The Battle in Seattle
It's billed as the Battle in Seattle. In the suites will be the representatives of 135 nations gathered for the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization, hosted by the Clinton Administration. On the streets will be a raucous gathering ranging from US environmentalists and union members to the Zapatistas from Mexico and José Bove, the French sheep farmer who became a folk hero when he tore the roof off a local McDonald's with his tractor.
For Clinton, Seattle is legacy time. After having presided over the US adoption of NAFTA and the WTO, and the agreement on China's entrance into the trade organization, Clinton wants the Seattle meetings to launch a new "millennial round" of global trade negotiations that he can portray as a historic achievement. Calling for the WTO to open up, to pay at least nominal attention to labor rights and the environment, Clinton will restate his commitment to putting a "human face on the global economy" while celebrating the progress of globalization on his watch.
For the demonstrators, Seattle will mark the rising tide of opposition to that same corporate-dominated trading system. At the last WTO conference, in Geneva in May 1998, the protests of thousands caught officials by surprise. The even larger protests in Seattle will put all on notice: The era of backroom deals among private interests is over. Indeed, the Clinton years may be remembered less for the triumph of the corporate trading system that he has promoted than for the beginning of the struggle to call it to account. At the very least, from now on the future will be contested.
The WTO has been in existence for only five years, overseeing and enforcing the trade accords that countries have signed on to. Globalization preceded the WTO and would have proceeded without it. So why is it such a lightning rod? To understand what is at stake in Seattle, it is worth stepping back to get the context.
Over the past quarter-century, transnational corporations and banks forged a new global economy, with the flow of goods, services and particularly money across national lines expanding exponentially. Apologists paint this as an act of nature, driven by revolutions in technology, communications and transportation. But markets are made, not born. This global market was constructed by and for global corporations, aided by a forceful assertion of state power. When conservatives seized the commanding heights of the industrial world starting in the seventies--Thatcher in Britain, Reagan in the United States, Kohl in Germany--a new consensus formed on privatization, deregulation, fiscal austerity and "free trade." Indebted developing countries were force-fed what became known as the "Washington consensus" by their creditors, with the International Monetary Fund acting as Big Nurse.
The WTO is the culmination of this process. Former director-general Renato Ruggiero characterized the task as creating the "constitution of a single global economy." The impetus behind it was the desire of global corporations and banks to regulate the world economy in their interest--setting global standards, protecting investments, enforcing patents, quashing nonconforming local and national laws and regulations. The various agreements that the WTO enforces were initialed by the member countries, but they were largely drafted by and for corporations. For example, a coalition of corporations including Monsanto, Du Pont, Merck and other giants helped draft the US position in the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations on patents and copyrights. Needless to say, the end agreement--hammered out behind closed doors by the rich economies and foisted on the poor ones--protected the interests of the wealthy, not those of the small farmers, subsistence peasants or consumers of the world.
The global economy that the WTO is now intended to police has worked remarkably well for the multinationals. By 1999 the United Nations Development Program was reporting that multinationals accounted for a third of all global exports. A wave of cross-border mergers is creating megacorporations. The ten largest corporations in each sector controlled 86 percent of the telecommunications industry, 85 percent of the pesticides industry, 70 percent of the computer industry, 35 percent of pharmaceuticals, 32 percent of commercial seed. The combined assets of the three wealthiest billionaires were more than the combined GNP of the forty-eight least-developed countries.