The WTO’s Nude World Order

Bill Resnick

Posted February 29, 2000

IT GOT INTOXICATING that Tuesday (Nov. 30, `99) in Seattle, without chemical assist.  That capitalist machine that has looked so mighty and irresistible, for that day was stopped and defeated.

Seattle marked the emergence of the next new left, a wildly diverse and creative bunch.  And they will be operating on a changing terrain, where not just corporate misbehavior but capitalism appears the problem, and can be fought.

The Streets Tuesday Early Morning

My godson Alex (he’s thirteen, his first overnight protest) and I got lucky, though at 6am Tuesday morning we were too groggy to realize it. That’s when guests had to leave the IBEW hall (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) where we had pitched our sleeping bags on the cold linoleum.

That morning it was cold rainy miserable, and the only thing going that early was the Direct Action march assembling at Steinbrueck Park. It was spirited and friendly; we got warm dancing to the drummers.  During the march the rain let up. When we got downtown the skies began to clear, and to our amazement we protestors owned the streets.

The downtown became alive and wonderful.  So Alex and I changed plans.  Instead of trekking out a couple of miles to the mid-morning Labor rally and “March of the Century,” we ran with the youth, fast-moving battalions dancing up and down the streets-Rainforest Action, Earth First, the IWW, led by drums and floats and wildly costumed folks.

Turtles, butterflies, trees, ghastly images of capital, Mr. Money Bags, the twenty-foot green condom emblazoned “Practice Safe Trade”- it was an anti-capitalist carnival mocking the dead consumptive mannequins staring out from the GAP and Nordstroms.  And throughout downtown, folks of the Direct Action Network had linked arms in human chains guarding the hotels and keeping WTO delegates from getting to the convention hall.

The DAN, set up for the occasion by West Coast peaceniks and environmentalists-the Ruckus Society, Art and Revolution collectives, tree huggers, whale lovers, vegans, animal rightsers-had divided Seattle’s downtown like a pie with thirteen slices; then groups of maybe fifteen to fifty, themselves organized into smaller “affinity groups,” each took responsibility for a slice.

The DAN formed the skeletons; then thousands of unaffiliated people linked up-mostly young environmentalists, some folks in labor jackets, students, lots of homeless street kids, and people like Alex and me. By the time the delegates got dressed, downtown Seattle was encased in and strategic pathways blocked by interlocking human chains, mostly young people, arms linked.

Many of the trapped delegates got furious and fought to break through.  But the human chains held, because they give without breaking, and can be quickly repaired and reinforced in the heat of battle.  People trying to bull through, especially when all dressed up, soon think better of all that close contact with street kids and funky activists.  It was the sort of intimacy they didn’t treasure.

The World Trade Organization was shut down, the movement held the streets, the sun was shining through, and the WTO delegates, resigned to their fate, had become tourists taking pictures of the natives who had captured them. It was unbelievable and exhilarating.

The DAN folks were as astonished as everybody else. None had expected to actually “Shut It Down,” their slogan.  What they had hoped was to get enough people arrested to register massive moral outrage and gain national attention, as in their actions at the School of the Americas, the Nevada nuclear test site, and innumerable tree sits and blockades, at which they had built resolve and perfected tactics.

With the WTO shut down and humbled, then Seattle shut down (a martial law “curfew” declared), then the police frustrated and humiliated, the cops asserted their manhood to gas and beat people out of the streets.  But the message had gotten out.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

“Turtles and Teamsters United at Last.” That excellent picket sign message has been taken as Seattle’s emblem: labor and youth and environmentalists shoulder to shoulder.  But the labor march arrived after the victory was won, and maybe only a third got up to the combat zones to share the joy in the streets.

It was the youth, the religious, environmentalists, students, street kids-as in my own city Portland, if the skinheads and toughs get media attention, the punk and street scene seems anarchist and left libertarian, especially into the Mumia campaign-and especially DAN. But everybody deserves some credit.

The 30,000 labor protestors gave it all legitimacy; the city had to allow the march and the police couldn’t shoot to kill. When labor masses and rallies, they are still treated as citizens, in contrast to youth, street kids and direct action people, whom police are infiltrating, harassing, provoking, quickly arresting, and brutalizing up and down the West Coast.

The local central labor council (early on raising the possibility of “general strike”) and Jobs with Justice did heroic work, as did the Sierra Club and Seattle’s Audubon Society.  University of Washington groups energized the campus.

Seattle was so thoroughly politicized and the WTO so anticipated and tantalizing that the downtown X-rated Lusty Lady advertised its “Live Show” with “The Nude World Order” and “W T OHHH.”

As to national labor, their big rally and march was scheduled to conflict with DAN organizing downtown and they tried to deflect their marchers from joining the victory celebration-with only partial success, since contingents from the ILWU (Longshore Workers) and the militant Seattle Teamsters Local 174, which includes many UPS workers, went to the scene to join the direct action.

A month before, the AFL-CIO had signed on to a co-optive Clinton proposal for a toothless WTO “working group” to consider labor and the environment.  Still labor basically stayed within the coalition, and never denounced the DAN.

The labor rally was explicit and militant in attacking corporate power and embracing environmentalist and internationalist speakers, messages and goals.  Turtles and teamsters did unite, in rhetoric in the speeches, in spirit in the streets in the afternoon celebration.  That is of course important and wonderful, but it was the DAN and the youth who won the Battle of Seattle.

The Target: Capitalism

The Nation editorialized: “The broader message coming from the streets of Seattle is unmistakable: A corporate dominated WTO that puts profits before people and property rights before human rights can no longer sustain its current course.”

In fact, sure, the protest targeted the WTO, but it was directed at corporate power as a whole and at the deepest level at capitalism.  AFSCME’s Gerald McEntee, no stranger to friendly chats in boardrooms, said it at the rally: “We have to name the system .  .  .  corporate capitalism.”

That system was all on display and under attack in Seattle, fused into one terrible whole: Capital ransacking the environment, changing the climate, degrading land and ocean, extinguishing other species, producing and disseminating novel and toxic substances and thus creating the cancerous “chemical time bomb.”

Capital seizing and patenting forms of life, modifying genetic endowments, transforming natural foods, and then selling these unpredictable and dangerous products.  Capital polarizing the planet, making some so fabulously wealthy while impoverishing so many, seizing the best land and destroying small farmers and rural communities, leaving destitution in the midst of plenty.

Capital driving countries into debt then bleeding them by forcing repayment over and over. Capital stalking the world for cheap labor and taking back what Western workers had won over the century of struggle, squeezing out even the limited formal democratic mechanisms won in the past, buying politicians, and even more forcing governments to do what they want by threatening to relocate and take their jobs elsewhere.

Capital dominating media and culture, exploiting sex and violence, making consumption the meaning and purpose of life, putting a McDonald’s on every corner, branding consciousness.  Capital in Seattle through the WTO setting up their own world government that would consolidate this system and accelerate the destruction.

What propelled the response from anti-corporate to anti-capitalist was this sense of the whole system and its internal imperative, of that competitive drive to ever higher profit, of no firm able to stop on pain of death, no executive able to stop on pain of dismissal.  Capitalism’s exponential growth is also the creed of the cancer cell.

An Alternative on Display

As usual this critique of the current system was more clear and specified than what might replace it. The policy options proposed in the many teach-ins and press conferences were mostly mild reformist: codes of corporate responsibility, “fair trade” whose provisions would raise labor and environmental standards, small-scale lending, incentives for green production and consumption, controls and taxes on international financial speculation.

But also on display were elements of real living radical democracy: cooperative work, consensus decision making, human scale communities, so many successful working models of sustainable production by their very nature worker self-managed.

But if these latter were inspiring and demonstrated potentials for that wholesale reconstruction, the protests issued no vision for a new global order.  This was appropriate, for real diverse vital movements don’t lock themselves into blueprints and proclamations.

If there is to be any great transformation-liberatory, egalitarian, democratic, environmentally sustainable-that lively creative democratic order that we know to be possible and seek to achieve will be first apprenticed and anticipated in the movements and life thrusts of the people whose struggles bring it to life.

In Seattle we could see that democratic left emerging, which made the week so wonderful: The popular, diverse, democratic feel, the sense of power from below.  It brought together the widest set of people and movements, from around the world, in common struggle and mutual appreciation, in the main streets and arteries of the city.

It was diverse, welcoming, cooperative, joyous, and radiated popular power.  It was high spirits, delightful, “cultural,” fun, with a core of thoughtful critique, with alternatives on display, directly inherently political and visionary, but without Hare Krishnas, drugs, or anybody seeking to “blow their minds.”

The euphoria was not escape from politics and thinking but from joyful immersion in them and in struggle, ecstatic but this worldly.  “The best news from the happenings in Seattle, is that a real human family has begun to construct itself in many places.” (La Jornada, Mexico City)

Popular Understandings

Did this get portrayed on TV?  Could it be?  Certainly not with much immediacy.  Real democracy and participation can only be felt and learned in practice.  Still it was not lost on the U.S. and world audience-so the pundits, editorialists and spin doctors went quickly to denounce the various Luddites, isolationists, protectionists, know-nothings, and the violent fringe.

But the dirt didn’t stick; the understandings and mood in family rooms and workplaces was supportive and celebratory.  In his Internet account Jeff Crosby, an IUE leader from Lynne, MA, reported overwhelming support, not just from friends and family but from people on the plane back and everyone he met.

Returning home, Crosby reported, his companions were treated like “conquering heroes.” In Portland activists from “conservative” homes report that for the first time their families supported their politics and approved Seattle, not for “America First” reasons.  (See “The Kids Are All Right .  .  .” Labor Notes 250, January 2000, 8-9.)

That’s not blowing smoke or wishful thinking.  A big credible survey (from the Univ. of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes) before Seattle showed that Americans are open to a more global economy, but strongly believe that so far it has worked well for business but not for themselves.

By a margin of 78 to 18% they wanted the WTO to consider the effects of trade on labor and the environment; 88% agreed that protecting worker rights, the environment and human rights was even worth slowing the growth of trade and the economy; 93% felt that “countries that are part of international trade agreements should be required to maintain minimum standards for working conditions.” They were even ready to spend more for clothing to insure it wasn’t sweatshop made.

The Road Ahead

It was because of these popular concerns, understandings, and values that Seattle was understood and got so much support despite the sensationalist media.

If most people can’t define the WTO, World Bank, IMF, GATT, NAFTA, structural adjustment, Euros and the rest, “globalization” is deeply felt and its essence understood: that corporate mobility and power is shaping their lives, undermining their income, jobs, and security, extorting from their communities, taking over politics, laying waste to the environment, appropriating culture, penetrating and pulverizing consciousness.

Seattle brought this latent critique much closer to awareness, reinforced it, and created a sense of alternatives, popular ingenuity and power.  What had been hidden and too diffuse to challenge became visible, attackable, actionable.

Establishment politicians and media functionaries got nervous.  Their NAFTA victory had been narrow, Seattle was a defeat, and political momentum seemed to be changing.  WTO membership for China was threatened.  Genetically modified food, patenting of life, and international agribusiness gained exposure.

WTO expansion became a great public issue and demands to renegotiate it strengthened.  Clinton, even before Seattle, was promoting a WTO “working group” to contemplate labor rights and interests (like the meaningless side agreements to NAFTA); after Seattle, Gore picked up this rhetoric.  While the Republican Presidential contenders began taking pot shots at the WTO, nearly the whole punditry kept furiously vilifying the protests.

Even more for the left, after many frozen years, it seemed a new political universe, a great thaw. And its potentials, not to mention the desire and need to keep up the momentum, ignited vigorous discussion on program and action.

What’s our encore, what comes next?  Do we call for shutting down the WTO or reconstituting it with standards?  Or would environmental and labor standards be better won and fought outside the WTO?  What sort of framework for world trade should we promote?

And whatever our program/policy ideas, how do they get embodied in movements, action, struggle?  Of what kinds?  Does it make sense for a left to go to the wall, mobilize to the max, with the AFL-CIO, about China and the WTO?  What sorts of action now make sense, and how to build mass mobilizations?

Thinking about these after-Seattle questions requires an optimism of the intellect and will, tempered by a healthy dose of reality and reflection on the long preparation and lead up to Seattle.

As to the dose of reality, with euphoria fading it’s clear that the great victory hardly slowed the beast.  If the WTO is running scared, globalization continues; the machine will not so easily be deflected much less turned around.  And the WTO will not be meeting anyplace but Singapore and maybe Iceland for a very long time.

As to left politics, in the immediate aftermath all the many participating groups declared victory and promised continued work together.  But the bureaucracies of the unions and national environmental groups will continue compromising, maneuvering for small advantage, desperately trying to stay alive, often competing with one another and repeating corporate rhetoric in return for small favors, and supporting the Democrats against left challenge.

As to turtles and teamsters, on many environmental issues the unions will still support their employers.  Seattle’s grand radical coalition will not hold strong.

If there seems more room, consciousness, energy, and potential recruits, still struggles for the next period will not be qualitatively different than for the last twenty years.  Yet Seattle demonstrated that the people are not passive or fooled, the new world order not seamless and mystified, the stuff of economics not impenetrable and boring, privatism and cynicism not triumphant, hope and dreams still very much alive.  The memories and possibilities will surely live on.

Capital is a many-headed monster, its depredations and footprints everywhere, creating multiple sites of resistance and program, and pushing serious reformers into recognizing need for transformation and its possibilities.

There were a lot of serious people, also with dreams, on the streets of Seattle.  But the critique has to be made, the commitments developed, the links made, the dreams nurtured.

Seattle surely validated much movement organizing of the last few years, especially those combining day-to-day working-class struggle with radically democratic and community wide vision and organization: like Jobs with Justice, like radical environmentalism, like the Steelworker/environmental struggles for Kaisar jobs and redwood forests.

The big strategic message of Seattle is to build in ways such that all involved are reinforced in a sense of common struggle and possible future.

National policy and program are necessary; so are national movements always pushing the big picture.  Programs of radical legislative reform of the WTO deserve mild support, though they can’t be central.  An international day of action could bring it all together, with great symbolic events all over the planet.  But the key is to keep building grassroots, with both critique and sense of alternative, and always foregrounding that radically democratic sensibility and ideals.

After intoxication becomes hangover, as the machine keeps chewing up the planet and its peoples, there’s no choice but to return to hard, slow, often losing struggles.

Still we can be heartened: Tomorrow’s struggles will be of the same sort that incubated the anti-capitalist and democratic eruption in Seattle.  Seattle demonstrated the creativity and democratic ideals of that grand coalition in formation, with many battles to come. So doing politics now seems a lot more hopeful than just a few months ago.

Bill Resnick is a writer, radio producer, activist and Solidarity member in Portland, Oregon.  His forthcoming book, The Long Revolutions Continue: Popular Democratic Struggle in the Age of Global Mobile Capital, discusses democratic recomposition in family, child-rearing, sexuality and race relations.