Date: Sat, 30 Oct 1999 21:25:21 -0400
Whose Trade Organization? Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy, by Lori Wallach and Michelle Sforza
Book review by John Nichols <email@example.com>, Capital Times, 29 October 1999
Whose Trade Organization? Corporate Globalization and the Erosion
The 20th century began with utopian visions of a post-capitalist world in which the excesses of corporations -- sweatshops, child labor, pollution of rivers and the air, and the manipulation of the political process by business interests bent on profit at any price -- would be replaced with a more humane order in which workers, farmers and consumers used democracy to protect their interests from the greed of a powerful few.
The 20th century ends with many of the worst excesses unabated, while even some of the progressive figures of our time no longer dare to dream utopian dreams. Indeed, in these dark times of corporate hegemony, when multinational monopolies eliminate real competition within whole industries, when communities watch their livelihoods rise and fall on the whims of stock market manipulators, and when governments act like cowardly lions in the face of Wall Street wizards, it sometimes seems as if there no longer remains sufficient energy to challenge the forces of bigness, conglomeration and greed.
And yet ...
When the World Trade Organization meets in Seattle next month to divide up the spoils of this century and the next, the manipulators of the global economy will be confronted by what promises to be the most powerful grass-roots challenge to corporate capital in recent decades. As many as 100,000 farm, labor, environmental and human rights activists from around the world will be there to demand that the World Trade Organization -- which sets the parameters for international trade and regulation of industries -- stop taking orders from corporations and start taking its cue from workers and consumers.
These activists are planning days of demonstrations, rallies and teach-ins designed to expose the crises created by a global economy that has been remade to serve corporate needs as opposed to human needs. And their "bible" is a new book produced by the Global Trade Watch program of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen.
"Whose Trade Organization? Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy," authored by Lori Wallach and Michelle Sforza, is not just a powerful denunciation of the organization's system of corporate-managed trade. It is an essential handbook for activists who want to challenge that system in the name of liberty, equality and democracy.
What the book does best is explain the World Trade Organization -- a shadowy system established in 1995 under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to develop an enforceable code for global commerce. In an ideal world, the organization might have been a balancing force, responsible for regulating, restricting and reining in multinational corporations.
But this is not an ideal world, and the World Trade Organization has become the primary mechanism for furthering corporate globalization. As the authors note, the "neoliberal" model of economic organization promoted by the World Trade Organization says that "there is no alternative" to a global system designed to make the expansion of trade (and of corporate profits) a higher priority than workers' rights, environmental protection, consumer safety or citizen involvement in shaping policies that affect their lives.
"In approving the far-reaching, powerful World Trade Organization and other international trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. Congress, like those of other nations, has ceded much of its capacity to independently advance health and safety standards that protect citizens and has accepted harsh legal limitations on what domestic policies it may pursue," writes Nader in the introduction. "Approval of these agreements has institutionalized a global economic and political structure that makes every government increasingly hostage to a global financial and commercial system, engineered through an autocratic system of international governance that favors corporate interests."
For instance, when American steelworkers asked President Clinton for aid in defending their jobs in the face of the "dumping" of steel from Japan, Russia and Brazil into the U.S. market, Clinton responded by telling them he could do nothing. Though he is the elected leader of what remains the most politically and militarily powerful nation in the world, the president said he could not intervene to protect U.S. jobs because World Trade Organization rules forbade such an action.
"Whose Trade Organization? Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy" is packed with details of how the World Trade Organization has prevented citizens from enforcing laws designed to regulate business practices. One classic example involves the diminution of U.S. clean air protections.
After Venezuelan gas refiners challenged U.S. rules requiring that gas exported from other countries to the United States meet basic clean air standards, the World Trade Organization ruled that the U.S. Clean Air Act was an unfair restriction on trade. In 1997, under pressure from the World Trade Organization, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed the rules to open a loophole that would allow foreign refiners who export gas to this country to avoid proving that they can meet stringent U.S. performance standards.
Thus, while Americans want to protect air quality, and while their Congress has passed laws designed to achieve that goal, when the World Trade Organization says "jump," the government says "how high?"
Such examples make "Whose Trade Organization?" a frightening and, yes, even somewhat overwhelming text. But it is, as well, a call to action -- action that will gather a head of steam in Seattle next month and, with any luck, make the utopian dreams deferred in this century a reality in the next.
John Nichols is the editorial page editor for The Capital Times.
Copyright (c) 1999 The Capital Times
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