The year 2000 is to be brought to a close by the opening round of the auctioning of selected public services to the world's most predatory - mainly US - corporations. This process is sanctioned by GATS (the General Agreement on Trade in Services), and items that could be on offer range from Mexico's telecommunications to Britain's schools. The deadline being offered to governments by the World Trade Organisation is this month.
GATS is a set of international regulations which will require national governments to open up public services to the market. Its aim is to remove all internal government controls over service delivery that are barriers to trade. In effect, it is the framework for a global programme of privatisation. GATS identifies 160 sectors to be subject to its rules. They range from hi-tech telecommunications to emptying the dustbins. They would make government actions to keep local control over these services illegal.
This new machinery of liberalisation comes at a time when profits in manufacturing are falling and corporations are hungry for new markets. AT&T, Arthur Anderson, the Chase Manhattan bank, IBM, the energy company ENRON, accountants Price Waterhouse Cooper and Ernst and Young and many others, as democratic as a band of feudal lords, are salivating in anticipation.
What power has voting had over this international regime which will, in the long run, transform the quality of our lives? None. On the other hand, people did originally vote for the services now being sold. They still do. David Hartridge, director of the WTO Services Division, indicates where power lies: "Without the enormous pressure generated by the American financial services sector, particularly companies like American Express and Citicorp, there would have been no GATS."
There has been no parliamentary debate on Britain's support for GATS. The only electoral arena in which it has been raised is the US. Thanks to Ralph Nader. The one positive feature of the recent US campaign has been a platform for Nader to sound the alarm on how strangled democracy has become. The importance of this has sunk under recriminations about taking votes from Al Gore. But Nader's campaign was especially important because he was able to combine his well-deserved reputation for exposing and curbing corporate power with the new anti-capitalist energies of those who led the protests in Seattle and Prague.
What next? What can be learnt for the green left in Britain in the face of corporate dominance? Holding inspiring rallies gives a kick start to a movement, but any new counter power has to root its ideas and demands in our potentially powerful community and workplace organisations: win the trust of black and feminist organisations; persuade organisations like the Green party and different socialist parties to let go of their exclusive claims to leadership.
In Britain something is stirring in relations between left parties. The election of green socialist Penny Kemp as chair of the Green party might improve the chances of socialist/green collaboration. In Preston, where a New Labour candidate was selected over outstanding socialist Valerie Wise, Labour party members talked privately about putting principle before party and voting for the Socialist Alliance.
Even the largest far left organisations are beginning to overcome their debilitating sectarianism. The Scottish Socialist party built its considerable influence through its involvement in resistance to the poll tax, water privatisation and motorways cutting through working-class estates. The SSP gained more votes than the Lib-Dems in the last two byelections for the Scottish parliament and six out of the last seven council byelections across Scotland.
Modest cooperative alternatives, ranging from organic food providers to local recycling, credit unions and environmental resource centres, will not bring about fundamental change on their own; they need allies with other kinds of power. One source of alliance is the much diminished power of organised workers. On both sides of the Atlantic, trade unions have begun to reinvigorate themselves by addressing the limitations of their old workplace-based, national structures.
All these initiatives on the independent left are part of the toolkit of a nimble, plural, international guerrilla strategy to break the corporate grip on democracy.
Hilary Wainwright is editor of Red Pepper. email@example.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000