The Biggest QuestionGlobalization, World Trade and
Its called the Big Question, and it will
be asked when world leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats, corporate
a broad coalition of activists gather later this month at the World Trade
Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Seattle. What is the Big
According to Adbusters,
a Canada-based group of self-described culture jammers, it
is simply: Is economic progress killing the planet? This,
along with a slew of other questions, will be asked by a host of activists.
Now, before your eyes glaze over (as most do) at
the mention of the WTO, tariffs, and globalization,
please grab hold of a cup of caffeine (or juice or herbal tea) and stay
awake. You are in for a surprise. It turns out, as this Satya shows, that
these and a number of other realities of the global economic system are
far from dull. In fact, they are fascinatingand often alarmingsince
the processes of globalization, and the WTOs nameless, faceless
bureaucrats, are increasingly shaping the world we live in. No less than
the future of the planet and the existence of ours and other species may
be at stakereally. Thats why in this issue of Satya, we are
tackling the Big Question, seeking to raise awareness of how globalization
and the WTO workand why you should care and what you can do.
The Pro Crowds View of the World
It is unlikely that the global trade grand pooh-bahs are polishing
their answers to the Big Question. Their goal in Seattle is to jump-start
a new round of global trade talks, and there are few mechanisms in place
to make them accountable to the concerns or desires of ordinary people.
For these pro-free traders, globalization (the rapid integration of national
economies and finance systems, and the freeing of markets that has taken
off since the end of the Cold War) is a boon. Globalization is, the boosters
say, bringing economic growth and the benefits of a capitalist system
to parts of the world that were stagnating for decades. Along with free
trade, its essential companion, it has made many people wealthysomevery
wealthyand has created large numbers of new jobs, industries and
consumers (of both goods and services, like education and health care).
To many, globalization has also ensured prosperity and a way out of endemic
poverty. The proponents of globalization point to a growing middle class,
now 350 million people strong, in impoverished India. It has provided
new job opportunities in technology, with Silicon Alleys popping up in
Asia and Latin America. In other industries, global trade has created
millions of new workers with new wealth that allows them to invest in
homes, their childrens education, travel, or consumer goods, fueling
economic growth. And, the proponents assert, greater economic ties between
and among countries mean fewer inter-state conflicts, fewer full-scale
wars, and fewer interruptions to the prevailing order.
Questioning the Essentials
For the activists who will be asking the Big Question and a lot of
other questions at the WTO meeting in Seattle, globalization is a highly
unsettling and unfair process. Instead of ensuring the future of the worlds
countries and people, globalization could in fact bury them, and most
of us, too. How so? Skeptics of globalization charge that it is an inherently
unfair processa new form of colonialism. They say that its very
nature gives disproportionate power to corporations and bankers in the
industrialized countries of the North (the U.S., Japan, Europe, Australia,
and New Zealand) at the expense of nearly everyone, except a small elite
in the Southern (developing) countries.
As evidence, they point to the fact that inequality between the incomes
of the rich and poor is growing all over the world, as well as in the
U.S., reaching the highest levels of disparity ever recorded. According
to the 1999 United Nations Human Development Report, the 20 percent
of the worlds people who live in the North control 86 percent of
the world gross domestic product (GDP) and 82 percent of world export
markets. The bottom 20 percent, who live in the poorest countries of the
South, have about one percent of each. While the rich thrive, logging
onto www.luxury.com, their purchasing power fueled and legitimized
by nearly a decade of strong economic growth and increased global trade
(the WTOs bailiwick), at least one billion of the now six billion
of us get by on incomes of $1 a day or less.
Destruction: the Wages of Progress
These skeptics also point to increases throughout the 1990s in the
rates of destruction of tropical forests, ocean ecosystems, and species,
as these resources are given a superficial monetary value
and turned into commodities (waste dumps, teak furniture or turtle soup).
What are not valued, or priced in a market system, are the additional
costs involved in destroying resources, costs like the loss of biodiversity,
soil erosion and floods, degraded air and water quality, extinction of
species and human illness. And on top of these, the critics of globalization
continue, are sweatshops, popping up throughout Asia and in U.S. cities,
staffed with poorly paid workers who often work in hazardous conditions
similar to bondage.
They also point to what some term a race to the bottom. Under
globalization, the skeptics argue, industries can set up shop wherever
they find the cheapest workers and the most lax environmental safeguards.
And, given the number of poor, desperate people and countries burdened
by debt, corporations find such places fairly easily (41 of the worlds
poorest countries owe more than $200 billion to governments, banks, and
the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund).
Globalization is indeed a contentious process, particularly since it depends
on the unlikely merger of the concepts of more and less.
For the process of globalization to succeed, there must be, and increasingly
are, fewer restrictions on: investment, capital flow, markets, ownership,
and trade. In addition, governments must lessen or end their regulatory
power over the activities of markets, meaning fewer rules and checkpoints.
But globalization also spawns more. More integration of markets for goods
and services. More privatization of government services and industries.
More flow of capital around the world in shorter and shorter time spans
(in 1998, $1.5 trillion of foreign exchange was traded on world markets
every day). More technology. More trade between countries and regions,
and more consumers and consumption. In short, more money and, for some,
more opportunities to make money.
The Face and Facelessness of the WTO
And what of the WTO in this process of globalization? It is a peculiar
and still little-known institution (although Seattle may change all that)
that plays two critical roles: that of cheerleader for the global economy,
and eminence grise, working behind the scenes to assure that the global
trading system as currently configured is extended and protected. What
rankles WTO critics is that, in their view, it is highly undemocratic
and almost wholly unaccountable. WTO meetings are closed to the public,
reports are not issued on its proceedings, and decisions made by a secret
panel of trade experts are binding on member countries. Critics,
among them the Economist magazine (a strong supporter of globalization)
also contend that the WTO is stacked against poorer countries. While richer
countries retain tariffs (taxes on imports designed to protect domestic
products) on many goods that poor countries produce, like textiles, they
demand that their Southern counterparts open their markets further and
abandon attempts to protect fragile domestic industries through tariffs
or other means.
What also has not escaped critics notice is that even in this age
of spin, the WTO is not waging a PR campaign to make its powers and processes
more open or better known to the public. While it remains something of
a mystery, its impact can be profound and unsettling. As Terri Lujan,
Benjamin White, and Pamela Rice report in this issue, WTO rulings on trade
disputes have so far all gone against the environment and animals. A central
tenet of the WTOs founding is that the process by which a product
is made has no relevance to trade in it. So, if corporations produce soccer
balls with child labor, or fish for shrimp with nets that endanger sea
turtles, other countries laws blocking import of these products,
based on objections to how they are produced, can be and have been ruled
illegal by the WTO. And as Tracy Rysavy demonstrates, if a new international
agreement on investment (the MAI) is passed, the power of national and
local governments to protect human health or the environment may be even
more drastically reduced.
The Biggest Question
Hence, the need for the Big Questionthe one Adbusters has posed
or one of your own. Globalizations scope and impact is huge, so
huge we may not be aware of how rapidly it is taking place or how much
it is changing our lives or the lives of all other flora and faunaindeed,
perhaps, the very nature of life, if biotechnology has its day. Far too
often, politicians, policy-makers and observers seek to define globalization
and the liberalization of world trade, and answer their skeptics, with
bromides. While President Clinton, speaking at the United Nations, exhorted
world leaders to reject a future in which one part of humanity lives
on the cutting edge of a new economy while the other lives on the knife
edge of survival, his major solution was hardly Big Thinking. What
must we do? Believe, he said, that open markets advance the blessings
and breakthroughs we want to spread.
What is clear, on the knife edge of the new millennium, is
that facile answers like these simply wont sufficeneither
in Seattle nor in its aftermath. What is also clear is that it is now
up to us to ask questions, Big and Small. To do so, we are going to need
more of what many, and perhaps you, will take to Seattle (and we have
included a list of major events and contact information for those who
decide to go): a truly global array of analyses, engagements, passions,
and ideas. So, read up, join in, log on, link up and speak out. Because
its one world, ready or not.
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