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The Battle of Seattle and Beyond

“What is the new loyalty? It is, above all, conformity. It is the uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of America as it is – the political institutions, the social relationships, the economic practices. It rejects inquiry into the race question or socialized medicine, or public housing, or into the wisdom or validity of our foreign policy. It regards as particularly heinous any challenge to what is called ‘the system of private enterprise,’ identifying that system with Americanism. It abandons evolution, repudiates the once popular concept of progress, and regards America as a finished product, perfect and complete.”
-HENRY STEELE COMMAGER, “Who is Loyal to America?” (1947)

Commager, a historian, launched his criticisms at the outset of the cold war, a period during which freedoms of speech or association would be anything but sacrosanct. Such repression was justified, said House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Truman and soon McCarthy, on the grounds that there existed a rival national power hell-bent on global domination. Freedom, the redbaiters maintained, was a relative, not an absolute condition.

            A half-century later, America now stands as the world’s only superpower. Rather than crusade against the Evil Empire, it now targets the “evil-doers” who “hate its freedoms.” No one can deny that America does seek to exert global “influence,” if not build an outright empire. Yet within that process, basic questions arise: an empire based on what principles, and within it, what does freedom mean?

            The answer to both questions may be found by treating globalization as synonymous with Americanization, at least in it current neoliberal manifestation. Cultural homogeneity is less a catalyst or a goal in this process than a welcome by-product. The primary aim is rather to establish corporate-friendly states that neither impose barriers to capital accumulation or mobility, nor support social programs that are best managed by the private sector. The Founding Fathers, Thomas Friedman declares, in an interpretation solely his own, sought to protect “Freedom of Markets,” and it is now our mission to spread that freedom around the globe.

            As in the current war on terrorism, you’re either “with us or against us,” in the minds of globalization’s proponents. And in the present climate, “people need to watch what they say,” declares the White House. Not a few voices of resistance have warned that the current crackdown on civil liberties will soon target the global justice movement. For the last few months, meanwhile, we have been bombarded with stories about why it is our job to liberate a people not even allowed to fly kites, much less own radios. Wars, after all, do open up new markets, which is what freedom is all about.

            It is precisely at this moment, when war and market freedom have become so closely tied, that books like The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenges to Capitalist Globalization (Soft Skull Press, 2002) become so valuable. Though not about war per se, the collection provides a thoroughgoing perspective on the growth of alternative visions of what the increasingly linked world can and should look like. Ruthlessly critical of the movement’s shortcomings, the essays and interviews collected here also document a truly global hunger for justice.

            The essays, reportage, interviews, propaganda, and other miscellany gathered here start with precursors to Seattle and end before Genoa. The book is primarily edited by Eddie Yuen, along with Daniel Burton-Rose and the prolific George N. Katsiaficas. “A book which started out as a practical compendium of articles for the use of a nascent movement,” Yuen writes in a prologue, in the wake of 9/11 now may seem like a “work of history.” But, he argues, given the very real danger that right-wing movements of the global South may “hijack” the cause, it is doubly essential for the anti-globalization movements to reassess the relationship between its politics and its tactics.

            Although left activists prepared for the Seattle WTO meeting well in advance, and various state security agencies had taken note, the scale of what happened on November 30, 1999 (referred to in the work as N30), really did catch everyone involved, particularly the various media on hand, by surprise. The collection is clearly more sympathetic to the radical protestors in the streets, as opposed to labor or various non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) demands for “a place at the table.” “On N30,” the editors write in their introduction, “the conduct of the WTO, its corporate backers, and the city of Seattle all revealed the violence, intolerance of genuine dissent, and fundamentally impoverishing nature of the neo-liberal project.” Reflecting the work’s overall anarchist leanings, none of the pieces gathered here offer any hope that the WTO can be reformed from within.

            The Battle of Seattle is divided into five sections, focusing on the origins of N30, the event’s aftermath, the alliances subsequently formed, analysis of the movement, and future directions for it. There are several familiar left voices represented, including those of Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alexander Cockburn, and Naomi Klein. But the lesser known journalists and critics offer equally valuable insights, and often more detailed accounts of key events. With more than 50 pieces to choose from, a comprehensive review would be impossible. Neither is a rehash of the primary initial post-Seattle debate–over violent vs. non-violent protest–especially necessary; the pieces here by Ehrenreich, Rachel Neumann and L.A. Kauffman break down this false dichotomy quite well. What follows is rather a series of more enduring criticisms often directed at the movement, with attention to how the pieces contained here respond.

            The movement’s lack of a consistent name reflects deeper confusion about its direction. “How,” a Nobel Prize-winning economist recently asked, “can a movement be against globalization when it’s drawing in protestors from all over the world?” The short answer, of course, is that what all flanks of the movement–from labor and the NGOs to the Black Bloc–uniformly oppose is the current direction of globalization. But direct discussion of this issue of terminology is largely absent in the book, probably because the writers are clear in their own minds about what they’re up against. Throughout the work, several writers treat “anti-globalization” as synonymous with “anti-capitalist globalization,” which is more precise but a mouthful. “Anti-neoliberalism” is another possibility, although the two suffixes render it problematic, as does the suggestion that the activists seek a return to liberalism. Though not used with any frequency here, the term “global justice,” recently used in promoting a conference at the CUNY Graduate Center, does add a positive dimension, and it thus may help the movement in its efforts to define clear alternatives. How global justice might be enacted, though, remains an open question.

            The movement is dominated by white middle class leadership, thus causing it to ignore issues of racial inequality. This oft-repeated charge was an issue of obvious concern to the book’s editors, who rightly inserted pieces dealing with race into each section, rather than isolate them as a separate category. Kristine Wong thus recounts her struggle in Seattle to get Public Citizen and the Sierra Club to pay attention to yet another example of environmental racism, specifically the placement of a medical waste incinerator in a minority neighborhood near downtown, rather than organize its protests around the symbol of the Sea Turtle. And in his discussion of the Seattle-inspired protests at the Democratic Convention in L.A. a year later, Juan Gonzalez raises important questions about the relationship between high-profile protests and the everyday issues faced by lower-income communities of color. “The road to fundamental change in American society,” Gonzalez writes, “lies not simply in disrupting our downtowns, but in awakening, organizing and providing some vision of a better world to our South Centrals.” Given the manifest inequalities wrought by globalization at home and abroad, arguments made against its universal devastation hardly seem likely to inspire such expanded participation.

            Protests directed at International monetary Fund (I.M.F. and WTO meetings in the global North are largely symbolic, whereas in the South, organizing by necessity focuses on globalization’s everyday injustices. One of the collection’s many strengths is its insistence that the movement recognize that Seattle was by no means the beginning of visible resistance to the global project. Katsiaficas documents key predecessors such as the Venezuelan and South Korean reactions to structural adjustment of the ’80s and ’90s. Meanwhile, in writing about resistance in India, Jaggi Singh suggests that from the South’s perspective, the target is the “three aunties”–anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and anti-capitalist–only one of which shows up in Northern critiques. In his explanation of the map excerpted above, James Davis invokes the Zapatista statement, “globalization is a matter of life and death,” to characterize the difference in scale of globalization’s impact. “In the South,” Davis adds, “demonstrations are usually directed at the immediate effects of a specific neo-liberal policy, such as the privatization of water in Bolivia or the raising of fuel prices in Nigeria.” Such reminders are not intended to diminish the importance of the macro-protests in places like Seattle or D.C. Rather, they remind activists in the North that the demands of the world’s impoverished majority must be at the forefront.

            After Genoa, where does it go? The short answer would be Qatar and the Olympic ski resort in Alberta. Such obviously inaccessible places now serve as the perfect sites for international trade meetings. D.C., meanwhile, threatened to impose a three-mile barricade around the World Bank for the meetings originally scheduled for this past September. All of the essays here were written pre-Genoa, meaning that it would be silly to fault the writers for not seeing the future. Still, like the movement itself, the collection focuses more on critiquing the big picture, as well as how to organize inclusive protests against it, than on developing more manageable targets for action. “Living wage,” “AIDS relief for Africa,” and “anti-sweatshop” are all essential campaigns, and have attained varying degrees of success. But they all require interaction with existing state structures, both local and international, and so suggest the need for direct political organizing. In the book’s final essay, James O’Connor foresees the need to move from the movement’s political aims–of genuine pluralism, equality, and ecology–toward “definite political ends,” by which he means a “national and international project” able to “define and implement independent alternatives.” This should indeed sound like a call for third-party politics, but here the direction could be more precise. The Nader experience painfully revealed the difficulty of starting at the national level, suggesting that it may be necessary to make local politics the starting point for global change.

            Domestically, at least, the first two-and-a-half months after 9/11 have hardly been a glorious moment in the history of freedom, at least in any progressive meaning of the term. We’ve seen mass detentions, talk of military tribunals, shameless corporate giveaways dressed up as “economic stimulus”–actions so offensive that even normally staid editorial boards have used the “D” word, as in dictatorship, to describe some of them. Those here at home who seek to combat global inequality, and who refuse to accept neoliberalism as an economically or socially just system, are hardly freedom’s enemies. Instead as in Commager’s America of 1947, those “really disloyal” remain: “Those who subvert the Constitution by violating the ballot box…Those who deny freedom of speech and of the press and the assembly. Those who demand special favors against the interest of the commonwealth. Those who regard public office merely as a source of private gain. Those who exalt the military over the civil. Those who for selfish and private purposes stir up national antagonisms and expose the world to the ruin of war.” The struggle is thus not new, but neither, as readers of The Battle of Seattle will quickly realize, is it over.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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