Richard Reeves

Politics Takes on Trade

NEW YORK -- Because I have written, perhaps to excess, that the biggest story of the past 20 years has been the triumph of economics over politics, both nationally and globally, I was called by another columnist last week with an interesting question: "Could the demonstrations at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle be thought of as politics beginning to fight back?"

The question came from Terry Golway of The New York Observer. I wish I had thought of it myself, because the answer is "Yes," maybe -- a little hopeful yes, but yes nonetheless.

The victory of economics -- in the garb of globalism and corporate superpower -- has been so complete that questions of both politics and culture can be discussed only in economic content and form these days. The Seattle demonstrations have been somewhat marred by stupid violence -- and the distractions of Darth Vader police gear. But on one level, the troubles indicate that some people are beginning to realize that economics is no longer just a simple statistical compilation of prices, employment and income rates. It is also a matter of who decides what pollution is, who decides what safe food is, who decides on medical care, right up to the question of who shall live and who shall die.

On another level, quoting an analysis by Steven Pearlstein in Friday's Washington Post: "People are openly discussing how the world's political architecture -- up to now built around the sovereignty of the nation-state -- may have to be reworked to provide for a more global economic governance system that is open and democratic enough to gain legitimacy in the eyes of voters around the world."

That sounds post-triumphant: The victory is so complete that people are being asked (or forced) to adopt new political systems to survive in a world occupied by corporate empires. Or are we really willing to fight? Perhaps that will come. Pearlstein uses a word that often serves as a battle cry, writing of the tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, from union leaders to tree-huggers:

"What they all seem to agree on is that giant corporations have gone too far in gaining control over their lives and defining the values of their culture, and that the WTO has become a handmaiden to those corporate interests."

"Values" is what men and women have been willing to fight for since the invention of the club. What are the values of the WTO? Commercial interests above all, it seems. The sellers, for instance, not the buyers, have not only the power but also the right to mandate whether we will eat genetically altered, hormone-laced, irradiated new foods or the old-fashioned kind.

E-commerce has become another example of the decline of political power. The idea so far is that Internet sales have no geography -- thus no sovereign state can tax them -- which happens to mean a death sentence for the hardware store down the street, which must pay state or local sales taxes. In fact, such rules -- they are not laws; politics produces laws -- could kill Wal-Mart as Wal-Mart kills the little local store.

Whatever happens after the smoke clears in Seattle, globalization will prevail; it will make most people's lives better. The demonstrators cannot stop that. Some protesters -- unions may be among them -- cannot win under any circumstances. Change always produces losers. They always holler. But, sadly sometimes, they always lose. Progress is our most important product, a necessary one.

But most of the demonstrators do not seem to be losers. They seem to be people concerned not about globalization itself, but about questions of what kind of globalization we will accept and what kind we will fight. Certainly there seem to be enough people committed enough to win one battle, the first battle. The World Trade Organization will not prove powerful enough to continue meeting and making decisions in secret.

There is, after all, a proven and tested mechanism to handle questions of that kind. It is not called by the initials WTO, but by an old word from the Greek that we call "politics."

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