What the anti-WTO movement means and where it can go
Does the Western anti-WTO movement represent all the world’s people who are affected by the international trading system? Probably not.
When anti-World Trade Organisation protesters took to the streets in Seattle more than two years ago, the confrontations made headlines around the world. Broadcast on television, the protests became a sort of live theatre, where a global audience watched ideological demonstration, police confrontation and looting unfold in a prosperous Western city. ‘Seattle’ itself became a term that brought together all the emotions that were supposed to be rallied against an organisation pushing through an international trading system that many see to be unfair for the world’s poor. But where amidst a sea of white Americans were the world poor in the demonstrations? Where were the brown and black faces? And was throwing a rock at a Starbucks café or a McDonald’s the proper response to a world economic system becoming increasingly rapacious?
The Seattle theatre which played itself out in November 1999 had a number of central actors, who surfaced later in Genoa and Davos and Quebec, but the most visible among them were the young participants who energised the protests. Visible, because that is what the television anchors found most appetising for ratings. Given centre stage by the media, these Seattle protesters were unusual for being predominantly young, white Americans, advocating policies supposedly benefiting developing countries. Retrospectively, these protestors seem to have been marching for a cause in which they held no personal stake. How much did they understand the impact of the system on a hill terrace farmer in Nepal, or a peasant along the Andhra Pradesh coast? By default, the students and dropouts at Seattle were stand-ins for the world’s poor.
Protest movements usually have a sharply defined agenda – against a dam like Narmada or a war like Vietnam – but the anti-WTO movement is amorphous and without a clear solution (stop building the dam, bring back the troops) to the ills that are said to permeate the international trading system. The elimination or emasculation of one international organisation created to streamline world commerce would, in itself, have only a modest effect on the structure and flow of international trade. There are, truth be told, numerous eddies within the regulated flow of trade which would be of benefit to some third world nations while negatively affecting others. The challenge faced by the protesters – and by the WTO, for that matter – is to define the debate on globalisation in such as way that individual concerns can be addressed, even though the larger tide of globalisation might be unaffected.
The emerging and Westerndominated world economic system requires a variegated response, and there are obviously thinking people and active groups all over the world capable of mounting a challenge. But the costs and distances have kept these from being heard. Even from the third world, the more radical a standpoint the more the possibility of it being allowed a sound byte, while the moderate opposition is neglected. Regardless, as far as the mass public is concerned, the anti-WTO movement has been hijacked by the power of Western media’s ability to focus the camera on the looters and rioters in Western cities. These young white protesters appear ignorant of the fact that the bulk of the miseries visited on the third world’s poor is a result of malgovernance within the third world itself. While they do exist, the structural inequities of the world system are only part of the problem.
The Western anti-gloablisation protest movement, of which the anti- WTO movement is a part, has become the leading dissident movement in the United States and Europe. This is a romance which has caught the attention of the Western media, for too long deprived of ‘inhouse’ protests while the rest of the (third) world goes up in flames. Thus, the camera turns on privileged kids fighting a fashionable and momentary war. Something more lasting is needed, and it has to come from the countries and regions affected. Rather than be satisfied with the media attention received vicariously, groups around the world might move toward mounting a necessarily variegated response to the WTO. Fortunately, this seems to be the trend, as signified by the new means of protests adopted in some developing countries in the runup to the Doha ministerial meeting, held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on 9-13 November 2001.
Ignominy to controversy
After World War II, the Western democracies tried to create an ‘International Trade Organisation,’ which was to be a global trade body. When this plan collapsed due to lack of support, 23 countries signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Despite its inauspicious beginnings, GATT had 125 members by the time of its close in 1995, and in less than five decades of operation it witnessed world trade grow by a factor of 14. Global exports increased, on average, by six percent annually. GATT closed shop in the mid-1990s to make way for the WTO, which has stronger adjudication and enforcement powers than its predecessor. The titles of the two schemes illustrate their essential differences; while GATT was only a “general agreement,” the WTO is an organisation, with, in theory, power to mend member countries’ laws and behaviour. It is this power – or perception of power – that makes the WTO controversial, because it is seen to infringe on national sovereignty, subvert human rights to the power of the dollar, and entrap developing countries in unfair trade arrangements.
In its five decades of existence, a protest movement never coalesced around GATT, although it took less than half a decade for the WTO’s opponents to mobilise and be heard. Thus it was that the anti-WTO movement exploded onto the scene in November 1999 at the Third WTO Ministerial held in Seattle. Estimated at 40,000 people, the mostlypeaceful protest made headlines when a violent fringe caused property destruction and battled with police. While the events of the threeday conference were themselves controversial because of the WTO’s failure to reach an agreement on a new round of trade negotiations, the legacy of Seattle became a matter of intense debate in its own right. For the WTO and its supporters, ‘Seattle’ represents a dangerous, anarchic outburst of violence. For the loose anti-WTO coalition, ‘Seattle’ embodies the spirit of global activism, even though the rioters got the bulk of the television coverage.
In North America, the anti-WTO protest movement is the odd stepchild of American dissident campaigns. Most successful protest movements in the United States have been founded on one of two principles: widely-held concern over a specific grievance, such as the Vietnam War and draft, or intense effort organised around the grievances of a specific sub-set of the general population, such as racial minorities, women or homosexuals. The anti-WTO movement conforms to neither of these two principles completely, but it appears to sample aspects of both into a new hybrid of social activism. Rather than uniting the general public around an issue or concentrating the efforts of one disaffected group, this movement brings together an eclectic amalgam of several groups individually committed to certain principles but small in their constituent numbers.
The catch-all criticism of the WTO among the activists is encapsulated in the declaration published by the World Forum on the wro on 8 November, the eve of the Doha ministerial conference. In evaluating the seven years of the WTO’s existence, the Forum charged that, “Developing countries faced huge losses in their economies and exchange. Protectionist measures in the countries of the global North remained an obstacle to the products of the South. Agriculture and food security was hit with tremendous losses and damage. The technolog ical divide between North and South became unprecedented, while barriers to the transfer of technology became stronger, and the workforce was barred from free movement.”
Thus far, the issues that have energised the anti-WTO movement have been deflected by the media coverage of an extreme variant of the protests. The spectacular images of street confrontations broadcast from Seattle and subsequent meetings generated the best images for television, but these drew attention away from the issues at the core of the movement and de-legitimised the protesters in the minds of many viewers. In fact, the protest movement itself has become a subject of debate more than the original issues around which it coalesced, provoking criticisms within the movement of both the media coverage and the destructive fringe groups.
Anup Shah, who maintains a WTO watchdog web site, explains that the media coverage plays up the “sensationalism of the violent aspects of the protests, without really looking at the real issues.” It could be said, in fact, that it was the Western media multinationals which gave anti-WTO activism a bad image by focusing on the rowdy violence – here at last was live coverage of white kids rioting, something that had not been seen on television since the Vietnam riots and Kent State. The power of the imagery of this anarchical attack on the bastions of Western capitalism completely swamped the issues that the majority of the activists were trying to address. The small, violent fringe grabbed the spotlight and the public’s imagination, and the generalised perception of the anti-WTO movement got tainted by the disproportionate strength of a smaller lobby that is less attached to the concrete issues of trade and development.
Ultimately, the anti-WTO protest movement is perhaps better understood by its contradictions than by its unity. In reality, there is nothing substantial called the ‘anti- WTO movement’, even though we may use the term for convenience. There is only the convergence of other movements and the loose participation of independent activists on particular issues. There is, probably, no other cause that could unite the passions of the environmental, labour, child rights, agriculture, steel and poverty lobbies. But then each of these groups uses the movement as a vehicle for its own particular agenda, making it but a temporary umbrella for all groups to march under. Even so, there are some core issues on which all agree, even though these substantive issues have not received wide coverage.
The expectations of successive meetings after Seattle have had to do with the police preparedness to meet the protesters rather than the issues of the majority of activists – in Geneva and Quebec, and also at conferences organised for the G-8 (Davos) and the IMF (Washington, DC). This trend continued until Doha last November, when protesters largely stayed home.
Redifining the road
Even before 11 September, the anti- WTO protesters had faced a difficult challenge. The Fourth Ministerial Conference was scheduled to be held in November 2001 in Qatar, the quiet Shiekhdom in the Persian Gulf, which was nervous about the arrival of dissidents.
The September terror attacks in the US placed the Western anti-WTO movement in a difficult position. Particularly in the United States, popular sentiment was largely mobilised in support of the Bush government’s policies, and outright criticism of government action on international issues became out of sync with the mood of the times. Some commentators even took to blaming anti-globalisation protesters for helping foster anti-American sentiment. As one commentator wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “the environment for violent acts is being fostered, wittingly or unwittingly, by many of the antiglobalisation protesters who now plague international meetings.” That the protesters might have contributed to generating a mood hostile to the dominant symbols of American capitalism and military strength – the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon – committed the Western movement to walking a fine line between critiquing US policies on trade and commerce and appearing not to be disloyal to a bruised country.
Today, the Western anti-WTO protest movement is at a crossroads. Because it largely, though not exclusively, focuses on developing country issues, its resonance with the American and European public is relatively weak and becoming weaker as the Western economies falter and attention is focused more on security concerns. Concurrently, because it is based in the West, the predominantly ‘Caucasian’ protesters assume with increasing difficulty the odd role of claiming to speak on behalf of under-developed countries’ populations. Thus, the movement faces the difficult twin challenges of defining itself from within and also defining itself from without.
Morning after Doha
In the 1980s, many multinational corporations faced protests organised by people who saw them as allies of global evil. For example, protesters aggressively targeted Chase Manhattan Bank because of its involvement with the apartheid regime of South Africa. When, in 1984, Chase downgraded Pretoria’s credit rating, this was widely seen as a victory for the protesters, although Chase officially maintained that the decision was made for strictly business reasons. The apartheid regime was the target of protesters, and Chase was simply a vehicle targeting PW Botha’s brutal rule.
Today, the situation is quite different. Corporations and international bodies have themselves become the object of protesters’ ire. In 2002, there is not a single broadbased Western protest movement directed at a political regime anywhere in the world (with the exception, perhaps, of the United States). No one is mobilising protesters against the excesses of governments in Sierre Leone, Iraq or Zimbabwe. Even China, site of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, fails to inspire Western protesters anymore. However, the list of corporations and international organisations that have recently faced protest movements just gets longer and longer: WTO, IMF, World Bank, Coca-Cola, Enron, McDonalds – and even entire industries – oil, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics. This shift from targetting regimes to focusing on companies and industries has much to do with the evaporation of the Cold War ideological confrontation coupled with the increasing power of independent capital.
The Western anti-WTO movement should be seen in this context. It is both an idealistic rejection of Third World victimisation as well an organic response to the perceived power of globalisation in Western life. The best characterisation of the rioting crowds might be that they are altruistically cynical – embittered and discontent with life in the comfortable West, the protesters take on the worthy causes of the developing world to march for and, by doing so, indirectly march for themselves.
Further, the irony of the antiglobalisation movement may be that it is itself founded on globalised assumptions. The global consciousness subscribed to by young Westerners builds on an assumption that all people are essentially interconnected and that individuals in different parts of the globe can assume responsibility for advocating change anywhere. Just as the antiglobalisation campaigns are loosely defined, if at all, the term ‘anti-globalisation’ itself is a misnomer for the movement. Protesters are not against globalisation, they are against certain aspects of globalisation while they support others.
The two primary challenges faced by the Western anti-WTO movement in the autumn of 2001 – limited access to the Doha Ministerial and an unsympathetic Western public – brought about two transformations, which may prove permanent. The first involved a diffusion of public protests from highprofile meeting places to smaller venues. In Europe, for example, thousands of protesters assembled in Berlin and Geneva to mark their disapproval of the WTO meetings in Doha. In North America, ‘WTO Watch’ organised a Cross-Canada Caravan to raise public awareness on trade issues. A subtle shift has also been evident in the language and argumentation of the anti-WTO movement so as to remain relevant in the context of the American security debate. The movement has become anti-war in some cases (particularly in Europe), and advocates have also stepped up arguments that the WTO’s practices lead to developing country poverty, which in turn breeds resentment and militancy.
The weakness of the anti-WTO movement as it stands, with its predominantly Western membership with relatively low levels of commitment, was clear in the lack of protests in Doha. True, the Qatari authorities promised to make life difficult for protestors, but that in itself need not have been a reason not to show up in Doha to carry a placard or to march the streets. The fact that the threat of a clampdown as well as a lack of media coverage led the protestors stayed home provoked many to argue that they had been playing to the gallery earlier, and that they had essentially just been taking advantage of the relative leniency of police forces in the West.
Perhaps the morning after Doha will breathe new life into the anti- WTO protest movement by, firstly, rescuing the protest from the rioters and the riot-fixation of the television channels. This will allow the issues-oriented protesting organisations and individuals the space they have been denied before this. Secondly, this focus of attention away from tear gas in the streets will hopefully lead to a conscientising campaign in the third world itself, where the negative impact of globalisation and a skewed world trading system is believed to be greatest. If it has to be fought, the globalised system as represented by the WTO has to be fought around the globe by the myriad stakeholder organisations and activists, rather than through an unrepresentative band of Western youth that are seen to be exorcising their own demons.
There are some indications that the anti-WTO campaign has indeed begun to move out of its Western-centricism and grow into a global movement. There appears to be increasing activism within developing countries on trade issues, as evidenced by the fact that the Doha conference became something of a political rallying point in India. Leftist activists took to the streets of New Delhi on 9 November to protest the WTO, and similar events were organised in Allahabad and Bangalore in late November after the conclusion of the conference. Earlier in 2001, when the then-WTO Director General Michael Moore visited India, his effigy was reportedly burnt in 30 Indian cities. While such stacatto and reactive demonstrations do not in themselves add up to much, they indicate a trend that may anchor the movement in the developing world, and allow local activists to battle both the abuses of the international trading regime and their own leaders’ cruel ineptitude. Over time, the anti-WTO movement – to be a truly global movement – would have to be made up of thousands of groups from around the world coming together to challenge the multiple and varied institutions that tend to exploit trade and commerce to the detriment of the world’s poor. Beyond only international lenders, this would require the involvement of national politicians and technocrats.
The WTO is the latest institutional manifestation in a long line of trade pacts extending back to GATT, the failed International Trade Organisation and even bilateral trading agreements that are centuries old. As the world changes, so does the nature and flow of trade, and commensurate changes become necessary in the organisation of global commerce. Protest movements are also constantly changing, adjusting within and also transforming vis-a-vis their targets. The great protest movements of the 20th century – for Indian independence, American civil rights, and against apartheid – were all political causes. As the 21st century begins, it should perhaps give us pause that protest (at least in the West) has shifted decisively away from politics. With protesters now targeting economic centres of power instead of political ones, the implication is that corporations and lending institutions are perceived to be more powerful than nation-states. The WTO is at the intersection of politics, society, culture and economics, and it – and its opponents – will likely remain at the forefront for some time to come.