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The WTO in Seattle

The World Trade Organisation, trans-national corporations (TNCs) and the governments of advanced industrial countries all agree that free trade is a jolly good thing. Their representatives, such as Stephen Byers, Britain's Trade and Industry Secretary can be regularly heard spouting the usual dogmatic cant such as: "free trade and open commerce are a bringer of opportunity and not a threat".

When the Seattle round of WTO talks stalled in early December, President Bill Clinton announced his intention to "move forward on the path of free trade and economic growth while ensuring a human face is put on the global economy".

No, stop laughing a moment. Clinton really said that. His ilk really believes that global capitalism can have a smiling face and that organisations like the WTO can help bring this about. The representatives of globo-buck really believe that a levelling of the "playing field" would benefit all, poor country as well as rich. This in spite of the fact that many TNCs have incomes greater than the combined GNP of several of the poorest nations on the planet. This in spite of the protectionism that the USA, Japan and the EU don't like to boast about. And this in spite of the fact that the debt burden and related structural adjustment programmes mean that many a developing country is considerably worse off now than 30 years ago.

The umpire helping oversee this state of play, refusing to cry foul, bending the rules to the advantage of the more skilful and experienced player is the WTO. Its remit is so framed as to allow corporate control over every aspect of our lives, be it patent rules that allow the TNCs to monopolise centuries-old remedies and recipes in the developing world, seeds and human genes, indeed everything from drinking water and health and safety to hospitals and schools. Anything deemed an obstacle to the pursuance of profit can be labelled an illegal barrier to free trade.

The WTO is the supreme court of international commerce, whose constitution reinforces the rule books of the world's corporate elites. It has a Disputes Settlement Committee—a kind of wealthy man's Star Chamber—which has, time after time, considered barriers to fair trade such concerns as the environment, health and labour rights. It allows TNCs to not only control the fate of national currencies—with governments closely tailoring their economic policies to the interests of the giant multi-nationals—but helps ensure little host government opposition when environments are destroyed (witness Shell in Nigeria, Texaco in Ecuador and Union Carbide in India).

Through the establishment of free trade zones between countries, TNCs are enabled to invest where there are tax concessions and exemption from local labour laws, frequently, because of their non-union policies, taking advantage of low-wage economies with poor health and safety standards. At Seattle many commentators sensed that deals could have been struck, but were scuppered for domestic political reasons, not least because Al Gore is anxious for union support in next year's elections. Moreover, while the US argued for concessions in every field, they were unwilling to offer anything in return.

Whereas decisions were supposed to be reached by consensus, and democratically, the powerful countries dominated the talks. With the US desperate to get the deals they wanted, smaller countries were bullied and sidelined, with reports frequently emerging that delegates from the developing world were being physically refused entry to the negotiating tables.

Much has been written as to why the WTO talks in Seattle failed, suffice to say the negotiations crumbled for no other reason than that the myriad representatives of global capitalism failed to reach agreement on how best to proceed with the task of exploiting as many as possible while upsetting as few as possible.

Writing in Red Pepper in November, Katharine Ainger observed that "the only policy objective the two recognises is the expansion of corporate hunting grounds by opening up markets and the universal application of free trade rules. It's rhetoric is that of levelling the playing field in world trade".

Such sentiments are fair criticism and have been echoed much in recent weeks. What is important is to realise that they do not suggest globalisation is a recent trend—it has been gathering momentum since the late 1970s—nor that the global nature of capitalism is relatively new.

Over 150 years ago, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels pointed to the dominance of the world market over individual countries: "The need of a constantly expanding market chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, establish conditions everywhere."

As then, as now, talk about fairer trade and a more democratic "human face" of capitalism is simply ignoring the true nature of capitalism. Capitalism is a decrepit and ruthless social system whose mode of production cries out for a total overhaul. The most far-reaching reform of its major institutions—including the WTO—won't alter one iota its inherent contradictions. Hunger, poverty, homelessness and a thousand other social ills will prevail until, the last cent has been taken out of circulation and production freed from the artificial constraints of profit.

November 30 saw 50,000 protestors on the streets of Seattle lined up against the police and state troopers, more than equipped to repulse a third world army let alone unarmed campaigners (and indeed serving as a reminder to those who believe the state can be forcibly overthrown of the might that would be thrown against them). Whilst their slogans and placards often echoed the language of the genuine socialist, they failed to go further than demanding "alternative social and economic structures based on co-operation, ecological sustainability and grassroot democracy".

Seattle police in riot gear

Whilst their demands would be realisable in socialism, demanding the same from institutions whose sole function is to serve the interests of profit is like asking a hungry shark to consider a vegetarian diet.

The protestors who took to the streets on 30 November in over 20 countries are without doubt well-meaning with a genuine hatred of the system that impoverishes the lives of billions of their fellow humans. It can only be hoped that they, and workers the world over, will come to realise that a real alternative is up for grabs. It has nothing to do with fairer trade, nor indeed any sort of trade, but free access to the benefits of civilisation. Socialists are not in the business of protesting for a larger slice of the cake the workers bake, but for control of the whole bakery. We argue that we should only settle for free and equal access to all that we produce and all the services we, the working class, provide, in a world without borders or frontiers, states or governments, force or coercion, buying and selling.

JOHN BISSETT