The World Trade Organisation
– an imperialist carve-up threatening to disintegrate
The first part of this article was in the May/June LALKAR. Below we reproduce the second, and concluding, part.
Technically, the Final Act does allow governments to take measures to protect the environment and public health, but the question is: where does one draw the line? With the ‘Frankenstein foods’, i.e., those that have been genetically modified, and hormone-treated beef, for instance, there are doubts about their safety but no clearcut proof that they are harmful to health in any significant way. US imperialism’s position is that without cast-iron proof of harmfulness, then imports cannot be prohibited or discouraged (e.g., by use of mandatory labelling). If millions of Americans can eat hormone-treated beef without any obvious ill-effect, at least for the time being, then Europeans can eat it too. Quite apart from issues of protectionism, however, Europeans have cause to be wary of departures from time-honoured farming practices, as their experience with Mad Cow disease has taught them. One cannot also but remember the passion with which we used to be told by tobacco companies that tobacco products had never been proved harmful to health – only for it to emerge that for decades these same companies had proof that tobacco very often does cause cancer and heart disease from research they commissioned but whose publication they cynically suppressed.
In the course of its attempts to preserve European farming and the overseas operations of Europe-based multinationals (in the case of bananas, for instance), European governments have forged an alliance with environmental organisations, who are happy to provide us with a great deal of information about the downside of US farming methods. Certainly what one learns tends to rather put one off the consumption of the US multinationals’ banana. It seems that plantations owned by these in Central America apply to their banana crops some 30 kg of chemicals per hectare, more than 10 times the average for intensive agriculture in industrial countries. Many of these chemicals are suspected carcinogens and the use of one of them, DBCP (to kill parasitic worms), some years ago resulted in the mass sterilisation of tens of thousands of plantation workers – but not just in US-owned sites: West Africa and the Caribbean were also affected. After some 25 years of intensive banana cultivation US-style, the soil is left exhausted and useless – maybe even permanently sterile through copper poisoning. Large amounts of plants, fish and animals are wiped out through the extensive use of chemicals.
Interesting though these facts are, they are true of capitalist farming methods everywhere. The Greens, who are being encouraged to expose these abuses, are in alliance with bourgeois interests opposed to the WTO, and therefore lay the blame for such outrages on the WTO rather than recognise their inevitability under the capitalist system where profit always takes precedence over every other consideration.
Not only do the capitalists destroy the environment in the search for profits – and, it would appear, the more successful the profit-making machine, the greater the pollution – but also they back repressive regimes which are prepared to do anything necessary to suppress the revolt of the oppressed and super-exploited masses. As David Ransom says in the
of October, 1999,
“Because the abuse of human rights and the environment make for the cheapest products on the world markets, there’s an incentive for producers to engage in both. The full price still has to be paid, but the rules of the WTO are there to ensure it is paid in the currency of human suffering and environmental degradation.”
The slightest protest in most oppressed countries means at very least loss of one’s job, and often persecution and murder at the hands of death squads to whose activities the authorities, the handpicked henchmen of imperialism, turn a blind eye. For instance, it is well known that the Guatemalan regime conducted a policy of brutal repression between 1960 and 1996, in which over 200,000 Guatemalans lost their lives, and thousands were tortured, kidnapped and murdered. It is also well known that the Guatemalan military which perpetrated this reign of terror was trained and financed by successive US governments in the interests of the US multinational banana growers.
Again, however, these are ills of imperialism in general, not just an ‘unfortunate’ side effect of setting up the World Trade Organisation. When a minority class is in government which maintains an economic system – capitalism at the present time – which is incapable of satisfying the most basic needs of the greater part of the population, then rebellion is inevitable, as are the measures taken by the ruling class to repress those who rebel and terrorise those who have not yet done so. Imperialism, by destroying the livelihoods of the masses of people in oppressed countries, cannot but cause rebellion, and the imperialist stooges ruling those countries cannot but resort to barbaric repression in an endeavour to maintain ‘order’.
The ecologists, who tend to understand more about biology than about politics, can always suggest ‘solutions’ to the problem that seem almost self-evident. For example, it is suggested that the World Trade Organisation be required to respect measures in favour of public health or the environment; that producers should be paid a “fair price” for their product; and so on. Shrybman, writing in the
of Jan/Feb 2000 (‘Trade now, pay later’) considers that
“Trade Agreements must serve the goals of combating climate change, preserving biodiversity, assuring food security and protecting diversity.”
These ‘solutions’ all require that imperialism go against its most fundamental instincts and interests To the extent that imperialism even considers them it is only when it needs them as excuses to pursue a protectionist agenda. For imperialism, maximum profit is the whole point of its existence, and it will not agree to anything that implies reduced profits except under conditions where its class rule is at risk and it must spend to save itself – and this is not the situation at present.
Opposition to the World Trade Organisation within imperialist countries
Besides contradictions between imperialists and between imperialists on the one hand and third world countries on the other, there is also major opposition to the WTO within imperialist countries, as the Seattle riots so graphically demonstrated.
One section attacking the World Trade Organisation is that part of capitalism which will suffer damage to its profitability with the implementation of free competition worldwide. Typical is the US textile magnate, Roger Milliken. In the past Roger Milliken, a fanatical opponent of trade unionism, was known for his support for the ultra-right policies of Senator Barry Goldwater, whom he backed in the 1964 US Presidential campaign. Since Reagan came to power, however, successive US regimes have been committed to market liberalisation, as this is expected to bring enormous benefit to most of the imperialist concerns under US protection. US textiles manufacturers, however, are unlikely to be able to survive the opening of the market to cheap foreign imports. As a result Roger Milliken has become a ‘radical’. He has, according to
(South Africa) of 15 March 2000 financed Ralph Nader, the consumer rights guru, and an organisation called Public Citizen,
“of which one operative, Mike Dolan, helped orchestrate the street theatre at last year’s WTO meeting in Seattle … Dolan’s services were largely paid for by Milliken, who helps bankroll Nader’s Public Citizen Global Trade Watch.”
As they say, times change.
Numerically the largest sections opposed to the World Trade Organisation are the petty bourgeois intelligentsia whose privileged conditions of existence are always precarious under capitalism, and become more so as the crisis of world imperialism deepens. Fearful that they will not be able to maintain the standard of life to which they are accustomed, they become opponents of aspects of capitalism that they perceive to be ‘unfair’, but they rarely contemplate the actual overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism, a system which seeks to diminish and eventually do away with privilege as a hallmark of intellectual, as opposed to manual, labour.
The working class was also represented at Seattle. Major US unions organised a large ‘disciplined’ rally at Seattle to protest against the WTO. The union leadership did not encourage participation in the rioting and marched their delegation into Seattle, only to march most of them straight out again. To the extent that the US working class is not under revolutionary leadership, its anger at the massive job losses that have afflicted US-based manufacturing over the last decade is in danger of being manipulated by pro-imperialist interests.
Traditionally the US working-class movement has been under the thumb of an opportunist and bought off leadership which has always supported US imperialism. However, the benefits that the broader ranks of the working class received in the imperialist countries in the post-war period, and which blunted revolutionary militancy, are being slashed and constantly under threat. As a result of capital being exported to countries where labour costs are lower, sections of the US working class are feeling the pinch. The trade-union leadership are increasingly unable to deliver the ‘American way of life’. They are, however, still programmed to keep the peace, i.e., to discourage militancy among the workers. Their stranglehold over the hearts and minds of the broad masses of the workers is doomed, but has not yet disappeared.
For the moment, their hope of prolonging their influence on the general working-class movement has come into curious coincidence with a US imperialist ploy to introduce a system of hidden protectionism, i.e., through the demand for the World Trade Organisation to adopt ‘core labour standards’. The US unions as well as President Clinton are agreed on the desirability of these. How can that be? On the face of it the proposal for the adoption of ‘core labour standards’ would appear to be progressive and a support to the super-exploited and super-oppressed workers of the third world, for it would allow barriers to be set up to preclude the import of goods that had been produced by labour which did not enjoy certain minimum standards of health protection, or by child labour. Supposedly, American jobs would be safeguarded insofar as imports could be restricted when produced by labour whose cheapness was based on disregard of minimum standards of health and safety protection. That these issues, at least insofar as pertains to third-world countries, have never exercised the consciences of these parties before should put us on the alert. What the ‘core labour standards’ would enable the imperialists to do would be to discriminate against any third-world produce whatsoever, whenever the whim took them – for labour standards are never going to be high in poor capitalist countries. If, on the other hand, it is an imperialist-owned concern that has failed to adopt health measures or has employed child labour, there is absolutely no obligation to impose obstacles on entry. It is simply an out-and-out protectionist measure to exclude competition from third-world countries in those relatively few areas in which they are in a position to compete effectively with imperialism.
The fact of the matter is that although ‘core labour standards’ would be designed to allow imperialist countries to erect barriers to imports from potential third-world competitors, they will in no way prevent imperialist concerns from moving their operations away from the imperialist countries to places where labour costs are lower. US jobs will continue to be exported to US-owned or controlled
in Mexico and elsewhere in the third world. The whole idea which bourgeois liberalism tries to sell to the effect that by imposing ‘core labour standards’ on businesses operating abroad in some way jobs in imperialist countries will be safeguarded is laughably absurd. It would, of course, ‘safeguard’ jobs in imperialist countries if all of them could effectively close their doors to imports while being free to export wherever their products were more competitive, but this scenario is an impossible one. It is not on impossible day dreams that the working class should pin its hopes. There is no future in the pursuit of the mirage.
Third world rebellion
So long as the World Trade Organisation has a virtual monopoly over world trade, poorer countries have been forced to sign up to it or face heavy losses in their export markets. The price of signing up, however, has been the obligation to dismantle all barriers by which they endeavour to shelter their own, relatively uncompetitive, economic activities from devastation at the hands of imperialist multinationals. But these are the activities that provide work for people in those parts of the world. The alternative is even greater dependence on imperialist investment.
In the face of clear imperialist intention to hang on to protection of some of their home industries, particularly agriculture and textiles, to introduce new possibilities of protectionism under the guise of ‘core labour standards’, the representatives of third-world countries at Seattle could not but protest.
It should also be noted in passing that third-world countries will be disproportionately affected by the imperialist multinationals’ stranglehold on intellectual property. The Uruguay Round committed all members of the WTO to recognition and enforcement of intellectual property rights, including patents of processes and substances that third-world countries may have been using for generations prior to some multinational coming to know of them and then rushing to register a patent. In fact, a patent is nothing more nor less than a monopoly right – the very opposite of free trade! The owner of a patent can prevent anybody else using the same process, but is generally prepared to grant them a licence to do so – but at a fee, which the patentee can fix at any level he or she thinks she can obtain. Although theoretically the purpose of a patent should be to enable the patentee to cover development costs, in the case of multinationals it is simply a licence to exact tribute in amounts totally unrelated to development costs. US-based patentees have prevented India and South Africa from producing a relatively cheap generic drug for the treatment of Aids, for instance, indifferent to the suffering of those who cannot afford to pay.
In addition, the third-world countries found at Seattle that they were treated with open contempt by their US ‘hosts’, excluded from the majority of the meetings where
“business was going on behind closed doors”
, according to the
of 6 December. This caused turmoil inside the Conference hall which
“was almost as fevered as on the surrounding streets. As proceedings grew ever more chaotic, developing country delegates pounded their desks, booed and catcalled in protest at the brusque chairmanship of Charlene Barshevsky, US trade representative.”
(Guy de Jonquieres and Frances Williams, ‘A goal beyond reach’,
6 December 1999).
“the penultimate day of the Seattle talks there were two separate statements from WTO members from the Latin American and Caribbean region, and African members. These protested against the host country tactics and utter lack of transparency in the processes of the ministerial meeting and – more importantly – threatened to withhold consensus from any final outcome”
India, 26 December 1999).
China’s membership of the WTO
In view of the blatancy of the looting of third-world countries that the WTO facilitates, one is at first sight taken aback by China’s desire to join this particular club. Equally one is surprised to find that there is opposition on the part of many in the imperialist countries to China’s entry. Clearly the question is far more complex than at first sight appears.
From China’s point of view the advantage of joining is that her membership will make it more difficult for imperialists to justify raising trade barriers against Chinese products. While China remains outside the WTO, for instance, the US might well be tempted to erect barriers in view of the fact that the US trade deficit with China is running at some $60 billion a year.
From the point of view of imperialism, there are several advantages of China’s membership. The first is that it constitutes a gigantic market, even if it has proved difficult to penetrate. The second is that WTO discipline may well lead to the dismantlement of many socialist institutions whose existence enables China’s producers to maintain their keen prices. Wages are relatively low in China – this is because the state provides free health care and education services, so that producers get the benefit of an educated and healthy workforce without having to contribute much towards the cost of producing the same. Imperialism will be looking forward to attacking China’s social provisions as competition-distorting subsidies.
Thirdly, the possibility for imperialism to take over, for instance, China’s telecommunications, medical services, prison service, etc., cannot but be a mouthwatering prospect for it. In 1998 the WTO’s ‘Fourth Protocol’ removed protection from the telecommunications industry. That same year over 10% of telecommunications companies changed hands and US-based multinationals have now ended up owning 38% of the global industry. But the self-expansion of capital is an irresistible urge, likely to sweep aside all mealy-mouthed liberals in the US who set themselves up as critics of China’s ‘human rights’ record. As the Chinese point out, US imperialists are the last people in the world who have any authority to criticise other countries in respect of human rights, bearing in mind its widespread poverty and racially biased death penalty.
Disadvantages of China’s membership to imperialism are (a) that it will be more difficult to raise trade barriers against China; and further that China, unlike most third-world countries, is strong enough to impose terms on the WTO and also to act as a hegemon of third-world resistance to the WTO’s impet domination.
Opponents within to China’s entry are obviously worried about the accelerated dismantling of socialist institutions which membership of the WTO is bound to imply. Already the profit motive has led to the closure of Chinese businesses and loss of jobs. It remains to be seen whether China will be fatally weakened by its WTO experience.
In the light of what has been said, the imperialist trading system is coming under considerable strain as a result of the intensification of all the contradictions – between labour and capital, between imperialism and the oppressed countries and those between the various imperialist blocs.
There is thus considerable temptation for imperialism, with its own protectionist trade practices coming under pressure at a time when they are a lifeline to major imperialist interests, to abandon the World Trade Organisation and run for protectionist cover – every man for himself, so to speak. The GATT is a system under which in even in imperialist countries there are winners and losers among the bourgeoisie; and the world economic crisis is ensuring that the numbers of those on the losing side are ever increasing. At such times, a bourgeois enterprise that is losing its market will earnestly wish to eliminate the competition so that it can survive. If the competition comes from abroad, then influential sections of the bourgeoisie will lean on their national government to raise trade barriers [no joke!], to save jobs, etc. The US textile billionaires, for instance, are calling on the US government to insist on prolonging protection of the US textiles as, they claim demagogically, those who will lose their jobs when protection is finally dismantled are overwhelmingly black and female!
Only time will tell whether the various imperialist powers consider the gains to made from the continued existence of the WTO outweigh the price they are required to pay. Only time will tell whether the oppressed countries give up the resistance they put up in Seattle against being dragged into an unjust and discriminatory trade agreement. And, only time will tell whether the working class in the imperialist countries accepts with docility a trade arrangement which will have a devastating effect on their lives and standards of existence.
At the moment, however, the accumulated contradictions appear to have created insurmountable difficulties in the way of a successful trade agreement. The odds are stacked against the conclusion of such an agreement. If this turns out to be the case, there will be a no-holds-barred trade war between the various imperialist countries. While bringing untold misery to hundreds of millions of people around the world, such a trade war, and the resultant further intensificatin of the inter-imperialist contradictions, would present the working class in the imperialist countries, as well as the oppressed masses of the vast continents of Asia and Latin America, with tremendous opportunities for getting rid of the filthy and bloody system – imperialism – for good.