Discursive representation and the struggle for democracy

Essay, 2006

14 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Discursive representation and the struggle for democracy

Seattle, November 30th 1999. At 5 am activists protected by dawn, illegally climb on a crane and mount a banner at dazzling hight above the ground. As the sun comes up a few hours later, the banner can be seen from afar all over the city, it shows two arrows pointing into opposite directions. On of them it says “WTO” and on the other “Democracy". The events that followed that day are known as the Battle of Seattle}[1]

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has become the guardian angel of trade liberalisation, but its growing global power especially after the 1999 Seattle debacle has engendered growing public scrutiny.[2] A number of scholars, activists and critics are concerned with the democratic deficit in system-level institutions, in particular the WTO, and are searching for solutions and alternatives to promote democratic legitimacy an accountability in global institutions.[3] In this modern era of globalisation and democracy, in which the forces of a globalised economy constrain and elude the control of the nation state and its populus, a crucial question comes to the fore[4]: Can democracy in its present form, as bounded to territorial and sovereign states, address the increasing transnationalisation of society or is there a need to advocate a new pillar of democratic interaction more suitable to counteract real existing globalisation and its proponents?

This paper will explore the possibility of increasing democratisation of the WTO, applying a deliberative concept, in particular the feature of discourse representation as a bottom up approach[5]. Keeping the above stated question in mind, the inquiry will begin with an analysis of current democratic principles and realities at the WTO.[6] The findings will underline the inadequacy of institutional procedures at the WTO, as well as its elitist, exclusive and inherently undemocratic foundations. In the subsequent section an account is given of how the WTO itself and actors, especially Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), are currently dealing and coping with the democratic deficit of the WTO. The third part of the paper is an innovative proposal of how discursive presentation could be used at the WTO itself or in NGO networks to democratise an important actor in the international system.[7] The proposal intends to incorporate the theoretical framework of discursive presentation, as established by Dryzek and Niemeyer, into a practical application utilizing the Internet as a possible formal forum. Consequently, this paper argues that discursive presentation can act as a horizontal and inclusive pillar of deliberative democracy reconfiguring power structures and increase [global] citizen participation. Thus helping to turn around the opposite arrows and supporting transnational democracy.

WTO Democracy theory and practice

The WTO was established as successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1995 and currently holds a membership of 149 states with 30 awaiting admittance. The member states account for 97% of world trade.[8] It is the only international organization dealing with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible. The purpose of the agreements, which members negotiate, is to “help producers of goods and services, exporters and importers to conduct their business”, in order to improve the welfare of the peoples of the member countries.[9]

The WTO stresses that it does not force governments into agreements, but rather governments dictate to the organization. In its pamphlet “10 common misunderstanding about the WTO” it rejects allegations that it dictates policies, the promotion of free trade at all costs, that commercial interests take priority over development, the environment, or health and safety. It disagrees that it contributes to the widening gap between rich and poor, that small countries are powerless members; it is not a powerful tool of lobbies and weak states are not forced to join. However, the organization admits that not all countries have “the same bargaining power”. Being offered something in return in order to consent to its decisions persuades reluctant countries. But most importantly it claims to be democratic.[10]

This is based on the self-image as “member driven” by consensus among all member governments, while its highest authority is the ministerial conference. Individuals are unable to participate directly, but are represented through their respective government[11]

There are a number of issues, problems with the above claims. First, it is unclear how the WTOs purpose of supporting a small group of unaccountable capitalists benefits the larger group of citizens. If liberalizing markets through free trade is the sole purpose of the organization it inevitably benefits those who are trading, which are for the most part Multinational Corporations (MNCs). How this miraculously benefits the welfare of peoples stays unclear as MNCs do not redistribute profits except to their shareholders.[12] Second, bargaining agreements and offering incentives to consent leaves the bitter taste of coercion. If a fiction of inequality is maintained and observed, then this will tend to increase the reality of inequality. Taking a closer look at decision-making processes at the WTO shows how these issues play out in reality.

The content of most agreements are decided in informal green room meetings dominated by the so-called Quad (USA, EU, Japan and Canada) and its diplomatic representatives.[13] The triangle of the USA, EU and Japan alone account for three quarters of world trade, while of the hundred biggest MNCs 53 are European and 23 are from the USA.[14] These countries effectively are decision makers in the name of their own domestic economic interest as the long arm of the MNCs, while smaller market share countries are decision takers.[15] Sampson notes that several developing countries are “systematically absent from not only informal, but also formal meetings”.[16] Developing and/or smaller countries often lack resources, capacity and/or expertise to take part in meetings, marginalizing their input in deliberation.[17] In short, the WTO is not only structurally undemocratic, but can be seen as an agent of domination that increases global inequality. Thus, it falls short of representing its member states on equal footings.


[1] Attac, “Die geheimen Spielregeln des Welthandels - WTO-GATS-TRIPS-MAI", Wien, 2003, page 10

[2] Kapoor Ilan, “Deliberative Democracy and the WTO", Review of International Political Economy, 11:3, 2004, page 522

[3] Note: A number of these critiques will be discussed in this paper in the following sections.

[4] Dryzek, John S., “Transnational Democracy", The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 7, Number 1, 1999, page 30

[5] Dryzek, John S., Niemeyer Simon “Discursive Representation". Unpublished workshop paper for Rethinking Representation, UBC, May 2006

[6] Due to the confines of this paper the WTO will act as an example for other global institutions, in which a lack or even absence of democratic legitimacy is currently present. Institutions such as are the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank.

[7] Note: Discursive presentation as a rather radical concept, might not find its way into the WTO itself, but it could easily help to strengthen NGO networks in their combined effort to pressure the WTO to reform. The medium-term feasibility is higher in NGO networks, but the long-term introduction into the WTO would be ideal. The proposal is not bound to NGO/WTO relationships but is highly adaptable to other realms of democratic participation.

[8] Ibid, WTO, 2006

[9] WTO, “The World Trade Organistation”, page 1-2 accessed online at www.wto.org on the 26th of May 2006

[10] WTO, “10 common misunderstandings about the WTO”, page 1-11, accessed online at www.wto.org on the 26th of May 2006

[11] Ibid, WTO, page 11

[12] Ibid, Attac, 2003, page 18

[13] Woods Ngaire, Narlikar Amrita, “Governance and the limits of accountability: the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank”, ISSJ 170/2001 Unesco, Blackwell Publishers, 2001, page 573

Due to the confines of this paper it is not possible to give a full account of the decision making process at the WTO. More exhaustive works such as of Kapoor (2004), Woods and Narlikar (2001) or Steffek and Ehling (2005) and others give a deeper analysis.

[14] Le Monde Diplomatique, “Atlas der Globalisierung”, taz Verlags- und Vertriebs GmbH, Berlin, 2003, page 24-30

[15] Ibid, Woods and Narlikar, 2001, page 573

[16] Sampson Gary, “The World Trade Organisation after Seattle”, World Economy, Volume 23, Number 9, 2001, page 1100

[17] Ibid, Kapoor, 2004, page 529

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Discursive representation and the struggle for democracy
The Australian National University
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Jan Lüdert (Author), 2006, Discursive representation and the struggle for democracy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/90075


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