ourEconomy: Opinion

The Battle of Seattle: 20 years later, it's time for a revival

On this 20th anniversary of the Battle of Seattle, the struggle against globalized capital continues.

Michael Galant
Michael Galant
30 November 2019, 4.35pm
Seattle Municipal Archives, November 29 1999, CC BY-2.0

20 years ago today, the streets of Seattle became front lines in the global class war.

Over the course of five days, some 40,000 individuals, representing unions, environmental groups, and Leftist organizations from around the world came together in an attempt to disrupt the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Using direct action tactics, activists physically delayed access to the meeting and led marches, rallies, and teach-ins that drew massive crowds. Protesters of all stripes were attacked by a violent police force – attracting international media coverage. The demonstrations outside became a wedge that would help drive the negotiations inside to collapse. The Battle of Seattle was won.

But the war continued. Seattle was about more than any single organization. The WTO was a symbol of the larger project of neoliberal globalization that was, in 1999, well on its way to reshaping the world in the interest of capital. The Battle of Seattle would become an equally potent symbol of resistance. The WTO protests marked the moment that the Alter-Globalization Movement (AGM), also known as the Global Justice, or disparagingly, the Anti-Globalization Movement, was launched into the public consciousness.

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Much has changed in the two decades since. The AGM won many meaningful victories and experienced many more profound losses. Eventually, the movement faded. Today’s global economy resembles the neoliberal nightmare the Seattle protesters were fighting against more than the world they were fighting for. But recent years have revealed cracks in the surface. With an opportunity to finish what was started, it’s time to revive the spirit of Seattle.

Globalization and its dissent

Neoliberal globalization is a political project intended to raise the power of capital to the international level – to cement its supremacy as an immutable universal law beyond the reach of political communities. “Free trade” agreements and WTO rules establish the primacy of profit over democracy, labor, environmental, and consumer protections. World Bank and IMF loan conditions impose austerity, privatization, and deregulation on nations of the Global South. An international system of tax havens allows corporations and wealthy individuals to hoard their plundered resources. Global supply chain fragmentation shields multinationals from accountability for their abuses. Investment treaties unleash finance and corporations to cross borders in search of opportunities for exploitation, setting off a regulatory race to the bottom. If there was doubt before that capitalism must be confronted at the global level to be defeated, the power grab that is neoliberal globalization puts those doubts to rest. Capital is global. Labor must be too.

Yet there are forces preventing such global solidarity. Beginning during the Cold War, the majority of Northern labor accepted a compromise: support a foreign policy that enacts the interests of capital, and benefit from a share of the spoils in the form of minor concessions, a tempered welfare state, and cheap consumer goods. This tacit agreement survived largely intact into the neoliberal era – dividing the interests of a global working class and quelling demands for systemic global change.

The Alter-Globalization Movement rejected the compromise. While activists in the Global South had long resisted destructive free trade agreements and World Bank austerity, occasionally with solidarity from the North, the extremity of turn-of-the-century neoliberalism led to the explosion of a movement that refused to accept the mere crumbs of neocolonial extraction, and sought instead to build an alternative global economy for the many, both North and South.

This was a movement that brought together American anarchists with Korean peasants; libertarian socialist indigenous groups in Mexico with US anti-sweatshop activists; the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions with the Industrial Workers of the World; the Brazilian Movement for Landless Workers with Greenpeace; Filipino anti-capitalist scholars with French farmer activists best known for physically dismantling a McDonald’s. Their demands were many and varied – from land redistribution to the abolition of the World Bank, from a renegotiated NAFTA to the protection of indigenous knowledge of seeds from privatization – but all shared a vision of a global solidarity that would overcome the forces of neoliberal globalization.

Organizing under such a big tent, the AGM is better understood as a dispersed, informal network – a “movement of movements” – than a unified political structure. This fluid network manifested in many forms. The flagship World Social Forum regularly convened activists in an alternative to the annual World Economic Forum. Transnational advocacy networks campaigned on issues such as Global South debt relief. Northern activists used their positions of relative privilege to support local campaigns in the South, fighting water privatization in Bolivia and indigenous displacement from hydroelectric dams in India. And, as in Seattle, meetings of international organizations became rallying points for major global demonstrations.

With these organizing methods, the movement achieved substantial victories. The Jubilee 2000 campaign led to significant debt relief for Southern nations. Potentially disastrous trade agreements from the FTAA to TPP have been, at least temporarily, defeated. International Financial Institutions like the IMF and World Bank – while still agents of global capital – have vastly improved their lending practices since the 90’s. But its greatest successes were intangible: the AGM undermined the hegemonic ambitions embodied in Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative”, slowed neoliberal globalization’s seemingly inexorable onslaught, and kept alive the flame of resistance during an otherwise nadir of Leftist politics.

The AGM should not, however, be romanticized. Emerging in a moment when the failures of 20th century socialist politics weighed heavily on the Left’s imagination, the AGM turned too far in the opposing direction. Big-tentism led to a dilution of demands and paved the way for the NGO-ization of the World Social Fora. A preference for all things decentralized made grabbing headlines easy, but building lasting political structures difficult. Resistance was often treated as an intrinsically valuable ends, rather than a means to taking power. And criticisms of “neoliberalism” typically fell short of identifying the true enemy – capitalism – or advancing a coherent alternative – socialism.

Ultimately, the neoliberal plan for the global economy succeeded more than not. While resistance to neoliberal globalization would rage on in the South, Northern solidarity faded. The September 11th attacks were the beginning of the end. Energy shifted to the anti-war movement, the state expanded its repression of Leftist organizing, and increased pressures toward “patriotism” led some to reconsider the old foreign policy compromise. By the mid-2000’s, little was left of what the AGM once was.

A call for revival

It’s time to rekindle the flame.

The global economy is still structured in the interest of capital. But the neoliberal consensus has begun to waver under the weight of its own contradictions.

The Right has a response to the crisis. Reactionary nationalists like Trump and Johnson seize upon existing systems of oppression to scapegoat the symptoms of a failed economic model. The problem is not that the global working class has lost out to a global capital class. The problem is that “we” – White, Christian, cishet, native-born Americans – have lost out to “them” – People of Color, immigrants, entire foreign countries, feminists, LGBTQ+ folks, and all those who threaten our supremacy in their struggles for liberation.

The Left must offer an alternative vision. The dramatic growth of socialist organizing and rise in popularity of social democratic politicians should offer great hope. But as the AGM understood, social democracy for the North is not enough. Our socialism must not mean merely a greater share of neocolonial extraction for Northern workers. Our socialism must rightly identify the global nature of our challenge, and unite across borders to confront a globalized capital.

That means internationalizing labor organizing to confront multinational corporations. Changing the rules of trade and investment. Ending tax havens. Building alternatives to the existing intellectual property regime. Holding corporations accountable for abuses in their supply chains. Supporting the struggles of peasants, indigenous peoples, and all global subaltern groups. Democratizing global governance. Opening borders to those displaced by the ravages of global capitalism. Advancing alternative models of development. Transforming, if not abolishing and replacing, the Bretton Woods Institutions. And confronting the all-important threat of climate collapse with, to begin with, a global Green New Deal. These are not minor addendums to a socialist platform. Class war is global. Internationalist demands are fundamental.

Organizations that remain from the AGM, international labor, and newcomers like Justice Is Global, the Fight Inequality Alliance, and Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis’s Progressive International, are already struggling for this vision. But its fruition depends on the backing of a far broader movement.

Like the AGM, we must take a global frame of analysis, and see neoliberal globalization as a concerted effort to undermine our power. Unlike the AGM, we must understand that neoliberalism is merely one manifestation of a greater enemy.

Like the AGM, we must build diverse, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-xenophobic movements that transcend borders. Unlike the AGM, we must not allow fears of centralization to undermine a coherent platform.

Like the AGM, we must reject a class compromise that sacrifices the possibility of a better world for the crumbs of colonialism. Unlike the AGM, we must build lasting political structures that back our rejection with political power.

20 years ago, the streets of Seattle echoed with a chant that would become the defining motto of the movement: “another world is possible!” It still is – if we’re willing to fight for it.

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