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After Seattle

Understanding the Politics of Globalization

William K. Tabb is professor of economics and political science at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Restructuring Political Economy (Routledge, 1999) and The Amoral Elephant (Monthly Review Press, 2001).

The “Seattle Shock”—as Business Week called it in an editorial that warned of a popular backlash against “our very economic system”—reflects heartfelt indignation by the financial press at the intrusion of mass democracy into an elite discourse. In the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman raged at anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters, whom he presents as “flat-earth advocates” duped by knaves like Pat Buchanan. Friedman, perhaps the most obtuse of the big-time columnists, complains that “What’s crazy is that the protesters want the W.T.O. to become precisely what they accuse it of already being—a global government. They want it to set more rules—their rules, which would impose our labor and environmental standards on everyone else.”1

It is beyond Friedman’s understanding that the demonstrators want to democratize what has been an elite decision-making process, to challenge the global dominance of capital and capital’s state institutions. The demonstrators know, and Friedman is outraged that others seem to agree, that there are choices other than the global governance by corporate capital. Most of the demonstrators, as the establishment press well understood, had the sort of class analysis which working people intuitively, if inchoately, often have. They have had enough of being told that globalization is good and that they should just shut up. Friedman was also clueless concerning the predominant politics. Few of the demonstrators supported the sort of negative nationalism Buchanan symbolizes, with its xenophobic and racist overtones. Rather what the Friedmans of the world are afraid of is the solidarity and internationalism of the movement, which prefigures a global movement from below—threatening, asBusiness Week points out, to rock the system. And if self-interest is not absent from the demands of trade unionists and others, it rarely is or should be. The proposals for confronting transnational capital are in class terms and, for the most part, inclusive.

What is to be done after Seattle is a question many people, including but not only activists, now confront. It is the one we take up here, in the context of an analysis of both the corporate media’s response to the demonstrations in Seattle and the real issues of class power relations. It is an analysis which focuses on corporate control of policy making, addressing policies which weaken unions and diminish the lives and agency of working people, reduce the sphere of public service provision, and pit one community of workers against another. To this basic class analysis, environmentalists have added a powerful critique of corporate greed and of the single-minded pursuit of accumulation which threatens the planet and all living things. A potentially powerful antisystemic movement is at an important point in its development.

It is to be expected that the “irrationality” of the demonstrators is woven through much of the commentary of the financial press. Typically, it appears with a tone of offended outrage by the transnational ruling class and its ideological flacks. Hot-tempered acting-out has suddenly replaced the usual temperate condescension to which we have grown accustomed in this dismal era of corporate triumphalism. Thus George Melloan, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, writes: “Given the virulence of their protests against the achievements of private capitalism, one can only assume that finally we have assembled in one place a representative collection of people who ‘can’t stand prosperity.’”2 This theme—“you have never had it so good, and that it is private capitalism which has done all this for you”—is a view of globalization which is rejected by most Americans.

In a Pew Research Center nationwide survey conducted in April 1999, 43 percent of respondents said that in the future a global economy would help average Americans; 52 percent said it would hurt them. Support for globalization was strong only in high-income brackets. Among the majority of American families (those with incomes under fifty thousand dollars a year), a positive view of globalization was held by just 37 percent. Such differences are based on life experience. Kate Bronfenbrenner has done careful studies of the impact of the threat of runaway plants on unionization efforts and workers’ ability to make demands for better wages and working conditions, and has shown that globalization in the form of plant closing threats and actual plant closings are extremely pervasive and effective components of U.S. employers’ antilabor strategy. From 1993 to 1995, employers threatened to close plants in half of all certification elections. They have made good on such threats. The 15 percent shutdown rate within two years of certification election victories is triple the rate in the late 1980s, before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect.

In the week following the Seattle WTO Ministerial meetings, Business Week ran a story about how General Electric (GE) suppliers are being pushed—indeed, forced on pain of losing their contracts—to close plants in the United States and set up in Mexico. GE even puts on “supplier migration” conferences to press the point. Their message is clearly presented in a quote the magazine offers from a corporate internal report: “Migrate or be out of business; not a matter of if, just when. This is not a seminar just to provide information. We expect you to move and move quickly.”3 GE is one of the world’s largest corporations. It is highly profitable. But that is hardly the issue. What it wants is more and it will “squeeze lemons”—in one of the favorite phrases of its Chief Executive Officer— because it has the power to do so. The lemons are its workers and suppliers. That’s capitalism. That’s the way the system works and, as Martin Wolf, the Financial Times columnist, points out in a column entitled “WTO: In defense of global capitalism,” that’s why protesters don’t like transnational corporations or the WTO, which does their bidding. “What the protestors against globalism share,” he writes, “is dislike of the market economy. This passion brought the cranks, bullies and hypocrites to Seattle.”4 Leaving aside who the bullies and hypocrites are, we may note again the high crankiness quotient.

All this screaming like a stuck pig, to borrow a phrase from the British imperial legacy, is understandable. Trade used to be an issue quietly negotiated by the powerful behind closed doors. Forced to discuss the issues, the near universal response is, “But we did it all for you! We especially help the poor. How can you possibly be against free trade? It brings freedom, that’s why we call it ‘free’ trade.” The Economist puts an Indian child on its cover and features the theme: how dare these demonstrators try to take away her right to work? She is poor. She wants to be exploited. She needs to be exploited. Needless to say, there is no mention of the anti-WTO demonstrations in India that coincided with the ones in Seattle.

Because of the Internet and the numerous Web sites activists have established, it is possible for people to know that the Seattle protests were truly global and substantial in scope. Activists can both spread the word and bring diverse constituencies together. While working people in India may fear the way trade sanctions could be used by a self-interested, moralizing United States, they also understand how the WTO and other global governance institutions are used by an imperial ruling class. At the same time, this hardly obviates the need for labor rights. The beginnings of a new level of international solidarity are evident in the way groups from the base have made connections and are working together across national and cultural borders.

Indeed, fear is growing of mass rebellion and of what a Rand Corporation study has called a “[non-governmental organization] NGO swarm.” The Internet has allowed new coalitions to be built online, and for tens of thousands of people to be mobilized in the streets of Geneva or Seattle and, at the same time, in Paris, London, and New Delhi. As the Rand researchers explain, an NGO swarm has no “central leadership or command structure; it is multiheaded, impossible to decapitate.” The WTO was badly stung by just such a swarm of angry worker bees.

The financial press has also set out on a belated campaign to educate the troops with the kind of handouts such campaigns typically provide. In a post-Seattle editorial, Business Week offers a full page of questions and answers: “Is globalization about U.S. hegemony?” “Is globalization about exploitation?” “Is globalization about environmental destruction?” “Is globalization about the triumph of markets over governments?” It is less important that their answer in each instance is “no,” than that the protestors’ issues now structure the larger debate to a significant extent. The establishment is forced to respond on terms it has not had to before. Can Treasury Department Truth Squad visits to college campuses of the sort attempted during the Vietnam War be far behind?

It is clear that the demonstrators have the support of mainstream, working-class Americans. Perhaps the most interesting post-Seattle commentary is the Harris Poll, which confirms what other surveys have shown: that a majority of Americans (52 percent in the poll) were sympathetic to the concerns of the demonstrators. “Echoing the anti-business themes that ran through the sound bites and across the banners there, the BW-Harris poll also found that most Americans believe that business now has too much power.” While Business Week claimed it “a puzzling anomaly” that, in the greatest period of wealth creation in U.S. history, so many people could be “living in another era,” it also quoted a Princeton economist who pointed out that “[i]n the real world, people are still living from paycheck to paycheck” and “[t]he tremendous wealth creation has by and large gone to the people at the top.”5 Most Americans, according to another recent survey (by Opinion Research Corp. International), say they feel cheated by their employers.

In asking “After Seattle, what?” critics of the WTO need first to deepen the critique of the WTO and, second, to confront the limits of the reformist demands which the mainstream critics of the WTO have put forward. These tasks involve confronting class relations both with regard to North-South tensions and within the core.

Renato Ruggiero, when he was director-general of the WTO famously explained “We are no longer writing the rules of interaction among separate national economies. We are writing the constitution of a single world economy.” Critics point out that the WTO was not elected to run the world economy or to act as a global government. It operates in secret and seems to see its mandate, critics say, as undermining the rights of sovereign states. This issue of democracy is, however, more complex. WTO partisans point out that the WTO is a forum in which trade policies for an interdependent world can be ironed out. In response to the question, “Why shouldn’t elected national leaders choose trade representatives?” we need to take a closer look at the nature of existing democracies. In the United States or the United Kingdom, two countries generally presented as paragons of democracy, it is widely understood that trade representatives represent business elites (as they do in most other countries, whatever the level of democracy, by whatever measure). The problem is deeply imbedded in the nature of capitalist democracy.

The objection then is not only a lack of democracy in how the WTO does business but also a lack of transparency to outside scrutiny. NGOs and other non-governmental interested parties cannot offer testimony before mysteriously selected panels. And the larger issue remains: rules which place profit (so-called market efficiency) above all other human and environmental considerations. In all of this, the WTO is a worse version of business-as-usual in those powerful countries whose governments are dominated by capital. The key point is that President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair, and the rest choose representatives who work for and closely with the leading capitalist sectors to craft policies favorable to corporate interests. As much as possible, they exclude people whose income is derived from the sale of their labor power and those marginalized by the corporate system.

Discussion of the democratic deficit is a way of talking about how decisions are made which affect the whole of societies. This is not, however, to say that democratic rights which have been won (even in their limited form) are unimportant, though they are insufficient. Where democracy is most lacking, the conditions of working people are generally the worst. In a study of ninety-three countries, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik found that at each level of manufacturing productivity, democracies pay higher wages. This is to say that wages are not set by some marginal product of labor but that, where the bargaining power of labor is weakened by lack of basic labor rights, workers get a lower share of the value they produce. Class struggle at the point of production is far harder where basic democratic rights are most absent. This may account for Rodrik’s finding that workers in those states he labels “free countries” earn 30 percent more on average than those in “partly free countries,” and 60 percent more than in “unfree” ones.

Such results, while they may be overly simplistic, suggest that wider enforcement of basic labor rights (the right to free association, collective bargaining, and bans on forced and child labor) could have a profound effect on workers’ ability to earn higher wages by rebalancing the power between capital and labor. Such standards would not mean the end of international trade, as some prominent economists assert, but could narrow income differentials between rich and poor. The enforcement of such modest standards could make a significant difference. But this takes militancy on the part of popular organizations of the base.

It should be pointed out that rhetorical acceptance of such standards hardly means they will be respected in practice. In the United States and the United Kingdom, among other places, recent decades have seen state power systematically used to weaken trade unions and undermine the rights free world leaders claim they want others to adopt. Why should more “agreements in principle”—toothless side deals to the binding corporate agenda—pushed by the WTO-International Monetary Fund (IMF)-Treasury Department-Wall Street governance regime be seen as a victory for the critics? In this regard, organized labor was far too timid in Seattle, even if its very presence in the streets represented a significant shift from the practices of the old leadership. Without the “street heat” generated by those involved in direct actions, the civil disobedience of blocking delegates, and the sand thrown in the wheels of the machine, organized labor’s largely symbolic protest and relatively mild demands would have had far less impact. The disruptions—far from detracting from the AFL-CIO presence—gave their demands greater immediacy, even if it took the focus off of the organization’s leadership.

The fault line which separates more moderate from more radical WTO critics is that the former are asking that labor standards and environmental concerns be considered by the WTO as part of its decision-making processes. The WTO remit in this view has been too narrowly drawn and needs to be broadened. It is likely that massive popular resistance (while it will force such a tactical repositioning and a retreat to a token openness) will hardly achieve the goals protestors have in mind. Radical critics point out that given the massive movement, the WTO has little choice but to give at least rhetorical lip service to such demands. It may even propose institutional changes in procedures, which will appear to address widespread concerns. But this is unlikely to mean substantial change. As Lori Wallach reminds us:

When the WTO was established, many environmentalists pushed for an environmental working group in the WTO. They got one, and after five years, many of its most energetic proponents are now saying that this working group has turned into a trade-dominated entity where environmental laws are studied not to safeguard them but rather to figure out how to get rid of them. We don’t want to put the environment in the hands of an organization whose charge and world view is commercial …. Global labor movements now have all the enthusiasm the environmentalists did five years ago about putting standards into the WTO. I personally am very skeptical.6

The problem is a very real one and goes to the heart of how governments under capitalism divide responsibilities among governmental entities. In the United States, for example, it is the Treasury Department that deals with the major issues of concern to transnational corporations. When foreign governments have serious economic issues to negotiate, they often go to the Treasury Secretary first, before approaching the WTO or the IMF. Other constituencies are simply frozen out. Smaller U.S. companies find a sympathetic ear at the less powerful Commerce Department. Labor and environmental interests have access to neither. The Labor Department is not usually consulted on trade and finance matters, even if these areas are of prime concern to working Americans. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is further down the power pole. Decisions on labor and environmental matters can, and often are, trumped by the Treasury.

Similarly, it is the executive branch which oversees the details of such matters—often without consultation, except in rare instances, with corporate lobbyists whose companies have direct interest in particular issues. As in the case of the aborted Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the WTO aims to set ceilings on democratic initiatives by preventing, for example, those levels of government closer to the people (state and local governments, or even the Congress) from introducing legislation which would interfere with “free” trade. As has been widely noted, the boycotts against the Apartheid regime that helped bring down the whites-only South African state would not be permitted under WTO rules. Efforts to make environmental laws more stringent or protect labor rights will also be major targets of “WTO-illegal” practice suits. Thus, the WTO sets a low bar and prevents any innovations which would raise standards above those that already exist because such measures would have a deleterious effect on freedom to trade. The WTO would put people and the environment before profit only if progressive forces were to show such strength that no other alternative remained. The WTO doesn’t leave these concerns aside out of ignorance or oversight, but by design. Like capitalist governance more broadly, it is structured to do so. The radical protest of the demonstrators underscored this. The call for greater democracy is, in this context, a demand that capital not dominate societal decision-making.

The demonstrations also seemed to give courage to some third-world delegates inside the conference, in support of another challenge to WTO thinking that has been steadily building. While press attention was given mostly to their opposition to labor and environmental standards as a ruse for protectionism, less attention was given to third-world efforts to claw back much of what had been surrendered in the Uruguay Round, and to their opposition to additional U.S. demands (to be pursued in the aborted Clinton Round) for an end to nationalist development strategies. Developing countries in the past have used a combination of subsidies and measures to protect local markets as a development strategy. The success of Japan, Korea, and other countries was based on just such practices. The WTO rules, which the core countries have pushed, prevent such development trajectories. Even local food self-sufficiency is a target of the WTO. As countries are forced to open their markets to foreign grains and other basic foods, local farmers are driven off the land and into cities hardly ready for such an influx. They also face shortfalls and mass starvation if the price of imported foods rises as a result of poor weather and unexpected demands elsewhere.

The demands made by the WTO, which is to say the demands of the United States and the European Union (EU), are straightforwardly in the interests of core capitals at the expense of peripheral capital (and, in the case of the demands of agricultural exporters, at the expense of third-world farmers and rural communities). They should be seen in the context of core nations’ continued protection of industries which compete with third-world exports. While the United States claims to have the best interests of the world’s poor at heart in forcing them to liberalize (exercising tough love and withholding aid in the absence of reforms), what the United States and the other rich countries actually give is revealing. Thomas Hertel of Perdue University and Will Martin of the World Bank have shown that rich countries’ average tariffs on manufacturing imports from poor countries are four times higher than those on imports from other rich countries. Rather than receiving favored treatment, the developing countries are treated far more harshly.

This is mostly a matter of bargaining power, but there is also the matter of technical costs and expertise. The lawyerly approach the United States has imposed on trade requires all sorts of certification of cost and other “openness” requirements, which many governments are simply not in a position to comply with because their record-keeping is not up to it. The minutia of the legalisms (which are consequential and potentially costly for noncompliant governments) has placed an inordinate burden on many smaller and poorer nations. It is even hard for these countries to keep up with and attempt to master the massive and ever-expanding trade rules. As of late 1999 in Geneva, the site of most of the international bargaining on trade, one man (an overextended Iftekhar Chowdhury) acts as coordinator for forty-eight of the poorest countries in the world. Only fourteen of these countries can afford to post envoys in Geneva. They are not so different from Chowdhury’s own country, Bangladesh, where approximately a third of the labor force is unemployed and poor people earn less in a year than it costs a visiting envoy to stay in one of Geneva’s international hotels. This basic inequality is not unrelated to the acceptance of measures which prove unexpectedly costly to the developing countries. For example, a study by two Washington economists estimates that implementing trade procedures and establishing technical and intellectual property standards (adopted at the suggestion of the United States) costs more than a year’s development budget for the poorest countries.

The nonindustrialized countries did caucus and submit a detailed list of priorities for the Seattle meeting agenda, which focused on rectifying things they had given away in earlier trade negotiations without understanding their impact. “But,” as the New York Times reported, “their two-page list was mysteriously deleted from the first formal draft of the agenda that circulated at the organization’s Geneva headquarters ….”7 The United States was accused of bullying tactics but, as U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky made clear, existing agreements couldn’t be reopened. (It would undermine the credibility of future negotiations, she said.) The United States continues to punish unilaterally nations that it finds dumping goods into U.S. markets—in a fairly clear violation of WTO rules—and has insisted that while other countries make concessions, the United States be able to keep tariffs in place in such politically sensitive industries as the garment industry until 2005.

Human Rights, China, and the WTO

The discussion is complicated by Clinton-Blair Third Way expressions of concern over human rights, democracy, and the need for host-government honesty—by which they mean not allowing third-world officials (whom, they presume, are corrupt) to rip off foreign banks, investors, and corporations. More far-sighted capitalists also worry that real social chaos is developing, and spreading from failed states and states in which uneven development (in an age of instant communication) creates problems for core capital. Having the trains run on time has always had appeal for the corporate class. The local elites which, it should be underlined, imperialism put in place in the first instance, are now no longer its best local representatives. Now that the national liberation alternative has faded and the possibility of nonalignment in a unipolar new capitalist world order is less realistic, the corruption of these anticommunist regimes is costly and from a profit-for- transnational-capital perspective, undesirable. A modern two-party competition bidding for foreign capital, rather than a dictator and friends and family regime taking ten percent of everything, is (in the present global conjuncture) a better alternative. This does not mean the end of repression or the calculated use of torture and imprisonment when needed, and of course the sort of capitalist modernization the Clinton-Blair departure suggests is not aimed at strengthening working-class and popular movements; indeed, it is the opposite.

Similarly, an analysis is needed concerning the politics inherent in progressive forces gearing up to stop China from being admitted to the WTO. This can be criticized as contributing to displacement of class rage—rightly directed at transnational capital—onto the repressive Chinese ruling class. Without at all absolving Chinese market-Dengist cadre (“to get rich by exploiting the people is glorious”) and their opportunist progeny, it is the unregulated power of western capital, the anti-working-class policies of the American government most particularly, which should be the focus of our efforts. China had little to do with the fact that real wages have been stagnant for U.S. workers for the last two decades or that, while the stock market has increased wealth by trillions of dollars for the richest 10 percent of the population who own 85 percent of the stock, most Americans own no stock at all but fuel these gains through downsizing and givebacks.

On the other hand, Chinese policies and the impact of their huge trade surplus with the United States brings some issues into better focus as it obscures others. It clarifies the way national leaders—in collusion with transnational capital—organize the super-exploitation of their own citizens and calls attention to the uneven development such export competitiveness at all costs brings in its wake. It also highlights the race toward the bottom that occurs as other competitors gain greater incentive to copy these policies. It focuses on the need to support other workers who are imprisoned for union organizing or attempting to speak freely to their comrades. It is a demand for a basic level of democratic rights for everyone and, in these demands, one witnesses an emergent internationalist solidarity. At the same time, the fact that China is hardly the main enemy of U.S. working people needs to be part of any such discussion.

For reasons which have everything to do with U.S. domestic politics—specifically the need not to offend the labor movement, which has endorsed Vice President Gore’s run to succeed his boss—President Clinton, in a comment to a newspaper in Seattle, suggested he wanted to go beyond the usual empty rhetoric and mandate enforceable labor standards. The reaction was immediate from third-world delegates. A trade minister from Pakistan was quoted the next day as saying, “We will block consensus on every issue if the United States proposal goes ahead.” The ruling elites of Pakistan and other third-world authoritarian (and even formally democratic) governments have never had an interest in labor standards which could reduce their ability to exploit the workers of their countries. This does not mean that they are wrong in suggesting that the United States would use labor standards as a pretext to impose sanctions when if might suit U.S. political interests. The United States, abusing its great power, has always used sanctions selectively and to advance other agendas, and there is little reason to think labor standards would be used differently.

The use of trade sanctions to enforce labor standards is also opposed by most third-world unionists, who see job loss resulting without necessary impact on their wages and working conditions. What they need is help organizing. International solidarity, exposure of local abuses, financial assistance to strikers, and pressure on governments who use police-state tactics against workers would be welcome. But the fact is that, in the past, the United States has supported the most repressive third-world regimes. People are rightly skeptical about Clinton’s motives. The solidarity which needs to be extended is to the workers, oppressed and exploited not simply by transnationals, but by their own capitalists. Rather than counting on the kindness of passing imperialists, a class struggle perspective is in order. The same is true in making common cause with reactionary Republicans who wish to weaken China for their own reasons.

Similarly, we need to think more about China as related to a host of issues which arise from the reality that 95 percent of the world’s population growth is taking place in what is euphemistically called the developing world (from which westerners fear immigration, job loss, the spread of epidemics, terrorism, and crime). There is a desire to build defenses, whether new versions of Star War missile defenses or economic protectionism. The cost of the left’s inability to offer a coherent counter-interpretation of globalization’s dangers and damage, and their sources and solutions, is great.

Increasingly, as we try to develop a more mature politics of internationalism, we will be faced with racist fears, class divisions, and gender issues. Western supporters of labor rights will have to examine their stand on patriarchy’s impacts, the domestic and workplace violence aimed at women, educational discrimination, and employment gender discrimination in countries other than our own. These are issues which are being raised by third-world feminists, who confront not only the resistance of their governments and the capitalists but often male workers as well. How western supporters can be effective without being chauvinistic is be a challenge for the labor and human-rights groups in the West.

Radical Agendas

What fuels more fundamental social change is a radical vision. Change does not come about from the mere fact of oppression. In the absence of hope for meaningful change, a sense that a better alternative exists and is possible, pessimism and cynicism prevail. A radical vision consists first of anger at the way things are, the feeling that conditions are intolerable, but if this is to lead beyond thoughtless and futile rebellion, it must be accompanied by a belief that a better alternative is not only desirable but possible; not necessarily tomorrow, but when the momentum can be turned around. Resistance can have a strong element of moral witness (speaking truth to power), of rebellion (I’m mad and I won’t take it any more), of reformist goals (our mutual ideals are violated, let us live up to our agreed upon principles), and of revolutionary transformation (the institutions of structured inequality and destruction are necessary to preserve their power, the system must be overthrown, and a fundamentally different one put in its place). Each of these stances was visible in Seattle.

Whenever capital is seen to overreach and, in its greed, endanger even the sustainability and the reproduction of the system, two impulses come to the fore in terms of redress. From reformers both inside and outside the system comes a desire to solve the immediately pressing problem by making changes which allow the system to work better: fuller disclosure and more open access (with the implicit promise that sunshine is the best disinfectant). Whether financial market allocation or democratic policy-making, better information allows for better decisions. The second impulse is to transform existing social relations of hierarchical power, to take away power which has been abused, to penalize usurpers, seize what has been illegitimately appropriated, and break the authority relation of coercive domination which allows and encourages the intolerable outcomes.

In the first approach, structures of power are left in place so that, as soon as the crisis is perceived to have passed or diminished in intensity, the tentacles reach out once more, with renewed confidence—once the high tide of movement outrage and vigilance is passed. Business as usual resumes, perhaps with greater care to observe, for public consumption, the niceties of verbal allegiance to the key words of the movement. It is in just such a fashion that the very word democracy, at first an insulting word to describe the rule of the unwashed mob, became a revered ideal of state elites. Over time, there is erosion of social regulation and the philosophy of reform gives way to the necessities of realism, the drive to accumulate. Beyond that, as memory of the crisis—the moment of popular empowerment and systemic challenge—fades, the reign of capitalist logic resumes—hegemonic to the extent that it can once again be said, “there is no alternative.” Reforms do not last unless a mobilized, powerful movement keeps the pressure on and the momentum going.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the New Deal structural reforms had been vitiated: reforms that protected capital from itself and, to an important extent, the protected the rest of us from the worst excesses of a capitalism without social regulation, and which opened space for a somewhat more inclusive distribution of society’s product. They had been defunded, deregulated, and neoliberalized. The reformist regulatory agencies came to be headed by individuals whose goals were to sabotage their originally stated purposes. At a structural level, the forces of production, never divorced in any event from social relations, developed in new directions—empowering new fractions of capital and encouraging shifts within the historic bloc of capitalist domination both domestically and internationally. In many ways and in many places, they have created intolerable conditions for people and the planet. In response, to contest capital’s version of globalization, we may be seeing the birth of the broadest based movement for social, economic, and political change of recent times. These are hard times for the left and one would not want to overstate the case. On the other hand, it is difficult to read turning points. Seattle may prove just such an event.

WTO and Seattle authorities, in their attempts to squash dissent, created lifetime activists. Kelly Quirke, Executive Director of the Rainforest Action Network, described her time in Seattle in a Web posting, saying that she experienced:

a real-life glimpse of what corporate-controlled reality looks like. Police in the streets, no civil rights, martial law, jail brutality—we saw that which we jump-started the week with: an action warning about the loss of democracy—is not just activist rhetoric, not just some advertisement, but real. We saw, all week long, as did the rest of the world, what they will do to get their way. But this is only the glimpse of a future, not the future. All week long we also saw us. In the streets, counting on each other, trusting each other, loving each other. Determined, utterly determined, to create a world where reverence is what we practice, with work that fulfills us; building communities based on interdependence and cooperation and nurturing relationships that breathe passion into our lives.

The announcement of a commitment to make it so came through loud and clear.

We cannot know yet what difference the battle in Seattle will make. We can say that many of the demands raised there were and are “non-reformist reforms” in the Andre Gorz sense: reforms which do not base their validity and right to exist on capitalist needs, criteria, or rationales. Some are critiques (which so enraged the ideologues of the system cited at the start of this essay) of the productivism of the drive to accumulate for the sake of expansion of capital regardless of cost to workers, the environment, the community. They are also driven by a positive counter-vision of sustainability and social justice. In a number of the protesting themes is a rejection of capitalism’s economic reasoning. It was the victories in the streets of Seattle, the resistance of other nations to the domination of the United States in the negotiations, the gains in public awareness concerning the functions of the WTO in the global capitalist system, and an underlying change in perception that prompted so pained an outrage on the part of elite opinion-molders.

In making an overall assessment, we should perhaps take to heart the quintessentially American framing of the situation offered by John Sellers of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society (one of the groups which coordinated the Seattle protest). He said, “We just hit the big hoop at the halftime buzzer. But dude, this game is not over.”

Notes

  1. Thomas l. Friedman, “Senseless Battle in Seattle,” Business Week, December 2, 1999.
  2. George Melloan, “Welcome to the Seattle World’s Fare, Cerca 1999,“Wall Street Journal, November 30, 1999.
  3. “Welch’s March to the South,” Business Week, December 6, 1999.
  4. Martin Wolf, “WTO: In defense of global capitalism,” Financial Times, December 8, 1999.
  5. Michelle Conlin, “Hey, What About Us?” Business Week, December 27, 1999.
  6. Lori Wallach, “Higher Standards?” The Nation, December 6, 1999.
  7. Elizabeth Olson, “Anger on Agenda for World Trade Meeting,” New York Times, October 14, 1999.