Carte Blanche, Bête Noire

Carte Blanche, Bête Noire

You’re sitting there reading Dissent in the new millennium and I’m sitting here at the end of September 1999 with carte blanche from the editors: “Say what you like.” Easy enough for them—but what happened on the way to 2000? Has the now-teetering stock market crashed, putting 1929 to shame? Did the much-touted Y2K bug actually pounce or did it turn out to be an insignificant insect? What did the assembled worthies finally place on the negotiating agenda of my bête noire, the World Trade Organization? Or did mass protest by people in Seattle and worldwide at the end of November prevent the WTO from having any agenda at all?

I run on tea, not tea leaves and I won’t try to second-guess the new century. But even without a crystal ball, the relentless march of globalization is crystallizing both my hopes and my fears.

The hopes first. My vantage point is France, then Europe, only distantly the United States. Although most European countries are now nominally socialist, the Blairs and the Schroeders are widely seen by progressives here as trying to paint a social-democratic glaze on the same old Thatcherite or Kohlist policies. As for France, confronted with the downsizing of 7,500 French employees of the venerable and symbolic French transnational tire company Michelin (profit increase this year: 17.8 percent), Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced on television that governments can’t actually do much about the economy. He suggested that the downsized “mobilize.”

Thousands are, and not just over such immediate, anxiety-ridden issues as job losses. They seem finally to be taking matters into their own hands and deciding that they will not passively accept globalization and all its works. It used to be axiomatic that you couldn’t get “ordinary people” excited about international questions, yet the hottest topic of “la rentrée” (the post-holiday period when everyone “re-enters” the city and real life) is turning out to be the World Trade Organization.

A bit of background on the triggering factor in France: the United States and Canada lodged a complaint against Europe at the WTO because it refused to import growth-hormone-fed U.S. beef. The Americans won their case, despite the fact that even some U.S. scientists say that the food safety issue here is a very tough call; whereas European scientists in their finding for the European Union claim that at least one of the hormones used, 17-beta estradiol, is carcinogenic.

This fight is, however, about more than just entrecotes. It poses the question of scientific “truth,” since human biology isn’t like, say, astronomy, and it may take time before carcinogenic impact shows up. Even more to the point for those who oppose the WTO is its complete lack of respect for the “precautionary principle” which states that the burden of proof ought to lie with the United States to prove that its beef is safe—...