GEORGE MONBIOT is one of Britain's best known environmental campaigners. He writes a regular column in the Guardian and is writing a book due out next year on 'the corporate takeover of Britain'. Socialist Worker spoke to him in the run up to next week's protests against the World Trade Organisation.
WHAT IS THE WORLD TRADE ORGANISATION AND WHY SHOULD PEOPLE DEMONSTRATE AGAINST IT?
THE ORIGINAL idea of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was to stop powerful countries from bullying weak ones. The idea was to prevent countries like Britain from raising massive tariffs against, for example, Indian cotton. The problem is the principles have been perverted and the organisation corrupted, principally by big business and its client governments.
The successor of GATT, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is really a broker for corporate rule. It is instituting a global regime which allows corporations to override the legitimate concerns of citizens' groups and even democratically elected governments.
CAN YOU GIVE EXAMPLES?
TAKE the US state of Massachusetts. It decided not to trade with companies working in Burma because of the regime there. Britain was among the European Union countries which took Massachusetts to the WTO claiming this was an 'unfair barrier to trade'. After the court case lawyers pointed out that had world trade rules of the sort we've got today been in operation during the 1980s then Nelson Mandela could still be in prison. Sanctions against South Africa would have been illegal.
Another case concerns beef hormones. all the European Union countries except Britain decided they would not buy US beef because US beef farmers use six growth hormones. At least one of these hormones has directly carcinogenic effects. It's a very clear public health issue. Yet the WTO ruled this ban was an unfair barrier to trade. The WTO then allowed the US to impose sanctions worth $520 million on Europe.
The WTO takes advice from a United Nations body called the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives. It is stuffed with corporate scientists, some closely connected with companies producing the growth hormones. At the moment the WTO's remit is limited to certain forms of trade. But the European Union, and particularly Britain, wants every form of trade and commerce brought in, including public procurement. This would add up to a drive for privatisation of state resources all over the world.
HOW WOULD YOU REPLY TO THE ARGUMENT THAT FREE TRADE IS GOOD FOR EVERYONE AND THAT PROTECTIONISM DAMAGES EVERYONE?
THE FREE traders fail to distinguish between protection and protectionism. They identify as protectionist regulations that are intended to protect the health of workers, consumers and the environment. Pulling down these regulatory barriers allows corporations to dump their costs onto society. By doing this, corporations are exposing people worldwide to a new set of hazards.
Clare Short, for example, says that by insisting on high labour standards we are discriminating against developing countries with low labour standards. This is nonsense. Take the case involving Cape, a company mining asbestos in South Africa. Workers were exposed to asbestos and thousands have cancers and other diseases. The WTO threatens to remove such protection as exists. Clare Short is sacrificing the interests of Third World workers. When she talks about the interests of the developing world she is really talking about the interests of multinational companies operating there and the corrupt governments with whom they work.
In Britain, as all over the world, the corporations have been engaged in a long term drive to remove regulatory barriers. They pursued that drive through the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which a small ragged group of campaigners managed to prevent from being signed in October 1998. They've pursued it through the North American Free Trade Agreement. The same agenda has been pursued through the Private Finance Initiative in Britain. We've also seen it advanced by the corporate infiltration of government. In Britain we have seen government ministers appointed directly from large corporations. Corporate representatives fill the boards of quangos appointed by the government.
WHAT OTHER THREATS DO THE CORPORATIONS BRING?
THE GREATEST threat to food security on earth is the concentration of the food chain in the hands of a few rich and powerful players. Most famines result, not from an absolute shortage of food, but from the failure of that food to find its way into the hands of those who need it. Monsanto's attempt, through developing genetically modified organisms, to control the food chain threatened to turn it into the hunger merchant of the third millennium. It was only through a concerted and worldwide effort of popular protest that Monsanto's plans have been at least set back and possibly terminated.
WHY DO YOU THINK CORPORATIONS BEHAVE THE WAY THEY DO?
THEY HAVE forced up share prices in the past by pursuing what they call efficiencies, sacking large numbers of people. But they've taken that about as far as they can. They have to find other means of increasing their share value. They have to try and expand the size of their system. It doesn't take them long, for example, to start eyeing up the 40 percent of the United Kingdom economy in the hands of the state and wanting to grab a share. That is what has driven the privatisation programmes of the 1980s and early 1990s. It is what is driving the Private Finance Initiative and the Public Procurement chapters of the WTO negotiations.
Britain in particular is determined to use the WTO to open up the state sector all over the world to infiltration by multinational companies. There is a drive to seize the resources of the state to secure corporate profits. For the same purposes corporations want to remove regulations which make their operations more expensive. Corporations all over the world, and particularly in Britain, have been lobbying hard for the deregulation of environmental and health standards.
WHY DO YOU THINK THE BIG CORPORATIONS OPPOSE TARGETS FOR CUTTING THE GREENHOUSE GASES RESPONSIBLE FOR GLOBAL WARMING?
THEY HAVE invested in technologies which generate a great deal of greenhouse gas emissions. The internal combustion engine is an ancient Victorian technology which should have no place in the world today. But the corporations have invested a great deal in plant, and motor companies flatly refused to replace it with more advanced technologies. They are locked into the continued use of the internal combustion engine and large quantities of fossil fuels. For the same reasons the oil companies want to keep producing oil rather than investing in, say, solar power. That is reinforced by the fact that governments all over the world are so keen to appease corporate power.
WHY DO GOVERNMENTS BEHAVE LIKE THIS?
THE WAY you obtain power is by appeasing those who already possess it. The more you appease them the more powerful they become and the more you have to appease them. Governments recognise that corporations are powerful so they grease up to them, and in greasing up to them they make them more powerful, and so have to grease up to them even more. It's worth pointing to the special case of Britain. Tony Blair is confident he will win the next election whatever he does. So he doesn't have to listen to the electorate. But the one constituency whose loyalty he can't be guaranteed of is big business. So his priority is to keep faith with big business.
ARE QUESTIONS OF CLASS RELEVANT IN YOUR VIEW?
YES. WE'VE seen the emergence of a new class of corporate executives detached from the concerns of the rest of society. This new class, a new corporate aristocracy, is enjoying the sort of power the landed aristocracy enjoyed in the 18th century. So clearly there is a class dimension. But what is interesting in terms of the protests is that they have cut across the traditional class divides, with protesters drawn from every social class.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF MARX'S ANALYSIS OF SOCIETY?
SOME THINGS I profoundly agree with and some I disagree with. It is certainly relevant to take a long term historical view of the power of money and of class when confronting the new forces ranged against society. Marx is certainly one of the thinkers whose work we should make good use of.
ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC OR PESSIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE?
CORPORATE POWER will grow. But I am optimistic about the ability of people's movements to contest and defeat it. Already we've seen some successes. Popular protest is extremely effective. When we contested the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was a global charter for corporate rule, we took on the most powerful corporations on earth. We won. Now is the time to beat corporate power. If we leave it any longer we won't succeed. If we are going to hit them we've got to hit them now.