The 1999 protests against the WTO were dramatic enough to inspire a new feature film, but did they actually make a difference?
Nine years after the World Trade Organization came to
The question is notoriously difficult. In the film, characters like Martin Henderson’s Jay, a veteran environmental campaigner driven by a tragedy experienced on a past logging campaign, and Michelle Rodriguez’s Lou, a hard-bitten animal rights activist, debate the effectiveness of protest. Even as they take to
Generally speaking, the response of many Americans is to dismiss protests out of hand—arguing that demonstrators are just blowing off steam and won’t make a difference. But if any case can be held as a counter-example,
The 1999 mobilization against the World Trade Organization has never been free from criticism. As Andre 3000’s character in the movie quips, even the label “Battle in Seattle” makes the protests sound less like a serious political event and more “like a Monster Truck show.” While the demonstrations were still playing out and police were busy arresting some 600 people, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman issued his now-famous edict stating that deluded activists were just “looking for their 1960s fix.” This type of disregard has continued with the release of the film. A review in the Seattle Weekly dismissively asked, “Remind me again what those demonstrations against the WTO actually accomplished.”
While cynicism comes cheap, those concerned about global poverty, sweatshop labor, outsourced jobs, and threats to the environment can witness remarkable changes on the international scene. Today, trade talks at the WTO are in shambles, sister institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are now shriveled versions of their once-imposing selves, and the ideology of neoliberal corporate globalization is under intense fire, with mainstream economists defecting from its ranks and entire regions such as
What Happened in
Battle in Seattle accurately depicts the mainstream media as being overwhelmingly focused on the smashed windows of Starbucks and Niketown–property destruction carried out by a small minority of protesters. In the past two decades, the editorial boards of major
Rarely do protesters have the satisfaction of achieving their immediate goals, especially when their stated aims are as grandiose as shutting down a major trade meeting. Yet the direct action in
By the end of the week, negotiations had collapsed altogether. Trade representatives from the global South, emboldened by the push from civil society, launched their own revolt from within the conference. Jumping between scenes of street protest and depictions of the ministers’ trade debate, Townsend’s film illustrates this inside-outside dynamic. Dialogue at one point in the movie for actor Isaach De Bankole, who plays an African trade minister, could have been pulled almost verbatim from a real statement released that week by the Organization of African Unity. The ministers railed against “being marginalized and generally excluded on issues of vital importance for our peoples and their future.”
The demands of the developing countries’ governments were not always the same as those of the outside protesters. However, the diverse forces agreed on some key points. Expressing his disgust for how the WTO negotiations had been conducted, Sir Shridath Ramphal, the chief Caribbean negotiator, argued, “This should not be a game about enhancing corporate profits. This should not be a time when big countries, strong countries, the world’s wealthiest countries, are setting about a process designed to enrich themselves.”
Given that less powerful countries had typically been bullied into compliance at trade ministerials, this was highly unusual stuff. Yet it would become increasingly normal.
This past summer analyst Walden Bello dubbed the current round of WTO talks the “Dracula Round” because it lives in an undead state. No matter how many times elites try to revive the round, it seems destined to suffer a new death–as it did most recently in late July. Other agreements, such as the Free Trade Area of the
“We Care Too”
The altered fate of the WTO is itself very significant. But this is only part of a wider series of transformations that the global justice protests of the
A wave of increased sympathy and awareness dramatically changed the climate for long-time campaigners. People who had been quietly laboring in obscurity for years suddenly found themselves amid a huge surge of popular energy, resources, and legitimacy. Obviously, the majority of Americans did not drop everything to become trade experts. But an impressive number, especially on college campuses and in union halls, did take time to learn more–about sweatshops and corporate power, about global access to water and the need for local food systems, about the connection between job loss at home and exploitation abroad.
With the protests that took place in the wake of
Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank who was purged after he outspokenly criticized the IMF, perhaps most clearly described the remarkable shift in elite discussion that has taken place since global justice protests first captured the media spotlight. In a 2006 book, he wrote:
I have been going to the annual meetings [in
Of course, much of the shift at Davos is just talk. But the wider political changes go far beyond rhetoric. As Stiglitz noted, “Even the IMF now agrees that capital market liberalization has contributed neither to growth nor to stability.” Grassroots activity has translated into concrete change on other levels as well. Even some critics of the global justice movement have noted that activists have scored a number of significant policy victories. In a September 2000 editorial entitled “Angry and Effective,” The Economist reported that the movement
already has changed things — and not just the cocktail schedule for the upcoming meetings. Protests… succeeded in scuttling the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's] planned Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998; then came the greater victory in
Various combinations of "respectable" negotiators and "unruly" dissidents have forced shifts on a wide range of issues. It is not glamorous work to trace the issue-by-issue changes that activists have eked out–whether it’s compelling multinational pharmaceutical companies to drop intellectual property lawsuits against African governments seeking to provide affordable AIDS drugs for their citizens, or creating a congressional ban on World Bank loans that impose user fees on basic health care and education for the poor, or persuading administrators at more than 140 colleges to make their institutions take part in the anti-sweatshop Worker’s Rights Consortium. Yet these changes affect many lives.
Take just one demand: debt relief. For decades, countries whose people suffer tremendous deprivation have been forced to send billions of dollars to
In early 2007, Imani Countess, national coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee Africa Program, noted that the impact of the deal has been profound:
“They won the verbal and policy battle,” said Gary Hufbauer, a “pro-globalization” economist at the Institute for International Economics in 2002, speaking of the groups that have organized major globalization protests. “They did shift policy. Are they happy that they shifted it enough? No, they’re not ever going to be totally happy, because they’re always pushing."
A Crisis of Legitimacy
In its review of Battle in Seattle, the
Privatization, deregulation, and corporate market access have failed to reduce inequality or create sustained growth in developing countries. This has led an increasing number of mainstream economists, Stiglitz most prominent among them, to question some of the most cherished tenets of neoliberal “free trade” economics. Not only are the intellectual foundations of neoliberal doctrine under assault, the supposed beneficiaries of these economic prescriptions are now walking away. Throughout
The Asian financial crisis, which occurred shortly before
The result has been swift and decisive. In 2004, the IMF’s loan portfolio was roughly $100 billion. Today it has fallen to around $10 billion, rendering the institution almost impotent. As economist Mark Weisbrot notes, "the IMF’s loss of influence is probably the most important change in the international financial system in more than half a century."
Townsend’s film ends with the admonition that “the battle continues.” The struggle in the coming years will be to compel those in power to transform campaign-trail rhetoric into a real rejection of corporate globalization. The White House would still like to pass ever-newer “free trade” agreements. And the WTO, while bruised and battered, has not been eliminated entirely. Because its original mandate is still intact, the institution has considerable power in dictating the terms of economic development in much of the world. Opposing this will require continued grassroots pressure.
On a broader level, huge challenges of global poverty, inequality, militarism, and environmental degradation remain. Few, if any, participants in the 1999 mobilization believed that a single demonstration would eliminate these problems in one tidy swoop, and I very much doubt that anyone involved with the Battle in Seattle thinks a single film will solve them either. But the coming fight will be easier if the spirit that drove those protests animates a new surge of citizen activism in the post-Bush era.
Mark Engler, a writer based in