The Road From Seattle


Jeremy Brecher,
with Tim Costello & Brendan Smith

The
Battle of Seattle marks a turning point in the politics of
globalization. It represents the emergence of a worldwide movement
seeking to put limits on global capital. The Road from Seattle
provides greatly expanded opportunities for that movement—if it
can avoid the potholes in the road.

  • Seattle showed
    that thousands of people are so angry about the direction of the
    global economy that they are prepared to put their bodies on the
    line to change it. It showed that tens of thousands more are so
    concerned that they are prepared to break their daily routine to
    protest it.

  • Seattle called
    the attention of millions of people to the fact that there is a
    World Trade Organization and that it is something they need to
    be concerned about. Beyond that, it established corporate
    globalization as a public issue.

  • Seattle
    redefined the issues of globalization for the public and the
    media, providing a new paradigm for understanding what is really
    going on in the world today. It forced into public awareness an
    understanding that protectionism vs. free trade is no longer the
    issue. The demonstrators reframed the issue as rules protecting
    corporations vs. rules protecting people and the environment.

Even
though the Seattle protests had the WTO as their immediate target,
they focused on the impact of globalization more broadly, avoiding
the trap of defining the issue as simply one of "trade"—free
or otherwise. The Jubilee Two Thousand movement for the cancellation
of Third World debt, for example, was represented in force, ensuring
a strong emphasis on the role of the World Bank, the IMF,
First-World creditors, and the structural adjustment programs that
have devastated the Third World.

The
movement was largely responsible for bringing the WTO to deadlock.
As Washington trade lawyer Peter S. Watson, former head of the
International Trade Commission explained the failure of the talks,
"What you’re seeing is the effect of the demonstrations, as well
as some real disagreements among the WTO members" (New York
Times
12/4/99). On the one hand, Third World delegates were
encouraged to question whether liberalization was actually working
for them and to resist pressures to simply go along with the rich
countries’ proposals. On the other hand, President Clinton
responded to labor pressure by endorsing sanctions against countries
that violate labor rights.

Movement
Convergence In Seattle

The
movement to control global capital established itself as a global
opposition, representing the interests of people and the environment
worldwide. It demonstrated that, even when governments around the
world are dominated by corporate interests, the world’s people can
act to pursue their common interests. (This is what some people mean
when they talk about the movement as an expression of "civil
society.") The movement in Seattle was international and
overwhelmingly internationalist.

Echoes
of Pat Buchanan’s neo-nationalism were few. Most meetings featured
speakers from all over the world. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
the major labor-sponsored rally included people from 144 countries.
"On stage at the rally were dozens of U.S. workers…who had lost
work when their plants moved to poor countries. Beside them were
workers from Third World countries who have won jobs in U.S.-owned
factories but are making less than a dollar an hour and are
desperate to organize unions in their countries" (PI,
December 1, 1999).

It is
hard to think of anything like this kind of
internationalism—neither subservient to any state nor polarized on
Communist/anti-Communist lines—since the death of Rosa Luxemburg
80 years ago. It grows directly from the realities of the new global
economy, in which working people in all parts of the world are put
into competition in what many speakers referred to as a "race to
the bottom." It’s not just in China that workers can’t form a
union or in Bangladesh that wages are being driven down by
international competition—American workers at the demonstrations
in Seattle knew the same pressures are being applied to them.

While
participants represented a wide range of views on the ideal balance
of local, national, and global power, a broad middle ground viewed
some form of global regulation as necessary, but saw a return of
power to national and local levels as highly desirable. Few would
say that all forms of transnational governance should be abolished.
Conversely, few seemed to believe that globalization would be
hunky-dory if a few global standards were incorporated in the WTO.

On
the road to Seattle there were significant tensions between
organized labor and the consumer, environmental, trade, and other
groups with which it was allied. These tensions were rooted in both
policy differences and long-standing distrust. In the end, however,
this coalition succeeded in working together and avoiding a split.
The huge rally went forward without visible signs of disunity.

The
tens of thousands of participants also expressed an unaccustomed
unity. There was a convergence of so many issues and of subcultures
that it is hard even to list them all. While conventional labor
leaders and environmentalists spoke from the same podium,
blue-collar workers mingled in the crowd with young environmental
activists decked out in turtle costumes. Neither side seemed to feel
contaminated by the presence of the other. Seattle seems to have
marked at least a temporary truce in the culture wars. In the dozens
of forums, teach-ins, and workshops that accompanied the battle,
such interaction often went beyond mingling to respectful mutual
education.

There
was also a surprising tolerance for different styles of activism. On
Tuesday morning thousands of direct actionists challenged police
with extremely confrontational forms of nonviolent action, in a
surprisingly successful effort to prevent the WTO meetings from
going ahead. (Ironically, WTO Secretary-General Mike Moore confirmed
critics’ charges by saying the disruptions didn’t matter because
the real work of the WTO was accomplished not in the cancelled
public sessions but in private meetings behind closed doors.)
Meanwhile, more than 30,000 protestors, the largest group of them
blue-collar trade unionists, gathered for a peaceful rally and
march. At the end of the march most of them returned home, while a
few thousand joined the direct actionists in the streets. Each group
seemed content to share the world—or at least Seattle—with the
other. Both groups took a strong stand for nonviolence and the
direct actionists on the street did far more than the police to
restrain the few dozen people who broke windows and trashed stores.

The
Future of Unity

The
unity that was achieved in Seattle is vulnerable, both because of
the diversity of interests and cultures involved, and because an
effort to buy some groups off and play one against another is a
no-brainer for the promoters of globalization.

The
movement really is unified around the proposition that global
corporations, markets, and capital must be sufficiently controlled
to protect the well-being of the world’s people and environment.
But it is also composed of specific groups with specific interests.
Everyone who participates in this movement has a responsibility to
represent not just their own interests and concerns, but the general
interests of people and the environment worldwide. The "race to
the bottom" makes these indivisible. We need to see our particular
interests and concerns as part of that broader objective. We need to
grasp that our power to address our particular concerns depends
primarily on the growth and unity of the movement as a whole.

The
movement’s surprising level of unity has been achieved without
centralized organization, either nationally or globally. It is
composed primarily of locally and nationally based issue groups,
transnational linking organizations, and a huge amount of networking
conducted via the Internet. It seems unlikely that such a diverse
global movement could ever develop a centralized organization and
leadership. Unity will have to be maintained and deepened by other
means. The strongest force for unity is the pressure of
rank-and-file activists who understand and want it. The Internet
allows them to network across organization lines and pressure
leaders and organizations to remain unified.

Many
of these issues will be posed concretely in the forthcoming struggle
around China’s admission to the WTO. President Clinton has
negotiated a deal for China’s admission to the WTO. But for this
to happen, Congress will now have to agree to permanent
most-favored-nation (MFN, or as it is now euphemistically called,
"normal trading relations") status for China. A Congressional
vote is currently projected for February. The period from the
Seattle WTO till then may well see the most important battle over
globalization that has yet occurred in the U.S.
 The Clinton China deal provides huge and specific benefits for
U.S. banks, insurance companies, retailers, airlines, and
entertainment companies. These corporations have pledged to mount an
all-out campaign to pass the legislation needed. They will be joined
by those who are ideologically committed to the idea of unregulated
globalization.

There’s
a hitch, however. Over two-thirds of Americans oppose bringing China
into the WTO without further progress on human rights and religious
freedom. (Four out of five want labor rights and environmental
protections incorporated in trade accords generally.)

Organized
labor seems to have decided to take a stand on the China issue.
Before Clinton’s China deal, John Sweeney persuaded the AFL-CIO to
make an early endorsement of Al Gore, and even signed a letter with
top corporate leaders appearing to endorse Administration bargaining
objectives at the WTO. But when Clinton announced the China deal,
Sweeney called it "disgustingly hypocritical" and promised "a
full and vigorous campaign" to block permanent MFN status for
China.

The
Battle of Seattle has already provided a kickoff for that campaign.
The public starts out much more concerned—and much better
informed—than in past trade battles. The coalition is in place,
experienced, and relatively united. But there are still dangers of
splits, co-optation, and branding of opponents as "special
interests."

The
battle can only be won if it is not defined as an issue of trade
with China or of protectionism vs. free trade, but rather as an
issue of what kind of global economy we want. John Sweeney made a
good start on this framing when he told the National Press Club,
"The debate isn’t about free trade or protectionism, engagement
or isolation. The real debate is not over whether to be part of the
global economy, but over what are the rules for that economy and who
makes them."

While
the issue of human rights in China is important, bashing China for
its poor human rights record will not suffice. The last two fights
in Congress over MFN status for China were framed in this way and,
as a result, did not get even a respectable vote count. For the past
decade, Congressional opposition to MFN has depended on a large
scandal in connection with China (e.g. the 1989 massacre,
fundraising, weapons technology, and spying.) But the farther away
from 1989, the fewer votes have opposed MFN. Further, the case that
bringing China into the WTO will weaken government repression is at
least plausible and is supported by important human rights groups
both inside and outside China.

MFN
for China needs to be made into a national referendum on what kind
of global economy we want to have. China must be made emblematic not
just of human rights abuse, but of the race to the bottom. After
all, there are hundreds of millions of unemployed people in China
who have little choice but to work for pennies an hour. Far from
raising the living standards of the Chinese people, studies by the
National Labor Committee and others demonstrate that China’s
insertion in the global market is already lowering them.

Another
vulnerability of this campaign is that it can be portrayed as
representing the special interests of privileged American workers,
rather than the broad interest of the world’s people. This needs
to be countered in several ways:

 

  • The struggle
    can only succeed if it is conducted by the broad coalition of
    environmental, consumer, farm, labor, and human rights groups
    that opposed NAFTA and blocked Fast Track. Sweeney’s repeated
    emphasis on labor’s dependence on its allies is on the right
    track
  • The campaign
    must outspokenly reject themes that are anti-foreigner,
    anti-Chinese, or anti-Asian. We should learn from the NAFTA
    struggle the power that came from working together with Mexican
    workers, and we should put Chinese labor and human rights
    workers at the center of the campaign

  • The
    campaign needs to be transnational. The strongest way to
    show that we are not protecting narrow interests of American
    workers is to define the campaign as one battle in a
    worldwide effort to shape a different kind of global economy


A
major vulnerability at present is that the campaign can be
portrayed as anti-Third World. Its participants need to take on
as part of their core message a commitment to reshaping the
global economy to benefit the Third World. This obviously
includes such matters as debt cancellation, an end to structural
adjustment programs, trade advantages for poorer countries that
meet labor and environmental standards, and some kind of revival
of the North/South Dialogue on the shape of the global
economy—in a UN, not a WTO, framework. As Sweeney has pointed
out, those who will be hurt most by Chinese competition are
those Third World countries that don’t want to be forced to
exploit their workers and environment as badly as China has
done. If the issue is "what are the rules for the global
economy and who makes them," we need to project our vision of
the answer. This is the best way to show that we do not
represent narrow or backward interests, but rather a superior
vision of what’s needed for the future.

This
struggle can only be won at the grassroots. Conventional
lobbying won’t do it—only grassroots mobilization has a
chance to succeed. The original struggle against NAFTA provides
a starting point

As
in the NAFTA struggle, the main leadership will have to come
from civil society organizations; while politicians can play an
important role, they should not be in the driver’s seat. The
movement will have to further expand its capacity to function as
an opposition force that determines what happens in the
political arena by shaping its social context.How this struggle
is fought may be as important as its outcome. The goal should be
to come out of it with a still more powerful worldwide movement
that will not simply block MFN for China, but which will be able
to impose new rules on the global economy.
                                 Z