Wednesday, June 25, 2003

You see, even lefties can disagree with each other. Yesterday George Monbiot penned a stinker. His mea culpa, "I was wrong about trade," is basically an attack on Colin Hines and the entire Green 'localization' camp coupled with a lot of wishful thinking on reforming the WTO. The problems with Monbiot's newfound faith are many.

The guts of Monbiot's mistake is his early observation that "The only thing worse than a world with the wrong international trade rules is a world with no trade rules at all." Of course, there is simply no such thing as a world with rules, for trade or anything else. If there were no rules there would be no regularized activity of any kind. Monbiot laments US unilateralism and pressuring small countries to tow the US political line or suffering the economic consequences. But when has it been any different? The WTO is certainly about rules, but rules selectively enforced. After all, a country calling for a panel to formally accuse another member country of violation of the WTO agreements makes first and foremost a political decision. There is no Attorney General for the WTO bringing charges against the ne'er-do-wells, after all. The US enthusiasm for bilateral and regional trade agreements goes to show how getting around the WTO is easy as pie, and thus it is hardly as if the WTO rules are restraining the powerful in any meaningful way.

Monbiot then procedes to pillory the localization movement which in his view is "as coercive, destructive and unjust as any of the schemes George Bush is cooking up." Why? Because trade (a euphemism for "exporting to the Global North") is the only way folks in the Global South can improve their lot. And how is this different from anything coming out of Washington?

Monbiot's alternative to localization is "fair trade," and there is great merit in making global trade more fair. But Monbiot's ideas are hopelessly outdated. His first is a global system of preferential trading arrangments which would allow Southern countries relatively closed borders while requiring Northern countries to keep theirs open. While this may have had a chance in the 1970s, we're way beyond any political hope of this coming to pass now. Monbiot's second idea is to license transnational corporations. That is, only those following fair trade rules on labor standards, environmental standards, and the like, will get a license. Who will distribute these licenses? A kinder gentler WTO apparently.

All in all, Monbiot misses the entire point of the localization movement, which emphasizes many values completely eclipsed in the neoliberal system: self-reliance, self-government, security, community, fairness, solidarity, care, environmental justice. There will always be trade even in a 'localized' world, and surely there is room in for a global organization to oversee its rules. But trade in the real world is primarily a means to extract labor and resources cheaply from other places, whether across the state or across the world. The more trade can be embedded in community, the more trade will be fair, and community cannot consist of 6 billion people.

Focusing not only on trade but on technology transfer, multinational corporations, labor organizing, global property rights and a host of other global economic issues is essential to create a new kind of global economic order. The best place to start is in fact not with a new compassionate WTO but with a more muscular International Labour Organisation. The solution is to empower the powerless, not for some liberal well-meaning technocrats to tweak the rules for them.

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