REFLECTIONS ON SEATTLE (by Stanley Aronowitz)
I. Humans seem to need commemorative celebrations. The importance of commemorations can hardly be underestimated. Beyond reaffirming our common species identity, they often help us recall important milestones that the complex of cultural and political influences conspire to facilitate forgetting. 2009 is auspicious in this regard: it is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (but have we forgotten Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, an important precursor to Capital?—this ‘forgetting’ has clear ideological roots in the disparagement of Marx and historical materialism which is deeply ingrained in our collective discourse); and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and of Abraham Lincoln, the latter an occasion for the publication of dozens of recent books on the Great Emancipator and a chance to reflect on the fate of blacks since that fateful proclamation. It is also the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Now, in much more restricted precincts, we recall the dramatic second “Battle of Seattle”—second because the first one was in 1919 when the working people of the city “downed tools” and conducted a general strike, an event that has attracted only a few historians.
The mass demonstrations at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) were conducted in protest against capitalist globalization, proclaimed by media, politicians, and corporate America as a boon to the country and only temporarily hurtful to some workers. The common hype was that the jobs shipped to Mexico and elsewhere were mainly done by immigrants and in industries that are low paid and Americans don’t want to work in anyway. Of course, this explanation was a gross falsehood. Outsourcing combined with systematic disinvestments in US production industries destroyed many of the best-paying working-class jobs, laid countless cities and towns prostrate, and lowered the living standards of millions of Americans.
The WTO is the third leg of the international economic cooperation fashioned by the “advanced” industrial countries and the international financial institutions to control the developing world. As is well understood by critics of the various arrangements installed by the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund and WTO, the deal is that these former colonial and dependent societies submit to regulation of their domestic politics as well as economic lives in return for development loans, repayable on demand, some technical assistance in health and education fields as well as industry. What is at stake in this arrangement are the conditions of investment by transnational corporations in their domestic economies. But the terms of “development” also affect the economies of the developed countries, particularly, but not exclusively, the workers. Governments in the developing countries have been obliged to repay the loans at prevailing interest rates, before considering the social welfare of their own people. In fact, among the forms of resistance by some countries has been their refusal to pay on time and the demand to “restructure” (reduce) the loans or forgive them entirely. It may be argued that the left turn of a number of Latin American countries over the past decade is directly linked to resistance to debt repayment, that radicals and reformers have claimed that the loans were made by corrupt governments and they should not inherit them. Even as protest and resistance in the United States has ebbed over the same period, WTO and other institutions of finance capital are under siege elsewhere.
“Seattle” was notable for at least four reasons:
- It was the most public manifestation of a growing, but hitherto invisible movement against the two decades of galloping de-industrialization of America and its consequent erosion of wages and, more generally, living standards. The Seattle demonstrations called attention to the betrayal of American workers exemplified by NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements that opened the way for US investment abroad and for the export of jobs, including well-paid jobs, to low-wage countries.
- It concentrated the growing frustration of blacks and Latinos, women, workers, and youth with the pro-Big Business orientation of the Clinton administration. Contrary to the tendency of progressives to endlessly give the Democrats the “benefit of doubt” the thousands of demonstrators who traveled to the WTO meetings, and their supporters who raised money to send them, broke recent precedent and dared to challenge, in the streets, the “progressive” credentials of the Democratic party and its national government, in deeds as much as words.
- Ideologically, it brought together an unprecedented alliance of labor unions, feminists, anarchists, and people of color in a common fight. During the preparation and the immediate aftermath of the events, there was an outpouring of commentary that looked forward to the possibility that the main actors would forge a common, long-term, struggle against capitalist globalization, in broad terms. Many recognized that the largest union contingents such as the Steelworkers sought relatively limited safeguards such as might be provided by Congressional legislation to safeguard workers’ rights in developing countries, and some wished to enact more stringent government regulations of foreign investments that result in plant closings. Feminists, angry that these investments mercilessly exploited women and, in close alliance with governments at home and abroad, disregarded women’s as well as workers’ rights; youth, many of whom were self-defined anarchists joined the protests for, among other reasons, they saw the fight as an opening round in the struggle against capitalism itself that, in the pursuit of large profits, they believed would not stop until it had subjugated the entire world, including themselves. Where several previous generations of post-World War Two American youth were somewhat justified in their belief that the system offered a them a relatively secure economic future, the palpable deterioration in life-chances in Western capitalist societies helped produce a new wave of militancy.
- For the first time since the civil rights sit-ins and the mass disruptions of the Vietnam-war era, thousands engaged in public acts of civil disobedience that almost completely halted traffic and ordinary activities of the Seattle core. Caught by surprise, city officials and the police were unprepared to deal with the brazenness of the demonstrators until, after most of the embarrassment was registered, the Mayor called in National Guard reinforcements to break the back of the street blockades that the demonstrators had set up. And, lost in the drama of street protests, the Leftist International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contributed to the protest by shutting down the West Coast ports for a day, a form of politics that has, for decades been unimaginable for virtually the entire labor movement.
Among the major contradictions in the drama of the second battle of Seattle was that, for the first decade after NAFTA in 1993–94 was instituted, some social and trade union movements in the developing world saw the treaty and its replicas for other countries as a path to their own modernization, to finally lift themselves from the scourge of poverty, hunger and disease. I remember meeting union people and intellectuals in Mexico City in the mid-1990s. The first question they asked is why American unions were so opposed to NAFTA. They wondered whether this was a reflection of an attempt to protect their privileged position, asked if there was a racist dimension to American labor’s opposition to the treaties. I answered that, although there certainly were folks who objected to NAFTA from an objectively rightist position, the emergence of new forms of domination of the developing and developed world were properly attacked.
It was not until the end of the century that these skeptics of “North American” protectionism began to clearly see the consequences of NAFTA. Yes, at first some areas of Mexico, notably the border region with the United States, seemed to be beneficiaries of NAFTA. New plants were opened (the maquiladoras), jobs were created at wages that exceeded the average for semi-skilled industrial labor in the country, and living standards improved. Of course, working conditions were abysmal and workers were often treated badly. These oppressions eventually led many to seek to organize unions that were not affiliated with the official Confederation of Labor, official because it was a virtual subsidiary of the party of government, the PRI. The heavy hands of both the US employers and the Confederation of Labor were laid upon activists who promptly found themselves on the streets, either in strike activity or the lines of the unemployed. In some instances, working class solidarity led to capital flight; US investors came to Mexico in order to escape unions, not to negotiate with a much more militant type. These plants often moved to China or reopened in another state of Mexico. NAFTA did help, unintentionally, to spur the organization of an independent labor movement which, however poor and weak, struck fear into the hearts of the ruling circles and US investors.
IIAn anti-globalization movement emerged from the Seattle demonstrations. Seattle was replicated, sometimes on a larger scale, at every subsequent WTO meeting: Quebec, Prague, Genoa, Barcelona and elsewhere. Hundreds of mainly young American activists traveled to these demonstrations and returned with renewed determination to mount another large protest in this country. A relatively modest rally of about 10,000 people was held in Washington in April 2000, but was notable for the absence of the unions. What had happened is not hard to fathom. There is little doubt that the relatively staid Steelworkers and Service Employees were not pleased that young people had literally taken over the downtown area of Seattle and subjected themselves to mass arrests and, in some cases, beatings. For these organizations had come a long way from the days of the general strikes, the factory occupations in auto and rubber (the sit-down strikes), and the mass steelworker protests in Chicago that led to what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. The appropriate forms of struggle, for them, were always peaceful and law-abiding. For this reason they were reluctant to join radical, anti-capitalist youth who not only wanted to up the ante on the movement’s ideological perspective, but were prepared to employ tactics of direct action that the labor movement had invented, but long abandoned.
The second reason that the anti-globalization movement—supplemented by student-led anti-sweatshop activities of considerable, but circumscribed proportions—failed to reach the level of a substantial political force is the powerful influence of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, of which the unions are an integral component. For them, the 2000 elections—indeed electoral activity, in general—is the only genuine forum for debate about social and economic policy. And with the conservative mood of the country still operative, many liberals feared direct action would mar their chances to retain the White House and Congress. Never mind that Bill Clinton had promoted NAFTA and became a fervent salesman for free-trade policies, signed the notorious Welfare Reform Act in 1996, and failed to enact a significant health care reform. Or that his anointed successor, Al Gore, followed the neo-liberal path set out by the Clinton administration, a path that was deeply committed to the retention and expansion of the American Empire. According to their lights, the alternative was worse and they would be damned to permit a band of young radicals to spoil the show. Outgunned, the anti-globalization movement mutated into what became known as the World Social Forum, of which more below.
Finally, the trauma of 9/11/2001, an event whose reverberations still dog any possibility for social change. The attack on New York Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon, now the perennial topic of conspiracy theorists who doubt that its perpetrators acted entirely independently of the Bush administration, nevertheless became the occasion for the intensification of the National Security State. In short order, certain foreign nationals, largely of Arab origins, were rounded up, the academic freedoms of some Middle Eastern scholars in US universities were curtailed and, most egregiously, the militarization of a large swath of US society was accomplished.
The political and cultural aftermath of the attack is difficult to recall; the story of 9/11 still awaits its social historian. But anyone who lived through the period in New York and Washington D.C. will remember the presence of armed troops in the streets, and the restrictions imposed by New York’s mayor Rudolph Guiliani on pedestrian and automobile movement for months. Perhaps more significant was the dramatic shift in the political environment. A bipartisan Congressional majority swiftly capitulated to almost every demand by the Bush administration: to enact laws that in the words of some critics “tore up the Constitution”; gave the administration virtually unlimited powers to round up, detain and imprison suspected “terrorists.” The War on Terror became the priority business of government, a profound transformation that led to US troop interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq with only a murmur of protest by a tiny minority of liberal lawmakers and liberal media. The vast majority of Democrats and their liberal wing were either silent or, in fear, joined the war. In this environment some public institutions, like universities, hastened to fall in line. Professors who dissented from the war policies were not often fired, but some were and, in many academic quarters, a pall descended on the ivy walls.
Under these conditions the anti-globalization movement did not die, but, instead, morphed into the World Social Forum (WSF). After an initial meeting at Porto Alegre, Brazil, which was a truly impressive gathering of indigenous people, intellectuals, activists and insurgent politicians, chiefly in the developing world, WSF and its regional replicas became the main site for discussion and debate about global economic and social issues. Meetings in Latin America, Europe, India and the United States have resembled large idea fairs. Participants range from anarchists, community organizers, many of which are situated in rural areas of developing countries, and, increasingly, liberal and populist politicians from the Global South. In time the Ford Foundation and other private organizations became the main funding sources for WSF.
Today, chastened by a powerful effort emanating from the advanced industrial societies to create a new world order, albeit one that might accommodate some of the urgent needs of developing societies, WSF has become a bulwark against the radicalism that marked the second battle of Seattle and its progeny. Whence the failure to build a serious anti-globalization movement. I would argue that, in addition to the huge influence of liberals in all countries who have helped fashion a new approach to forging a modern Empire in which the United States plays the leading role and the institutions of international finance are still potent technicians, the radicals’ lack of political organization must be reckoned with.
The old slogan “think globally, but act locally” is based on the concept that all politics is local. To these shibboleths must be added the deep suspicion harbored by many activists and intellectuals against central organizations—parties and otherwise. Clearly, we now confront a situation in which progressives and radicals must act globally as well as think globally. But lacking adequate resources and especially organizational perspectives, the great anti-globalization movement and its concomitant, the struggle against transnational capitalism, remains weak, ideologically impoverished, and fragmented. And of course, given the still pervasive national contexts in which labor struggles are conducted, the labor unions—still the most potent among the forces opposing capitalist globalization—have retreated.
Finally, the question of whether movements with diverse ideological perspectives can form cross-border alliances remains unanswered. Those who would come to the table of international institutions such as WTO and the World Bank are no less in need of a battle plan than those who insist that the system needs to be overturned. But, unlike the pre-World War One period when leftists of various stripes did not let their divergent analyses and programs stand in the way of joint action, even after the collapse of Communism we are still divided. Therein lies the challenge. To paraphrase Lincoln “a movement divided cannot stand.”