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Beyond the World Trade Organization
by Joel Kovel, Woodstock Greens,
Green Party of New York
The protest in Seattle against the latest round of global trade negotiations draws attention yet again to the prime importance of trade in the current world situation, and more generally, to the whole phenomenon of "globalization" of which trade is an emblem. Certainly, the main body of ruling elites are rigidly united around the goal of the endless expansion of trade, with only a small faction in the US under the leadership of Buchanan dissenting in the name of isolationism.
There is no higher priority for those who superintend the global capitalist system than to constantly bring down the barriers to the circulation of goods and finance under conditions that secure the orderly accumulation of capital, and to those of such persuasion—the growth of "free trade" has taken on a religious aura. Thus the pseudo-quarrels between the official political parties melt away to reveal the fundamental unity beneath. Witness how smoothly Clinton picked up from his "opponent" Bush the task of forcing passage of NAFTA, like a relay runner taking the baton without missing a stride. We can be certain that the next President will share the same axiomatic imperative.
It is sometimes held that globalization is a new phenomenon, and that its key feature is the triumph of transnational corporations over the nation-state... Neither of these propositions is ... accurate...
The World Trade Organization (WTO) stands at the apex of this system. Its capacity to override the laws of nation-states, as well as key treaties between states such as agreements on human rights and biodiversity, or the Kyoto protocols on global warming, testifies dramatically to the status of globalization today and to the dangers it poses to humanity and nature alike. The outpouring of resistance to the regime of "free trade" bears witness to the scale of these dangers. We can suggest the outlines of a radical alternative to the WTO—an organization of world trade that would do justice to humanity and nature.
It is sometimes held that globalization is a new phenomenon, and that its key feature is the triumph of transnational corporations over the nation-state, which is supposed to now be unable to protect its people against corporate excess. Neither of these propositions is quite accurate, first, because there has been a global economic system for at least a millennium, with trade a dominant feature; and second, because the state and the corporations have never been in any significant degree opposed.
Under the conventional logic of globalization, the remedy would be to strengthen governmental controls to rein in corporate excess—the classically liberal answer to economic difficulties, which essentially claims that established institutions are adequate for purposes of reform.
Production of goods and services is increasingly unrelated and often antithetical to the real needs of humanity and nature.
We argue, however, that the crisis of globalization signifies a more radical breakdown, and with it, the need for massive popular movements to take charge of their own destiny and the well—being of the planet. Thus the issue is not whether governments are weak—in fact, they are more powerful than ever—but who they are working for. Historically, the state in the now-dominant western powers has spearheaded the interests of transnational investment and trade, from the Crusades, to Columbus' voyages, to the British East India Company. A century-long surge of worker's movements, lasting until the mid 1970s, succeeded in blunting some of the impact on ordinary people. However, the prolonged crisis in accumulation over the last quarter century has reversed this development and led governments to work more closely with big business, jettisoning humanity and nature in the process.
What we see in the regime of globalization is the evolution of the world system to the point where corporations and governments work hand in glove to accelerate the circuits of capital around the world and across all boundaries. Financial flows are now far greater than flows in goods and services, and essentially determine the movement of goods and services. If this latter increases—as it most definitely does—it is as a follow-along to the flows of capital. Production of goods and services is increasingly unrelated and often antithetical to the real needs of humanity and nature. By the same token, trade is fundamentally chaotic and anarchic. Although it is unlikely that shooting wars will break out among the major trading nations in an era with a single military superpower the structure of the world system mandates an endless series of trade wars and general chaos—as recent history has borne out.
It is impossible to conceive of a society that does not degrade nature and oppress and exploit humanity unless the back of globalization is broken.
It is impossible to conceive of a society that does not degrade nature and oppress and exploit humanity unless the back of globalization is broken. It is also heartening to realize that this can only come about through a globalization of popular power to counter the globalization of capital. We are witnessing the early stages of this gathering struggle, in which the green movement, already more global than any other oppositional force, has the chance to play a major and perhaps decisive role. What follows are some suggested guidelines to help build this struggle in the period ahead.
First, it is essential that the struggle be grasped in its radical depth, and that the greens take a leading role in pointing this out in a comradely way to other opposition movements. Proposals to regulate the WTO that fall short of pointing a way to a world where the WTO wouldn't be needed in the first place are shallowly reformist—which is to say, they only smooth off the rough edges of the system in order to strengthen it. We can talk of meaningful reform of the WTO only in context of a plan to get rid of the WTO; and this means to overcome the global system of capital accumulation-and crucially, to envision a new order of world trade as a means to that end.
We can talk of meaningful reform of the WTO only in context of a plan to get rid of the WTO...
Trade is an essential feature of any developed society. Greens should clearly distinguish ourselves from the isolationism of the political right, if only because one implication of such isolationism is racist attacks on immigrants, along with the imposition of a fortress mentality. Green values include localism, to be sure, but only through an affirmation of the inherent value of all beings, human and non-human, ie, an affirmation of universality. It would be impossible to sustain such a position without also being open to the movement of peoples and the products they make—in other words, to trade. We might say that our intent is to replace the false regime of "free trade," with one that seeks "trade in the service of freedom."
We are not demanding all or nothing. We are saying rather that the incremental goals now on the table in the way of reform should be seen as intermediate way stations to "trade in the service of freedom." To see them in this way is to build them consciously as the precursors of this new order of trade. What follows are some provisional guideposts toward the definition of such an order of trade:
Let us replace the World Trade Organization with the World People's Trade Organization (WPTO) which would have the following properties:
- It would have to be controlled by and responsible to a confederation of popular bodies organized on a global basis.
- It would have to set parameters for regulating trade in accordance with the freeing of all beings.
As for the former goal, control of trade would be principally in the hands of the producers and consumers of goods, and not in those of the middlemen and financiers, or the corporate elites who now dominate economic life. To use a contemporary piece of jargon, it would be control by "stakeholders" rather than "shareholders." Some formulae need be worked out whereby the degree of control over the trading of goods would be proportional to the direct involvement with production—ie, farmers would have a special say over food trade, auto-workers over that of automobiles, while the transport workers who directly carry out the trade would also have a special role as a function of this, as would all citizens in their capacity as consumers and "stakeholders" in planetary well-being.
...control of trade would be principally in the hands of the producers and consumers of goods, and not in those of the middlemen and financiers, or the corporate elites...
It would be useful to use existing UN structures as a scaffolding to build the WPTO, in particular, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) delegated by the General Assembly for carrying out international economic functions along with related matters. In saying this, we remain mindful of the tremendous corruption of the UN by corporate interests, especially in recent years. In economic matters, as in "peace-keeping," the UN has lost most of the universalizing legitimacy that went into its founding. For this reason, we would not see the WPTO as a UN function absent a major overhaul of that organization. However, the UN still remains a valuable forum and place where organizing on a planetary basis could be carried out—indeed, organizing such bodies as the WPTO within its framework would itself foster movement of the UN toward the ideals that animated its origins.
The core function of the WPTO would be the setting of a price structure according to which trade would be carried out. The key here would be to introduce—and enforce—an alternative calculus of pricing. In place of the dominant calculus according to which goods are traded by their profitability to capitalists, we need an order wherein goods are traded according to their "ecological prices." (EP) The computation of such prices would go along with determining the differential between EPs and prices on the capitalist markets, and by the exacting of tariffs accordingly.
In this scheme of things, production along ecological lines, for example organic agriculture, would have minimal or no tariffing for purposes of trade. Furthermore, such production could also receive subsidies generated by tariffs exacted from those producers whose EP's exceed their price on the capitalist ("free") market. As an example of those commodities on which a high EP would be set, we could obviously turn first to an examination of the automobile industry in its current super-polluting and wantonly wasteful state.
In other words, all that is subsumed into the notion of "externalization" of costs onto the environment, in particular, pollution, would be "internalized" into the computation of EP. In addition, EP's would be set as a function of the distance traded, inasmuch as ecologically deleterious effects are built into commodities in proportion to this distance (as in fuel costs of transport, the need for extensive packaging, dyestuffs, etc).
As defined here, production along ecological lines includes production carried out cooperatively and through collective ownership of the means of production by the associated producers. It also incorporates localization of production and rewards those enterprises wherein labor is self-determining and unalienated, inasmuch as the the alienation of labor is a violation of human ecological principles.
Finally, it would be inherent in the working of the WPTO to set severe limits on the reckless flows of capital that now mark the world system. It should be quite possible to set EP's on capital flows as well as the transfer of material commodities, the only distinction being that here a tax rather than a tariff is computed and collected-and similarly redirected toward ecological development (the notion of "Tobin taxes" may serve as a model in this instance).
In place of the dominant calculus according to which goods are traded by their profitability to capitalists, we need an order wherein goods are traded according to their "ecological prices."
Although this proposal is undeniably radical in relation to the existing system of capitalist trade, it should not be regarded as an end stage in the development of an ecological society. Rather it is meant to be transitional to that society—a use of pricing and market mechanisms to bring down the existing market system. Clearly this can only work on the basis of a tremendous and sustained political input of popular-ecological forces, organized around the globe, whose energies are concentrated on carrying out this project. It is out of that organization that the further transformation of society will take place. And it is here that the green philosophy will find its realization.
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