Is there a better gauge of the vibrancy of democracy than the ability of citizens to take to the streets and air their grievances? But the ability to engage in social protest is only half the equation. A social movement almost by definition is an exercise in resistance against entrenched power. In a healthy democratic society, those with power also must play ballrespecting not just the legal right of protest, but also at least minimally honoring the underlying moral conviction motivating those who challenge the status quo. Those in power need not agree or acquiesce, but are obliged to attentively and constructively engage.
Among the most visible protests these days (visible = involving gas masks that make the evening news) are those aimed at the constellation of international trade issues we collect under the (somewhat misleading) heading of “globalization.” The latest took place at last month’s hemispheric summit in Quebec City, where leaders of 34 nations gathered to move ahead with building a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement. FTAA, in simple terms, will amount to an extension of NAFTA to most countries in the Western Hemisphere. As at the turbulent World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in late 1999, the Quebec summit featured mostly peaceful demonstrations by thousands of activists punctuated with the occasional clash with police in riot gear. Media reports, naturally, privileged the latter over the former.
Sporadic street mayhem notwithstanding, the widening movement challenging global free trade as the new world order’s organizing principle is built on as sound and sophisticated a moral foundation as any major social movement since Vietnam. This is not to assert that those who take issue with the WTO, NAFTA, or the emerging FTAA are necessarily right. It is merely to say what one would have thought to be obvious: that resistance to the particular mechanisms through which governments are expanding the flow of goods and capital across borders is both principled and healthy.
But apparently it’s not so obvious. Even in respectable forumslike the editorial page of The New York Timesthe rhetorical tone adopted by globalization’s defenders and directed at those who oppose it is dramatic in its condescension. More truculent conservatives might characterize the Times as wildly liberal, but the paper actually is moderate-to-left at best, and on issues of globalization and free trade, downright centrist. Striking, though, is the venom with which its regular columnists on economics and global affairs have assaulted not just the views, but the very motives and integrity of those who would question the emerging international regime of free trade.
Exhibit A is Thomas Friedman, the Times’ foreign affairs pundit, who wrote of the FTAA summit, “virtually all the leaders who met in Quebec to expand trade were democratically elected, while ‘the people’ in the streets clamoring for ‘justice’ were self-appointed or paid union activists. There is nothing romantic about them.” Omitting any clarification of what activists who take to the streets are supposed to be if not self-appointed, Friedman sneered that protestors in Quebec “should be called by their real name: The Coalition to Keep Poor People Poor.”
Exhibit B is Paul Krugman, the Times’ economics columnist, who in the role of hectoring schoolmarm declared recently that “the anti-globalization movement already has a remarkable track record of hurting the very people and causes it claims to champion.” (The particulars of this “track record” are, of course, never specified.) Polishing guilt by association to a lustrous sheen, Krugman lumps just about all free trade skeptics into the category of starry-eyed anti-industrialists who preach “the superiority of traditional rural lifestyles over modern, urban life.” Eventually conceding that not all who are suspicious of FTAA actually oppose trade or rural modernization, Krugman hastily dismissed their preference for higher wages and better working conditions as “not a serious position.”
Without question, some who took to the streets in Seattle and Quebecand will again next fall in Washington when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund hold their annual meetingsare fixated on globalization as a shadowy conspiracy of multinational corporations that gleefully foster economic inequality as the path to investor wealth. A tormented few assume that the titans of planetary corporate dominion will somehow get the message (and perhaps get religion) when they see a vandalized Starbucks or McDonald’s.
But neither doctrinaire thinking nor sporadically agitated tactics can eclipse the clear and present danger to human rights, living standards, democratic processes, national sovereignty, and the environment that thoughtful globalization critics perceive. You don’t have to be a corporate conspiracy theorist (or, for that matter, a rocket scientist) to see that the rules and procedures for resolving trade disputes between nations that were built into the WTO, and are likely to be assimilated into an FTAA pact in this hemisphere, are designed to make it easier for transnational commercial interests to circumvent pesky environmental regulations and labor standards. You don’t have to spin paranoid fantasies of multinational CEOs giving marching orders to heads of state (perhaps not that paranoid, given the American campaign finance system) to get a fetid whiff from an intergovernmental treaty negotiation processlike the FTAAthat shares details and drafts with corporate representatives, but not with the press or the public at large.
Critics of global free trade point to some (limited) progress. In Quebec, President Bush said that a “commitment to open trade must be matched by a strong commitment to protecting our environment and improving labor standards.” The tone of Bush’s rhetoric is significant, according to Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch, who told the Washington Post that until recently, these concerns were grasped by only a very small number of progressives. “It shows the political shift,” Wallach said. “Now we’ve got to see the policy shift.”
Robert Kuttner, who writes on economic issues for The American Prospect and Business Week, observes that “business is beginning, grudgingly, to accept some minimal social standards as part of free trade agreements.”
Environmentalists, human rights activists, and organized labor will make plenty of noise, but it seems likely nonetheless that we will have an FTAA accord in the next four years that is pretty much bought and paid for by corporate interests reaping multinational profits. That’s not a conspiracy theory, just simple political reality. And because FTAA, like NAFTA and the WTO, will be about the free movement of capital and goods, but not labor, investors will inevitably prosper, while the promised gains in working conditions and living standards will evolve glacially, if at all.
Even more disturbing is the unhinged process of political and civic discourse that will get us there. Individuals and groups who are deeply skeptical of the trade deals being negotiated are stereotyped as “anti-globalization,” as though deft criticism of the particular arrangements of multilateral commerce is equivalent to fanatical isolationism. One might expect this sort of demagoguery from the mercantile interests that stand to benefit directly from these arrangements, or from rabid conservatives who view social protest as the last refuge of ideologically disturbed scoundrels (pro-lifers and Second Amendment obsessives excepted, of course).
But it has sadly become mainstream to treat free trade critics as insurrectionists and even anarchists who are so out-of-touch with global economic realpolitik that their moral foundation is summarily dismissed as lacking credibility. Yet these “insurrectionists” are merely people of conscience and conviction who happen to adhere to the modest proposition that perhaps international trade in the 21st century can commingle economic development with the protection of labor rights and environmental quality. For this bit of radicalism they are treated like insolent children.
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