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International Socialism, Spring 2000


Abbie Bakan

After Seattle: the politics
of the World Trade Organisation


From International Socialism 2:86, Spring 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Introduction: the Battle of Seattle

History was made the week beginning 27 November 1999. During that week, in the US city of Seattle, Washington, an international meeting of the most powerful corporate interests in the world was to set the stage for the unbridled reign of profit into the new millennium. Canada’s senior ranking federal Liberal Party cabinet minister, Pierre Pettigrew, was one of many dignitaries who found their plans suddenly changed. He had been looking forward to the fame he would elicit after addressing the opening ceremonies of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle. He was, however, sadly disappointed. To get into the convention centre, Pettigrew had to be hauled by bodyguards and police over the flower pots to escape the demonstrators. When he arrived there was no one there to hear him – the opening ceremonies were cancelled when the trade ministers were unable to get to the doors. They were blocked by tens of thousands of demonstrators who had worked for months, organising buses, cars, trains and planes from across the US and internationally to ensure that the ‘Millennium Round’ meetings of the WTO did not go according to plan.

By the end of the meetings, on 3 December 1999, the WTO agenda was halted and ministers representing 135 countries left Seattle in disarray. The New York Times put it this way:

The collapse of the talks ended a tumultuous week of riots on the streets of Seattle, the arrest of more than 600 protesters and bitter infighting among 135 nations. They could not agree even on whether to discuss workers’ rights and the environment in trade negotiations that were supposed to be started here. In the end, weary ministers headed for the airport without even issuing a final communiqué. [1]

What, then, was the agenda of the WTO Millennium Round summit meetings that provoked such a groundswell of opposition? What exactly did the successful protests at the Battle of Seattle achieve? What is the context of trade negotiations that have developed since the collapse of the Cold War? And what lies ahead in terms of building a movement that can effectively challenge a system driven by corporate greed? These are the questions that will be considered below.

Global trade agreements and capitalist crisis

Trade agreements are not new inventions. But since the collapse of the Stalinist state capitalist regimes the scramble for economic dominance among various blocs of capital in the world has intensified. The 1990s saw repeated rounds of negotiations for regional trade and investment deals. Huge multinationals, which dominate the world market, are intent on eliminating the state protections of weaker competitors. Most of these corporations are concentrated in North America and Western Europe. State support for less competitive national firms has been identified as a barrier to expansion for many years.

Now, however, efforts are being directed at formalising designated trade zones where tariffs and duties are virtually eliminated among the signing states, not only on industrial commodities but also on services and state welfare systems. In a drive to deregulation the largest, most competitive firms rise to the top, while the free market clears the less fit units of capital out of the way. But sections of capital that are threatened by a period of economic crisis turn to national states to bail them out, especially when their profit margins are so low that there is a threat of liquidation. The result is, in national economies, a lurching from policies of deregulation in periods of expansion to calls for state intervention in times of declining profits, as witnessed in South East Asia and Russia during the recent economic and financial crises.

Now there is a similar pattern on a global scale. When multinationals are in a strong position they push for an elimination of policies designed to protect foreign markets. This is the dynamic behind the drive in the WTO and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) against local market subsidies, state support for weak industries or agriculture and the state regulation of services. If the prospects for economic expansion were to dim, however, which is inevitable in the capitalist system in the long run, these same multinationals would retreat to their home markets and call for state protections against foreign competitors. At the same time, economic arrangements do not exist in a political vacuum. Domestic political challenges have been critical in dictating the speed of implementation and degree of success in establishing international trade and investment deals.

The result is a drive to form international trade deals that raise the tariff walls to competitors outside the bloc but bring them down within the bloc’s regional fortress. The WTO is distinct among international trade arrangements in that it incorporates a majority of the world’s states. But the unevenness of the world system expresses itself inside the WTO, where the most developed countries attempt to assert their dominance over less developed countries. These deals are always unstable. They are alliances formed among international ruling classes that are by definition in competition with one another; the bosses are only ever temporary allies or, as Marx called them, hostile brothers. They unite to defend the family in a feud, but then return to endless squabbles over the inheritance. Such trade deals are also marked by contradictory pressures. They seek to establish market dominance for large corporate firms within an established trading zone, but they also represent international agreements among governments to drive down their home populations’ standard of living. At the same time as profits increase, the deals subordinate every aspect of workers’ lives to the rule of the market.

Some of these trade deals are, for a time, more successful than others. Despite massive internal disputes Europe has seen the establishment of a common currency, the euro. [2] The European Commission has recently recommended inviting six new countries to pursue full membership talks in the year 2000: Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Malta. Since March 1998 negotiations for full membership have been proceeding with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus. Turkey has been proposed as a candidate for membership in the future. The imperialist designs that lie behind the extension of the reach of the European Union (EU) into the former Eastern Bloc and beyond is barely disguised. As Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, announced to the European Parliament in mid-October 1999, ‘Rarely in the course of history does an opportunity like this present itself. For the first time since the Roman Empire we have the opportunity to unite Europe’. [3] Similarly, despite some bitter trade disputes between the US and Canada over certain industries like fishing and lumber, these countries and Mexico have maintained the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and are claiming resulting economic success.

Less successful efforts include the stalled negotiations to establish the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), comprising the 29 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states representing the world’s largest economies. [4] Initiated by the US on the expectation of endless economic recovery, the return of crisis provoked protectionist policies among member states and fears of foreign competition. International disagreements and growing public opposition led to French withdrawal from the negotiations in October 1998, and the MAI died on the international order paper. However, part of the WTO Millennium Round agenda was aimed at resurrecting elements of the MAI in some form.

The Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) group – an association of 18 economies including the NAFTA players, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, China and the once-mighty ‘Asian Tigers’ – first met in Canberra, Australia, in 1989. At the time the idea was to take advantage of the market miracle of Asian capitalism by establishing common conditions for trade and eliminating state controls. China was the newest and largest participant, with the most to gain in foreign investment opportunities and the most to lose through pressures to reduce state control of its domestic economy. A decade later APEC is adrift. Japan refuses to eliminate trade barriers that would open it up to the cheap goods of its now failing neighbours. Indonesia is in the throes of revolutionary upheaval. And the leader of ‘Team Canada’, prime minister Jean Chrétien, is haunted by scandal lingering from his ordering the use of pepper spray against anti-APEC demonstrators in Vancouver in 1997. [5]

The World Trade Organisation

The WTO was founded on 1 January 1995 with headquarters in Geneva. [6] As of March 1998 it comprised 135 member states, and China is now the most notable prospect to be the 136th. The WTO replaced the international trade agreement established 50 years ago, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which ended with the Uruguay Round (covering the last eight years of the GATT).

The WTO goes beyond the GATT, however, in that it covers not only industrial tariffs, but trade in many other areas – trade that affects the movement of commodities or the investment of multinational corporations. There are a series of regulations that member states of the WTO agree to accept. These trade rules include the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), covering various services from refuse collection to education and healthcare; Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMS), which relate to what governments are allowed to do in terms of regulating foreign investment; Canada and Japan are pushing for the measures of the failed MAI to be included under this agreement; Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), covering rules on patents, copyrights and trademarks; in particular Canada and the US want to use this to advance corporate control of genetically modified foods; Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary Standards Agreement (SPS), which sets restrictive standards on government policies regarding food safety and animal and plant health; Financial Services Agreement (FSA), which is designed to remove all obstacles to financial services such as banks and insurance companies, and agreements on agriculture, information technology and telecommunications. [7]

The WTO also differs from any other global institution by having the ability to both legislate against particular practices and to act as judge to determine if those rules have been broken. This makes it an incredibly powerful tool for corporate interests. The rules of the WTO essentially define what areas of economic activity may be challenged as being a barrier to the development of the free movement of trade or investment by foreign corporations. The decisions regarding disputes are reached in secret by a panel of three unaccountable bureaucrats. Agencies outside of the governments and corporations directly involved – for instance environmental groups or labour unions – can only make submissions when they are endorsed by a government. One WTO official made clear the purpose of this process, and of the WTO more generally, stating,’The WTO is the place where governments collude in private against their domestic pressure groups. Allowing NGOs [non-governmental organisations] in could open the door to ... all kinds of lobbyists opposed to free trade’. [8]

Regarding processes other than trade disputes, the WTO functions formally through a system governed by ‘consensus’. But there is a group called the ‘Quad’ within the WTO comprising four key states, or actually groups of states, that meet daily to decide on how to address various issues. When the Quad comes to a conclusion they then declare that they have achieved ‘consensus’ to the other countries. The four members of the Quad are the US, the EU, Japan and Canada.

The WTO meeting in Seattle was intended to initiate the Millennium Round in world trade. The agenda for the Seattle meetings included three main areas: agriculture, intellectual property rights and services. Had the ‘agriculture’ agenda item been implemented, the plan was to ensure sweeping changes that define virtually all forms of farm subsidies as trade barriers:

Small farmers could be wiped out because no small producer can compete with the heavily capital intensive, highly mechanised agriculture of Europe or the US, or even of the big latifundia in some of the Latin American countries. That means much more expensive food after wiping out the small peasantry. It would also mean vast outmigration to already overcrowded cities which would have totally catastrophic effects. [9]

Also on the table were proposed changes to the TRIPS agreement. These covered patents of such things as genetically modified organisms. Previous exemptions for Southern countries on agriculture and patents were now to be removed, allowing international corporations like Monsanto to legally control world markets in seeds for everything from flowers to grains. The US was also pushing for an agreement on wood products which would eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers to importing or exporting forest products. This would allow major forestry giants to ignore environmental concerns to an even greater degree than they already do, and to use the WTO as a weapon to defend their practices.

One of the most profound changes in the politics of world trade is the formal redefinition of services as a trade barrier. The increasing privatisation of healthcare services in Canada and Britain has already provided a taste of things to come if supporters of free market policies have their way. The WTO agenda includes proposals to challenge state support for services which inhibit the flow of international capital. Services are defined by the WTO agenda to include the following: construction; wholesale and retail franchising; architecture; decoration; maintenance; civil, mechanical and other types of engineering; real estate; research and development; credit; communications, telecommunications and audio-visual services; information technologies; tourism and travel; sewage and refuse collection; water delivery; recreational, cultural and sports activities including libraries, archives and museums; publishing, printing and advertising; transportation of every type including space travel; corrections; and human and animal health.

Education is also included on the list. According to a document obtained by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), US companies specialising in the export of private educational services – such as branch campuses, ‘virtual education’, and the international marketing of curricula and academic programs – gleaned US$7 billion in 1996 alone. This is the fifth largest service sector export in the US. ‘Barriers’ to further market expansion are now to be eliminated, according to the WTO, and such barriers include educational practices that inhibit ‘innovation’, and any form of subsidies for students, including bus passes. [10]

In case negative publicity is generated by such projects, the WTO defines itself as a trade organisation with a difference. Even before the Seattle summit there was clearly a concern among those responsible for the public relations of the WTO that its blatant commitment to facilitating greater profits for multinational corporations was too transparent. Instead we are expected to believe in the ‘ten benefits’ that the WTO claims to advance:

  1. The system helps promote peace.
  2. Disputes are handled constructively.
  3. Rules make life easier for all.
  4. Freer trade cuts the costs of living.
  5. It provides more choice of products and qualities.
  6. Trade raises incomes.
  7. Trade stimulates economic growth.
  8. The basic principles make life more efficient.
  9. Governments are shielded from lobbying.
  10. The system encourages good government. [11]

Furthermore, we are told that the WTO will promote world peace because:

Salespeople are usually reluctant to fight their customers ... Two developments immediately after the Second World War helped to avoid a repeat of the pre-war trade tensions. In Europe, international co-operation developed in coal, and in iron and steel. Globally, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was created. Both have proved successful, so much so that they are now considerably expanded – one has become the European Union, the other the World Trade Organisation ... What’s more, smoothly-flowing trade also helps people all over the world become better off. People who are more prosperous and contented are also less likely to fight. [12]

The WTO is, clearly, not as united in its mission as its public relations propaganda claims. It is mainly Third World states that stand to lose, as trade disputes are settled in favour of the largest multinationals, concentrated in the US and the other advanced states represented by the Quad. Steven Shrybman, an expert on environmental law and global trade, and a leading Canadian critic of the WTO, summarises that ‘notwithstanding a theoretical commitment to democratic practices, most developing countries consider the WTO agenda to be the exclusive domain of its wealthiest members’. [13]

India, for example, a regional power in its own right but low on the imperialist chain in the WTO, was at the centre of a dispute with the IMF that came before the WTO Appellate Body (the highest judicial appeal board in the WTO) in September 1999. The WTO ruled in favour of the IMF’s claim that India’s macroeconomic policies should be changed, as they restricted trade quantities in certain commodities in order to affect the country’s balance of payments. In a decision celebrated by the US delegation and supported by the EU, a government’s development policies were now identified as a barrier to free market forces. [14]

But even Canada has had its hand slapped. Canada has recently faced WTO rulings that challenge its favoured relationship with US car manufacturers, formalised in the 1965 Auto Pact, and the subsidising of the export of dairy products. [15] The US has also indicated that it plans to use the WTO to challenge the ‘Canadian Wheat Board as well as Ottawa’s 25 year old supply management systems for key agricultural products such as milk, chicken and eggs that have closed the door to all but a trickle of US exports’. [16] The thieves that met together in Seattle sat at the same table, but they were smiling through gritted teeth. The pre-existing fissures expanded into gaping cracks when a united opposition stood up against the WTO.

Behind the deals

In recent years there have been a flurry of high profile trade negotiations. These include trade and investment treaties like the MAI, free trade agreements such as the NAFTA, trade groups like APEC, and the consolidation of trading blocs such as the EU. Governments throughout the world have sought to expand international trade and exchange at the expense of the majority of their populations. The opening up of the global market, we have been told, is necessary to the advancement of economic prosperity. US president Bill Clinton responded to the signing of a trade deal between the US and China in November 1999, immediately prior to the Seattle meeting of the WTO, stating the following: ‘In opening the economy of China, the agreement will create unprecedented opportunities for American farmers, workers and companies to compete successfully in China’s market while bringing increased prosperity to the people of China’. [17] The trade agreement between the US and China was a precondition for the People’s Republic to gain entry into the WTO. The deal, to be finally ratified in the US Congress, will see China’s tariffs cut an average of 23 percent. It will also provide greater access for US banks, insurance companies, telecommunications firms, agricultural goods and Hollywood films to enter these previously closed sectors of China’s economy. US companies will now have access to Chinese distribution networks, and auto companies will be allowed to offer vehicle financing.

US businessmen are drooling at the prospect of gaining entry into one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with a potential consumer base of 1.2 billion people. [18] The Canadian government has pledged its intention to follow the US example and make a similar deal in order to get in on the profitable Chinese market. For the market reformers in China this deal and the hoped-for entry into the WTO will be used ‘as a crowbar with which to open up China’s economy’. [19] But this deal, like all the others, will not lead to the bread and roses that the world’s leaders are promising. In China it will lead to huge increases in unemployment as state-run industries are forced into bankruptcy, adding to an already massive army of unemployed. In the US it will also undermine industries which cannot compete with the low wages of China’s labour intensive industries, such as textiles. [20] The inclusion of China, despite its rhetorical political commitment to ‘Communism’, is in sharp contrast to the exclusion of Cuba from world trade negotiations. One of the largest trade deals currently under negotiation is the FTAA, a regional trade agreement launched by the US in 1994 and planned to come fully into effect in 2005. The US is the driving force behind the FTAA, but Canada is the other central player. Incorporating 800 million people, the FTAA will be the largest regional free trade agreement in the world. The FTAA includes 34 countries in North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean – all except Cuba. The exclusion of Cuba is on the grounds that only ‘democratic states’ are permitted access to the benefits of the FTAA. But countries like Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Chile – which has only partly distanced itself from the brutal legacy of former dictator Augusto Pinochet – are upheld as models of democracy. The US insists that the democratic credentials of all other Latin American countries should not be under scrutiny. These so called democratic states have ruling classes that are, in some measure, literally trained by US governments. The School of the Americas at Fort Bening in Columbus, Georgia, has trained over 60,000 military and police personnel from Latin America in ‘counter-insurgency’. One of the training manuals states that one way to enforce ‘democracy’ is to seek information from people by causing ‘the arrest of the employee’s parents, imprisonment of the employee or giving him a beating’. [21]

The pressures continue on sections of the world’s ruling classes to establish a set of rules favouring the unfettered entry of the largest and most concentrated units of capital into larger world markets, and to access new sources of cheap labour. Today, despite soaring profits in the US and Canada, over the long term the prospects for the world economy continue to be unstable. In such a period large multinational corporations are forced to concentrate into larger and larger units that can be more competitive on a world scale. New trade initiatives are the expression of these economic factors. This was the background to the recent Millennium Round negotiations. The same driving forces are behind the move to extend NAFTA – which incorporates Canada, the US and Mexico – south, to become the FTAA. The FTAA is another focus of anti-capitalist sentiment on the American continent.

The Free Trade Area of the Americas

The FTAA is essentially a massive extension of NAFTA towards the south. The experiences of Mexico in NAFTA point to the future for other states in the region. NAFTA came into effect in 1994. It entrenched more than a decade of pro-market policies in Mexico, and eliminated remaining protections for small farmers and peasants. As a result, an estimated 1 million of these have been forced to abandon their lands through the 1990s. Many who can no longer live off the land migrate to Mexico’s cities. A 1996 survey of Mexico’s urban areas reported that 53 percent did not have enough food, 45 percent said they did not receive healthcare, and 29 percent stated that children age 16 or less had to work in order to support their families. [22] The collapse of the Mexican peso in 1994 led to recession conditions, but recovery came on the backs of the Mexican workers and peasants. By 1996, pro-free-trade US analysts were salivating over the expanded trade opportunities in the south. [23]

The FTAA is intended to incorporate and advance the trade relationships established through the Caribbean Basin Initiative and CARIBCAN, agreements that have promoted tax and duty free investment for US and Canadian capital. [24] Canada has a long tradition of defending, and benefiting from, US policy in the south (despite the formal contest over relations with Cuba). [25]

Negotiations to establish the FTAA are organised through nine ‘working groups’ with official names that indicate the scope of what’s on the table. The groups are: market access; agriculture; investment services; government procurement; intellectual property rights; subsidies; anti-dumping and countervailing duties; competition policy; and dispute settlement. There are also three curiously grouped ‘special committees’. These deal with ‘smaller economies’, ‘experts on electronic commerce’, and, most notably, the committee of ‘government representatives on civil society participation’. ‘Civil society’, a term popularised amongst socialists by the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci to refer to organisations outside the official state machinery, is now being touted by FTAA advocates. This committee is designed to attract input and consultation from groups like ‘business’ and ‘labour’ – as if these bear comparable influence – in a major international campaign to co-opt potential opposition. Rather than attempting to keep the deal secret, like the failed effort behind the MAI, or risking another Zapatista-style rebellion, like the one that welcomed NAFTA, the FTAA organisers are actively seeking to incorporate public criticism in advance.

However, like the WTO, the FTAA has not been proceeding without difficulties, even from other ruling classes. Brazil, for example, the world’s ninth largest economy and producer of 45 percent of Latin America’s total GDP [26], is already in a trade alliance – called Mercosur – with Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. The FTAA has yet to establish how it will relate to Mercosur, and several smaller Latin American states are raising objections to the terms. And the pro-free-traders in the US have not been able to secure domestic ‘fast track’ legislation. Without it, any decisions of the FTAA can later be amended or reversed by the US Congress.

The opposition

This is the background to the explosive anger that erupted in Seattle in November and December 1999. Opposition to the WTO increased around the Seattle meeting in late November. Here is how the Seattle press covered plans for the protests:

The 30 November 1999 demonstration is ‘likely to be the biggest protest in America against the globalisation of commerce’ ... Several activist groups see the Seattle meeting as the best opportunity to turn the tide of public sentiment against global free trade. [27]

’It’s historic … the confrontations in Seattle will define how the bridge to the 21st century will be built and who will be crossing it – transnational corporations or civil society.’ That’s Michael Dolan, field organiser for the Washington DC based Naderite group Public Citizen ... Dolan is working on behalf of the Citizens’ Trade Campaign (CTC) – a broad-based national coalition including Public Citizen; labour groups like the United Auto Workers; consumer groups; environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Clean Water Action; farm groups like National Farmers Union and National Family and Farm Coalition; church organisations; and many more. [28]

In the US, opposition from labour and environmental activists contributed to the stalling of ‘fast track’ approval in the Congress. In Europe awareness of, and opposition to, the WTO is rising. [29] In Britain a similar sentiment of opposition to corporate capitalism has been expressed in a campaign to cancel the massive debt burden of the poorest countries in the world. Third World debt has tripled from a 1982 figure of $700 billion to $2.3 trillion in 1999. [30]

An international movement that began in Latin America called Jubilee 2000 typifies the breadth of the opposition. This campaign is inspired by a Biblical reference to Jubilee, where every 50 years all debts were cancelled and slaves were freed. Beginning with a church campaign to make the year 2000 a Jubilee year, Jubilee 2000 has now won backing from labour unions and community groups throughout Latin America. In Britain Jubilee 2000 has gained support from labour bodies like the Trades Union Congress, the Transport and General Workers Union, the UNISON public sector union (the largest union in Britain), and the Fire Brigades Union. [31]

Before the demonstration against the WTO this sentiment was expressed in a demand for an immediate moratorium on the Millennium Round of the WTO. This demand was endorsed by 1,100 signing organisations in 85 different countries. [32] The particular political terrain in each country is key to the level and character of organised opposition. The US opposition is obviously central. This is not only because of the pivotal role of US capital and the US state in the WTO, the FTAA and world trade in general, but also because the Millennium Round of the WTO was launched, and stalled, in a US city.

The US labour federation, the AFL-CIO, called for the demonstration in Seattle, but it did not demand that the WTO be stopped. Instead the AFL-CIO was ‘strictly calling for the incorporation of workers’ rights agreements into the WTO’. [33] Some US union affiliates refused even to endorse this demand. Tragically, their leaderships tied their organisations to the US Democratic Party, which is certainly no friend of US labour or the rights of the poor. [34] Sections of the trade union bureaucracy – the minority layer of full time officials who are far removed from the interests of the rank and file – are nervous about embarrassing Al Gore, US vice-president and a pro free trade Democratic presidential candidate, in a pre-election year.

It is in this context – that of an effort to reform, rather than stop, corporate trade agreements – that the Committee on Civil Society of the FTAA has attracted dozens of contributions from organisations, including labour unions, in virtually every one of the prospective member states. The extent of the involvement is impressive in reflecting the mood of the times – ranging from high school class submissions to neighbourhood church group letters to labour federation policy documents from Canada, the US, Mexico, and Central and South America. Some have detailed arguments about why the FTAA should be stopped. But the leading voice of opposition to the FTAA is expressed in the Hemispheric Social Alliance formed in May 1997 in protest against the FTAA Ministerial Meeting held in Brazil. In their final statement, the Alliance announced that their goal was to fight for ‘fair trade’ through the inclusion of the labour and environmental civil society organisations on the same scale as business and government.

Take the example of Canada. There is an established history of angry opposition to international free trade arrangements like the WTO and the FTAA. A mass coalition of forces, led primarily by the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), and the major labour federations and trade unions, but also including organisations like the Council of Canadians, Citizens Concerned About Free Trade (CCAFT), and numerous academics and public figures, has opposed the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA – a deal that combined Canada and the US in a trade deal that preceded NAFTA), NAFTA and the MAI.

There is a gap between the anger against these deals at the base of society and the leadership of the opposition movement. It is a gap that has been characteristic of anti-free-trade campaigns for some years. What is significant about the terrain of struggle since the Battle of Seattle, however, is that in that pivotal confrontation the anger from below went far beyond the demands of the leadership that had called the protest. This has opened new arguments on the ideological front. [35]

In the current round of trade debates two things have changed in terms of the dominant arguments on the left. And these changes are more significant after the events of Seattle. First, the corporate interests in these trade deals have now become much more transparent. Serious critics of corporate power are looking for a persuasive explanation of what is happening in the world system. Susan George, for example, a leading international trade analyst and virulent opponent of the WTO, has concluded:

The only explanation seems to be, as Marx and Engels put it, that ‘modern state power is merely the executive committee charged with managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie’. This ‘bourgeoisie’, now embodied in huge transnational industrial and financial corporations, makes itself heard loud and clear by ‘state power’ via multiple lobbies. Among these, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has a special place, claiming as it does to be ‘the only representative body that speaks with authority on behalf of enterprises from all sectors in every part of the world’. It makes its demands known directly to heads of state. [36]

The ideological terrain is incredibly favourable to Marxist explanations. However, the flow of ideas is not going only in one direction. At the same time as conscious opposition to the rule of capitalism as a system is growing, the political forces best situated to challenge this, the trade union leaderships and the labour parties internationally, are caving in to the market.

The second change in the current round of trade debates is the Blairite turn of other social democratic parties. The NDP’s position on NAFTA is a case in point. Rather than calling for its elimination, the NDP now calls for the removal of the investor-state mechanism which allows corporations to directly sue governments which ‘unfairly’ restrict trade. Similarly with the WTO and the FTAA: the NDP, rather than calling for their abolition, seeks ‘enforceable international rules on core labour standards, environmental protection, cultural diversity, the preservation of public healthcare and public education, and, generally, the right of democratically elected governments to act for the common good’. [37] However, quality labour standards mean higher wages and investment in health and safety conditions, which directly cut into profit maximisation. Environmental protection requires support for indigenous peoples’ agricultural land rights and regulations on multinational agribusiness. Protecting the environment, again, means cutting into profits and giving way to the competition. But profits are the raison d’être of the WTO and the FTAA.

The NDP has taken its admiration for market mechanisms on a domestic level, which mimic the policies of Tony Blair, to the international level. Now, rather than opposing the domination of the world market by multinational corporations, the NDP is fostering the illusory position that the world capitalist market can be repaired, reformed, to meet the needs of workers and the poor. This shift in the NDP’s orientation also reflects a shift in the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), which represents 2.5 million unionised workers. Like the AFL-CIO, there is a gap between the trade union officials who lead the CLC and the interests of rank and file workers who comprise the vast majority of its membership. The CLC leadership’s submission to the Committee on Civil Society of the FTAA indicates the same objective, to repair rather than oppose the FTAA. [38]

So while reformist ideologies face a crisis, it is not inevitable that working class internationalism will benefit. Instead, trade union and NDP leaderships have moved from a defence of national capitalism against ‘foreign ownership’ to a call to repair the international market in a type of international Blairism. However, to call upon these organisations, and others like them, to reform and address the demands of workers and the poor is like asking a leopard to change its spots. The WTO and the FTAA are institutions of international capitalism, designed to further that system at the expense of the majority of the population on the planet. They cannot be made nicer or more gentle. The FTAA should be stopped in its tracks before it goes into effect in 2005. And the WTO should be shut down. This is the sentiment of the majority of protesters who won the Battle of Seattle, but it is not the objective of the leadership of the anti-free-trade movement.

What next?

The failure of the MAI in 1998 made governments nervous about pushing through the new agenda in world trade. After Seattle this nervousness has been replaced by confusion and disarray. In addition the delegates from the Third World countries found their confidence to oppose the Quad agenda boosted by the demonstrators. Here is how The Toronto Star attempted to ‘begin the autopsy of what went wrong’:

The Europeans refused to move on export subsidies and the Americans refused to move on anti-dumping issues. But perhaps most significantly for the future of the World Trade Organisation ... the less developed countries making up the majority of the group refused to be ignored any longer. Despite a last ditch effort in the form of a 14 hour, closed door meeting to hammer out a final declaration to launch a new round of trade talks, the negotiations fell apart late Friday night ... While 30 of the largest countries were invited to Friday’s all-important meeting, delegates from Third World countries were left to mill about in nearby souvenir and coffee shops ... Delegates from Third World countries credited protests in the streets during the four days of negotiations for producing the resolve to fight to be heard at the talks, even if it meant scuttling the negotiations. ‘The people who demonstrated basically represent the silent majority,’ said Papua New Guinea trade secretary Michael Maue. [39]

Meanwhile across the US, and in Canada, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, there are groups of activists meeting and planning how to keep up the momentum against corporate control. The covers of all the major news magazines had to recognise that a new era had come to pass. The lead article in Newsweek in the 13 December 1999 issue was The Battle Of Seattle: The New Face Of Protest. Is The WTO Good For America? Time magazine opened the same week’s edition with Trading Blows: Will Seattle’s Days Of Rage Change The Face Of Global Capitalism? Pressure from rank and file activists on the trade union leaders and social democratic parties to organise and lead the anti-market activists will increase, at the same time as the ideological commitment to the market from the leaderships of these organisations remains.

On the other side, the ruling class agenda on world trade is in disarray. At their 17 December 1999 General Council meeting the WTO officials could only agree that they would not make any decisions. A post-Seattle statement indicates the success of the protests in paralysing the world’s most powerful trade organisation:

The WTO General Council on 17 December 1999 decided to postpone until early 2000 a decision on how to proceed with issues outstanding from the Seattle Ministerial Conference. One group of proposals on the table at the Seattle Conference sought delays in end of year deadlines for applying obligations and other provisions of WTO agreements – for example in intellectual property (TRIPS) and certain investment measures (TRIMS). Members could not agree on whether to accept or reject the delays, or to consider them individually member by member. These deadlines will now be among the subjects discussed in consultations in the new year, and members agreed in the 17 December General Council meeting to exercise restraint and understanding in dealing with the deadlines while the consultations are under way. [40]

There is no unified plan about how to proceed in the WTO, and the pro-free-trade pundits are bitter. The Economist chastised the ‘non-governmental organisations and their swarms’, but was forced to admit that the NGOs ‘were a model of everything the trade negotiators were not. They were well organised. They built unusual coalitions (environmentalists and labour groups, for instance, bridged old gulfs to jeer the WTO together). They had a clear agenda – to derail the talks. And they were masterly users of the media’. [41]

Our side won the battle, but the war is still on. The logic of the system will compel more attacks. As corporations become larger, they seek out markets and cheap labour and resources in every corner of the world. Governments try to help out local capitalists by prying open foreign economies. In their endless search for greater profits, human needs, the environment and basic services are all treated as barriers to profits which must be removed.

One of the oldest examples of the effects of this system is the border zone in northern Mexico, where the maquiladora factories, mostly US-owned, have been running with virtually no restrictions on trade or investment since the program was initiated in 1965. The maquiladora zone was a model for NAFTA, and NAFTA is the current model for the FTAA. With over 30 years experience, the maquiladora zone is like a human laboratory, an example of what will become generalised across the globe if the forces behind the WTO and the FTAA have their way.

The free trade zone is one of the most profitable in the world, and its profits are directly related to how little the companies spend on wages or working conditions. So while handling PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenals, is banned in US factories because of its known links to cancer, the same corporations can use PCBs liberally on the Mexican side of the border, though this will not be admitted when cases are heard in court. The mothers of the ‘Mallory Children’ washed the capacitors – tiny television parts which store an electrical charge – in a liquid they called ‘electrolito’. Their fingernails turned black and they were always very tired at the end of their shifts. When they became pregnant they hid this from their bosses for fear of being fired. Then they saw their babies born with brain damage and webbed feet. [42]

This is only one story. There are hundreds more – the victims of the world market far outnumber those who profit from it. But workers and the poor are not only victims. There is today a very widespread sentiment of opposition to the dominance of multinational corporations over the world system. When APEC leaders met in Vancouver in 1997 the brutal dictator of Indonesia, President Suharto, was wined and dined as Canada’s guest while protesters outside were beaten and pepper-sprayed by police. The workers and students of Indonesia sent an inspiring message around the world when they toppled Suharto in a mass revolution in 1998 and began a process of transformation that continues to this day. Building a revolutionary alternative to a system bent on corporate greed is now the order of the day.


[Note by ETOL: The links starting with ‘http://’ are from the original printed version of the article. They have not been checked to see if they are still valid.]

1. J. Kahn and D.E. Sanger, Seattle Talks On Trade End With Stinging Blow To US, Sunday New York Times, 5 December 1999, p. 1.

2. For background on this see A. Callinicos, Europe: The Mounting Crisis, International Socialism 75 (Summer 1997).

3. EU Seeks Six New Members: Powerful Bloc’s Numbers Would Nearly Double, The Toronto Star, 14 October 1999, p. D9.

4. P. Kellogg and S. Whitney, The MAI and Capitalist Crisis: A Marxist Analysis (International Socialists, Canada 1998).

5. J. Armstrong, R. Matas and D. LaBlanc, New Tapes Raise Questions About PM, APEC: Senior RCMP Officers Appeared To Believe Chrétien Had Direct Say In Security, The Globe and Mail, 23 October 1999, p. A4.

6. S. George, Trading Places, Socialist Review 233 (September 1999), pp. 18–19.

7. M. Barlow and T. Clarke (Council of Canadians), A WTO Primer: An Activists’ Guide to the World Trade Organization, p. 1 (

8. Council of Canadians, WTO Backgrounder, p. 1 (

9. S. George, Trading Places, Socialist Review 233, op. cit., p. 18.

10. New Trade Rules Target Education, CAUT Bulletin, vol. 46, no. 7 (September 1999), p. 7.

11. Introducing the World Trade Organisation,

12. Ibid.

13. S. Shrybman, The World Trade Organisation: A Citizen’s Guide (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and James Lorimer and Co 1999), p. 3.

14. M. Khor, Appellate Body Decision on India’s Balance of Payments Erodes Developing Countries’ Right to Make Macroeconomic Policies, Third World Network SUNS 4515, 24 September 1999, South-North Development Monitor SUNS E-mail Edition, Penung, Malaysia ( [Note by ETOL: This e-mail address has not been checked.]

15. J. Deverell, Dairy-Industry Subsidy On Exports Ruled Illegal; and T. Van Alphen, Tariff Changes Ordered To Historic Auto Pact, The Toronto Star, 14 October 1999, pp. D1, D8.

16. WTO Targets Subsidies To Farmers, The National Post, 13 October 1999.

17. S. Holland, Clinton Hails US-China Market Opening Deal, Reuters, 15 November 1999.

18. China Deal To Boost Economy, BBC News, 15 November 1999 (

19. T. Karon, Clinton Lobs A Hail Mary Over China Trade Deal, Times Daily, 2 November 1999 (,2960,33568-101991102,00.html).

20. Ibid.

21. K. Dwyer, School of the Assassins, International Socialist Review 9 (Fall 1999), p. 26.

22. L. Selfa, Mexico After the Zapatista Uprising, International Socialism 75 (Summer 1997).

23. J.P. Sweeney, Restoring American Leadership in Latin America, The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, No. 1092, 25 September 1996.

24. See A. Bakan, D. Cox and C. Leys (eds.), Imperial Power and Regional Trade: The Caribbean Basin Initiative (Wilfrid Laurier University Press 1993).

25. Canada’s Export Performance Closely Linked To US Economy, Study Shows, International Trade Reporter, vol. 13, no. 17, 1 May 1996, pp. 723–724, cited in J.P. Sweeney, op. cit.

26. The Observer, 4 October 1998, cited in A. Callinicos, World Capitalism at the Abyss, International Socialism 81 (Winter 1998), p. 10.

27. Seattle Times, 10 September 1999.

28. Seattle Weekly, 8 August 1999.

29. S. George, op. cit., pp. 18–19.

30. M. O’Brien, in Debt Crisis: Who Pays?, Socialist Review 233, op. cit., p. 14.

31. J. Hanlon, in Debt Crisis: Who Pays?, Socialist Review 233, op. cit., p. 15.

32. A. Cash, What Canucks Are Doing, Now Magazine, 21–27 October 1999, p. 25.

33. G. Parrish, Yankee Unions Pull Plug On Own Protest, Now Magazine, 21–27 October 1999, p. 25.

34. A. Cohen, Gore Campaign Gets Bounce From Backing Of Big Labour, The Globe and Mail, 15 October 1999, p. A19.

35. The left nationalist position, which dominates the leadership of the movement in Canada, has called for anti-free-trade workers and students to ally with sections of the Canadian ruling class in opposition to ‘American domination’. Exactly where this logic can lead was demonstrated by the entry of CCAFT leader David Orchard into the leadership race of the federal Conservative Party in 1998. It is clear that the interests of students, workers, the poor and the oppressed do not lie in joining with the Tories. Yet some 7,000 activists joined the Tories during the leadership campaign as a result of Orchard’s call, and, in the context of a massive vacuum of Tory leadership, he came in a remarkable second place to the front line winner, former premier Joe Clark. This is the same party which brought us the FTA and NAFTA. This is the party of the hated former prime minister Brian Mulroney and the 1990–1991 Gulf War.

36. S. George, Globalising Designs For The WTO: State Sovereignty Under Threat, Le Monde diplomatique, July 1999 (

37. NDP Opposition Day Motion, 4 November 1999,

38. D. Martin, Presentation to the Round Table on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), 13 April 1999,

39. S. Laidlaw, World Trade Group Calls Timeout, The Toronto Star, 6 December 1999, p. A13.

40. General Council Defers Post-Seattle Discussion Until Early 2000,

41. Citizens’ Groups: The Non-Governmental Order, The Economist, 11–16 December 1999, pp. 3, 20.

42. This example is drawn from A. Dwyer, On the Line: Life on the US-Mexican Border (Latin American Bureau 1994), pp. 66–67.

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