The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Who will benefit from a more democratic WTO'

Invariably, whenever an important issue arises, experts and analysts immediately take their clear and well-defined stands, and then confidently pontificate. I have always envied the courage of these wise men and women because I have discovered to my dismay that I am only good at being puzzled. After the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization at Cancun fell through, thousands of words appeared in the media, print and television, explaining its causes, consequences and implications — by experts of all persuasions, both proponents and detractors of globalization. But I must admit that I was, and still am, bewildered by the Cancun episode. This rather belated piece is animated by a genuine urge to share with others my sense of puzzlement. I was only waiting for the cacophony to go down.

What exactly happened at Cancun' An alliance of developing countries, G-21, in which India figures prominently with Brazil and China, stymied attempts by the United States of America and the European Union to dictate terms on the issue of farm subsidy. The latter apparently are not ready to withdraw the huge subsidy they provide to their farm sector that effectively denies developing countries’ farmers access to the North American and European markets. The G-21 has stubbornly refused to negotiate on any other issue, such as the ones related to investment and competition, until the question of farm subsidy is settled to its satisfaction. A deep chasm seems to have appeared within the WTO, separating the so-called North and South.

No, I do not want to dwell on the economics of farm subsidy. Even an average newspaper reader without any formal training in economics already knows how a farm subsidy works and what its implications are, thanks to the discussions by experts in the media. There is little left to add.

For a change, let me make an observation about the political reaction that the Cancun conference has produced, an observation I find most intriguing: the reaction of the organized left in India. It is not surprising to see the Bharatiya Janata Party government flaunting Cancun as a successful attempt by India to protect its national interest in a world forum against the predatory economic policies of powerful Western nations. But what baffles me is that the Indian left seems to share the same sense of triumph, interpreting Cancun as a victory of the South against the “imperialist” North.

For the last ten years, the left has been vehemently criticizing the economic policies adopted by the Indian government, policies that are driven by the neo-liberal ideology of capitalist globalization. Then how does one explain the fact that the Indian govern- ment and the organized left, the two poles of the Indian political spectrum, are both celebrating Cancun as a victory'

Consider a counter-factual situation in which the EU and the US yield to the pressure exerted by the G-21 and agree to withdraw farm subsidies, and the developing countries are allowed to penetrate the European and American market for farm products. Who is likely to benefit from such an arrangement' Not the small farmer I suppose. In order to reap the benefits of an open foreign market, one must have access to information, infrastructure facilities and credit. Only the large farmers have such access, and they are the ones who stand to gain, although the rhetoric of the G-21 is projecting the archetypal “poor peasant of the third world” as the victim of the rich nations’ subsidy policy. What is puzzling is that the sectional interest of a small minority of the population is being projected as the “national interest”, and political parties of all ideological hues are apparently endorsing it.

What seems to bring these disparate and diverse ideological positions together on the Cancun issue is the common allegation that the structure and modalities of the WTO are undemocratic, where the rich nations of the North wield disproportionate power and dictate terms. The G-21 is being seen as a countervailing force of the South that is working in the direction of making the WTO more democratic and a supranational global institution in the true sense. And it is an emphatic step toward a democratic, albeit capitalist, globalization. (Such stars of the American academia as Richard Falk and Joe Stiglitz are enthusiastically peddling this idea of democratic capitalist globalization.)

There is little doubt that the distribution of power among the members of the WTO is highly unequal, and the stubborn refusal of the US and the EU to cut back on subsidy is symptomatic of that inequality. A more democratic WTO, one would agree, is desirable rather than a less democratic one. But even if the G-21 succeeds in democratizing the WTO, the inescapable question to be confronted is: whose democracy' Is it democracy for the people of the South' The members of the WTO are Southern states, and unless one assumes that democratic power enjoyed by those states automatically translates into the same kind of power for their subjects, why should the Southern people, and the political parties representing their interests, uncritically celebrate the crusade unleashed by the G-21'

Even the most avid advocate of market economy will admit that the neo-liberal policies adopted by the Indian government, rational they may be from the efficiency angle, are making the distribution of income and assets increasingly unequal. As a result of these policies, a large section of the population is suffering from dispossession and loss of livelihood. These people are being priced out of the markets for education and healthcare with the privatization of these basics; the economic conditions of their existence are increasingly being subverted by the radical shift in the policy regime. Equal distribution of political power alone does not make a society democratic; the real substance of democracy derives from an egalitarian distribution of economic power as well.

In the ultimate analysis, formal equality in the domain of politics means nothing unless there is equality in the economic sphere. Seen thus, the jettisoning of the welfarist role by the Southern states and the consequent economic disempowerment of the Southern people signal a shift away from democracy. Why then should these disempowered people of the South care if the Southern states succeed in asserting their democratic power within the WTO'

The Indian left is up in arms against the Indian state and its neo-liberal policies, but in the international context, it seems to find it politically correct to stand by the state in the battle against the Western “imperialists”. There is a dichotomy between oppositional politics on the domestic and international front. This is the legacy of the political imaginary, embraced and nurtured by the left in the years following formal decolonization, an imaginary that had at its centre an absolutely statist North-South divide. Is this imaginary still relevant, in the era of globalization' Isn’t the borderline between the “external” and the “internal” spheres of contestation increasingly becoming blurred in the age of footloose capital, commodities and images, calling for one integrated, radical, oppositional politics'

During the conference, the Bengali daily of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) carried a long report on the battle of Cancun. There were pictures of anti-globalization activists protesting outside the building where the conference was being held, including the one in which the Korean farmer was stabbing himself. The accompanying analysis highlighted how a resolute G-21 and myriad other organizations were contesting together the imperialist design. I find the analysis very strange because I think there is a fundamental difference between those who were squatting outside the auditorium and the G-21 statesmen delivering angry speeches inside.

The squatters were representing a non-statist, grass-roots level opposition to the devastations wreaked by capitalist globalization, while representatives of states were engaged in a battle over the distribution of power between themselves within the WTO. The former were battling for a kind of radical democracy for the global multitude while the latter were concerned solely with democracy among the states, no matter how undemocratic and coercive those states are toward their subjects. And any attempt to conflate the two, for me, betrays a confused political understanding of the current juncture.

Bosses have their own conflicts and contradictions; they have their differences; there is a big one, and a not-so big one, a green one and a yellow one, but they are bosses all the same. A smooth-talking Arun Jaitley may have put up a splendid show against the big bullies, but why are the left expending their political energy by earnestly taking sides in this squabble among the bosses'

I don’t know why. Hence my sense of puzzlement.

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