rn: David Lewit on MLK/WTO


Jan Slakov

Dear RN,

Perhaps you remember Vicki Robin saying that, "Some of the people who
impressed me most for their inter-NGO bridge building were representatives
of Alliance for
Democracy, United for a Fair Economy and Sustainable
America. They said… We need to watch out for the turf and
leadership and funding wars that break us apart in petty
ways." [cf. RN posting of Dec. 29, 99]

Below is a speech from David Lewit, who has been working with the Alliance
for Democracy (and our Renaissance Network effort) for quite some time. 

A beautiful speech, which makes clear where the best and brightest of
American values are leading us now.

all the best, Jan
Date: Wed, 19 Jan 2000 00:31:00 -0500 (EST)
From: David Lewit <•••@••.•••>

           Martin Luther King and the World Trade Organization*

                  David Lewit, Alliance for Democracy
                        and Veterans for Peace

Martin Luther King was still in high school when Eleanor Roosevelt became
chair of the UN's Commission on Human Rights in 1946.  By the time she died
in 1963, five years before Dr. King was killed, they had succeeded together
in making human rights the watchword of the postwar decades.  

Eleanor Roosevelt worked to ensure that the world-wide structure of the
United Nations, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would
be there to protect all of us.  Martin Luther King worked to inspire and
mobilize us to value human rights and human dignity above material concerns
and prejudice-ridden institutions.  Roosevelt brought the moral energy of
knowing the poor of the world.  King's energy stemmed in large part from the
persistent bitter taste of oppression among black people in the US despite
two decades of steadily rising living standards among most of its working

But humans don't live by dignity alone—-we need bread and medicine, and we
strive for the things that enable us to live well and, in the West, to make
the most of ourselves.  To provide the commercial basis for this and to
ensure its world power, the US government and some of its allies during
World War II set up—-alongside the UN—-the World Bank, the IMF, and plans
for a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which would evolve into the
World Trade Organization—-the WTO. 

Martin Luther King, Jr., was only 15 at the time these institutions were set
up, but after twenty years of struggle in civil rights and several years of
witness to the war in Vietnam, he came to realize fully the connections at
the heart of the cold warrior's System.  In his last presidential address to
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he said 

      "Question the WHOLE society. [This] means ultimately coming to see
that the problems of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the
problem of war are all tied together." 

It would be another generation before most Americans began to connect the
dots, but that time seems to have come—-in popular resistance to Fast Track
and NAFTA, the citizen derailing of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment
(MAI), and the recent confrontation with the WTO in Seattle.

If he were alive today, what would Martin Luther King think of the World
Trade Organization?  I don't hesitate to answer: He would call it an
abomination.  Had he lived another five years, he would have heard the
self-appointed Trilateral Commission, whose leaders included President Jimmy
Carter, and more recently Governor Bill Clinton, say that we suffer from "an
excess of democracy."  

At that critical time, about 1974, the tone of US foreign policy changed.
The Vietnam war had ended in shame to the US, and President Nixon had
resigned in shame.  The draft had ended and young people settled back to
mind their own business.  President Ford pardoned Nixon and most people
cynically accepted it and the legalized corruption in lobby-ridden
Government.  Washington apologists felt that the way to vindicate themselves
was to assert power rather than to seek conciliation with the public.  "Let
the power-seekers have their way."

If MILITARY power had failed, the army could be professionally reorganized
without draftees--President Carter expanded the military budget.  POLITICAL
power could be projected in other ways as the CIA did in promoting dictators
in Chile and Indonesia.

But the third force--ECONOMIC power— would lead the way to a New World
Order.  The corporate elites of the industrialized countries would flood the
world with new products whose benefits would trickle down somehow to
low-paid workers.  In fact, worker's incomes in the United States stopped
rising and their hours lengthened as the incomes of the top fifth of the
country soared.  In the Third World millions of farmers and fishers would
lose their livelihoods and be reduced to absolute poverty.

The Trilateral Commission, a conservative and well-connected group of
idealists and planners from North America, Europe, and Japan, unfurled the
banner of "free trade" and accelerated the momentum of multinational
corporations.  Free trade was anything but free, but instead promoted the
monopolistic interests of the biggest companies. 

Their basic instrument was the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade--GATT,
which gave birth in 1995 to the World Trade Organization.  The GATT, signed
by the trade ministers of most industrialized countries, started modestly
but over the years established principles eating away at the authority of
nations trying to protect their traditional agriculture, their fledgling
industries, their public institutions, and the hard-earned rights of workers
and other ordinary citizens who were not corporate stockholders.  

In a brief 25 years multi-national corporations have become TRANSnational
corporations, seizing a level of privilege—-meaning "above the
law"--previously unknown.  Today, more than half of the largest 100
economies of the world are not countries, but corporations.  Their money can
buy influence and command armies and covert operations. These exclusive,
authoritarian bodies can control nations rather than nations controlling
them.  They can force nations to change their laws regarding, health, labor,
affirmative action, clean environment, resources, community development,
relations with local and state governments and democracy itself.  

What features of this audacious new system, represented by the WTO, would
have troubled Martin Luther King?

First, WTO places profits above people.  Any law or practice that gets in
the way of transnational corporate profit may be challenged under WTO rules.
Thus a WTO tribunal judged parts of the Lomé Convention illegal, which had
allowed Britain and other former imperial powers to favor products from
their former Caribbean colonies.  The tariff difference against Central
American bananas acted like a subsidy to the primary industry of the little
island nations of Saint Lucia, Dominica, and Saint Vincent, which produce
less than three percent of the bananas in international trade.  At the
behest of American-owned Chiquita Corporation, the US filed suit with the
WTO, even though no bananas are grown anywhere in the US.  And the WTO
tribunal, as always so far, came down on the side of the corporation.

So Lomé had to be renegotiated, even though nothing was judged about
Chiquita's subsidy to the Democratic and Republican parties of almost a
million dollars, not to speak of other corporate welfare arranged in
Washington.  A large part of the populations of those Caribbean islands will
now be out of work, unable to compete price-wise with bananas grown by
Chiquita on their giant plantations in Central America under poverty wage
conditions.  What would Martin Luther King have said about this?  Actually
he said it a year before he was murdered:

    "I am convinced," he said, "that if we are to get on the right side of
the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of
values.  We must rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a
person- oriented society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and
property rights are considered more important than people, the giant
triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being

A second feature of WTO is its denial of any social or environmental
relevance or responsibility.  Despite Bill Clinton's urging the inclusion of
labor and environmental standards in his speech to the WTO in Seattle,
spokespersons for WTO say its mandate is merely commercial, and that matters
of labor should be taken up in the International Labor Organization, and
that matters of environment should be taken up in multilateral environmental
agreements.  Never mind that only the WTO has enforcement powers.  Never
mind that major tax-supported projects in most Northern countries—-military
aside—-require environmental and social impact studies before approval.  

I don't know exactly what Dr. King would have said.  He might have pointed
to the WTO's contempt for native and dark-skinned peoples as illustrated in
the banana case and the transnational corporations' exploitation, under WTO
protection, of half a billion farm folk in India.  But as illustrated by his
Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, King believed in
comprehensive and candid assessments of difficult problems--linking social,
political, and economic considerations.  This speech may have cost him his life.

Another feature of WTO is its unequal justice.  Commercial complaints, even
those involving foreign trade and investment, can and often are taken to
regular domestic courts.  Judgments in domestic courts take into
consideration decades or centuries of labor, environmental, and democratic
procedural law and custom.  In order to avoid such concerns, the WTO took
from GATT what they call "dispute settlement" and "arbitration" processes in
their own tribunals, now usually in Switzerland.  Affected parties such as
taxpayers, customers, companies, and unions are excluded from the
proceedings which are argued by government lawyers.  The judges are not
broadly experienced jurists, but narrowly experienced trade lawyers drawn
from a WTO pool.  Lawyers in the pool are often nominated by organizations
like the International Chamber of Commerce, while government lawyers arguing
the cases answer to unelected political appointees often beholden to large
corporations which help to draft WTO rules and to whose ranks government
lawyers often retire. 

Having been ratified by Congress and the parliaments of other WTO member
countries, GATT and other multilateral agreements which constitute the WTO
rulebook are law--the "supreme law of the land."  WTO rulings cannot be
reviewed by our Supreme Court or any domestic court in any country.  Martin
Luther King said 

"Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal."

The leadership of the WTO favor privatization of just about every public
service except the military and the courts, so that foreign companies can
bid to provide such services for profit.  Up for approval in the failed
Seattle meetings of the WTO ministers was an extension of the General
Agreement on Trade in Services—- GATS, which would cover not only banking,
brokerage, insurance, transportation and telecommunications, but be extended
to education, health services, and even municipal water systems and the
water itself.  Martin Luther King said, in questioning a capitalist system
which creates so many poor people:

"Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds

Dr. King would be concerned about many other features of the WTO and the
corporate, elitist system it represents.  He would be concerned about the
secrecy in which the WTO and similar  agreements are drafted, and the
discrimination against Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans who have been
excluded from the drafting process and even from the critical preparatory
meetings of the WTO ministers, who finally rebelled in Seattle.

Dr. King would be concerned about the dependency which WTO creates by
disabling native and regional systems, breaking apart their social and
economic aspects, and forcing poor countries and regions to export their
products for cash and buy their necessities with that cash, often at the
mercy of plunging world commodity prices.  

Whereas WTO seeks to reduce and eliminate product bans and tariff barriers,
it has no such concern with immigration barriers.  It seeks equal treatment
for foreign and domestic corporations, but does not seek equal treatment for
immigrants and migrant workers.  It seeks to prevent taxation of speculative
millions of dollars flying around the world each minute electronically, but
its proponents would not discourage taxation of unions at the same rates as
corporations.  Its policies encourage maximum profit-taking with minimum
social and environmental responsibility, thus fostering a "race to the
bottom" in working conditions and living conditions and all services that
must be paid for in the absence of public services.  Martin Luther King
would surely decry this false philosophy of merit.

Reporters with major newspapers implied or misreported that protesters in
Seattle were against world trade.  With all our criticism and condemnation
of the WTO, would King have wanted an end to world trade?  I think Martin
Luther King was a practical as well as a moral man.  Where Gandhi may have
fostered simple village life, the African village is too far removed from
the memory of African-Americans.  King certainly did not want a return to
the cotton plantation.  He was less concerned with the organization of
production than with the spirit of hatred or love that moves people to
oppress or to support their fellow humans.  Where WTO-advocates concur at
some level that "greed is good," Dr. King would certainly take issue.  Were
he alive today, I think he would put it to people of all means—-rich, poor,
and middling: 

      * What system of production and trade do you want in the
place-or-places where you live?

      * How would you reconcile the differences in wealth and sharing in
your own town-and- region, and between regions of the world?  

      * And how would you speak for the Earth itself?  

I think Dr. King would rejoice in a decade of full and fair dialog.   ##

* talk sponsored by Veterans for Peace at Ipswich MA, 17 Jan 2000