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Clouds of confusion
about WTO protests

Dennis Fox

December 23, 1999


While the tear gas still blew during the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, both the authorities and the media focused on protestors who smashed windows, slashed police car tires, and started trash can fires. Since then, there's been more substantive discussion of the activists' goals. That discussion probably wouldn't have happened if the demonstrators hadn't delayed WTO sessions and kept delegates stuck in their hotels. How many people read stories about trade negotiations? How many stories about peaceful rallies end up on the front page?

The gas clouds still blur a few key points.

First, the continuing outrage about violence committed by "self-proclaimed anarchists" is out of proportion to the actual damage done. Sure, some protestors went too far. Property damage is messy and offends mainstream sensibilities, but, more important in Seattle, it was counterproductive. It gave the police an excuse to gas not just the vandalizing few but the far more numerous demonstrators who had blocked streets in a successful demonstration of nonviolent direct action. And it allowed pictures of tear gas and broken Starbucks windows to overshadow both the more important example of nonviolent protest and the message about what's wrong with the WTO.

On the other hand, the anarchists' theme was vandalism to corporate property, not injury to living people. Broken windows, not broken bones. The real violence to people came from overreacting police who targeted not vandals but the nondestructive majority who had actually shut the conference down.

Second, let's not get thrown into an anti-anarchist frenzy. Most adherents of anarchist philosophy are not violent. Most users of violence are not anarchists. Anarchists generally believe that a self-managed society should arise free of state or corporate structures, but for the most part they don't think vandalism or random violence will bring that society about. Indeed, anarchist thought has much to offer about how our society might better balance needs of individuals with needs of the community.

Third, much of the media coverage understates the widespread antipathy to an increasingly corporatized world harmful to both individuals and communities. Yes, many demonstrators went to Seattle with real concerns about specific trends--lost manufacturing jobs at home, exploited workers abroad, a degraded environment everywhere. But all these trends stem from decisions made by unelected corporate executives. Implicit in the anti-WTO movement is a demand for democratic control over our economy, our politics, our culture, and our daily lives. The movement against corporate dominance has grown over the past decade, for the most part ignored by the media until now.

Fourth, the WTO's response to its critics is unacceptable. WTO head Mike Moore claims free trade is good for developing countries because it improves living conditions. Thailand's commerce minister, Supachai Panitchpakdi, who will replace Moore in 2002, says establishing minimum worldwide labor standards is a dead issue. Heads of developing nations charge that the call for strong standards is merely a ploy to protect the interests of wealthier nations.

Unfortunately, it is a ploy, at least for some. The United States didn't get to be an economic powerhouse through fairness, free trade, and wimpy worries about workers and the environment. No, we did it the old fashioned way, supported by protectionist trade policies and corporate subsidies, and in the end we came out on top, except for the slaves and Indians and brutalized immigrants, the mutilated railroad workers and coughing miners, the sweatshop children and their sweatshop mothers.

So, ploy or not, it is unfair to insist that everyone else live up to prettified standards now that we can finally afford them here at home, especially when those standards would guarantee our supremacy.

But unfair or not, we can't really stand by in the face of child labor, slave labor, and abominable working conditions that produce cheap products for sale in richer countries, conditions that workers and activists in those countries oppose even while their governments resist change.

What then? First we have to share more of the world's wealth. Forgiving the developing world's entire foreign debt would be but the first step toward making up for centuries of colonialism and exploitation. The second step is reparations, a shift of wealth and power extensive enough to allow meaningful development and the hope of true global equality and true global democracy. Only then might free trade be fair trade.

Until then, nations with hard-fought environmental and worker protections should be free to protect their populations from tainted imports. The World Trade Organization should be scrapped. And the demonstrators should be applauded.

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