shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
The WTO and the Seattle Protests
12/2/1999
 
What do the United Auto Workers, the Sierra Club, and nameless vandals in black ski 
masks have in common? Not much, actually, which is why it's surprising to see them 
all together protesting the current round of World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. 
The amassed protestors represent a broad spectrum of views: The WTO should be given 
the power to enforce labor issues; it should have its power to lower tariffs stripped 
away; it should be made more transparent; it should be abolished. The central fact 
currently uniting these incongruent positions is the WTO's secrecy and lack of 
accountability. And yet, if the protestors manage to force the WTO to become more 
accountable to the citizens of the countries it represents, two things will happen: 
The WTO will become more a part of the emerging world government, not less; and the 
differences between the protestors who want to improve the WTO and the protestors who 
want to destroy it will break out into the open. Both of these things would strengthen, 
rather than weaken, the WTO.  
 
The WTO has consistently maintained that it is not part of a world government, but 
that claim is just an expedient fiction. Cross-border trade is a classic governmental 
issue, and an organization with the power to set and enforce rules on world trade is 
a de facto governing body. Like the European Union and the International Olympic 
Committee, both of which endured crises this year occaisioned by their back-room 
dealings, the WTO has a crisis of legitimacy on its hands. It began life as GATT, the 
General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, with a mandate to set rules but no enforcement 
powers. (Unsurprisingly, laws with no cops didn't make for much of a system.) In 
response, the WTO was formed, giving it both the ability to make rules and some ability 
to enforce them, though without any real transparency. This may be an efficient way to 
proceed, but of course efficency without oversight is a recipe for pure self-interest 
to carry the day. The challenge now presented in Seattle is to open the process to 
input from the people whose lives will be affected.

But democratizing the WTO will not provide all the protestors what they want, because 
they want such different things. Reformers only make common cause with revolutionaries 
when things are so bad that the differences between their position are blurred, and if 
the WTO addresses the protestors' demands, it will quickly become clear that the 
central difference between the groups in Seattle is between those who accept that 
globalization is not going away and those who don't. Globalization is not a program 
being advanced by a cabal but a by-product of changing costs. When shipping costs fall 
in a manufacturing economy, international trade rises because the number of suppliers 
is less bounded by geography; when communications costs fall in an information economy, 
international trade rises even faster because geography becomes even less important. 
The WTO did not start this process, it does not control it, and it could not end it even 
if it wanted to.

International trade can only be shaped -- not stopped -- and arguing about what that 
shape should be is a task of Solomonic complexity. The protestors who want to improve 
the lives of Honduran workers making sneakers bound for the US are not likely to find 
common cause with labor unions who don't want US sneakers (or steel, or cars) made 
outside the US at all. Environmental groups might not like increased popular input 
into the WTO's decisions, because most of the people affected by the WTO care more 
about raising wages than drowning turtles. The people talking of abolishing the WTO 
will be least happy of all, since reform and compromise are the enemies of revolution. 
The WTO is at a crossroads: If it does not open up, the rising tide of protest will 
strip it of its legitimacy and perhaps derail the current Millennium Round. However, 
if they don't panic in the face of public expression of real grievances, and if they 
find some way to give the protestors a seat at the table, the WTO will enter the 
Millennium Round as a strengthened institution rather than a weakened one. 


Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source