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Why Going To Sacramento Isn't An Efficient Use Of Your Time
Many people are set to converge on Sacramento from June 20-25, but it's possible their time would be better spent elsewhere.
Lately there's been a tremendous amount of time and energy spent on organization and planning for a series of protests in Sacramento. Ostensibly, the issue at hand is the World Trade Organization, a consensus-based body which regulates free trade among its member states. For anarchists and activists, the WTO has essentially become a symbol of capitalism to protest at all costs.
Is the WTO an appropriate symbol of capitalism?
While it is convenient to use a single organization as the symbol of capitalism, the WTO is a poor choice. It is complicated, difficult to understand, and outside the scope of most people's concern. What's more, although the WTO facilitates free trade for big business, its existence is a manifestation of capitalism - not the root of it. If the WTO were to disappear tomorrow, the world would not be a better place. On the contrary, the disappearance of the WTO would allow the United States to even more overtly assert its world economic hegemony.
The WTO isn't responsible for forcing genetically modified crops on the rest of the world, the domination of big agriculture, the existence of sweatshops, or the destruction of the environment. In the absence of the WTO, these conditions would be further exacerbated by genetic engeering firms, big agriculture firms, and trans-national industry.
A central issue for anti-WTO protesters is the question of genetically modified crops. Although article 20 of the General Agreement On Tarrifs And Trade allows for health, environmental, or safety exceptions to rules regarding non-tarrif import restrictions, the WTO dispute settlement panel has decided that there is not enough scientific evidence for GMOs to qualify. It has been said that the WTO doesn't allow for the “precautionary principle,” and so it is forcing smaller countries to accept dangerous US imports.
Let's look at an example. In 1997, Japan became worried that imports of US apples might introduce “fire blight” into their own apple orchards, which have never been exposed to the bacteria. From 1998 to 2002, they commissioned a joint U.S.-Japan study which concluded that there is no danger of introducing fire blight into Japanese orchards. Japan still wished to error on the side of caution, and maintained import restrictions on U.S. apples. The United States claimed that this was an unfair import restriction and took the issue to the WTO. The WTO ruled that there was insufficient scientific evidence to support Japan's claim for an Article 20 exemption. In anti-WTO circles, this was widely recognized as the WTO's continued facilitation of US world hegemony.
But what does the WTO ruling mean? There's no WTO army to enforce WTO decisions, so all this means is that the United States can legally levy counter-tarrifs in response to Japan's own import restrictions. Obviously, though, this is what the United States would have immediately done had the WTO not existed in the first place. The United States would not have waited five years for a scientific study to be completed, nor would Japan have even had a chance to make its case.
Fundamentally, states can't afford to place import restrictions on GMOs because it would mean economic death in the face of U.S. counter-tarrifs. This is the case whether the WTO exists or not. The problem is not the WTO. The problem is the GE firms which create GMOs and the BigAg firms which push them on the rest of the world, not to mention powerful U.S. subsidies and other strong-arm tactics. If you stop the WTO, that won't change. In fact, it might get worse.
Is protesting the WTO an efficient use of your time?
Right now, there are already Bay Area residents in Mexico City and Cancun preparing for WTO protests in September. Meanwhile, San Francisco Food Not Bombs is struggling to find enough volunteers. So many people have left Santa Cruz for protests in Sacramento that there will be no anarchist cafe in July or August. People who would be setting up camps at the Rainbow Gathering will instead be carrying signs in Sacramento. Portland activists have been working on this for three months. Many people who have never made a significant effort to create community or build parallel institutions will once again take time off from work to go join the protest circuit in Sacramento.
To me, the “protest culture” of anarchists and activists today is an inefficient use of our time. The only positive outcome I've seen from events like the WTO protests in Seattle were the incidental connections that activists made with each other. This, however, was the secondary result of a nationally coordinated effort. Imagine the connections that people would make if it were the primary focus.
Protesting can't be enough. Imagine what could happen if all of the Sacramento activists spent their hours building something positive instead of shouting out against something negative. Think of the alternatives.