THE SUCCESSFUL, mostly non-violent protests against the World Trade Organization this week surprised only those Americans who have the luxury of avoiding all forms of media. For weeks before the fateful demonstrations, anyone who saw the news on TV, heard it on the radio or read it in the paper knew that this was going to be the Battle in Seattle.
The WTO stands for the globalization of free trade, an ideal the power brokers in U.S. business and government enthusiastically support. Founded in 1995, the organization basically wants to remove trade barriers and, as a body, pass binding legislation that sets out how nations will do business with each other and–perhaps more important to the protesters–within their own borders.
For example, it’s been proposed by the more developed industrial countries in the WTO that the less developed nations have an unfair advantage, in that they have fewer regulations protecting workers and the environment. Their low overhead costs and eager workforce naturally attract multinational corporations looking for the least expensive place to build factories which the U.S.–among others–simply can’t compete with.
So the WTO would seem to be a useful forum for the U.S. and other industrialized countries to encourage (if not bully) other countries to change the way they do business, but, as with U.S. relations with China, this hasn’t happened.
Many say it’s simply a matter of corporate profit. If Nike can pay their workers in Indonesia pennies an hour and then sell the shoes they make for hundreds of dollars in the U.S., why would they want conditions to change? And if the only reason the factory is in Indonesia is how cheap the overhead is, why would Indonesia’s business or government want to change that? Likewise, if Brazil or Malaysia is an important source of cheap natural resources for U.S. manufacturers, why would they want to lose that advantage? Of the 135 members of the WTO, over 100 are developing nations, and, like their larger counterparts, they vote with their own profits in mind.
For all of the U.S. government’s rhetoric about human rights, what it comes down to–from all evidence (certainly in our dealings with China)–is the bottom line. The worry among a majority of the protesters is that, through the efforts of the WTO, international trade itself will increase, but will only worsen the human and environmental problems in these emerging countries. Rather than give in to the status quo, they hope to change the way things are going, from the outside.
It could happen. Overwhelmingly, the public perception here now is that the WTO is a coalition of government and corporate interests bent on removing any barriers in the way of their maximum profit–in short, the rich and powerful joining forces to formalize plans to exploit their workers and their world. Before the Seattle meeting, they were partly hidden, shadowy, known only to the general public as the group behind the GATT treaty, which itself wasn’t well understood. Business is boring and arcane. People in America know what diet is the new rage, and what movie is opening on Friday, not the intricacies and incentives of international trade. Seattle changed that, made the WTO the sexy lead story on TV for a few days. In that sense, the protesters’ plans succeeded.
And the planning had been long-term. Labor, environmental and human rights organizations had kept an eye on the WTO since its inception. As soon as the Seattle meeting was announced, they began to mobilize their forces. For months, powerful, campaign-hardened groups like Greenpeace, the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club all got the word out to their sizable memberships. College activists spread the word on campuses nationwide, and preachers to their parishioners, with the result that between 40,000 and 100,000 protesters were ready for the WTO.
The issues for most were obvious, and ethical–even moral, to some: human rights abuses, child labor, racial and sexual discrimination, worker safety, hazardous waste, nuclear power, clear-cutting forests, practices that endangered animal species, product-testing on lab animals, the dangers of bioengineering, hormone use in livestock. And beyond the importance of each individual matter–perhaps most important of all, in this society more and more defined by the subtly imposed, omnipresent will of corporations like Microsoft (as I write this using Microsoft software)–was the ominous idea that a massive and self-serving organization based on profit would legislate these issues for the entire world.
Media in this country have termed the alliance that formed against the WTO “unlikely,” citing the mix of leftist environmentalists and blue-collar union workers, but since the mid-’70s, these two factions have consistantly been the most vocal activists for social justice. They’re nearly always on the same side, though they rarely march together. In the recent past they united against Reaganomics, and they both consider big business their deadly enemy. While the environmentalists and human rights activists have always had a global scope, the unions came to it slowly, against their will, so that now they hold it that much closer. The WTO provided both groups with an irresistible opportunity, and they made the most of it.
The truly odd alliance in this whole situation is one that doesn’t really exist. Among those vehemently opposed to the WTO’s existence and goals are ultra-conservative isolationists like Pat Buchanan who fear that the WTO, with its syndicate of corporate nation-states, will come to usurp America’s sovereignty and dominant position as the last superpower, ceding the reins of leadership to some evil international cabal. Of course, the isolationists similarly fear the UN and the IMF, and no one listens to them.
In fact, after the last decade of being bombarded with self-congratulatory advertisements for the communications revolution and the Information Age, no one in America would dispute that we are in a global economy, that the world is smaller and more interdependent than ever before. And that, for most of the protesters, is exactly why the WTO is such a dangerous organization.
The daytime protests themselves have been large and colorful, with pageantry and street theater reminiscent of the hippie ’60s–giant puppets and costumed demonstrators giving them a carnival atmosphere. There have been large teach-ins–one led by ’60s consumer advocate Ralph Nader–and in general the level of dialogue among the protesters has been high, if a little windy. As with the G-7 summit in Köln, the gathering of so much power in one place has attracted a swarm of ideologies and causes. The few remaining American Marxists are here, and the Friends of the Earth, and the Zapatista-born Peoples’ Global Action. Everyone has a spiel, and everyone is willing to listen.
Since the first night, the police have outnumbered the younger crowd still out on the streets after curfew, and have attacked with little provocation. Safe behind their masks and plastic riot armor, they seem eager to lob their canisters of tear gas. The use of rubber bullets is new to the U.S., but the media are downplaying it, instead focusing on the few smashed windows. As always, the TV news concentrates on violence, showing the images but not having the time to give much background.
A great majority of the protesters are peaceful, many schooled (and proud of this American tradition, passed down from the founding Quakers through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in non-violent civil disobedience, but perhaps the violence–the pictures of police enforcing their brand of order in support of an unpopular elite–will accomplish more than the carefully crafted speeches of the teach-ins. The country may see what’s happening in Seattle and understand that the WTO is worth resisting.
Or perhaps not. The majority of Americans don’t participate in any political process. They drift in the economic bloodstream of society, complicit, willingly contributing their dollars through consumerism. They may not like the idea of Indonesian sweatshops (any more than they like the idea of New York City sweatshops, or El Paso sweatshops), but they will not bother to look at the tags on the clothing they’re buying, or only to see the brand name, not Made in Macao, Made in Hong Kong, Made in China. It’s only when their jobs or–more likely–their investments are jeopardized, that they do anything. And by then it’s too late.
But there is a strong and active opposition to the WTO’s dream of a more profitable world. Organized but still in the best sense grassroots, they refuse to let the powerful dictate our future. In the shadow of Microsoft, they make their stand, hoping to wake the rest of us up. It will be hard. We’ve been sleeping so long.