The Real World Organization 

Why being against the WTO isn’t enough

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Something important was missing from the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations. Oh yes, there were, in some proportion, all the just causes I’d ever marched for in the past: balanced ecology, fair wages, equal representation; everything, it seemed, but Vietnam. To pre-boomer sometime activists like me, certainly, there is nothing more assuring than watching subsequent generations marching for your own favorite obligations.

And the entire thing seemed about as civil as civil disobedience ever gets. As Harold Meyerson reported from Seattle last week, for all the rough edges (and where have all those Starbucks-assailing smash-the-state anarchists been hiding all these years?), the Emerald City event was really something of a Velvet Uprising. Relatively few were the detentions and injuries (about 1 percent of the demonstrators). And from the high, wide and handsome agenda, it was abundantly clear what everyone opposed. The World Trade Organization is a non-voting quasi fraternity dedicated to the betterment of capitalism everywhere. And, by implication, to capitalism’s many social, political and environmental ramifications.

But to me what was missing was any clear expression of any single goal beyond opposition to the WTO.

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What a patchwork of interests there were! I liked the turtle suits, and on the whole the environmentalists seemed closest to having a common cause among themselves. The unions’ positions were not as clearly motivated. I’m willing to take their leaders’ concern for Third World working conditions at face value, but the fear of job loss to cheap goods manufactured at bottom-feeding wages was probably a larger factor. I was also puzzled at the Teamsters’ presence — how does offshore commerce affect them? And how did someone ever manage to get the port workers to come out against the trade that puts bread on their tables?

There were, of course, the colorful likes of the Vegan Dykes. And — on the opposite spectrum end — of the anti-gay, anti-woman and borderline anti-Semitic Pat Buchanan, with his counterlibertarian rightist populism. The thuggish ex–Nixon staffer seethed against the American fiscal elite whose boots he’d licked for a lifetime. But there also were some weird far-left notes, such as FAIR’s complaint that "In the case of intellectual-property claims, such as patents and copyrights, the WTO has worked to impose these protectionist barriers on developing nations, at an enormous cost to their consumers." As I read this, it means that the WTO favors whatever regulations still protect my work, while FAIR stands for media piracy. I know which side I’m on there.

But again, the only consensus was anti. It was as if the marchers of the Vietnam War period had never asked: "Give peace a chance."

So, what is the opposite of — or the antidote to — a Ludwig von Mises–style, 19th-century Liberal world trade? While the free market does give us a vast choice of cheap goods, Seattle proves just how widely known it is that the market can’t really — as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher promised us — cure all human ills, social and political as well as economic.

But if the WTO cannot be trusted to cure its own unresponsiveness to so many human and environmental concerns, there’s also no way to abolish global corporatism — the Soviet hegemony having destroyed itself trying to do so. Nor can any region declare itself a separate Ecotopia, since nowadays, we all breathe the same air and drink the same rainwater. No, the only alternative to the New World Order is — one might think obviously — the very opposite of laissez faire: It’s more government — world government.

The model is to be found in our own history. A century ago, American corporations ran the country the way the globals now run the world. In California the railroads owned the Legislature, the Northwest was run by timber and mining interests; J.P. Morgan personally regulated the national economy with the blessings of presidents. The environment (as it was not yet called) existed solely for profitable exploitation; so did most of the U.S. population. Since then, an immense, if flawed, democratization has taken place as Americans voted again and again for representatives who’d introduce government controls, from the Federal Reserve to the labor and civil rights laws to the Environmental Protection Act.

The Reagan era’s propaganda tried to reverse the realities, blaming big government for the ills of mankind rather than the historical opposite. But most of us live and flourish by the grace of the hundreds of democratic reforms of the past century. So what about establishing an equally representative sovereignty that could do this globally? That would represent all the world’s peoples against the international corporate nomenklatura?

And would also — perhaps — do a better job of keeping the peace in places like Kosovo and Rwanda in the bargain.

The idea of a world federation, an international governing body much stronger than the United Nations, is by no means new. In fact, what’s most remarkable about the concept is how completely it’s managed to vanish from the radar screen of history. (The Los Angeles Central Library has only one book in its catalog on the subject; it wasn’t available last week.) After all, it’s only 50 years since 64 House Democrats and 27 Republican representatives voted to "support and strengthen the United Nations and to seek its development into a world federation, open to all nations, with defined and limited powers adequate to preserve peace through the enactment, interpretation and enforcement of world law." In 1950, even Dwight Eisenhower, then president of Columbia University, endorsed the basic idea.

At that time, the United World Federation had a full-time staff of 40 and chapters all over the U.S. Its most famous cheerleader was Albert Einstein.

The UWF was founded by World War II veterans overwhelmed by the post-Hiroshima potential for nuclear war and both hopeful and skeptical about the newborn U.N.’s ability to head off such a conflict. According to Facing Reality, the 1980 memoirs of key UWF progenitor Cord Meyer (who earlier helped Harold Stassen draft the U.N. Charter), the World Federation was primarily intended to enforce peace, by force of arms if necessary. But it would also have created a legislative entity (based on, but more representative than, the U.N. General Assembly) for other serious international issues. Such as, one might suppose, the environment, trade controversy and labor standards.

After the impressive 1949 House vote, however, the UWF’s hopes were swept away in an avalanche of events: the Soviet A-bomb, Chinese revolution, the Korean War, the McCarthy era — all the panoply of the Cold War. By the late 1950s, world federationists were being dismissed in the same breath with flat-earthers and creationists. Worse, the movement was somehow lumped with the People’s Progressive Party of Henry Wallace as a quasi-Red front. This was dishonest, since top Stalin stooge Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov had personally excoriated the UWF as "a fig leaf of U.S. imperialism" and Cord Meyer himself was recruited by the CIA, where he spent the rest of his career. (Meyer was succeeded as UWF head by California U.S. Senator-to-be Alan Cranston.)

But if the UWF was invalidated by the Cold War, it’s revalidated by the Cold War’s ending and the triumph of world commerce. The world faces hundreds of problems either disdained or abetted by the WTO — from catastrophic climate changes to destruction of the rain forests to extinction of species to the broadening employment and pay gaps between the most and least developed nations. Nor has the present U.N. shown itself effective against most of these perils.

By helping to stall this round of WTO agreements, the Battle of Seattle’s troops set back the presidential plan to initiate China, the world’s largest and most industrially problematic nation, into the organization. Their actions suggested how many people hold what WTO members term "externalities" as intrinsic survival values. But no amount of civil disobedience can, by itself, legislate international reform. For that, you need a governing authority over all the world’s nations and corporations. World federation belongs back on the progressive agenda. It’s the only rational choice, or as philosopher (and one-worlder) Bertrand Russell used to say, it’s "the category that includes all other categories."

What’s the chance of our ever becoming one world? Maybe not too bad, once the idea gets around. As Russell further put it, "Men are sufficiently rational to acquiesce in their own survival."

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