John Bunzl on 10 Sep 2000 05:23:07 -0000

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<nettime> draft article on WTO

Please comment on the following draft article:

Reform the WTO! - But where are the Ideas?

The 'Battle of Seattle' in December 1999 was widely held by
anti-globalisation NGOs as a victory. But having forced their way on to the
world stage, these organisations now find themselves struck dumb when asked
for their specific reform proposals. Their answers, beyond generalities, are
difficult to find. Those that are forthcoming seem to call either for a
'de-powering' of the WTO, or for it to build labour and environmental
standards in to its decisions. Alternatively, they propose that such issues
be dealt with by other supra-national bodies such as the ILO (International
Labour Organisation) or some yet to be invented "World Environment
Organisation". But would such proposals lead to an improvement in
environmental and labour standards? On the face of it, they would. But
despite the apparently united front of the protesters and their claim to
represent the interests of developing countries, many such countries see
tighter environmental and labour restrictions as running counter to their
interests. Their fear is that such restrictions would act as a barrier to
their exports.

What this points to is what should be perfectly obvious: that we live in a
world of nations at vastly differing stages of economic development and,
therefore, with widely varying priorities in terms of how labour and
environmental considerations should impact on their economies. So to expect
any organisation to develop, adjudicate upon and enforce rules that are fair
to most, let alone all nations, is surely ridiculous. Furthermore, to equate
a spoon produced under responsible environmental and labour conditions in
one factory with one produced under sweat-shop conditions in another, points
up the hollow neo-liberal assertion that 'free' trade is necessarily 'fair'.
In this context, 'de-powering' the WTO or vesting labour and environmental
interests in other supra-national bodies who would then compete for the
supremacy of their particular standpoint, seems calculated to result in yet
more confusion and seems unlikely to lead to greater fairness.

In considering reform, therefore, NGOs need to look rather deeper than just
the WTO. They need to recognise that the motor of today's neo-liberal global
economy is competition. The ability of capital and corporations to move, or
merely threaten to move, elsewhere means that nations and politicians no
longer control the global economy but must themselves compete for capital
and jobs. Similarly, tighter laws to promote environmental or labour
protection are hollow when markets and corporations can switch investment
and jobs to any country offering less costly conditions. Indeed, even the
G-7 acting together would be powerless to re-regulate the markets for fear
of capital fleeing to Singapore, Zurich or elsewhere. So it can truly be
said that the global free market represents the institutionalisation of
out-of-control competition. It should also be clear that free-market
competition is not a basis upon which fairness, environmental or labour
protection can result. Indeed, competition is not about fairness - it's
about winning.

Only if the WTO were instructed to perform a complete about-face by
re-regulating capital and corporations, could one expect any real
improvement. Given such a prospect appears unlikely, simply 'de-powering'
the WTO or hiving off national responsibilities to other such bodies will
neither change nor stop the forces of competition. NGOs are right to insist
that free-market competition represents an unacceptable paradigm but what is
the alternative?

At this juncture, free-marketeers will say an abandonment of global
laissez-faire (were that still to be possible) would be synonymous with a
return to protectionism: a tit-for-tat international competition of rising
import tariffs often cited as one of the causes of past wars. If that
argument is accepted, it seems neither global laissez-faire on the one hand,
nor protectionism on the other, can offer an image of a global economic
framework likely to encourage fairness in trade between nations whilst
protecting the environment and labour. Here, then, lies the rather knotty
problem faced by NGOs today. Since both protectionism and free-trade produce
unsustainable levels of competition, it seems that quite a different vision
for a future world economy is needed.

In searching for that new vision, it is worth noting that if uncontrollable
competition is the unavoidable by-product of both the hitherto available
paradigms, some study of competition itself might be a starting point. In
the current free-market environment competition is taken for granted as a
good thing. But if that were the case, the global economic competition we
have today would represent utopia which, with the possible exception of the
top 20% of the world's population, it certainly does not. Global warming,
environmental degradation, growing numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers,
an increasing gulf between rich and poor and an increasing recourse to
far-right political parties are all compelling evidence not of utopia, but
of a quick-sand of competition in which we are all caught and which is
sucking us into a deepening global sickness. Furthermore, it is clear that
to be fair and rewarding, competition must occur within a framework of a
fair and universally accepted set of rules. But because no nation, nor group
of nations, is now able to regulate global capital or transnational
corporations, and the WTO only serves to underpin their free movement, I
suggest that competition can indeed be said to have escaped from its
controlling framework and is now running rampant. Little wonder
free-marketeers hail globalisation as 'inevitable'.

Faced with this perilous predicament, therefore, NGOs must firstly accept
these facts and stop pretending this situation doesn't exist. Only global,
or virtually global and simultaneous regulatory action could provide a
satisfactory and secure solution. The same applies to multi-national
corporations. Their ability, or mere threat, to move production and jobs
elsewhere confirms that all corporations require regulation to bring them
back under national, democratic control and accountability. But again, such
re-regulation could, logically, only occur globally and simultaneously.

NGOs must therefore accept, firstly, that politicians themselves are no
longer in control of competition and, secondly, that applying conventional
pressure on them to change something over which they have already lost
control is likely to prove futile. Indeed, any new vision for a new world
economic order must not only make clear what is being asked of politicians,
it must also show how that vision can be achieved. It must demonstrate a
clear and practical method of making a secure and responsible transition
from the existing sick paradigm to the future one we all desire. Indeed, so
intractable has our current predicament become, that developing such a
method has become even more important than envisioning the new paradigm

John Bunzl - Director
International Simultaneous Policy Organisation (ISPO)  e-mail:
Georges Drouet - Director
ISPO Belgique

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