentalists to the talks.

Behind social-sounding statements about international labor rights, the protectionist aims of the leaders of the AFL-CIO shine through. Last October, during the AFL-CIO convention, secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka denounced child labor, forced labor, inequalities and anti-union repression throughout the world. Then he described what was going wrong in the U.S.: "And here at home? Free trade' and NAFTA have destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs. We have a trade deficit in goods $250 billion last year that threatens the economic future of every American family." The leaders of the steelworkers union complain that the U.S. is flooded with cheap steel exported by Asian countries which try to export their way out of the crisis. A few months ago, the United Steel Workers of America even joined with steel industry leaders to ask the president for emergency help. As for John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, he denounces the fact that: "Even with the economy growing, the U.S. lost more than 500,000 manufacturing jobs over the last 18 months as devastated countries tried to export their way out of trouble."

In other words, it is not American capitalists who are to blame for unemployment and poverty in the U.S.; it is the trade deficit with poor countries! It is the flood of imports which is blamed for low wages and loss of jobs in the United States. At Seattle, the AFL-CIO may have demanded that the WTO incorporate in its rules the respect for the basic rights of workers and protection of the environment and that the WTO plan sanctions against those who would violate them. But behind its rhetoric stands the AFL-CIO's real demand that is, to stop goods from the third world from entering the American market. The AFL-CIO says it very bluntly: We must have stronger safeguards so that national actions can be taken quickly, when import surges threaten domestic industry."

Union leaders presented respect for national sovereignty as a guarantee for the protection of the interests of the population, for the future of the earth and as a safeguard for nature. But the policy of each and every state, including first of all the American state, is to serve the big corporations and their thirst for profit inside their own country, even though the whole population is going to pay for it through unemployment, poverty, bad health and the deterioration of all public services.

The violent reaction of AFL leaders to the November 15 announcement of an agreement between China and the U.S., which half-opened the door of the WTO to China, is very significant, showing the kind of ideas the AFL-CIO leaders spread ideas which oppose the class interests of the workers.

Noting that "China shows it has no interest in playing by even the most basic rules of the world community," John Sweeney asserted, "The agreement reached this weekend would deal away our democratic principles and most cherished values and we will fight it." He accused the Clinton White House of "prostrating itself in pursuit of a trade deal with a rogue nation." The leaders of the UAW openly accuse China of "a variety of practices designed to force U.S. manufacturers to transfer technology and production to China;" and they state that "the UAW is deeply concerned that, notwithstanding the new promises which China has made in the WTO trade deal, it will still find ways to continue the same auto and aerospace industrial policies that are threatening the jobs of American workers."

Teamster president, James P. Hoffa, hostile to the agreement with China, declared that China's abuse of workers' and human rights goes back as far as the building of the Great Wall! He is indignant that "The pact comes at a time when the Chinese government's trade policies are deliberately targeting U.S. markets." Giving figures for the U.S. trade deficit with China, Hoffa adds: "This deficit increase will suppress American wages and result in the loss of even more U.S. jobs. More than 600,000 jobs have been lost already as a result of earlier trade agreements such as NAFTA."

...And Turn Their Backs on the Class Struggle

Sweeney, Hoffa and the others complain about competition ... exactly as the bosses do. They pick up the bosses' language and the bosses' arguments, instead of fighting those ideas. They are quick to denounce in other countries what they make no effort to organize a challenge against at home: forced labor overseas, for example, while big companies in the U.S. use prisoners' work; the absence of union rights, when many workers in the U.S. have no right to belong to a union.

They help spread the idea that the interests of the workers coincide with those of their boss. Far from urging the workers to force the bosses to take money from their profits to guarantee wages and jobs, during this whole crisis they have asked workers to accept the concessions that the bosses demanded. What allowed the bosses to reduce wages, and thus produce the high profits of the last decade, was not the trade deficit but the acquiescence of union leaders to the demands of the bosses.

Not only do their speeches not help defend the workers' interests, but they help prevent the workers from realizing who is really responsible for the situation the working class finds itself in today.

The AFL-CIO leaders aligned themselves on the demands of other people at Seattle that the WTO be opened up, that it be made "democratic," placed under the control of the consumers or of the population. But they have never raised the necessity for the workers or the consumers or the population to control this government, nor these multinational corporations who still make their base in this country. They have never raised the idea that the accounts of the government all its income, all its real spending be opened and controlled by the population. They have never demanded that all the real accounts of the corporations be examined by the workers. Often, instead, they defend the idea that corporations must protect "business secrets," just as they keep discussions they have with the corporations secret. They never raise the idea that the workers in each workplace could follow closely, on the spot, everything the company was doing as it was doing it. They have never demanded that all the bank accounts and other holdings of the shareholders and all their relatives be opened up to inspection. Why not? This would put the lie to the bosses' claims that they are not competitive.

To denounce the secrecy with which the WTO acts is a way to absolve the U.S. government of all responsibility for its secret dealings, to excuse it for its decisions, made no more democratically than those of the WTO, and for its prostration in front of the multinationals.

The one concrete demand the unions made is that they be given a seat at the negotiating table. They want to be consulted and associated with the management of the world economy, just as they want to be consulted and associated with the management of each and every corporation with whom they negotiate. Apparently their seat at the bargaining table is all that the AFL-CIO had in mind when it talked about "democracy."

The leaders of the AFL-CIO and of its member unions pretend to represent the interests of the workers, but they defend inside the working class movement the ideas and the arguments of the bosses and of the governments which serve the bosses. They do not help reinforce the class consciousness of the workers; by everything they do, they help blunt it. Fundamentally sticking to their own imperialism, they adopt the cause of their own bosses. Unfortunately this is nothing new in the workers' movement.

Seattle: Awakened Militancy?

It is fashionable today to look at Seattle as the awakening of a new militancy and to ignore who was there, what they proposed, and the confusion that those proposals could only sew in the minds of the working population if they took up the demands made in Seattle.

Seattle did not represent a step forward, not even a detour headed vaguely in the right direction. To look for some promising dynamic there is to ignore, first, the social composition of the movement. It is not an accident that protectionist ideas including those that are the most reactionary not only were represented in the movement but gave the Seattle demonstration its political character.

Those who sincerely want to struggle against the misdeeds of capitalism against the exploitation of human labor and the contempt for the laboring populations, against the plundering of the poorest countries and the destruction of the environment have no other solution than to fight against the capitalist system itself and fight for a society where the needs of the people will determine a rational organization of the economy without wasting natural resources nor the efforts of humanity.

Revolutionary currents, when they were present in the working class, struggled to oppose "capitalist globalization" which is nothing new with proletarian internationalism, that is to say the consciousness that the working class has the same interests throughout the world, interests which are radically opposed to those of its exploiters, and the consciousness that it has the means to replace capitalism by another economic and social organization.