Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 225 | Abril 2000



Seattle: First Fruit of a Changing Epoch

Today, when powerful small minorities from the wealthy countries can decide at will, comfortably-off midsize minorities from those same countries can hold them accountable. When the latter hook up with other concerned minorities from the poor countries, the alliance can be unbeatable.

Jorge G. Castañeda

If there is an ideological leitmotif for the end of the last century (how strange it feels to type those words about one’s own century!), it undoubtedly lies in the unappealable imperatives of globalization. On the one hand it makes everything—modernity, development, democracy— possible while on the other it renders everything—justice, regulation, dissidence, equality, nostalgia—impossible.

Mantra, ritual invocation, pretext and incontrovertible and emendable reality, globalization has been turned into an authentic deus ex machina of our time. And just like any other social, economic and ideological phenomenon, it also generates its controversies and contradictions, its perverse effects and its unexpected consequences.

The World Trade Organization conference held in Seattle at the end of 1999 can be seen in this light, quite apart from the other reactions it may have stirred up: the ex cathedra pronouncements of indignant economists, the laments and discomposure of third world officials left suddenly defenseless by "Boss" Clinton’s political opportunism and the learned reprobation of unconditional free trade partisans hounded by "street mobs" of unionists, ecologists, indigenists and other radical "-ists."

Three major actors present, one missing

Three main protagonists appeared—or, if you prefer, fought it out—in Seattle. A fourth was missing. One major actor was the meeting’s sponsor and in theory its dominant force: the governments of the wealthy countries of the "North." These governments are closely identified with the commercial, financial and ideological interests of big business, both old and new, in their nations, but are also sensitive to domestic public opinion, since in principal they are more or less traditional representative democracies.

The governments of the poor countries also went to Seattle, headed by four or five important participants in world trade: Brazil, Mexico, India and the Southeast Asian countries, South Africa and Egypt. These governments also more or less identify with the interests of their countries’ exporting businesses and with the "Geneva Consensus"—in other words, with the fundamental maxims of free trade from the "Southern" perspective.

Finally, different social actors from the countries of the North, mainly the United States, also put in a noisy, heterogeneous, fragmented but imaginative appearance. These included unions, environmentalist movements, a variety of NGOs dedicated to different subjects and causes, citizens’ groups and students’ and women’s movements.

In schematic terms, the great absentee was the "South’s" civil society, that collection of social forces that, at least in Latin America but also in various Asian nations, do not necessarily share the interests or viewpoints of their particular governments or establishments on the major themes of globalization. They include unions, opposition parties, ecological movements and groups of students, women and middle-class citizens that are struggling against temporary and abusive contracts, dismissal due to pregnancy, child labor and environmental dumping, and in favor of collective bargaining agreements, better wages and the same consumer protection regulations as the rich countries. But they were nowhere to be seen in Seattle, just as they had been generally conspicuous by their absence at the Uruguay Round negotiations or the debates on the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Absent because they feel represented…?

The current world powers are utterly convinced that these sectors do not turn up at conclaves such as Seattle and the World Bank’s 50th anniversary or try to fight their way into bilateral trade negotiations precisely because their interests are identical to and perfectly well defended by their respective countries’ governments and businesspeople. Those interests consist of opening markets and stimulating exports to create jobs, a process that sooner or later will bring about the goals everyone so desires: better wages, a cleaner environment, more social spending and higher living standards.

Those who could have gone to Seattle did not do so because they fully understand that their place is at the side of their co-nationals rather than accompanying demonstrators or protest groups from rich countries, whose real agenda is the self-serving protection of their own unproductive jobs or the use of pseudo-scientific arguments to close off markets to efficient, audacious and ambitious competitors from Bangalore, La Serena and Monterrey. This explanation might appear authentically or falsely ingenuous given the strength of the social movements and challenges that exist today in many countries of the South. However, it does have its supporters, ranging from The Economist to the trade ministries of the majority of Latin American and African countries, whose officials turn pale at the very idea of having to deal with combative unions or women’s groups in their trade delegations to Brussels, in the streets in front of the hotels on the Avenue de la Paix in Geneva, or in the gleaming local World Trade Centers where they wine and dine their guests from the North.

…or because they’re weak and lethargic?

Another equally simplistic explanation is based on the supposedly lethargic or downtrodden nature of civil society in the countries of the South, on the virulence of the current situation or the memory of authoritarianism that persists in many countries of the developing world. If we remember the heroic struggles of union, student, ecological and women’s movements, the democratic struggles in dozens of countries over the last 15 years, from the fight against the dictatorships in Chile and South Africa to the heroism of Chico Mendes in Brazil and the massive student strikes and demonstrations in South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand, this interpretation of the absence of social actors also appears based on rather weak foundations. It is true, however, that the total absence of the Mexican workers’ movement in the dispute over the Free Trade Agreement with the United States was due to its traditional subordination to the Mexican government and not to some windy visionary who inspired them to defend the country’s supposedly long-term interests over and above the short- and medium-term interests of their pay packets.

It cannot be denied that authoritarian vestiges obstruct the full flowering of all expressions of civil society and social movements in many third world countries. But generally speaking, there is obviously enough room right now in many countries to organize and demonstrate and, in fact, the third world’s nongovernmental organizations have shaken off the lamentable tendency towards bureaucratic formalism and protective collaboration that they usually suffer from and are an increasingly important force.

An absence that presages hope

There is perhaps another reason for their absence in Seattle, and it represents a source of hope for the future. For the moment, the existence of various remnants of nationalism combined with the lack of networks, communications and political clarity perhaps explain why the "Southern" equivalents of the Teamsters, the "Turtles" and Joseph Bové are still not making their presence felt with the vigor that one might expect. This in part explains why we critics or opponents of NAFTA in Mexico were bereft of much social support.

But it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand that the natural allies of workers in factories belonging to—or subcontracted by—Philip Knight in Indonesia who are fighting for their basic rights are the most aware consumers of Nike in the United States, who are willing to organize boycotts of its products if Nike fails to honor labor rights. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the most effective allies of women working to organize in Mexican maquiladoras so they will not be fired if they get pregnant or will not get only 28-day contracts, and who are struggling to exercise their right to form a union or go on strike, are North American feminist activists. The latter are capable of mounting publicity campaigns that can have a strong affect on companies whose fashion products (Liz Claiborne), electronic goods (Sharper Image) or household goods (Pier 1 Imports) are aimed at the very market sector to which such women belong. Nor does it take a Nobel prize winner in economics to understand that if some day the seasonal pickers of Chile’s exported fruit business or Pakistani carpet weavers succeed in launching a struggle for the rights enjoyed by their parents or predecessors, their best supporters will be among the consumers of Chilean apricots and Pakistani Bokharas in Paris, Berlin, or Seattle itself.

New allies: workers of the south

So what is the difference between all of this and the situation of Central American banana stevedores a hundred years ago? The answer lies precisely in globalization and the other new features of the same old capitalism.

Today, the educational level of the South’s workers and activists is much higher than before, though it still leaves a lot to be desired. The North’s markets are much more segmented now, thanks to the prevailing policies and the tendency towards market niches (special coffee, special mangos, special sneakers, special chips, etc.). Today, minority "boycotting" activists have far more power and the possibilities for small, hyper-organized and interconnected nuclei to communicate and exchange information are infinitely greater. Activists in the South can use the Internet to communicate instantaneously, economically and continuously with their colleagues in the North. What better example than Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas in Mexico, who have built up a support network in Western Europe out of all proportion with their strength or presence in Chiapas or Mexico.

All of this provides the beginning of this century with a sense of possibility or hope, one that could prove to be either utopian or highly realistic. Today’s capital can get away with evading regulations, norms, demands for better salaries or benefits, taxes and acquired rights only on the production side; it can’t get away with it on the consumer side of things. GAP can pay its workers in El Salvador miserable salaries because it doesn’t care whether they can afford to buy its jeans. GAP clothes are destined for the yuppies of Seattle and the young Afro-Americans and Latinos in the ghettos of Los Angeles and Chicago.

This means that the alliance between those on the consumer side—the stronger ones—and those on the production side—in effect, the weaker ones—can impose a regulatory labor, environmental and human rights framework through purchasing power. The agents of production—the workers—no longer have this strength themselves, as their ancestors did in the great European workers’ struggles of the turn of the last century, and as the first ecologists did in the United States and Western Europe in the 1970s. The peasants from the Landless Movement in Brazil may be unable to impose an agrarian land reform like those produced by the Mexican, Bolivian and Cuban revolutions in the 20th century, or even like the Chilean reform of 1964-72, but they can impose commitments on the Brazilian government that the latter will in turn be obliged to demand that Brazilian agribusiness respect.

The only answer to capital’s globalized evanescence is an international regulatory framework that can be imposed only by the new market gods: the extraordinarily productive and increasingly insatiable consumers of the rich countries, who also dedicate part of their free time and available energy to causes in which they believe, from saving the whale and the struggle for the rights of indigenous communities, to saving tropical rain forests, supporting natural hormone and pesticide-free products and promoting human rights in China, Kosovo or Rwanda.

If small powerful minorities in the poor countries can command at will, the medium-sized, comfortably-off minorities of the rich countries can demand that they be accountable. And when these minorities link up with other minorities in the poor countries, which are increasingly less a minority, more aware and better organized, the alliance could prove invincible.

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