The "Battle of Seattle" in December 1999 was widely held by anti-globalisation NGOs as a victory. But having forced their way on to the world stage, these organisations now find themselves struck dumb when asked for their specific reform proposals. Their answers, beyond generalities, are difficult to find. Those that are forthcoming seem to call either for a "de-powering" of the WTO, or for it to build labour and environmental standards in to its decisions. Alternatively, they propose that such issues be dealt with by other supra-national bodies such as the ILO (International Labour Organisation) or some yet to be invented "World Environment Organisation". But would such proposals lead to an improvement in environmental and labour standards? On the face of it, they would. But despite the apparently united front of the protesters and their claim to represent the interests of developing countries, many such countries see tighter environmental and labour restrictions as running counter to their interests. Their fear is that such restrictions would act as a barrier to their exports.
What this points to is what should be perfectly obvious: that we live in a world of nations at vastly differing stages of economic development and, therefore, with widely varying priorities in terms of how labour and environmental considerations should impact on their economies. So to expect any organisation to develop, adjudicate upon and enforce rules that are fair to most, let alone all nations, is surely ridiculous. Furthermore, to equate a spoon produced under responsible environmental and labour conditions in one factory with one produced under sweat-shop conditions in another, points up the hollow neo-liberal assertion that "free" trade is necessarily "fair". In this context, "de-powering" the WTO or vesting labour and environmental interests in other supra-national bodies who would then compete for the supremacy of their particular standpoint, seems calculated to result in yet more confusion and seems unlikely to lead to greater fairness.
In considering reform, therefore, NGOs need to look rather deeper than just the WTO. They need to recognise that the motor of today"s neo-liberal global economy is competition. The ability of capital and corporations to move, or merely threaten to move, elsewhere means that nations and politicians no longer control the global economy but must themselves compete for capital and jobs. Similarly, tighter laws to promote environmental or labour protection are hollow when markets and corporations can switch investment and jobs to any country offering less costly conditions. Indeed, even the G-7 acting together would be powerless to re-regulate the markets for fear of capital fleeing to Singapore, Zurich or elsewhere. So it can truly be said that the global free market represents the institutionalisation of out-of-control competition. It should also be clear that free-market competition is not a basis upon which fairness, environmental or labour protection can result. Indeed, competition is not about fairness - it"s about winning.
Only if the WTO were instructed to perform a complete about-face by re-regulating capital and corporations, could one expect any real improvement. Given such a prospect appears unlikely, simply "de-powering" the WTO or hiving off national responsibilities to other such bodies will neither change nor stop the forces of competition. NGOs are right to insist that free-market competition represents an unacceptable paradigm but what is the alternative?
At this juncture, free-marketeers will say an abandonment of global laissez-faire (were that still to be possible) would be synonymous with a return to protectionism: a tit-for-tat international competition of rising import tariffs often cited as one of the causes of past wars. If that argument is accepted, it seems neither global laissez-faire on the one hand, nor protectionism on the other, can offer an image of a global economic framework likely to encourage fairness in trade between nations whilst protecting the environment and labour. Here, then, lies the rather knotty problem faced by NGOs today. Since both protectionism and free-trade produce unsustainable levels of competition, it seems that quite a different vision for a future world economy is needed.
In searching for that new vision, it is worth noting that if uncontrollable competition is the unavoidable by-product of both the hitherto available paradigms, some study of competition itself might be a starting point. In the current free-market environment competition is taken for granted as a good thing. But if that were the case, the global economic competition we have today would represent utopia which, with the possible exception of the top 20% of the world"s population, it certainly does not. Global warming, environmental degradation, growing numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers, an increasing gulf between rich and poor and an increasing recourse to far-right political parties are all compelling evidence not of utopia, but of a quick-sand of competition in which we are all caught and which is sucking us into a deepening global sickness. Furthermore, it is clear that to be fair and rewarding, competition must occur within a framework of a fair and universally accepted set of rules. But because no nation, nor group of nations, is now able to regulate global capital or transnational corporations, and the WTO only serves to underpin their free movement, I suggest that competition can indeed be said to have escaped from its controlling framework and is now running rampant. Little wonder free-marketeers hail globalisation as "inevitable".
Faced with this perilous predicament, therefore, NGOs must firstly accept these facts and stop pretending this situation doesn"t exist. Only global, or virtually global and simultaneous regulatory action could provide a satisfactory and secure solution. The same applies to multi-national corporations. Their ability, or mere threat, to move production and jobs elsewhere confirms that all corporations require regulation to bring them back under national, democratic control and accountability. But again, such re-regulation could, logically, only occur globally and simultaneously.
NGOs must therefore accept, firstly, that politicians themselves are no longer in control of competition and, secondly, that applying conventional pressure on them to change something over which they have already lost control is likely to prove futile. Indeed, any new vision for a new world economic order must not only make clear what is being asked of politicians, it must also show how that vision can be achieved. It must demonstrate a clear and practical method of making a secure and responsible transition from the existing sick paradigm to the future one we all desire. Indeed, so intractable has our current predicament become, that developing such a method has become even more important than envisioning the new paradigm itself.