THE MEDIA AND POLITICIANS ARE SAYING THAT THOSE WHO TOOK PART IN THE SEATTLE PROTEST HAD NOTHING IN COMMON. IS THAT TRUE?
NO. THE fundamental divide in Seattle was between those on the inside of the World Trade Organisation conference and those who were protesting outside. The politicians and the representatives from the multinational companies were united in extending the capitalist system. They were defending a global system of exploitation, where the bottom line is huge profits for a few and misery for the vast majority of the world's population, whether they live in Calcutta or Chicago.
Politicians would like to make people believe that demonstrators were in Seattle for selfish reasons. People may have been motivated to go to Seattle by specific aspects of capitalism, but they were united against the WTO. The police did not discriminate between environmentalists and trade unionists-they all got teargassed and shot at. All the protesters wanted was to take back power from the multinationals. Environmentalists are right to say that big business is contributing to global warming. Trade unionists are right to want to stop big business moving resources and factories from one country to another to drive down everyone's wages.
DON'T WE NEED TRADE?
YES. THERE is nothing wrong in goods moving from one corner of the world to another. The export of wheat in recent times from countries such as the US has been key to meeting the needs of people in poorer countries. There are times, such as when crops fail in a particular place, when the immediate shipment of grain could avoid mass starvation.
The problem under capitalism is that trade is not organised to meet the needs of people. Trade under capitalism is geared to extract maximum profits and nothing else. The network of companies, where they are based and what they produce, has nothing to do with people's needs. If a poor country cannot pay to buy grain for its population, that population will go without.
All sorts of goods are produced, such as arms and luxury items for the rich, that have no use for the mass of humanity. Vast sums of money are spent on advertising which has no purpose but to 'corner' the market.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT CAPITALISM?
CAPITALISM IS a system whereby the means of producing the wealth are concentrated in the hands of a few people. The assets of the three richest people, who include Bill Gates of Microsoft, are now more than the combined yearly economic output of the 48 least developed countries. General Motors had sales in 1997 totalling more than the output of many countries, including Thailand, Norway, South Africa and Greece.
You are forced to work for the capitalists whether you live in Britain or Tanzania. You become a 'wage slave'. You are forced to sell your labour power to the bosses. You have no control over how you work, how long you work or what is produced. You work and they take the profit. In return you may get just enough to feed and clothe yourself and to raise a family who will become the next generation of workers. Meanwhile cut-throat competition between capitalists pushes each of them to make their workers work harder, longer and for less.
WHY DID THE TALKS AT THE WTO BREAK DOWN?
THE MAIN reason for the breakdown of the talks was the conflicting interests of the big economic powers. Each of them wanted to boost their exports while controlling imports from other parts of the world.
The protests outside the conference made it far more difficult for the representatives of the major powers to come up with a dirty deal. Politicians, including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, felt forced to pay lip service to protecting the environment and workers' interests. But capitalist states and firms will now try to push more free market policies forward, whatever the final outcome of the WTO talks.
WHAT ABOUT THE MULTINATIONALS?
MULTINATIONAL corporations increasingly dominate capitalism. These huge companies, such as General Motors, Ford, Microsoft, Toyota, Exxon and Shell, span the globe. They can crush small capitalist concerns and even bully weaker nations. They wield power over the political process. These companies are rooted in, and grow out of, the most powerful states: the US, Japan and the states of the European Union.
These states take all the key decisions behind closed doors at the WTO. The multinationals make sure it is their agenda that dominates the WTO negotiations by bribing politicians. The multinationals bankroll political parties. Their chief executives rub shoulders with leading politicians. Multinationals also have the clout to take governments to court or to threaten to withdraw investment and close factories. They screw workers in the West and lay waste the lives of workers in the Third World.
So Ford lobbies governments to water down environmental measures that could halt global warming. The effects are seen in extreme weather conditions that destroyed areas such as Orissa, in India, recently. In the name of 'free trade' Ford then opens markets in the Third World, reproducing the same 'car culture' that is already choking the industrialised countries. Monsanto is imposing GM crops on the Third World. What is the result? Dangerous foods in the West and Indian farmers forced to buy GM seeds.
IS THE ANSWER TO UNITE WITH THIRD WORLD GOVERNMENTS AGAINST THE MULTINATIONALS AND WESTERN GOVERNMENTS?
UNFORTUNATELY Third World governments are part of the system. The big industrial corporations in India have the same sort of relationship with government ministers as elsewhere in the world. Third World governments also become increasingly influenced by the multinationals as capitalism becomes ever more global. In Nigeria, for example, the military has protected Shell and attacked oil workers and local people protesting against environmental damage. The gap between the rich and the poor in Third World countries is widening.
ARE GOVERNMENTS POWERLESS BEFORE THE MULTINATIONALS?
NO. MOST of the time governments do not intervene because they see it as in their interests to allow the multinationals to let rip and plunder the Third World for resources. Governments are quite happy to see the big corporations exploit and bully ordinary people. But multinationals cannot just disregard governments such as the US. That is why they spend so much time and money trying to keep politicians on side. Bill Gates is terrified that the US government is going to order his Microsoft empire to be broken up. Other giant firms are lobbying the government so they can move in on Microsoft's market.
The problem is that governments repeatedly cave in to threats from multinationals. The British government, for example, has watered down plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions after threats by Ford and other car makers to pull out.
HOW CAN WE BEAT THE MULTINATIONALS?
THE PROTEST in Seattle shows that multinationals are vulnerable. Boeing dominates Seattle. If its workers downed tools they would render their bosses inside the WTO conference powerless. Similarly, if those who produce software for Bill Gates's Microsoft (who started out in Seattle) pulled the plug, there is nothing he could do.
Workers have immense power. For example, in 1998 General Motors' operation across North America was halted after workers in Flint, Michigan, struck. The strike originally involved 9,000 workers. But the lack of parts meant work at 13 other GM factories was halted, affecting another 63,000 GM workers. After a week a US bosses' paper complained that, if the strike continued, 'nearly all of the auto maker's factories in the US, Canada and Mexico are likely to be closed, idling as many as a quarter of a million workers.' It is true that often national union leaders will argue, 'Our jobs first.' But that does not mean workers always fall for it. The kind of international solidarity shown at Seattle can help to overcome nationalist arguments.
Workers across the world will have seen the Seattle protest on TV. It is becoming clearer every day that workers everywhere have a common interest. As the German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote at the start of the century, 'Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they can be broken.'