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<nettime> daft paper on the WTO
Brian Holmes on 16 Sep 2000 17:04:34 -0000


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<nettime> daft paper on the WTO


These discussions, as Rhonda says, are getting pretty interesting. But I
find it strange how some people can rail against WTO-IMF-World Bank
protesters for being simplistically "against" corporations, then say
everything'd be rosy if the juridical definition of corps could be changed
(in what court I don't know) so they no longer constituted legal
individuals. Well, if you want to make 'em socialized or worker-owned
entities, OK, but you might start a little closer to reality!

I dream pretty actively of a total revolution, but in the meantime I am
close to Scot when he says "its time to reclaim Government as the rightful
enforcer of our societies shared values" and "if international bodies were
abolished it would leave a completely laissez-faire international
environment where the weak nations are preyed on." But you have to see what
the gov'ts and int'l bodies actually do, before you support them.

The IMF, for instance, is not just welfare for rich "individual" corps, but
uses its orthodox expertise to remodel the financial, juridical, and social
relations of entire societies to favor intensified international exchange
and competition, as a precondition for every major bailout. Most people
don't remember that this was done to the UK itself in the 70s... and look
at that country's present social system! And look what has been done more
recently in Southeast Asia and Brazil. Look, for instance, at how
transnational capital moved in under IMF benediction to buy up companies in
Korea, just when Korean workers were getting strong enough to demand a few
rights and benefits.

As for the Bank, in its Keynesian phase and especially under the McNamara
leadership in the 70s, it could be accused of pushing loans for huge white
elephant infrastructures in the Third World, coincidentally bought from the
developed nations at a time when their banks had lots of surplus cash to
lend, but their industries faced shrinking markets for production... A
convenient trade: I lend you money, you buy my products, you pay me
interest for decades. After which the story gets worse, in the eighties
when Reagan and the Chicago neoliberal economists come into the picture,
and the Bank begins making structural adjustment plans the condition, not
just for new loans, but for rescheduling the old ones. So the government
works and collective values that Scot rightly wants to get back are decreed
bad economics, and cut from the budgets. That sub-Saharan Africa today
annually pays 4 times more to reimburse or "service" its debt than for its
total health and education outlays is a nasty fact that bears considering
when you feel like supporting the World Bank just because of its noble
ideals. Even its former president, Joseph Stiglitz, slammed the door not
long ago, because of what he saw as the mismanagement of the Asian crisis
by both the Bank and the IMF.

Now, what can you do, where are the courts to fight in? I've mentioned the
MAI treaty, which would have given investors (i.e. corporations) equal
rights everywhere, for every market including health and education, making
it possible for outside investors from large countries, or more precisely,
for corporate investors with large transnational networks backed up by the
support of powerful governments, to dominate _every sector_ in weak
countries without their own large corps. The "court" in that case was the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD. Pressure
from around the world helped protestors and lobbyists (and some
representatives) in France to force their gov't to step out of the treaty
and thereby kill it (while the bigwigs quietly suggested that it be
renogotiated in the supposedly more equitable WTO). Round 2: negotiations
on investors' rights again stopped by an even broader international
coalition in Seattle. Would it have been nobler to just let them pass that
treaty in the name of international cooperation? Cooperation for who?

Let's try to look at some more precise situations where the gamut of
popular mobilization, from street protest to middlebrow education to
sophisticated lobbying, has been able to affect the ways that democratic
constituencies interface with the larger scale of globalizing capitalism
(the corps, that is, and their gov't backers). One of the major reasons for
the intensity of competition in the world today is global financial
speculation, whereby naked greed ("investor appetites") makes it possible
to "go public", i.e. sell stock, in order put together war chests for all
kinds of corporate raiding operations. Where do the largest quantities of
speculative capital come from? The private pension funds of a handful of
countries (USA, Canada, Britain, Japan, Chile...). In a country like
France, where Marx can still be taught in schools and some people have been
working hard at getting over the mass amnesia of the eighties, every
attempt in recent years by the nominally "socialist" gov't to give into the
prevailing norm and privatize the national pension-by-redistribution plan
has been stopped, because people - for instance, the 2-year-old,
24,000-member association Attac - know that the institution of such
speculative pension funds will increase rapacious competition, not just in
their society but around the world.

Another example: GMO crops, marketed aggressively by a few big firms and by
a few large grain-growing countries (USA, Canada, Australia if I'm not
mistaken...). In addition to the legitimate worries about what these may do
to the ecosystem there is an incredible racket connected to these
genetically modified seeds. For instance, it is illegal to replant them,
because they are the intellectual property of the companies involved. So
you have to buy more, when you could normally just replant with the fruit
of your own labors. Some companies used the so-called "Terminator
technology" to insure the seeds were sterile the next year! So it's a free
world, right, why not just use the old ways? Except that grain grown in
North America under ideal industrial conditions, with disguised gov't
subsidies, is cheap - and a WTO treaty requires member nations to let at
least 5% of their total consumption of any agricultural product to enter
the country under minimal trade tarifs. This five percent acts to drive the
price down for the remaining 95%...

Monsanto dropped Terminator after outcry from all over the world. A
victory. But let's consider further what can be done in precise terms, by
coherent organizing, beyond a single cause (I again take a French example
because I live here). The Confederation Paysanne is a farmer's union,
opposed to the majority farmers union in France, the FNSEA. Their line is
that small-scale "peasant" agriculture is good for lots of things: taste,
landscape, lifestyle, health, culture, employment, nourishment. Why, they
ask, should the biggest fraction of the European Union's budget by far be
spent on subsidizing industrial agriculture to compete on a cut-rate world
market? Why should European small farmers disappear so that European
taxpayers can pay for European agroindustrialists to compete with and lose
to their (also subsidized) North American counterparts? (Note that these
questions wouldn't have to be asked if there hadn't been real problems with
the former, "Keynesian" regulation of the world economy, which provided the
initial framework for these ongoing subsidy programs.)

Now, the Confederation Paysanne is a growing but minority movement. It has
two options to get anywhere. One of them is direct action to dramatize its
cause and inform a wider section of the population, to help push for
legislation - and you all know the story that leads from the dismantled
McDonalds in the French boondocks to Jose Bove in Seattle. The other option
is to share information and tactics with small farmers around the world
(though the Via Campesina network), and also with like-minded ecologists,
trade-unionists, and anticapitalists. This is the very powerful thing going
on in the world right now: in order to make a difference in their local
reality, to push on the levers available to them even in their own
countries and regions, people are organizing internationally over issues
that are substantively transnational. For the Confederation Paysanne it's
obvious that forms of international regulation are necessary. But they are
also willing to work with people who don't believe that, because they need
all the help they can get in the face of organizations like the WTO which,
today, is regulating almost exclusively against their interests and ideals.
The only help they don't need is from naive and stupid protofascists who
think they can solve every problem by putting up a fence.

This all started with a draft paper, right? The conventional wisdom,
especially among my former countrymen in the USA, holds that because
American boys aren't drafted any more to fight a nasty war against the
Vietnamese there will never be any more political dissent, and therefore we
can all go back to sleep or back to becoming stockbrockers. This is
bullocks. For decades people from all over the industrially advanced world
kept up solidarity with people in the Third World trying to get out from
under the heels of the colonizers first, and then of both superpowers. I
don't think this solidarity was charity from the West, but the expression
of a vital need to dream up and realize a different kind of social practice
than the one being supplied by the dominant mainstream. Today the situation
is the same, with the difference that there is a clear and practical need,
in terms of relations of force, for cooperation between people across the
geographical, class, cultural and racial divides. It's really an
interesting time. So maybe see you in Prague?

Brian Holmes

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