Democracy, Corporations and the World Trade Organization



[The “Battle in Seattle” was 20 years ago this week. Here’s what I wrote after spending the week there — including a notable event on December 1, 1999]

It was a privilege for me to be in Seattle at the time of the recent WTO meetings. I had the good fortune to attend a wide variety of teach-ins, briefings, street actions, cultural events and strategy sessions. I heard in-depth from representatives of citizen groups from all over the world concerning the threat of a global trading system in which commerce is the highest and only rule benefiting rich and powerful individuals and transnational corporations. This comes at the expense, these speakers said, of peoples everywhere who care about issues as wide-ranging but inextricably connected as protecting sea turtles and the environment; to expanding human and labor rights; to opposing the patenting of life and genetic engineering; to affirming the dignity of women, peasants, children and non-materialistic cultures.

Yet, one 60-minute slice of the week I will forever remember. It was two back-to-back events on December 1 that typified for me the relationship between democracy, corporations and the WTO.

The first event was a people’s march to a rally and march to a Methodist church sponsored by the US Steelworkers. It included a wide variety of labor, environmental, and church people from around the world. As we marched with a legal permit, we were joined by a group of young people. Indescribable feelings of liberation, joy and hope consumed me as the two groups (which totaled about 1000 people) linked together and marched, chanted and waved signs peacefully down the street greeting and leafleting pedestrians, drivers and local business owners, including vendors at Pike Street Market. One of the most popular chants of the week summed up the experience well: “this is what democracy looks like.”

In the midst of this wonderful, nonviolent display of freedom of speech and assembly a second event occurred. We were attacked. Out of nowhere and completely unprovoked, we were literally surrounded and fired upon by unidentified police who looked like Ninja Turtles on steroids from who knows where with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades. It was chemical warfare — but only one side was shooting. It was an oppressive, violent, painful, terrifying, secretive, seemingly deliberate and indiscriminate projection of force in response to a unified nonviolent expression of justice, democracy and peace. When property is threatened, throw out the Bill of Rights. “This is what the WTO and corporate rule looked like.”

That one hour dramatically summed up for me the stark contrast between the vision of democracy on one side and the reality of corporate rule and the WTO on the other — spontaneity, equality and compassion vs. order, authoritarianism, and violence. Amidst the fog of tear gas, there it was – laid out for all to experience. Even the vendors at the open air market got more than a whiff of reality as their meats and vegetables were transformed from farm fresh to toxic in a matter of minutes.

For decades, the people of the world over have been victims of the military might of the US. Now we know a bit of what millions of others have known who challenge the global control of corporate power. Governments and their media talk about “democracy” but when the people demand it, out come the guns, bullets and toxic gas. Globalization and militarization are two halves of the same rotten whole.

The WTO is about placing rules favorable to corporations governing commerce and trade over all other considerations. It’s trade and commerce uber alles. Hardly anyone I met opposed international trade per se. What speakers at educational forums and people on the streets opposed was the idolatry of trade and commerce over the protection of the environment and promotion of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights — which are the first responsibilities of nations. Without such protections and rights, the global flow of capital will continue to result everywhere in the exploitation of people, destruction of the natural world and in the widening gap between rich and poor. WTO critics rightly fear that life will be patented, foods will be genetically altered without their knowledge or approval (creating what some call Frankenfood), labor will be exploited and investments, education, and human services will take place with one and only one goal in mind — profit maximization.

The formidable, yet essential, task of all US citizens is to (re)assert democratic control over our own government, elected officials and corporations. The WTO and many other examples of corporate rule (including the many forms in the US) did not happen by magic, accident or overnight, but by persistent and consistent intention by corporate attorneys, CEO’s and compliant government officials who believe that corporations should have more “rights” than human beings. Our task is to challenge this myth in all its forms with dignity and respect and with a commitment to create an alternative of justice, peace and sustainability.

December 1999

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