Fwd: Re: Gordon Gecko and the WTO

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Sat Nov 13 09:59:01 PST 1999

[This exchange between Ian Murry and Joel Kovel was a response to Kovel's piece on the WTO at <http://www.greens.org/ny/tohtml.cgi?kovel/wto.htm>. The original is a bit long for reposting, but I thought this was worth sharing with the outside world.]

Thanks for the very thoughtful set of questions, Ian. This was the exact purpose of the statement--to set forward a dialogue on this surpassingly important issue. I'll do my best to answer, though you should know in advance that I am not going to be able to address this as an expert, but rather as an individual who himself is groping his way forward to learn more. I'd appreciate also something more from you, namely, some notion of your particular role in this struggle, and of your history with respect to it.

Lisa & Ian Murray wrote:

> Hello again Mr. Kovel,
> Thank you for a most stimulating essay. I was wondering if you had just a
> little time to riff off a couple of themes regarding your piece on the WTO
> and it's relation to some demands that NGO's from the global south [India in
> particular] will be making during the ministerial as well as some questions
> that [hopefully] complement some of your own ideas
> 1)The alternative pricing system you mention and it's attendant emphasis on
> ecological prices would seem to confront directly the issues of national
> treatment and process and production methods [PPM's] How would we who
> oppose the WTO flesh out the calculus of this scheme when debating the issue
> with the aggressive policy wonks that will be in town later this month? The
> WTO is silent on the issue of externalities although I'm sure all the
> neoclassical and transaction cost trained economists will be extremely
> defensive on this topic when it is broached. I've read a lot of the
> ecological economics literature and one of the weak links seems to be
> operationalizing the internalization process with a new price theory as well
> as entering the quagmire of domestic policy initiatives; can you point me
> and others to any texts, weblinks etc. so as to build upon the suggestions
> you've made? Volume 29 #1 [April 1999] of the journal Ecological Economics
> makes some great steps in this regard, have you had a chance to look at any
> of these and, if not, I'd be happy to send you Xeroxes of the material.

You are obviously way in front of me on this issue, viz: ecol economics articles, which I'd love to see (PO Box 89, Willow, NY 12495). Otherwise, I am not conversant with this literature.

However, in general, the approach I'd advocate is not to try to persuade but to demonstrate and indicate alternatives. In writing of a "World People's trade Organization," I have in mind not some utopian, i.e, utterly unrealizable project, but something I'd call "prefigurative," that is, something to ve set going in the here and now that would anticipate the finished version and point a way toward it. I'm reminded in a somewhat different context of the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal during the Vietnam era. Here was something that bore continual witness against atrocities, and although completely lacking the state power to implement, did have an ability to continuously develop an altered consciousness. I think this steady, quasi-institutional approach is very important, and radically different from the episodic and fragmented attempts at critique which provide the usual substance of left analysis.

So it seems of use to confront the WTO wonks with an already existing, or at least nascent, alternative--a body that would work at providing an alternative set of trade recommendations based on human needs and the protection of the planetary ecology. Obviously one can't take on all trade issues at once. But it should be possible to select one or a few salient issues or commodities, say, genetically engineered foodstuff, or pharmaceuticals, and to derive tariffs based upon the ecological costs, specifcally, the internalization of what is now foisted upon nature and humanity. Come up with some figures--including the disposition of the tariff revenue, and the enforcement mechanisms--and shove it in their face, demanding an open debate, and denouncing them to the media when they refuse.

> 2)How would we go about imposing ecosystem "protective tariffs" or, rather,
> taxes through a reconfigured dispute [enforcement panel], and how would
> these externalities assessments be made by various trade review panels;
> assuming that these functions of the WTO could be rolled off to various UN
> agencies [UNDP, UNCTAD] etc.as you state? The EU recently posted a
> provisional environmental impact statement done by the University of
> Manchester on the issues they feel will be addressed in the new round
> http://fs2.idpm.man.ac.uk/sia/. How could we best build on this
> methodology?

I can see from perusing this website how difficult a job lies before you as you confront these institutions and their minions in academia. Frankly, I would reject this whole approach as being based in a fictive entity within the current system, namely, "sustainability." I think we have to redefine this term in a way that allows for the fact that the capitalist system is ipso facto unsustainable. Otherwise you are playing their game.

There are a number of interdependant ways in which capital's unsustainablity is manifest in the trade sphere: the overriding need for short-term profitability; the crisis of global overcapacity and overproduction, which forces the insensate drive for expanding markets; the elementary system-logic of compettitive advantage, and the rule of the strong to secure this. All these--and other factors besides--ensure profits but also the inevitable, and unsustainable, degradation of ecosystems--including the human ecosystem called society. So my view is that we have to criticize these systemic features--which can be done in a number of ways, including the critique of the myth of sustainablity--and not get caught up in a mystifying process like the one outlined on the website. In other words, I would tell these people to come back when they have a decent explanatory model and framework. I really don't think your protests can be successful if they only establish your movement as a "responsible opposition."

> 3)If we were able to be successful in breaking up the WTO [eventually], how
> would we design incentive systems in the bargaining process between
> countries which precluded the rent-seeking behavior many fear the WTO is
> engaging in on behalf of Capital as it forces countries to pay up to
> maintain various public interest legislation?

I'm not sure what you mean by these last phrases--what "rent-seeking," or "public interest legislation" signifies. But at a more general level, I don't think anyone should be under the illusion that the WTO can be broken up within the terms of the existing system. The big point is that the WTO doesn't serve trade; as you say, it serves Capital, whether in this way or another. You can't break up the WTO unless the capitalist system, refracted and deployed as it is between nation-states through which trade takes place, is itself broken. Of course that's not on the horizen. What you can accomplish in the here and now is to build a public consensus against WTO, to make its normal functioning as difficult as possible, and to point a way toward radical alternatives.

> 4)Your statements regarding agriculture seem to dovetail well with one of
> the most pressing issues I heard much talk about from various Indian
> activists at a recent conference on the WTO at Evergreen State College.
> They were adamant about having agricultural issues taken completely out of
> the WTO. They simply reject the legitimacy of the WTO to issue any rulings
> or trade review findings which could serve as the basis for a possible
> dispute being brought before the DRP. It seems that their major concerns
> were twofold: a)they do not want US firms doing to them what we have done to
> Mexican community based agriculture under NAFTA and b)it reinforces their
> fears about genetically engineered crops and all the other issues
> surrounding biopiracy.

I am of course in profound agreement with them. It seems to me that the great opportunity for now is actually to build these transnational alliances and structures of communication with comrades from other nations, and particularly from the South, broadly conceived. If I were looking at the overall gains to be sought through opposition at Seattle, it would be primarily a matter of building globalized resistance. That's one way the "WPTO" can be conceived--as a sort of world-government-in-waiting. I wouldn't worry about whther it fit in with the UN, or any of the established routes. I would see it as the harbinger of a genuinely new world order.

> 5)This leads to an issue which they are even more adamant about; namely
> halting the patenting of life in any way, shape or form
> http://www.idma-assn.org/patents/patents1.html. They are completely
> outraged at the way the IMF rolls demands for concessions on WTO rules
> [regarding the TRIPS agreement] into conditionalities for granting loans.
> How could northern NGO's, activists etc, help in this regard given the
> reality of the Chakravarty decision by the Supreme Court? Also, how would
> we redesign the relations between the IFI's and those parts of the WTO we
> felt it would be in Civil Society's interest to keep and roll into the UN
> under your provisional blueprint? I'm thinking here about the opportunities
> to take advantage of the rhetoric regarding the need for a new financial
> architecture and call Capital to the floor on this issue. It also presents a
> wonderful chance to toss a spotlight onto the current infatuation with
> coercive monetary power available to those agents who play and manipulate
> the FOREX markets.

Forgive me again if I'm not up to speed on some of these particulars: Chakravarty, IFI, FOREX (foreign exchange?) are all terms I'm awkward with. Remember, I've actually come rather late to this whole matter. However, I feel very strongly with them--and you--as to the absolute perniciousness of patenting life. There are issues of fundamental, non-compromising scope, and this (like the death penalty) is one. I would press very hard for a statement requiring the abolition of this practice. It should be part of a demand for a global moratorium on genetic engineering, as a way of underscoring what really counts here, and providing a basis for building alliances.

> 6)How could we "flesh out" the ideas of Green tariffs in conjunction with
> trying to create viable industrial ecologies? Could we perhaps direct the
> capital that comes from the collection of these monies to nations/firms
> which had ownership structures which allowed for greater worker
> participation in the process of workflow design as well as reaping the
> financial rewards etc.?

Yes, yes. I see this whole process not just as blocking the noxious effects of the WTO and global capital, but of redirecting resources to ends that would make a better world possible. It's analogous to converting weapons plants as part of a demilitarization strategy. I think the entire work has to be a transfer of power and resources.

> How could we create sufficient disincentives
> through the tariffs to coax domestic policy changes in nations that favor
> the corporate form of governance? Would this entail strengthening the ILO?
> How would we forestall a nationalist backlash as well as Capital's wrath?
> The issue here would paradoxically be one of designing LESS coercive
> mechanisms than many feel the WTO enforcement mechanism to be so as not to
> be accused of hypocrisy by the WTO's current defenders.

I'm not sure about the "less coercive" mechanisms. I don't advocate violence, but there is such a thing as force coming from the organized will of masses of people, across national boundaries. No ruling class ever gave up without a struggle. However, once the myth of sustainability is demolished, and genuine alliances forged between groups from below--including specially, I would say, labor, then a rapid reorientation of ofrces could occur. At least it is necessary to build this hope as a way of building new alliances. To repeat, I think your best shot is not at persuading the rulers but of organizing from below. This is a teriffic opportunity, and I wish you all the best success in it.


> I'll stop now as I fear I've given you too much to think about. I hope you
> have some time in your busy schedule to address [some of]the questions and I
> greatly appreciate in advance any responses you might send. Please feel
> free to reframe any questions as you like if you feel I've been inadequate
> in posing the issues.
> Cheers and thanks for your time,
> Ian Murray
> Seattle, WA

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