In spite of what you may have read or heard about the anti-WTO protests last week, the people on the streets of Seattle weren't opposed to globalization. Their cause is an example of globalization, with protests in solidarity with the Seattle actions taking place in many cities around the world. Theirs is just not a version of globalization endorsed or even envisioned by the WTO.
American media, political elites and corporations seemed startled by the emergence of this powerful worldwide movement of resistance to WTO policies. From my perspective, it was a phenomenon beyond resistance--it was a first step toward the development of an international civil society.
Analysts have long measured the development of a democracy by the vitality of its autonomous civic life. That's because democracy is more than formal rules and the election of a government. Its lifeblood comes from the sphere of society that organizes itself and is not under control of the state. This flowering of "civil society" provides space for debate for the development of public values, and is the process by which a public self, or citizenry, is created.
The protesters in Seattle were creating that space. True global citizens in the making, they demand accountability, democracy, and the right of individuals to have a voice in setting the increasingly important rules of international trade and commerce.
The WTO meeting was merely the place where these people burst onto the American public's radar. Social movements around the world had already linked into grass-roots networks, made possible by the astonishing speed at which they can communicate in the Internet era. Quick and relatively inexpensive international travel enables direct contact between even very small and poor organizations. Immigration brings workers from the poorest corners of the world to every major U.S. city. So Americans whose chief contact with the problems of developing countries might once have been writing a charitable check now have a more personal basis for activism: It is no longer charity, but true solidarity.
The WTO is a magnet for the concerns of these internationalists because, since its creation in 1995, it has been the central agency for writing and enforcing new global trading rules. These rules, based on the neo-liberal economic policies of free trade, privatization and deregulation, are flawed: They value corporate power and commercial interests over labor and human rights, environmental and health concerns, and diversity. They increase inequality and stunt democracy. The WTO version of globalization is not a rising tide lifting all boats, as free traders insist, but a dangerous race to the bottom.
For example, the WTO says its purview does not include social issues--only trade. So it claims to be powerless to do anything about a repressive regime selling the products of sweatshops that use child labor. Yet let this regime use the same children in sweatshops to produce "pirated" CDs or fake designer T-shirts, and the WTO can spring into action with a series of powerful levers to protect corporate "intellectual property rights." So, it's really not a question of free trade versus protectionism, but of who and what is free, and who and what is protected.
The WTO says that countries can regulate only "product," not "process." But moving beyond the simple regulation of end product and toward regulating how things are made has been an important achievement of the labor, consumer and environmental movements. The difference between a shirt produced under near-slave-like conditions and a shirt produced by union labor under decent conditions isn't readily obvious in the packaged product; we must monitor the process by which that shirt is produced.
These are the kinds of issues that inspired the Battle in Seattle. So what did the protest accomplish? First, it has put the public back into this vital public policy discussion, which for too long has been dominated by a powerful few in secret meetings.
Second, the protests have illuminated the fact that there is no such thing as pure and simple trade, especially once we start to deal with social programs and government actions deemed to be "non-tariff barriers to trade." As the Europeans have long understood, a common market must have a social and political dimension to it.
Third, the protests have fostered some interesting new alliances: north and south, labor and environmentalist, Generation X and old hands from the 1960s. There are still significant differences among the wide array of protesters. Some believe the WTO should be abolished; others simply want a seat at its table for labor and environmental activists. Workers in industrialized countries worry about job loss and runaway plants; workers in developing countries fear that labor standards and environmental protection are simply ways to keep their products from getting to wealthy markets.
But that's what makes the emergence of these international advocacy networks so important. They are a forum for debating, negotiating and deliberating global solidarity. They are the beginnings of an emerging international civil society. And as demonstrated in Seattle, they will be heard.
Elaine Bernard is executive director of the Harvard Trade Union Program.