In the first blog in this series of six, I argued that the WTO is a War Machine, but one that can be neutralized if Africa was united to challenge the WTO and the “Big and Powerful” – the Empire. At the Seattle WTO Ministerial in November 1999 Africa and the global South neutralized the WTO with the help of world peoples’ movements fighting for justice for the weak, in the international trading system. The Tenth Ministerial Conference (MC10) of the WTO in Nairobi is not just Africa’s war. In the last blog I talked about how the trade negotiations in Geneva are carried out in a “surreal” atmosphere where the forest is missed for the trees. In this piece we look at the forest – the broad landscape.
The Nairobi negotiations will be behind closed doors where the Empire will use all means at its command to secure a “consensus” that serves the interest of the Empire. The Struggle against this is part of a battle for global justice. We who will fight from the grassroots will resist being drawn into that consensus if that does not do justice to grassroots people and communities. This is a moral issue as well as economic and political.
Oppression does not exist only at the economic level – that is where it is the most manifest. But economics without power is an abstraction. Economics is girded firmly in the politics of power. And that power, in turn, is legitimized by an ideology. This – in our times – is the ideology of neoliberalism. For those of us fighting for justice, we have to fight at all three levels – economic, political and ideological. It is a question of liberation from Imperial oppression. Talking without acting does not liberate. We shall wage a guerrilla war against imperial peace. But our action must be non-violent. That is our first moral principle.
Link between economics and morality
Morality, of course, is not the preserve of us NGOs. Even the business world talks about “corporate responsibility”. What, for example, is the responsibility of the pharmaceutical industry towards world’s poor? What is the corporate responsibility of people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates?
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) became part of the language of the corporate world in the 1970s. Business philanthropy has a long tradition, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Indeed, many in the business world argue that their responsibility to society goes beyond the market – beyond providing goods and services. They have a moral duty to provide “social goods” such as improving the lives of working people, sustaining the environment, and helping local communities.
This idea is worth exploring. There are individuals like Bill Gates who may genuinely have a social conscience. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “I’ve been very lucky, and therefore I owe it to try and reduce the inequity in the world… I mean, it’s at least a moral belief.”[i] I’d like to believe that Bill Gates is genuine. In his defence, let me say this: He works in the corporate capitalist world. The system of capitalism was not his creation; he was born into it, and he is good at working the system. So what is wrong with him providing a little of his huge wealth for philanthropy, for good social causes? But here is the problem: might his action be described, perhaps a bit uncharitably, as “conscience laundering”? None other than Warren Buffet’s son Peter said this: “Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism… feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place…” [ii]
This is a struggle between two lines: solidarity and responsibility within and against the system. Of course the line is sometimes blurred on the edges. Where, for example do NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) like for example Oxfam or Christian Aid fit into this dichotomy?
Oxfam, Christian Aid, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – they all come from the Christian tradition. But there are parallels in all religious traditions. I myself come from the Hindu tradition, and I have many Moslem friends, and so I can say with some knowledge that the link between economics and morality, between business and conscience goes beyond any particular religion. I personally prefer to work with secular organisations, but within certain limits I have no problem working with religious ones, even if they are involved in “conscience laundering”. Why people do what they do – what really motivates people – is a complex subject.
I work with several NGOs – mostly in the West – that are engaged in the area of international trade. Many of them campaign for “fair trade”. I have critiqued the idea of “fair trade” in my book Trade is War for whilst the idea of “fair trade” is noble, it – to echo the words of Peter Buffet – “just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place…” I prefer to work with those amongst them that are committed to change the system. Admittedly, “changing the system” can only be a long term project, nonetheless it is one that builds on a hope for the future whilst working, as best as one can, on the desperation of the present.
I will not go beyond this very complex subject of the link between economics and morality. Let me go on to another complex subject.
Morality, Politics and Solidarity
In the 1970s – especially since the emergence of neoliberalism in mid-1980s – Africa (like the rest of the global South) has been a casualty to the IMF -imposed austerity programs that have literally devastated their economies and their capacity to make national policies. Like it is the case today with Greece. These policies were (and are) fundamentally flawed. Presumed, among other things, to weed out inefficient industries and make those left behind more competitive in a globalizing world, these policies have led, instead, to rapid deindustrialization in Africa and appropriation of national assets (land, labour and natural resources) by global corporations. The civil society organisations (CSOs) – global as well as African and Asian – were the first ones to raise the alarm. In the 1990s protests against the IMF induced policies became widespread, and food riots spread from one country after another. The CSOs launched a global campaign against the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs – the IMF, the World Bank and the GATT-WTO) under the clarion call “50 years are enough“.
So the BWIs decided to add “democracy” to their programs. They decided that it was time to involve the civil society. They initiated the so-called PRSPs (Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers), to, as they said, pass the “ownership” of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) to the CSOs — presumptive representatives of “the grassroots”. With generous funds from northern donors a large number of southern CSOs got co-opted into what looked on the surface like “people’s involvement” in PRSPs. For a while, I must confess, I too got deluded into believing that this might be a way to influence the policies of the World Bank and the IMF. Many of us were invited to have dialogue with their officials in Washington. But we learnt – the hard way- that we were coned into what in fact was a donors/BWIs driven predetermined agenda to legitimise the system.
Enlightenment comes slowly, but truth cannot be hidden or disguised for long. The BWIs were playing politics with us.
As against the BWIs, there are those who genuinely seek to transform the structure of domination and exploitation. There are literally thousands of them – call them solidarity organisations and individuals. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, the largest numbers are located in the West. Two of these types are worth distinguishing: there are those that draw their resources (money) entirely from ordinary citizens eschewing any deal with their states; and then there are those that are funded by their states. Among these both types there are those that work as charities, eschewing politics, and then those that are explicitly political.
What is worrying is that many – but by no means all – of these organisations equate money with solidarity. They throw money at what are systemic problems. But then they are no different from donor governments. Monetary resources are of course important, especially for civil society organisations in smaller countries of the South. But to reduce solidarity to money is to undervalue the intellectual skills and critical engagement that civil society in the South bring to what are essentially collective efforts to challenge an iniquitous global system.
That, then, raises the question: How does one define solidarity? I define solidarity as the underlying principle bringing together individuals, organisations, and nations working together as equals and without exploitation to advance shared values. Of course each term here is subject to debate. What constitutes a “nation” for example? Is Palestine a nation? Do the Kurds constitute a nation? Are Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Catalonia and South Ossetia nations? The issue becomes even more complicated if you ask whether they have a right to self-determination, which is an accepted principle of the United Nations.
I will not go into this complex labyrinth. Each solidarity-based organisation or individual must decide for itself, herself, or himself. The context and ones values and principles define the concept
Here is my take in the context of the WTO meeting in Nairobi.
A New International Ethical Order (NIEO)
The WTO is located firmly in an old ethical order which puts profit over people; where those in power make the rules to suppress the powerless; and where this iniquitous and unjust world “order” (disorder) is legitimised by the ideology of neoliberalism.
Capitalism has, no doubt, stimulated the development of productive forces (science, technology and enterprise), but the distribution of the fruits of human labour is skewed in favour of the rich and against the poor within and between nations. The capitalist-imperialist system polarizes wealth and poverty. It is within its DNA. In the United States, the rich top 1% of the population appropriate 90% of the growing income.[iii] It is the same story in the United Kingdom[iv] and the world over, including Africa and the global South.
There is no possibility of a ‘distributive solution’ within the present system, which is structurally engineered to produce inequality.
I share the sentiment of Jean Ziegler, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 2000-2008 and author of The Empire of Shame who, in his Preface to Trade is War quotes Edgar Morin: “The domination of the West is the worst in human history, in its duration and in its planetary extension.”
We must defy this iniquitous system and overturn it; it is not reformable. We must create a new International Ethical Order (NIEO). Under NIEO, people must come before profits; power must be accountable to the people under a system of genuine (not sham) democracy; and the imperial ideology must be overturned by a liberatory, transformative ideology.
The WTO conference in Nairobi will discuss the minutiae of trade negotiations in highly technical language. That language must be dismantled, shredded , and simplified so that ordinary people understand what these guys are negotiating in our name. That is our challenge.
[iii] See Stiglitz, Joseph E., The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Kindle, 2012.