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Raj Patel © 2000

 

 
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"If free traders cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another, we need not wonder, since these same gentleman also refuse to understand how in the same country one class can enrich itself at the expense of another."

Karl Marx, Speech before the Democratic Association of Brussels
at its Public Meeting, January 9 , 1848


I

For international trade bores, the World Trade Organisation Ministerial in Seattle at the beginning of December 1999, was always going to be big. Decisions over trade in services, agriculture (including genetically modified organisms), e-commerce and financial products were going to be taken, and although it wasn't clear who the winners were going to be, the spoils were unquestionably large.

But the protests and the disasters within the negotiating rooms appealed to a far wider audience than the crumpled-suited trade watching brigade. Seattle captured the US public's imagination and -- gratifyingly -- two months of relatively sober reflection have done little to dim public enthusiasm for the issues that were raised there. In the discourse of international political economy, Seattle, like Vietnam, has been transformed from a geographical location into a moment in US history. It makes grammatical sense to talk about events, chronologies, "After Seattle". The town has become an event. Tony Blair, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week talked of how another Seattle was unthinkable -- although he then went on to say that the WTO's agenda was entirely correct, and that in future, they'd be well advised to use a better PR company.

There are many stories to be told about the Seattle Ministerial. One that troubles the minds and wallets of international policy wonks is "Why did Seattle fail?". Mailing lists have been filled with leaked post-mortems of the Seattle Process. Noted trade pundits have blamestormed at length, pointing the finger at the rifts between the US and the EU on agriculture, and between the US and developing countries on labour standards. Allowing the US to host the conference in an election year is also singled out as an error of judgement. Also censured is the lack of transparency in the negotiating process, and the willingness of developing countries to use this as grounds not to allow further progress.

The curious thing, of course, is that for many Seattle didn't fail at all. It was a victory, a qualified success, an important advance on previous Ministerial conferences. For the seventy thousand on the streets of Seattle, the failure of the round was clearly a triumph for the Power of the People. It is, however, easy to overstate the extent to which the protests on the streets caused the failure of the talks inside the ministerial. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it would have failed all by itself. It's worth reviewing these reasons quickly, before looking at other, non-trade-related reasons for the importance of Seattle.

The differences between the US and EU over agriculture, and agricultural subsidies, were bitter. A new and awkward sticking point was the area of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food, an issue over which both the US and EU seemed unwilling to compromise. Yet officially inflexible positions on agriculture were, in practice, open to negotiation. Over the course of the Ministerial, the US managed to persuade the EU to accept that a WTO committee might investigate GMOs -- although the EU then reneged after pressure from France. And the US and EU have since shown themselves open to compromise, as the successful conclusion of the UN Biosafety Protocol demonstrates.

Clinton didn't do himself any favours -- the pressure from the streets of Seattle forced Clinton's hand on trade and environmental issues, to the fury of developing country governments, who balked at the prospect of labour standards being introduced to the WTO. Note, though, that while official Southern delegations were arguing against labour standards, unions from these same countries were arguing vociferously for them. In any case, developing countries have been uncomfortable with elements of trade agreements before, and concessions have been found to accommodate them. In this case, technical co-operation funds, and facilities for poorer countries to bring disputes before the WTO, were carrots dangled in front of developing country governments. Indeed, the WTO will soon be voting on whether to increase their budget for technical co-operation with member states from $450,000 to some $6.65 million.

A lack of US leadership has also been cited as the cause of the talks failing. The absence of Fast Track negotiating authority (in which Congress is allowed to approve or reject trade legislation put before it by the Administration, but not to amend it) further weakened the US position. And with the US weak, it has been argued that an agenda could not be formulated. Yet none of the GATT rounds (save the Tokyo round) began with a president in possession of fast track authority. The existence of Fast Track seems more or less independent of the successful initiation of trade negotiation. In fact, the argument that the US showed insufficiently strong leadership is perhaps the opposite of the truth. Many delegates complained of US having too well defined an agenda, on which was forced on the participants in a non-negotiable fashion.

Anger at the absence of transparency, and the continued, systematic withholding of information and access from Southern countries more than any other factor, seems to have been largely responsible for the collapse of the talks from within the WTO. An unwillingness by counties from the South to tolerate exclusion from the negotiating process rendered the operation of consensus decisionmaking impossible. The demonstrations outside the Ministerial seemed to contribute to the bolder stance taken by Southern delegates. Prodigious networking behind the scenes made possible, for the first time in the WTO's history, a statement by African countries denouncing the lack of genuine transparency in negotiations. (A similar declaration by Latin American and Caribbean countries was scuttled by Brazilian non-co-operation.) In the recent WTO General Council meeting, WTO Director General Mike Moore himself flagged the twin issues of transparency and equitable participation as key lessons to be learned from Seattle. The point made by delegates at the meeting was that the former is impossible without the latter. These, then are the reasons why the talks failed to launch a new round.

II

In the week following Seattle, The Economist put a photo of an anonymous, beautiful, South Asian girl on their cover page. "The Real Loser from Seattle", it said. Inside, a long, passionate argument for the benefits of economic liberalisation, with a small rider that liberalisation must be transparent, democratic, et cetera. The Economist's is an argument worth taking seriously because it is, ultimately, the argument being put forward by the World Bank, the WTO and various bilateral aid agencies across the world. Trade brings growth, growth brings development, and development lifts pretty little girls out of poverty -- and who could argue with that? It is important to take this argument seriously in order to uncover the discourse and structures of power which underwrite it, and make it acceptable.

As ever, the key to understanding why The Economist gets it wrong is because they prefer to see questions of distribution as separate from questions of production and power. In the train of logic "Trade ==> Growth ==> Development ==> Happy pretty little girls", there is only really one non-tautology. Trade does, of course, increase overall net welfare. Paul Samuelson claimed that this was the one and possible only non-obvious, non-trivial result in the social sciences. (Though a quick glance at the mathematics makes one wonder just how non-trivial this is.) Anyway, Trade ==> Growth is a tautology.

Development ==> Happy pretty little girls is also a tautology. Several tracts on "The Meaning of Development" are available today (with Wolfgang Sach's Development Dictionary still holding its own among them). "Development", of course, signifies a gamut of neo-colonialist ideas about how people in the North and South should be living, working and playing. Together with words like "justice", "fairness", "freedom" and "equality", it it's a signifier that cannot be used without (invariably disavowed and erased) reference to a cluster of political assumptions. "Happy little girls" are central to this development myth, the opposite to "starving pot-bellied African children", a signifier of a point of arrival, and a point of closure. So if Development ==> Happy pretty little girls is also a tautology, The Economist is really just presenting one argument. The tautologies on either side are confections, seductions, and distractions. The key argument is Growth ==> Development. And although it may seem like another tautology, this is the proposition which lay at the heart of the debate in Seattle.

There are two difference approaches to interpreting Growth ==> Development. The first approach recapitulates the history of the understanding of poverty in post-war development institutions. Within institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations and major bilateral donors such as USAID and DFID, 'growth' was and continues to be measured (and it has to be measured) in Gross Domestic Product. Originally, the 'development' metric was, um, Gross Domestic Product per capita. It took about thirty years for arguments that 'development' entailed more than dividing the amount of cash around by the number of people around to be recognised by the International Development community. In 1990, the United Nations Development Programme released its first Human Development report, in which a weighted index of education, income and health indicators, the Human Development Index (HDI) came to indicate 'development'. Various attempts to improve upon the HDI have been proposed, but all have the same quality of abstracting particular quantities from a society (quantities that are depoliticised in the moment of their abstraction) and summed in more or less exotic ways to provide an easy-to-use index of how a place is doing. Detail, and politics, is systematically erased, for the convenience of the policymaking community. This community has produced a number of studies tracing the dynamics of how Growth may or may not ==> Development (in terms of increased HDI, HPI, GDI, Pa, etc.) under different circumstances, usually as part of an appraisal process in projects involving these institutions. The introduction of social capital networks has added a new and exciting layer for this community to get its teeth into, and to regress with other indices in their continued quest to discover how Growth ==> Development. This interpretation of Growth ==> Development asks "Does Growth ==> Development?"

There is another way of looking at Growth ==> Development, which sees it not as a political argument or a sociological problem to be teased apart, but as a slogan, an axiom, an expression of faith, as "Growth ==> Development!" It is a statement of an ideology in which politics are replaced by technical assistance, in which redistribution is disavowed, and in which capital trumps everything else. In many -- but not all -- quarters in Seattle, the vision of Growth ==> Development as an unquestioned good was the focus of resistance. This, ultimately, is why Seattle is important enough to have a period of social protest named after it. Seattle wasn't about the WTO, but about the ideology and institutions which it serves and constitutes. And the protestors didn't just make a noise and go home. They forged alliances, and lived alternatives.

III

Consider this wise reflection by the Mayor of Seattle:

"True there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution... doesn't need violence. The general strike, as practised in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community.... That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt -- no matter how achieved."

The Mayor of Seattle did say this. But he said it in 1919, after the last Seattle General Strike, when the town was brought to a standstill, and workers took to the streets in solidarity with thirty-five thousand shipyard workers demanding a wage rise. Needless to say, these words are entirely applicable to the events in Seattle at the end of last year, at the World Trade Organisation Ministerial, when the Mayor of Seattle was a slightly more odious character, who authorised violent beatings and -- it is alleged -- the use of sub-lethal nerve gas on protestors.

So what about these protestors? Well, if ever there was a case for avoiding generalisation, this would be it. A gallimaufry of political opinions, both domestic and non-US, were represented, and it is important to appreciate just how variegated these opinions were. Representatives from the women's movement, from indigenous people's organisations, communists, anarchists, unions, environmental NGOs and a gamut of other concerns were there. The political Right made its presence felt through, among others Pat Buchanan and his pasty little entourage, although they were very much in the minority.

Labour movements were particularly well represented in Seattle. A number of different US unions paid for around thirty thousand members to attend, and the US contingent was complemented by a smaller, but vocal, international union contingent, convened in part by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. It would be wrong, as mainstream press coverage has done, to attribute a single view of the WTO to "labour". Within the union movement, the spectrum of positions represented was broad. For example, Jimmy Hoffa, leader of the influential Teamsters Union, was unable to prevent himself lapsing into a discourse of Cold War protectionism when he took to the stage at a large union-sponsored rally. By contrast, representatives from unions in the Philippines and China spoke of a new international workers solidarity, and of the need for labour standards within the WTO, and the Out Front Union called for racial and sexual tolerance within the traditionally homophobic and racist union movement.

In a different political world, thousands of anarchists joined the protests, leading a group called the Direct Action Network (DAN). It is, of course, no contradiction to observe that the anarchists were very well organised -- anarchists oppose coercion, particularly the coercion represented and enforced by the state. DAN demonstrated unequivocally the possibility of vigorous and uncoerced unified action. DAN brokered housing for thousands of visitors to Seattle, regularly catered for over a thousand people, planned protest actions, legal observers, educational workshops, healthcare and even a locked bag room for visiting protestors. Unsurprisingly, there was no "official party line" from this organisation precisely because each participant was expected to come up with their own opinion.

You get the idea. Seattle was an advance on the Vietnam and Civil Rights movements in that the opposition to the WTO is not restricted to particular key constituencies, but rather represents a farrago of politics precisely because the protest was directed towards an ideology, and a particular conception of social organisation. Given this focus, there has been a great deal of space for 'crossover politics', and there is some evidence that different groups from Seattle are making good faith efforts to understand other, different issues. US unions deserve particular mention in this regard -- they seemed ready to reach out to other movements and causes, to the extent of offering the lead position in their ten-thousand person march to the native American groups in Seattle.

A central issue After Seattle, though, is whether the alliances formed at Seattle are durable. Certainly, the enthusiastic chants between environmentalists and unionists of "Turtles love Teamsters" "Teamsters love Turtles" would suggest some sort of affinity, but durable alliances depend on more than sloganeering. In particular, Chakravarthi Raghavan, a member of the Third World Network and professional WTO-watcher, argued that at the pre-Ministerial teach-ins, there was a reluctance on the part of American activists to discuss issues of relevance to developing countries. This is not entirely true. Many US NGOs, such as Global Exchange, TradeWatch, and Friends of the Earth, have an international focus, and representatives from these (and like-minded) organisations were conspicuously engaged in listening across the North-South divide. At a more grassroots level, a group of activists from around the world had spent over a month crossing the US as part of a "People's Global Action Caravan" educating and mobilising groups from the East Coast to the West. The extent to which these educational efforts have planted the seeds of a more global awareness in US grassroots activism remains to be seen. Pundits who ring the death knell of these solidarity movements, as well as those others who see Seattle ushering in a new age in global activism are premature. Ultimately, these pronouncements lie in the realm of wishful thinking and political hope rather than analysis, for it is unclear to the movements themselves how and whether they will be able to sustain these forms of solidarity.

If the past is a guide to the future, there is cause for cautious optimism. Many of the movements and organisations from Seattle have a proven record of co-operation. Umbrella networks such as The People's Global Action, which through its constituent organisations represents over five million people, have been growing since 1998. Important lacunae at Seattle were the voices of people of colour and of women. There will be many opportunities for those in Seattle to practice building solidarity with these groups marginalised from the white middle/working class protest in Seattle -- buoyed by the success of last year's protests, a number of groups have called international days of action. Over the next six months, large protests are planned for the World Bank meetings in Washington D.C. in April; Earthday also in April; May Day; the Republican and Democratic Conventions in the US in the summer; and the NATO meetings in Italy this Spring. These events will provide more opportunity for political speculation, spectacle and -- with luck -- social change.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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