The Road from Seattle

by Jeremy Brecher, with Tim Costello and Brendan Smith

Z magazine, January 2000


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 12/4199). 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-lntelligencer, 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" (Pl, 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 canceled 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.

World Trade Organization