Can we win the world back?

What we have been seeing in Seattle in recent days are the beginnings of a global politics. Though most people are only dimly aware of it, conventional representative democracy has more or less broken down. This may seem a bizarre judgement at a time when more countries than ever, at least in principle, hold free, democratic elections. But as Ulrich Beck points out in this issue (see page 25), the power of the nation state, the locus of democratic politics, is shrinking by the day. Crucially important decisions about jobs, food, media and the environment, for example, are taken by multinational companies, not by elected governments. Governments, moreover, increasingly see their role not so much as regulators of the private sector, but as its champions. Only in this way, they judge, can they attract the investment needed to maintain economic prosperity. National politicians thus become salespeople, hustling for business, offering a tax break here, a subsidy there; democracy, like the Cheshire cat, slowly vanishes, leaving only its smile behind. The big decisions have migrated beyond national borders and beyond any government's direct control. Governments have become clients of Monsanto or Microsoft or News International, rather than the other way round. National sovereignty thus begins to lose all meaning.

In these circumstances, the World Trade Organisation, for all its imperfections, is actually one of our better hopes. Unlike the G8, the OECD, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on, it has, at least in theory, a democratic working structure, being open to any country willing to obey the rules and giving all its members equal voting rights. Nor, again in theory, is it driven solely by economic imperatives: its founding treaty seeks "to protect and preserve" the environment and also recognises the need for "positive efforts" to help the least-developed countries. But global politics is in its infancy; the big guns of multinational companies and western governments, particularly the United States, inevitably set the agenda and exercise the muscle. The results have been well rehearsed over the past week. The liberalisation of trade, at which the WTO aims, tends to benefit the rich countries more than the poor. Indigent Asian farmers are put out of business by western food imports when the tariff walls come down; meantime, OECD countries subsidise their farmers to the tune of more than £200 billion annually, making access to western markets about as easy as penetrating a nuclear base.

The encouraging thing about Seattle is that it brought these subjects into public debate. But though we see the familiar figures of Stephen Byers and Clare Short at the conference table, it does not feel, even to the electors of Tyneside or Birmingham, much less to the rest of us, as though we are in control. We have no feel for how the WTO and other international bodies work, no means of making our voices effectively heard, except through joining the protests on the streets, no language or procedures to engage with the issues, no confidence that the whole show is anything more than another way of furthering the interests of international capital.

In its pre-Seattle comment, the Economist, high priest of the global market, observed: "A balance has to be struck somewhere between free trade and such other legitimate aims as protecting the environment. As a rule, countries should pursue these aims in ways that disrupt trade least." Many would put it exactly the other way round. But that is the truth about globalisation: it is driven by the imperatives of capital without any effective political means of weighing other issues in the balance. Free trade means more prosperity, we are told, as though that were an end of it.

What would an open, accountable, democratic global politics look like? A new group called Charter 99, with worldwide support, issued a proposal for global governance last month. It proposes, among other things, an international environment court to enforce treaties on the environment; global incorporation and regulation of the multinationals through the WTO; an independent source of revenue for UN institutions, through, say, taxation of foreign exchange transactions. All this created minimal press interest. And it is fair to say that there is a utopian, impractical air to such ideas. Effective democratic accountability seems even more unlikely; it is hard enough at the regional European level, never mind on a global scale. But if we are to wrest the world back from Monsanto and Microsoft, we had better start to believe in such things, and soon.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser