WTO - Why Totemise Oppression?

A contribution to the "reflections on J18" collection.

After identifying capitalism or the "global capitalist system" as "the root of our common social and ecological problems", many of those who took action on June 18th are now running headlong into the next "big day", November the 30th -N30 - for action against the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and free trade.

Is this the same enemy? Many would argue that the WTO is just another incarnation of the global capitalist system and therefore a worthy target. But this thinking reproduces some of the flaws of the thinking behind J18, in that it fetishes the institutions which manage global capital (J18 fetishised the abstract side of capital - finance capital - as opposed to the material side - production or industrial capital). The institutions of capital are targetted instead of capitalist social relations, with the added problem that the majority of opposition to the WTO invokes that lofty bourgeois ideal - democracy - in complaining about the lack of democratic accountability in these institutions. The system of wage labour (the basis of capitalist social relations) is not attacked, instead darts are thrown at fetishes. PGA (full name: Peoples’ Global Action Against Free Trade and the World Trade Organisation) calls for the abolition of the WTO because it is inherently "undemocratic" and incapable of reform, implying that what is needed is some type of genuinely democratic institution (presumably like the World Peoples’ Parliament that someone on the J18 discussion list keeps on proposing).

Worse still, opposition to free trade is effectively an appeal to protectionism on the part of ("democratically elected governments" of) nation-states. Undoubtedly the strategy of global capital has been to attempt to guarantee continued accumulation by imposing further attacks on the international proletariat by what has been described as the "race to the bottom" ie competition between sections of the working class in different nation-states (the threat of relocation etc), and the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) and its WTO-sponsored successor represents an attempt to remove the regulations which stand in the way of this competition (by enabling corporations to sue governments for labour and environmental law etc)

While resistance to these attacks is to be encouraged, it would be foolhardy to see the question as one of defending the nation-state against the power of the transnational corporations - as the Do or Die (No. 8) article "Globalisation: Origins-History-Analysis-Resistance" points out, these are false opposites (capital and state are not in opposition, rather the state is a tool in the hands of capital). Surely the challenge is for the international proletariat to defend its common class interests against both the nation-state and global capital...

To target the WTO rather than, say, the system of wage labour upon which capital depends, is to blur the question, and inevitably leads to the formation of dodgy or even reactionary alliances (many Far Right groups, such as the Front National in France and One Nation in Australia, as well as parts of the Left have opposed globalisation and free trade from a nationalist perspective). Some activists have taken sides in the WTO bananas dispute, defending Caribbean producers against North American interests, often arguing in favour of "local economies threatened by free trade". So small, "local" capitalists are good, and big, global corporations are bad (especially if they are American)... This naive kind of thinking enables the battle lines to be drawn between nation-states (or even between "North and South", as if there were no Northern proletariat and no Southern capitalists) rather than between classes (international proletariat vs global capital).

Undoubtedly some people are opposing the WTO on an anti-capitalist basis, but is this the best strategy for consciousness-raising struggle?

Rudolf The Red