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Where Activists Stand Five Years After the Landmark Protests in Seattle

by MARK ENGLER

Those who recall an era before Bush may remember the images: Five years ago this week, demonstrators flooded the streets of Seattle to protest the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Environmentalists dressed like sea turtles mixed with steelworkers in their union jackets, pierced students, and family farmers from the Midwest. Together, the parties of the broad protest coalition forcefully argued that the WTO and the agenda of corporate globalization were undermining workers’ rights, endangering the environment, and transferring democratic decision making to unaccountable economic bodies.

In response to the colorful expressions of dissent and to the civil disobedients who chained themselves around the convention center, police clouded the air with tear gas. President Clinton declared a state of martial law. Yet protests continued. And by the end of the week the WTO’s plans for an ambitious new round of “free trade” agreements had collapsed.

It was a stunning blow. The Seattle protests, along with allied demonstrations taking place throughout the world, had a dramatic effect in changing the debate about international trade and development. They left the previously high-flying corporate globalizers of the Clinton years scrambling to defend the once-unassailable policies of the “Washington Consensus.”

However, in recent years the US globalization movement itself has been derailed by the Bush administration. How has this happened? Ironically, while President Bush claims to be an ardent promoter in “free trade,” he has abandoned the type of rules-based, multilateral globalization agenda that prevailed in the 1990s. He has replaced “corporate globalization” with his own brand of “imperial globalization”–a more traditionally-minded, unilateral pursuit of US national self-interest. This has left institutions like the World Trade Organization floundering, and has left much of the global business elite chagrined. It has also put the movement against corporate globalization on the defensive.

John Kerry’s populist campaign moments and pledges to support “fair trade” notwithstanding, it is likely that he would have returned to the Clinton model of corporate globalization if he had been elected. One can even argue that a President Kerry, who could have been a far more subtle and effective promoter of business-friendly neoliberal economics than Bush, would actually have been worse for the people of the developing world. This presents a difficult question: Did we really want another slick CEO-in-chief taking the White House?

The answer is yes. Yes we did.

Not only is the murderous neoconservatism of the Bush Administration terribly harmful in its own right, it has sapped away the vision and creativity that defined the movement that exploded onto Seattle’s streets. Rather than being able to advance sophisticated arguments about what sort of international economic system we want to live in, we have been reduced to denouncing blatantly illegal foreign invasions and defending our basic civil liberties.

It is a rare moment when tens of thousands of people can get worked up about topics as arcane as Section 11 of NAFTA or the WTO’s secret tribunals for trade disputes. The Seattle protests opened one window of time when the fundamentals of global economics could be openly discussed in the US. Critics could make clear that the Enron bi-partisanship that has too often guided economic policy has poorly served the majority of the workforce that has seen its real wages stagnate in past decades, just as it has locked much of the developing world into a cycle of debt and despair.

The post-Seattle window has since closed. Under the present administration there has been a groundswell of resistance from people who oppose Bush’s foreign invasions, his assaults on the environment and on women’s rights, and his tax cuts for the rich. But as a movement, we have struggled simply to respond to the latest Republican outrages. In a time of war and occupation, the undeniable need to turn our attention to stopping US militarism has allowed debate about international economics to again move behind closed doors.

A forward-looking globalization movement is needed to return this discussion to the fore and to again push for a global economic system that is responsive to human need. While the imperative of opposing neoconservative aggression will keep us at least partially preoccupied in the near future, we can take inspiration from globalization activists abroad who have continued promoting alternatives to both neoliberal economics and to Bush administration warmongering. At the same time, we can work toward a day when an end of the occupation of Iraq will allow us to train our attention back on the nefarious expansion of corporate power–a day when we can celebrate, and then start the debate again in the spirit of Seattle.

MARK ENGLER, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the website http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.

 

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MARK ENGLER is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, April 2008). He can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com

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