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Raj Patel © 1999


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No major trade agreements are forecast to be signed at the Seattle ministerial. The failure of the pre-ministerial negotiations to produce any substantive agreements is indicative of two trends. First, developing countries are becoming increasingly confident, and uncooperative, in the negotiating process. Instead of accepting agreements drafted by the North, Southern countries are beginning to realise that they have the power and inclination not to submit to the whims of wealthier states. This newfound confidence compounds a second trend.

The interests that Northern governments represent are less unambiguous than they once were. Past ministerial conferences have seen policy proposals from Northern governments exclusively on behalf of the corporations based in those countries. This Ministerial sees Northern governments beholden to both corporate and non-corporate concerns. The well-organised lobbying of the labour and environmental movements have substantially constrained the US and EU negotiating positions at this ministerial. These non-commercial interests are a new feature, and one that Mr. Clinton appears a little unhappy about. He is understandably concerned that the presence of a variety of popular social movement activists on the streets of Seattle will scare away world leaders. In a recent statement, he suggested, not without bitterness, that "anyone with an ax to grind will be on the streets of Seattle".

The interesting thing is not that Mr. Clinton is correct in observing this -- he is -- but why it should be that a range of groups with a wide variety of grievances feel that the WTO ministerial is a suitable venue for airing their concerns. The promise of global media attention might explain why some groups have come, but for many activists, this Ministerial marks just one moment in a more sustained and long term campaign.

A fine example of long term, sustained activism is offered by a group called "The People's Global Action" (PGA). The PGA is a network of social movement organisations, including the Karnataka State Farmer's Association from India, Reclaim the Streets from the UK, and Zapatista support networks from around the world. They are engaged in a struggle not against the WTO in particular, but against neoliberalism in general. For the organisations networked through the PGA, the WTO is just one, albeit spectacular, target in a broader campaign.

On the streets of Seattle this week, the PGA movements and their allies will be involved in a series of direct, non-violent actions, designed to disrupt the WTO ministerial. It is important to understand these actions for what they are. The protesters aren't, for example, building a human chain around the WTO conference centre in order merely to make life a little less pleasant for conference delegates. In fact, the delegates aren't the ultimate targets of direct actions at all. The aim of these actions is to grab the attention of the general public, as a prelude to informing them about the WTO. The PGA, in other words, aims to challenge and change people's minds. To do this, they must first make themselves, and the work they do, visible. Hence the human chains and street protests.

Ultimately, though, the PGA's cause will advance not by assaults on conference centres and Gap Stores (which have come in for special attention because of their particularly egregious labour practices), but by assaults on popular preconceptions. Spectacular, theatrical actions are only the first step in a difficult debate. What makes neoliberalism tout court such a resiliant interlocutor is the success with which its institutions smother creative thinking about alternatives. This is where the PGA is strongest. The most important weapon available to the PGA in this debate is their repertoire of already existing practices, which do present viable, already practiced, alternatives to the dominant social order. Local currencies, alternative agriculture, non fossil fuel energy, a fierce commitment to anti-racist and anti-sexist policies and income equality are all characteristics of the PGA.

Incidentally, herein are two arguments why the PGA's members don't think that the WTO is reformable. First, the WTO is a product, a symptom of deeply embedded power relations. If the institution were successfully reformed, it would no longer serve those interests, and would become a marginal and irrelevant institution. A second argument why the WTO isn't worth reforming is based on the idea of opportunity cost. Each person only has a scarce amount of time and energy and imagination. The true cost, the next best use of these resources that is given up by engaging with the WTO, is time and energy which might have been used to imagine, and work towards an existing social order which is considerably better than, and different from, the existing one.

This is a direct challenge to those whose interests lie within existing undemocratic and unsustainable power structures: corporations, governments and NGOs alike. Such groups are afraid. They are right to be.




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