The splendid Benaroya symphony hall, built with donations from Seattle's prosperous global firms, was crammed over the weekend with an impressively global assortment of globalization's critics. Along the sleek slate-and-steel hallway, activists from five continents clustered by the latte bars: African campaigners for debt relief, Brazilian defenders of rain forests, Indians opposed to neocolonial investment, European haters of beef hormones, Canadians concerned about everything.

Inside the auditorium, a marathon teach-in was underway, convened to denounce the World Trade Organization as "one of the world's most powerful, secretive, undemocratic and dangerous bodies." And yet this festival of activism suggested a rather different notion. Perhaps the activists themselves are the real stealth world government?

Last time trade liberalizing talks were launched, in Uruguay in 1986, 12 nongovernmental organizations registered to observe the process. But the reach and clout of NGOs have since expanded marvelously, courtesy of the Internet. NGOs set the agenda for the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, and lobbied governments to attend; they publicized the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico in 1994, so preventing the Mexican government from suppressing it violently. Three years ago Jessica Mathews, now head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested that centuries of governmental dominance might finally be ending.

If that was plausible three years ago, it now seems even more compelling. In 1997 a loose alliance of 350 NGOs from 23 countries set out to ban land mines; they soon persuaded 122 nations to sign on to a treaty. In 1998 another NGO alliance, this time reckoned to number 600 groups in nearly 70 countries, sank a painstakingly negotiated treaty on multilateral investment. This year yet another coalition, known as Jubilee 2000, led an international lobbying effort for Third World debt relief. During the recent budget fight, Jubilee pressure had much to do with the congressional Republicans' last-minute assent to provide money for debt cancellation.

Fresh from those victories, the NGO community has descended on Seattle to take on the international trading system. Many of the lead players from previous NGO victories are there; they greet each other in hallways with the camaraderie of veterans. Their rhetoric paints the World Trade Organization as a proto-government possessed of frightening power, but their own clout is just as striking. The WTO has a budget of just $80 million a year and a staff of fewer than 500. NGO coalitions wield more money and have thousands of expert delegates in Seattle.

This balance of power is obscured by the underdog pose of the more flamboyant NGOs, which get disproportionate attention. The posers tend to be colorful: They promise a Mobilization Against Globalization, a Carnival Against Capitalism; they include the Art and Revolution Street Troupe. The Direct Action Network aims to bring Seattle to a standstill today; its preparations, held at semi-secret locations over the weekend, featured elaborate training in civil disobedience. America has seen nothing on this scale, the old-timers there claimed, since the Vietnam protests.

But the flamboyant fringe obscures the larger point about today's NGOs: Increasingly, the bigger ones resemble the official bodies that they criticize. They hire technocrats, publicity agents and ad men; they sit on government panels and broker international deals; they work the media to build popular support for them. A journalist in Seattle this week can choose between the official WTO media center and three competing operations offered by the NGOs; between the official WTO web site and several dozen NGO rivals. One site run by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis-based group, offers daily briefings by Jose Bove, the French farmer who protested globalization and all its works by demolishing a local outlet of McDonald's.

These government-minded nongovernmental groups are not really interested in stopping globalization in its tracks. They like to say that the WTO has brought more layoffs than payoffs, and they have erected a billboard that shows the Bill of Rights going through a paper shredder. But in a break during the weekend teach-in, the event's self-described "brain trust" assembled backstage, and there the conversation was about reforming globalization rather than undoing it. Some favored shifting power away from pro-market global regulators such as the WTO, and toward rivals such as the International Labor Organization or the United Nations. Others talked of new rules they want inserted in the WTO charter.

Is this a hijacking of democracy by self-appointed advocates? Not really. The WTO itself is undemocratic in its secrecy, and the NGOs are at least as legitimate as business lobbies. The world is not perfectly democratic, but it is increasingly pluralist. You just have to hope that this new diffusion of power won't wreck the world's trading system.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.