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January 6, 2000


Business Commentary/Ashok Mitra

Four forces and an axis that ripped WTO asunder

The carnival planned by the World Trade Organisation at Seattle ended in a grand fiasco. The authorship of the fiasco will nonetheless continue to be a matter of dispute.

The non-governmental organisations, who spoiled the broth, were a mixed lot. Several amongst them were idealists and do-gooders par excellence, determined to prevent the bloody-minded monopolists who were bent on maximizing their rate of return by exploiting men, women and children working in fields and factories in the developing countries, offering them starvation wages, or not even that. These helpless people were also made to work in indescribably unhygienic conditions.

send this column to a friend The non-governmental organisations flocked to Seattle from different countries, rich and poor. They knew their mind. The monopolists must not be permitted to further extend their empire, no pasaran (they shall not pass!). Alongside these ideologues, there were however other NGOs basically indistinguishable from pure mercenaries.

The United States administration, hand in glove with leading multinational companies, spent money like water to set up sham outfits who took over Seattle's boulevards and waterfront, vociferously demanding that the WTO immediately enforce labour standards and environmental restrictions for internationally traded goods.

The avowed purpose of all this was to install fear of god in the block of official representatives from the poorer countries: how dare you not agree to the incorporation of clauses relating to labour standards and environment in the WTO agenda when there is such intense support for their enforcement all over the world?

A third group too was active though. Trade unions in Western nations have long dispensed with the credo of the international brotherhood of the working class. They are genuinely afraid at the prospect of cheap consumer goods of all varieties, and not just textiles, produced by transcontinental firms with the help of low-cost labour in, for example, South Asian countries flooding their domestic market and thereby threatening their employment and livelihood. Mercenaries, ideologues and pragmatists had different, distinct points of view, but the WTO provided them with a common cause.

This, then, was the irony of the situation: the NGOs, the overwhelming majority of them, were for discussion and incorporation of labour standards and environmental restrictions in the WTO's future programme of work. In ordinary times, they are sworn enemies of the rampaging multinational corporations spearheading the global conspiracy of monopoly capital. But on this particular occasion, the difference between their approach and that of Levers and Monsantos was obliterated. Death to monopoly capital was okay. Coincidence being coincidence, in the Seattle battlefield, the NGOs found themselves on the same side as monopoly capitalists: the developing countries were totally isolated.

The well laid-out plans of the US administration to use the NGOs for its selfish purpose however came a cropper. For there was also a fourth force which unleashed itself in Seattle with passion and fury. It was made up of thousands and thousands of radicalised American youth. While the latter were by and large on the same wavelength as the anti-monopoly capital ideologues, the primal thrust they injected in their anti-WTO slogans had a purity and an earnestness which set them apart. They had a cause, but no programme as such. They were disenchanted with the system. They hated the materialism which is conspiring to make everyone slaves of a Web site non-civilisation. Those assembled at Seattle inducted a sizeable number of such desperate souls, crying out for liberation.

What was enacted by them was a passion play packed with extraordinary power. These zealots did not mind the introduction of violence in their schedule of activities. Nothing was lovelier to them than chaos. For chaos set at disarray the grammar and accountancy of the monopolists and of the country-governments which operate as their servitors.

They did not have the least doubt that the ministerial conference organised by the WTO was at the centre of the evil design of international finance capital to dominate the market of the poorer countries in the name of free international trade. Death to monopoly capital; death to the WTO.

These four different forces took charge of Seattle's streets and ramparts, broke glass panes, upturned cars, and challenged into a direct confrontation with the conspirators plotting to enslave the world. Gunfire, smoke from exploding tear gas shells and torrents of water unleashed by the water bombs transformed the ambience. Law and order as defined by the US administration broke down. Soon it was curtain time, and nothing worthwhile could be salvaged by the capitalist mafia from the debris.

True, a fifth influence too was at work hastening the final collapse of the WTO farce. The European Union and Japan found themselves in total opposition to the US resolve to banish all subsidies for farm products. Over our dead bodies, said the Europeans and the Japanese, who were hardly in a position to ignore the strong agricultural lobby in their backyard. They would not yield, the Americans would not yielded either; it was, in consequence, a magnificent impasse.

Confusion crowded upon confusion, and soon, the hour of adjournment arrived. No firm agenda could be agreed to for WTO's activities in the new millennium, thereby providing a respite, even if it be temporary, for the poorer countries.

International monopoly capital has received a setback. But there should be no illusion, this is only an interrupted chapter. The multinational corporations and the governments they support will regroup themselves; it is a matter of only a few months. Attempts will be made to thrash out a reconciliation on the issue of agricultural subsidies between the Americans on one side, and Japan and the EU on the other.

It is a mixed-up situation from all accounts, whether in the advanced economies or elsewhere. Agricultural workers and non-surplus raising small farmers have not received any worthwhile benefit from the ongoing farm subsidy schemes.

The termination of the subsidies will perhaps not cause them irreparable harm in the long run. But if export trade of farm products shrinks because of the withdrawal of subsidies, rich peasants and big farmers may try to protect themselves by coming down hard on farm wages and by selective lay-off of workers. Tension will then grow in the rich and poor economies alike. Whether or not such tension is welcome will depend entirely on one's class point of view.

The temporary respite the Seattle fiasco has brought about will prove to be a mirage unless the developing countries give themselves a second chance. The tidal wave of emotion on the part of the American youth was a chance occurrence at Seattle.

Whether it will sustain itself remains uncertain. It is also altogether possible that idealist youths and NGOs will actually team up in support of speedy enforcement of labour standards and environmental preconditions in international trade. Developing countries will be left in the lurch should such a thing happen.

There is not much time left, the so-called Third World countries must learn once more to come together. The hangover of the 19th century adage insists on the non-existence of permanent enemies or permanent friends in the sphere of international politics. The adage certainly does not hold for international economics; there can be no question of monopoly capital experiencing a change of heart and defending the interests of the poor, developing nations; that kind of denouement will erode global profitability.

The confrontation between the exploiters and the exploited will therefore continue. The rules of the WTO will, sooner or later, be drastically rewritten to promote further the common interests of the industrialised Western nations and monopoly capital; the poor countries will be advised that in case they are unable to stand the heat, they should rather not enter the kitchen -- which is another way of telling them that, taking all factors into consideration, they have no business to survive, their historical role is to serve the imperial-colonial order in its new incarnation -- and then to fade away.

The story will still not end though. China is on the threshold of entering the WTO. Unlike the governments of countries in the rest of the world, China is in no dread of the United states, it is in fact the other way round. For coping with the assaults, the US administration will soon launch to bully them into submission to the tyranny of the WTO's unfair rules. The poor countries, including India, need a ballast. China -- with a rate of economic growth exceeding 10 per cent per annum and a population approaching 1.3 billion -- will be a mighty ballast. But she has to be approached, and in a proper manner.

Our ruling politicians and their mandarins still exist in a time warp. They need to appreciate the fact that there are more things in heaven and earth than are written in the moth-eaten manual for international governance authored by the United States of America.

India and the W.T.O.

Ashok Mitra


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