Tactical Means and Strategic Aims in our Campaigns on the WTO

01 February 2002
Dot Keet

Tactical Means and Strategic Aims in our Campaigns on the WTO
Dot Keet
Meeting of the OWINFS Network, Porto Alegre, Brazil, February 2002

Building a mass civil society movement for change. How do we develop a way forward?
Our World is Not for Sale

The number of organisations participating in the OWINFS Network is expanding rapidly. It brings together a growing range of organisations from all over the world, covering a wide range of areas and issues within the broad framework of the WTO, and bringing rich and varied experiences, extensive knowledge, and enormous skills into the activities of the network. OWINFS has great potential to contribute to "building a mass civil society movement for change", as the introductory 'flyer' for this meeting puts it. This present discussion is an attempt to contribute to this and to the other question posed in the OWINFS introduction, which is "How do we develop a way forward?"

Given the range and complexity of the issues we deal with, in our separate national and combined international efforts, and given the diversity of organisations within our broad common perspective and approach to the WTO, it becomes ever more important that we share our views not only on the substance, structures and functioning of the WTO but on our own plans and programmes of work, our practical and tactical approaches and our overall strategies and aims.

In this context the basic challenges facing us are

  • How do we evaluate or weight, and how do we inter-relate or integrate our different forms of action, and/or levels, and/or specific areas of work in such ways that they are mutually supportive and mutually reinforcing?
  • How do we ensure and secure amongst the organisations in this network, and others, our mutual recognition and support in what may be differing but complementary roles, within agreed or de facto 'divisions of labour'?

There are twelve main 'sets' of related issues and options that we have to evaluate, weight and inter-relate. The challenges are not only about how we find and deploy the necessary people, time and resources within and between the respective sets of related issues, but how we conceptualise and operationalise the relationships between them.

1. The focus of our work in this network is most specifically on the WTO as an institution, analysing, criticising and countering its rules and agreements, existing and proposed; which, as we all know full well, is an extremely challenging undertaking. But we have to simultaneously understand and expose to public view the substance and the apparent and underlying aims of these rules and agreements in terms of the role of the WTO as a key instrument of powerful economic and political forces and factors driving and shaping an emerging 'globalised' economy. Thus we have, between us, to take on board both institutional and systemic analyses and arguments.

2. We are confronted with the immediate and urgent challenges posed by the drive to expand the powers and coverage of the WTO, especially through the so-called new issues, with the immediate focus and instrument planned to be the next WTO ministerial in 2003. This indicates that combating the new issues in/and a new round must be a top priority for the next two years. At the same time, we are faced with the consolidation of established WTO policy controls and the extension of their coverage in a multiplicity of other negotiations and reviews, particularly on agriculture and services, within the 'built-in-agenda' carried over from the Uruguay Round. We have to engage energetically with the old or new 'study groups' or 'working groups', and various other committees set up in recent WTO Ministerial in Doha, in order to prevent new negotiations, while at the same time engage with ongoing negotiations on existing agreements. Thus we have to pursue and maintain a balance between immediate defensive and pre-emptive tactics that are very precisely focused, as well as other longer-term and broader proactive engagements.

3. There are many existing agreements, which contain highly problematic terms on which we are demanding immediate and significant changes; for example on the patenting of life forms (and other serious problems) within TRIPS. At the same time, we argue, correctly, that the assumptions, aims and entire character of some UR agreements, such as TRIPS, TRIMs and others, are so fundamentally wrong and their location in the WTO so fundamentally questionable, that they should be removed from the WTO and rescinded altogether. How do we reconcile strategically and relate tactically important but limited reform proposals and more far-reaching demands and aims in such ways that the former promote rather than substitute for, or displace, the latter.

4. We are all faced with the enormous challenges in our respective areas of focus on the WTO in understanding and analysing in minute detail the content and implications of the various agreements and rules. In so doing, we are constantly criticised by status quo defenders and apologists for 'just making negative criticisms' and not providing positive alternatives, although our alternatives are invariably dismissed out of hand as being idealistic, unrealistic or too radical. However, independently of such responses, we ourselves are faced with the contrary challenge of not getting bogged down on the existing details and unintentionally caught up in the 'logic' of the arguments and the assumptions of the dominant paradigm. This danger is evident in our apparent focus on 'trade' - and our frequent identification by others as 'trade' analysts/activists. Whereas, our fundamental concerns are broad-based and holistic economic development, social justice and environmental sustainability, human rights and gender equity ... and the necessary shaping and subordination of trade to serve those ends. Yet our focus, perforce, is on, and our analysis is often within, the dominant 'trade' paradigm. The challenge facing us is how to enter into the existing details and do so within the framework of a different logic challenging the underlying assumptions of the entire paradigm.

5. Similarly, it is essential that we engage in detailed and rigorous legal scrutiny of the WTO texts. On the one hand this is to expose their internal inconsistencies and omissions and, on the other hand, to tactically exploit to our own advantage errors or spaces that we find and even some useful terms that have, intentionally or otherwise, been slipped in through negotiations over the years. Needless to say, such analyses require particular legal skills and expertise which are important means with which to engage with the promoters of the WTO and expose them 'on their own terms'. At the same time, this too could become a restrictive discourse. Our critique of these texts is not confined to their internal contradictions but to exposing also their external effects, and this requires other analytical skills and broad empirical evidence. Thus, between the members of the network, we have to make and use rigorous analysis of the legal texts to maximum effect, as well as deploy other concepts, methods of analysis and evidence on their broader implications and socio-economic effects.

6. Clearly all these areas, and complementary or combined methods of work on the WTO demand extensive knowledge, and enormous skills. These skills further include the abilities to argue our cases, identify and effectively utilise the best entry points and accessible governments or influential figures, and engage confidently and convincingly with the media. At the same time, the full effectiveness of highly professional lobbying does not derive only from the cogency of arguments and persuasiveness of the evidence but also from the credibility of the testimony and the 'professional', social and political legitimacy of the advocate lobbyists themselves. Above all, and ultimately, the established regime and its defenders are based on global and national systems of power, and it is the demonstration of 'counter-power' and public pressures that make them more psychologically 'amenable' and politically responsive to lobbyist 'persuasion'. This points to the necessity for even the most skillful of lobbyists to draw upon, be based upon and backed up by much broader social participation and/or modes of legitimate representation. Thus, we need both highly informed and skilled lobbying, while recognising that the fullest weight, ultimate legitimacy and impact of lobbying activities require mass-based work and mass-mobilising campaigns .

7. In our own positions, or positionings in relation to governments - which, in the final analysis, are the political/legal agencies that would have to change WTO agreements in ways that we demand, or take decisions on its very role or continued existence - we are faced with a number of alternative approaches. These different approaches to government have to reflect, or change according to, the character and role of specific governments. With some governments that are (actually or potentially) in opposition to the terms and direction of the WTO, such as some in Africa, it is important to work to inform, strengthen, and support them. At the same time, this does not preclude being seen to be exerting popular pressures upon them - which can be tactically useful to them, if they have the political wisdom to see and use this as part of their negotiating armoury. Such popular pressures may, however, go further and be real challenges to unacceptable governmental positions, or unacceptable governments. At the same time, all governments, whatever their character, need to be made aware, and regularly reminded, that there are highly informed and active non-governmental agencies/actors that are constantly monitoring and potentially exposing their policy choices, their policy weaknesses and their international performance failures and betrayals. The different ways of dealing with our own governments have to be a matter of collective discussions and decisions within the respective organisations in this network. This is not easy for any organisation per se and especially for those working with and needing to build alliances with other national organisations focused on other spheres. This is also not a simple matter within this or other similar international networks. In the first place, there is the delicate question of recognising such national positions but sometimes having to work with the governments of fellow organisations - without contradicting or undermining the national organisations' strategies. We are also, collectively, faced with the extremely difficult challenges of working with governments on the international stage, where they might adopt positions that we welcome or can use; while on their national terrains they may lack democratic legitimacy, be authoritarian or oppressive. This has to be part of ongoing international as much as national debates. In the immediate context of this network, the differing national approaches for dealing with individual governments, separately, have to be recognised in our joint efforts to encourage tactical and strategic alliances between those governments that can be so marshaled.

8. A significant aspect of our engagement on the WTO and other major institutions is to target, and use to our advantage, crucial meetings of, or within, such institutions and organisations, and key moments in the international calendar. It is clearly evident in the succession of increasingly large demonstrations around major 'establishment' meetings, especially in recent years, how useful these are as focuses for mobilisation against the WTO. Such demonstrations act as a pole of attraction for a wide array of popular social and political forces that are dissatisfied with or actively opposed to the current global order/disorder. These huge gatherings, marches and dramatic demonstrations, to convey our views and demands to the powers-that-be, and to 'speak to' international public opinion, are also profoundly moving experiences for the participants. Such processes inspire and strengthen us and our own supporters and draw in new/potential supporters. Nonetheless, these impressive expressions of popular opinion and power do not - and should not - happen spontaneously. To be fully effective in challenging the established order and really empowering its critics and opponents, we have to sustain essential information flows, and continuous education and capacity building efforts, to contribute towards creating informed, convinced and committed mass mobilisations and actions. But such work is also important, in itself, where people are located and engaged, and not merely as preparations and mobilisations for major international events. In our case, we have to bring information on the WTO, its powers, terms and implications, into relevant people's campaigns, in order to strengthen them, in and of themselves; and from this basis, we will in turn be able to bring such popular campaigns and campaigners into the campaigns against the WTO. Thus, we have to maintain a balanced interaction, yet again, between these different levels and forms of work. And we have to relate and integrate our work towards, and our utilisation of, periodic 'high profile' central/ global events with largely 'unseen' and routine but sustained and vital decentralised national and local processes, grass-roots activities and actions.

9. We do have to use but, in another way and for other reasons, go beyond using major meetings and media attention on 'high profile events'. It is certainly important to work towards a situation where we can always make our voices heard - whether in or around meetings of major institutions, such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank, high level inter-governmental strategic consultations such as in the G7, the EU or the OECD, closed and hidden meetings of corporations, such as the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue (TBD) or the more public and apparently more open World Economic Forum; and the many other such high-powered national and international decision-shaping bodies. Whether we 'can' make our voices heard will be affected by the nature of state responses to our increasingly large, politically effective and 'threatening' demonstrations - whether they are 'violent' or not - and that will depend upon our own organisational responses to anti-democratic repressive state measures. Whether we 'can' make our voices heard will also depend, to a large degree, on the willingness, and ability, of the mainstream media to understand and report our arguments and demands. We have to be more inventive in finding ways and means to continue expressing ourselves publicly even if, or as, states become more repressive. We have to be more creative in using the media and/or developing our own means and methods of mass communication. But equally fundamental is the challenge, already evident to activists all over the world, to expand our own perspectives and methods. In the context of WTO campaigning activities, the broad alliance-building already underway against the anticipated directions and implications of GATS is a good example of far-sighted predictive analyses and proactive initiatives to link these up with existing popular campaigns on related issues in order to strengthen, and be strengthened by, them. Thus, in addition to reacting to and acting on/around the major events/initiatives of the power establishment, we have to initiate our own strategies to set a different public agenda and build independent popular activities and events that pre-empt or outflank theirs

10. There are other ways in which we have to continually refine and improve, but also go beyond, established methods and modes of engagement and mobilisation. Our joint statements and declarations, our letter campaigns and sign-on petitions are all tried and tested methods to get our ideas and demands communicated and supported. What is striking today about the great demonstrations all over the world is how amazingly rich they are in their imagery and actions, with highly inventive activities and imaginative means to convey our messages. For some, this may be an effective way to attract the attention of the media, hungry for 'good copy' but pre-disposed to looking for lurid images of violence unless 'provided' with enticing alternatives. For other demonstrators, such colourful methods may be motivated by a desire to counter the negative characterisations by politicians and dour depictions of us in the media. For yet others, this may be to get the visual message across to the political elites that we are 'ordinary people' (and potential voters) reflecting the social realities and diversities of humanity. However, the more proactive and 'inwardly directed' motivation for such creative methods has to be to make the demonstrations both meaningful and attractive, above all to the youth, and to 'speak to' the majority of the population, and the many different minority constituencies, in language they understand, using images, means and methods they relate to. These ideas, of course, are not new, but what this underscores is the need within this network to produce incisive technical/legal/economic analyses in language that is convincing and/or challenging to the powers-that-be; as well as forms of information and means of communication that are accessible and acceptable to 'ordinary' people.

11. In a discussion, such as this, on tactical options and strategic aims in building mass campaigns, it is not possible to avoid the politically difficult and emotive issue of the emergence of violence in, or accompanying, huge mass demonstrations. The political challenge is to unpack and analyse the full 'spectrum' of violence and sources of violence accompanying demonstrations. At one extreme there are clearly police or other agents provocateurs deliberately fomenting violence (as was most evident in Genoa). There are also socially alienated and irresponsible elements simply looking for excitement and even 'looking for a fight' (as happens frequently around football matches). At the other extreme, is a segment of self-defined political anarchists who are convinced of the inherently violent nature of state power and genuinely believe that it has to be countered with legitimate popular violence. Despite the common generalised characterisation of all demonstrators that resort to violence as being 'anarchists', this is a superficial and sweeping depiction, and even more so when applied indiscriminately to all demonstrators per se. All these violent elements are minute, if active, minorities within, around, or against, the larger demonstrations. However there is also a major source of violence in and arising from the actions of aggressive and over-zealous, or undisciplined, inappropriately trained, nervous or hyped-up police. And it is from their actions that there arises the major source of violent reactions by demonstrators. These are essentially counter-actions, or justifiable self-defence actions within the main body of the demonstrators - although largely by young and relatively inexperienced participants - who had no intention, initially, to engage in such activities. There are, additionally, those activists who believe in the effectiveness and legitimacy of non-violent 'direct action', but who will not condemn those who resort to violence in self-defence. The overwhelming majority of activists neither resort to nor justify violent actions in any form; with some of them opposed on principle to any form of violence whatsoever, while others are opposed because violence is self-defeating against immensely more powerful state forces, and is even more self-defeating in the political struggles to win broader public sympathy and support. If we are to continue building ever larger and broader mass demonstrations as important means to advance our demands, win over public opinion and shift the political/ideological balance of power, it is necessary to identify and deal appropriately with the different sources and types of violence but to do so, above all, through political engagement and preparation of all activists on practical questions and issues of principle, on the best tactical options and ultimate strategic aims.

12. Finally, the OWINFS network is as effective as it has been due to the openness of its debates and participation, the flexibility but effectiveness of its modes of operation, and cooperation based on mutual respect and trust. It is on these bases - over and above the convincing analyses contributed by its members, and the powerful resonance of its overarching slogan "Our World is Not For Sale" - that this network is attracting more and more organisations to its ranks. And it is on these bases, and with the skillful combination of all the practical and paradigmatic, tactical and strategic dimensions discussed above, that the network will be positioned to contribute to "building a mass civil society movement" as posed in the introduction to this meeting. However, success not only 'breeds success', it also poses new questions. One of the immediate challenges posed by the very growth of the network concerns the appropriate methods of organisation or coordination of this expanding, but hitherto loose, network. Similar questions are confronting other similar networks. These have proliferated all over the world in all sectors in the recent period, partly in a creative ad hoc way within the new social activism responding to specific events/situations; but also as the conscious expression of opposition to more formalised unitary forms of organisation. There is, above all, a resistance in these networks to the creation of central(ised) coordinating bodies - which are regarded as being inimical to direct and inclusionary democracy. This, in large measure, derives from the political/social culture of the radical women's movement with its opposition to hierarchical methods of work and structures of power and insistence on openness, inclusiveness, participation and empowerment of all. OWINFS is now being drawn into similar debates about its own future modus operandii. The fundamental challenges will be to:

  • achieve effective cooperation and coordination when agreed, within a high degree and diverse forms of flexibility;
  • maintain a high level of mutual trust and innovative initiatives with some more regular interactions/consultations as needed;
  • provide sufficient coordination as a network with independence of action of the participating organisations as they decide;
  • encourage openness of participation to ever more organisations together with commitment to basic positions formulated and promoted by OWINFS.