Global Constitutionalism and the Arguments over Free Trade

By Bruner, M. Lane | Communication Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Global Constitutionalism and the Arguments over Free Trade


Bruner, M. Lane, Communication Studies


In one of the most dramatic public demonstrations since the end of the Vietnam War, more than 40,000 citizens filled the streets of Seattle, Washington in the closing weeks of the twentieth century to protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and corporate globalization. The protesters' main claim was that the values and policies guiding corporate managed globalization were actively eroding the security and well being of the world community. In their massive sit-in on November 30, protesters blocked major downtown intersections, interrupting the opening of discussions between trade ministers from around the globe. Tensions were high, especially after early skirmishes with police prompted self-proclaimed anarchists to break away from the otherwise peaceful protesters and begin vandalizing transnational corporate businesses such as McDonalds, Starbucks, Old Navy, and Niketown. Vandalism soon escalated into violence as police used tear gas and pepper-spray to clear the streets. Under pressure from federal authorities, Seattle police, joined later by National Guard troops, enforced a dawn to dusk curfew on the city's downtown area, creating an unprecedented "50 block protest free zone," thus ensuring that the meetings would go ahead as scheduled the following day (Dority, 2000; Egan, 1999; Gorov, 1999; Hunter, 1999; Sanger, 1999; Verhovek and Greenhouse, 1999). Across the country, newspapers and television stations shared graphic images of civil unrest unseen in the United States for decades. There indeed had been a battle in Seattle.

The conflict caught many citizens by surprise, occurring as it did during a period of extended peace and prosperity. What could possibly be so wrong with the country, or with the WTO, that a major city could explode in protest? What were the various positions of those involved in the dispute and what were they fighting about? What was the WTO anyway? In what follows, I investigate these and other questions about the globalization process by outlining the various arguments for and against contemporary globalization policy. Despite the average citizen's confusion about the events in Seattle, the struggle between free trade advocates and their opponents is an old and important one. Karl Marx, for example, wrote a speech "On the Question of Free Trade" in 1848 in response to the repeal of the Corn Laws in England (Marx, 1906). The repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws established agricultural free trade in 1846 and exemplified the free trade thinking that dominated British economic philosophy until the 1930s. Marx argued that "free trade" was a ruse of the propertied class to increase the freedom of oppressive capital, not the freedom of democratic individuals (pp. 206-207). While the debate has gone through several rounds in the intervening years among experts, contemporary public arguments involve an unprecedented range of relatively informed constituencies coalesced around a fairly concise set of arguments for and against corporate globalization. While the broad public may be uninformed, they are more informed than they used to be.

The events in Seattle, then, can best be viewed as one of the most recent battles in the ongoing policy wars between free trade advocates in the government and their growing base of adversaries in the public sphere. The battle in Seattle was arguably prompted in no small part by an earlier campaign, led in 1997 by Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, against a proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI). The anti-MAI campaign galvanized a wide range of labor, environmental, and human rights activists to fight what they collectively saw as an attempt by corporations to gain nothing less than geo-political supremacy over the nation-state system (Barlow & Clarke, 1998). They won this round when the MAI was later tabled. Turning their attention to the world trade talks in Seattle, political activists from over 800 non-government organizations (NGOs) from over seventy-five countries called for "resistance to the growing power of corporate greed" and the "social degradation of the process of globalization without social control" engendered by the policies of the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank (Tabb, 2000; Hunter, 1999, p. …

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