Fair Trade and Democracy
Stirling S Newberry
On October 9th of this last year, the European Union, under threat of sanctions from the WTO, gave its consent to a proposal to amend their banana import regime. At stake is the EU's preferential treatment of bananas from the Caribbean islands that had historical ties to European countries, over those from Central America, which are dominated by Dole and Chiquita. The US companies were joined by Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. The complete saga can be found on the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development's web page, though it takes a bit of work to find all of the documents.
The case has dragged on for two years, but the power of the WTO's judgment system virtually assures that some resolution will be come to.
Now, let me turn your attention to the people killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. Attacked by foreign nationals, who answer to no state authority, they have no venue to press a civil case. Indeed the actions of the "War on Terrorism" have frozen assets of the terrorist network and lead to the storming of various buildings held by one of the terrorist organizations - but the people actually attacked have no real recourse at law. They are fortunate to have been attacked on the soil of a global power, which has significant military, political, economic and diplomatic resources to press its case on the world scene, but would they be as forcefully avenged if, for example, some Islamicist group had flown two planes into the Petrona Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia? Certainly not. In fact, to drive the point home - consider the international non-response to the genocides in the lakes region of Africa - which killed one hundred times as many innocent civilians.
It should trouble people that a banana farmer in Panama has more effective and general legal recourse before international law - the ability to go to a tribunal with teeth - than do the victims of massacre and terrorism. It seems further troubling that while the nations around the world decided to launch a 9th WTO round, there has been little progress on making the International Court of Justice binding, and only a genocide in Europe itself prodded the creation of a War Crimes Tribunal - one which was impotent to bring indicted war criminals to trial until events spun out of control.
It should trouble people even more that, while the Marrakech Agreement is invoked to "improve the conditions of developing countries", that the US has rejected even considering the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas reductions - because, according to its detractors - "it would be a giant transfer of wealth from rich nations to poor nations." In other words, the current policy of the United States is to demand the benefits of manufacturing, while avoiding the responsibility for the consequences. While international law is what makes goods go around the world, pollution circles the globe because of natural laws that drive the weather - one can find particles of tire rubber in the Sahara desert. And unlike national laws, no one is about to be able to repeal the physics of colloidal suspensions or internal combustion.
Even in the area of trade, the emphasis of the WTO has been strangely limited. It has aggressively sought to make sure that bananas can get into Europe to find the best price, but it has done nothing to make immigration easier or the movement of unions and other organizations. Right now, if you decide you want to go to England to start a company, they will happily let you in - provided you have 200,000 British Pounds at your disposal for the enterprise. The WTO encourages companies to go to Shanghai to build a car manufacturing facility, but says nothing about unionization. In other words, dump bananas on the European market, and you can be taken before the WTO; dump labor on other markets, and that same world trade cop will look the other way.
This situation should be familiar to people who have studied history. In American history, in 1789, whether you had the right to vote depended on which state you lived in, which gender you possessed, who your parents were, and how much money you had. Your rights to own land, travel freely or inherit also varied with time and place. There was an attempt to insert a constitutional amendment that 3000 dollars be at stake before any state court decision could be appealed to a federal court. At the time, 3000 dollars was the annual salary of the justices of the Supreme Court. Indeed, the parallel is almost exact. The original convention for the American Constitution of 1787 was called because of the desire for an end to tariffs in interstate commerce, and a clause was specifically inserted in that document to assure it. While Americans may remember the provisions of the Bill of Rights of 1789, they should realize that uniform commercial rights were enshrined in the original document - free speech and assembly were comparative afterthoughts, that many thought could be dispensed with.
Looking back on history, we see that the same people could write, without irony, "all men are created equal" in their Declaration of Independence, and then decide that "other persons" should be counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of apportioning the House of Representatives. History also shows the very high cost of not living up to those ideals: slavery, a civil war that claimed 600,000 American lives, reconstruction, the terrors of living under Jim Crow, the aftermath of segregation and discrimination, a century and a quarter of women being unable to vote, nearly two centuries of unequal laws with regards to divorce and inheritance. From the purely economic standpoint, leaving aside every drop of human compassion, the failure to enact full legal equality was a vast economic waste - waste of potential, time, money, blood and effort.
And yet, it seems in our rush to make sure that Chilean Swordfish may seek the most expensive table, we have neglected this historical lesson - namely that open markets are completely compatible with economic inequality, and anti-democratic institutions. If we need any further proof of this, consider the following statement: "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is dedicated to the concept of free trade based on competition. There are no foreign exchange controls, quantitative restrictions or tariff barriers. Any increase in imports from any country depends on competitive prices, good quality, and punctual delivery. Imports, wholesale, and retail trade are in the hands of the Saudi private sector." No more ringing endorsement of the principles of free trade could be found. Except of course that Saudi Arabia forbids the importation of alcohol or pork products.
However, Saudi Arabia is as far from a paragon of democratic, or even utilitarian values, as could be found. Women can not drive, they maintain a large migrant work force which has no rights and is often sent away during economic hardship, there is no representative assembly worthy of the name, and while the elites have access to western goods and luxuries, much of the populace is under a reign of a particularly rigid form of theocratic Islamicism known as "Wahadism". Clearly there is no correlation between commitment to "free trade" and liberal values. And the argument that liberalization follows trade and prosperity is refuted by the repressiveness of most of the oilarchies - they have profited immensely, but the people are, arguably, far less free than every before. This because while it used to be that they had few rights in theory, in practice a distant and weak government could do little to enforce the point, now that government is no more liberalized than before, but it has telecommunications, tanks and other modern accouterments to enforce its will.
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I hope the above has made the case that free trade has been implemented unequally, that it has been pressed more rapidly, not because its adherents are more globalist than others - it is hard to name that many countries which are as hostile to foreign influence as Saudi Arabia or Qatar - but because various elites see the WTO as a means to advance their own interests. This is not to say that open trade is incompatible with greater economic and social justice, greater living standards, and the extension of what might be called basic human dignity to all people in the world - it is that when it comes to money, one either has a place at the table, or one has a place on the table, right next to some parsley. Lowering of barriers has meant lowering of barriers to exchange and goods, but not to people and labor - it has meant "liberalizing" in the sense that it favors mass production over specialized production, it favors organized interests over sparse ones. Even in the case of bananas - the case is pursued because there are powerful lobbies in the nations that have gone before the WTO. Exporters of other goods in those countries, who are not as politically well connected, are as much out in the cold as anyone else. Indeed, when the WTO authorizes "retaliation" the favored method is trade sanctions, which fall on producers of goods who have done nothing more than compete effectively. A very rough kind of justice indeed.
There has been a trend to label the particular form of Free Trade that the WTO represents as "globalism" and the opponents of it as "anti-globalism". Partially this is spin, after all, who can deny we all live on the same globe? Who can deny the need for global initiatives to deal with many of the problems facing the world? If the WTO were really part of a movement towards Globalism, if it were one of a dozen powerful bodies being created to bring equal access to education, justice, health care, economic opportunity, political equality, environmental rights and civil society, I doubt there would be any serious opposition to it at all. But we know this is not the case, as the examples of access to criminal and civil justice mentioned above show, as the lack of a global education system shows, as the inequality for the freedom of movement shows.
This brings us to the question of action.
The first action that can be taken is to call everything by its correct name - what the WTO represents is not "globalism". It isn't even really interested in "free trade", since many kinds of trade are still hindered under its framework. It is about insuring that corporations have international reach, that nation states - even groups of nation-states such as the EU - cannot effectively control the activities of multi-national corporations. It isn't about "leveling the playing field", but about tilting it in particular directions. It is about freedom - but the freedom it is pressing is a freedom from regulation, a freedom from having to answer to political bodies for economic actions. This should be troubling to students of history, who remember that it was not until the beginning of this century that corporations in the US could be held liable for the actions taken in their name. In his "New Nationalism" speech of 1910, Teddy Roosevelt stated that "wealth should be the servant of society, rather than the other way around," and called for corporations to be regulated and subject to the law, just as people are. It is a strange day indeed when Teddy Roosevelt is too far to the left for both major political parties in the United States on economic issues.
The second action is to stop reacting. One trap that people often fall into is to be contrarian to whatever the other side in a debate proposes. This puts the initiative in the hands of the other side, the create a label for themselves - for example "Globalism", and suddenly many people are tempted to be "Anti-Global". But the history of "The Left" is a history of internationalism. It began with declarations of universal rights, it continued with the idea that people across national boundaries shared essential economic and political interests, based on their place in society, rather than the country of their inhabitation. It entered the 20th century on the idea that peoples had to communicate and trade to avoid war, and pioneered the idea of a "League of Nations" to negotiate differences. The modern Democratic party can be said to have been born in 1932 when FDR gave his acceptance speech before a national convention, and there he stated that the economic crisis that faced America would only finally be resolved when the world economic crisis was. In short, to be a member of the left, at bottom, is to believe that the ultimate polity is the entire human race, and that all other political units - nations, alliances and the like, are merely tools to the end of improving that general commonweal.
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From these two inner actions comes the first obvious outer one. And that is to begin to displace the empty platitudes used to support the current policy regime, and instead put forward a positive statement that defines itself, rather than is defined by the other side. Part of that definition is to look at ones own buying habits - look at the products that you purchase - do they meet the standards of fairness? After all, if one is going to demand that your fellow citizens of a developed country are to accept paying slightly more so that the money of the world circulates more broadly, and therefore the benefits of society are spread more evenly, it seems only fair that you lead by example. More and more people are looking at "Fair Trade" tea and coffee, and of extending that principle to other goods. The Fair Trade Federation (http://www.fairtradefederation.com) is one example of a business organization that helps people to find businesses who are give the consumer a to cut out the middlemen of trade, and get more of the profit in the hands of the people who actually did the work of making or growing what is being purchased. But by far and away the most useful single resource comes from Oxfam (http://www.oxfam.org.uk/fairtrad/aboutft1.htm)
But all political bridges are built from two sides. One side is political action, the other side is organization. Whether one calls it solidarity, community, mobilization or collective action - it is by coordination that we translate individual sentiments into public policy. There are two kinds of organizations which individuals should consider joining: advocacy groups, and unions.
The advocacy group is the heart of the tactics of changing the way that we view international trade - rather than as a self-contained process, which is pursued for specific ends, international trade needs to be linked to all of the other "globalizing" issues. The environment is one of the most powerful issues, simply because almost everyone likes to breathe. Another is the movement to press for labeling that allows consumers to know that they are purchasing fair trade items lead by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (http://www.fairtrade.net/). Don't doubt the power of positive labeling. People like to do the right thing when the information is there in front of them. It took only a relatively short period of time of "Dolphin Safe" labels to change commercial tuna practices around the world - no one wanted to be "Flipper unfriendly" in the eyes of the public. Who would want to be "unfair" in their trading practices?
There are a host of other more specific advocacy groups, a list alone would take up pages - the list of agricultural groups alone is staggering. Everyone can find a group that is focusing on one part of what is the defining issue of our age - the growth of a world economic and social system which is making individual nation states as obsolete in the future, as earldoms and principalities became obsolete with development of the printing press and navigation.
But there is another step, and it is one that many people who have read this far might well find controversial - and that is to join a union. Just as issue advocacy is the specific aspect of pressing for a fairer world - unionizing is the mass mobilization. Trade and labor unions are part of the network of social guarantees in Europe; they were instrumental in pressing for basic civil rights, fair working conditions, and a host of other improvements. As fewer and fewer people in the United States are of the classic "assembly line" labor, fewer people think of themselves as being union workers. But this is to forget history - 70 years ago, many unions did not think they should be organizing workers in mass production, and instead concentrated only on skilled laborers of specific kinds - just as the way people sell their labor changes, so too must the way they organize also change.
Just as developing countries need organizations to promote political democracy, and social democracy, they also need organizations to promote economic democracy. And one of the foundation stones to economic democracy is the union - which forces companies to bargain fairly, which presses corrupt politicians to pass laws in the interest of the majority, which serves as a safe haven for individuals treated unfairly. With the modern age, many people falsely believe that technology has rid us of many of the lurid abuses of industrialism that populate the novels of Dickens or the political tracts of Marx and Engels. In truth, what has really happened is that the most polluting, most dangerous, and most disagreeable work has merely been moved overseas. The same battles that were fought in the US, and in Europe, now need to be fought all over again - it is like the old days were a con artist was run out of one town and proceeded to set up shop in another.
And joining a union is a two way street - just as joining aids activities in progress, so too does it create an avenue for educating others, and magnifying ones voice. Many unions are just beginning to understand the complexity of trade issues, only 15 years ago, few thought much beyond economic nationalism - the trade policy of many unions could be summed up by "Made in the USA". This attitude is slowly changing, and the only way to accelerate the process is to become a part of it, and serve as an individual reminder of how everyone who makes their living by selling their labor belongs to that great confraternity which, ultimately, has moved every mountain, laid every road, pulled every wire.
It is taking these two actions - and participating by both giving of your individual effort and expression, and joining in the general mobilization - that constitute a basic baptism in the fight for the real Globalism - the fight for true equality in every important sphere, for everyone who lives anywhere on the globe.