Protest decried byproducts of free trade

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (U-Wire) — “Free trade” in the ’90s is something like cod liver oil at the dawn of this century: everyone says it’s good for you, but no one tells you why. Conventional economics textbooks, foreign policy wonks, the Wall Street Journal, and various other mouthpieces of the exploiting class all go hoarse singing the praises of free trade, and if you’re lucky, they’ll even prove it by examining the widget trade patterns between Widgetopia and Widgetania. But if you ask one of these esteemed gentlemen to talk about the effects of free trade on ordinary people in the real world, they’re bound to feel like you’ve asked something in terrible bad taste, angle their noses skyward, and say, “Society is on average worse off when policies reduce the amount of free trade.”
Now, the problem in general with saying “society on average” is that you really have to have your head up your ass in order to think that “society on average” exists. As we all know, averages are increasingly useless as the numbers you’re averaging become more polarized. In a country where the richest 10 percent of the population owns 71 percent of private wealth (1995 figures), no one has any right to talk about “society” as if it’s a uniform thing.
What’s more, who’s rich and who’s not isn’t some kind of accident. It’s not like some CEOs of multinational corporations struggle to find affordable day care for their kids while some Detroit auto workers send their children to Exeter and leave for year-long getaways in the Azores. The line that divides the rich from the rest of us is the same one that divides the capitalists from the working class. So when someone insists, “Free trade is good! It makes things better!” the question you need to ask is, “Good for WHOM? Makes things better for WHOM?” And the answer is usually the same: rich, filthy bastards.
I ought to say about now, for those few who need the obvious pointed out to them, that socialists don’t invent class divisions. It’s not like Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, and all of a sudden English coal miners were like, “Oy then, I ‘ave been oppressed, I ‘ave!” People are already angry about the things they experience, see, and hear about. Whether they direct that anger toward a critical examination of the system under which they live, and fight to change it, is never automatic, however — due in no small part to the barrage of messages they get every day that tell them the rich are smart and hard-working, the free market is good, free trade is good, and those nasty hooligans in Seattle are very, very bad.
Before we talk about the Seattle protest, it will perhaps be helpful to talk about what the World Trade Organization is. As usual, it’s useful to look first at what the WTO isn’t. It’s not the heart of capitalism, it’s not the motor of oppression, it’s not a “shadow government.” However, the WTO is certainly not some kind of innocent “safe space” where a bunch of respectable delegates can go “dialogue”
The organization is inherently undemocratic, with no elected delegates. Furthermore, the structure of the WTO reflects the divisions between rich and poor countries: the United States, Japan, Canada and the European Union make up a kind of slam-dunk gang that make secret arrangements among themselves and basically announce them to the rest of the world. The United States, as the great thug of international relations, wins 90 percent of its complaints against other countries in the WTO.
You see, the protest has been intentionally misconstrued by the politicians and the press as the great riot of the Luddite philistines against the progressive free traders. It’s always hard to judge the mood of a mass protest, but it seems to me, reading reports from on the ground and having talked to people who went to Seattle, that the anger wasn’t about free trade per se, but what “free trade” means to the multinationals: paying dirt wages, creating unsafe working conditions, spoiling the environment, abusing women and children, smashing labor organization, laying off workers in one country because they can be treated even worse in another — all in the name of profit.
Far from nationalist or protectionist, the protest mostly had an international outlook, in solidarity with workers and activists around the globe. After all, no one feels sympathy for the Detroit moguls who, after decades of building enormous, crappy cars, were getting beaten by the Japanese and went crawling to Congress for handouts. But we’re mad about the workers who lost their jobs because of their bosses’ arrogance — and people realize fairly quickly that the same thing happens around the world.
A mass protest is an amazing thing. I mean, your soul’s probably good and dead if the sight of 50,000 ordinary people coming together and really sticking it to the rich and powerful doesn’t put a little fire in your belly, but it’s amazing even beyond a gut level.
I won’t spend time debunking the media myth of the “violent protest”; FAIR and other people will do a better job, and the coverage was so intolerably daft that I’m afraid I may not be as balanced and two-sided as I usually am. Suffice it to say I’m more likely to think the folks who showed up with body armor, clubs, tear gas, riot shields and guns started more violence than the protesters.
I once heard a man who was active in the 1960s say that the current period reminded him a lot of back then. I was fairly humbled by that, maybe even a little disinclined to believe him. Now I’ve seen the World Trade Organization grind to a humiliating halt under the pressure of thousands of outraged people — people who are no doubt now activists, organizers, radicals. And they’re probably asking the same question of themselves that you and I are: “What’s the next step?”

Shaun Joseph’s column originally appeared in Friday’s Brown University paper, the Brown Daily Herald.