Seattle +20: What the Global Justice Movement Got Right

Twenty years ago, protesters forced the cancellation of parts of the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. A combination of internal advocacy within the ministerial and protests outside (The Battle of Seattle) stopped the WTO from carrying out an agenda designed to enrich corporate elites and impoverish everyone else.

At the time, I had been organizing and attending similar protests and direct actions for about five years. But November 30, 1999 was a game changer. Protests against neoliberalism that the mainstream largely ignored or were covered by local news outlets were suddenly the topic of front page editorials in national newspapers. The word “globalization” was on everyone’s lips, often together with the prefix “anti”.

If history had played out differently, we might remember Seattle as more than just a symbol of a movement; it might have been the beginning of the end of a form of neoliberal capitalism. But a series of unfortunate events decimated the movement. Among these are the disputed 2000 election of George W. Bush (for which many Democrats still blame the third party candidacy of Ralph Nader, despite evidence that Gore has only himself to blame), increasing state repression against anti-globalization protestors culminating in the murder of Carlo Giuliani at protests outside the G8 summit in Genoa, and the attacks led by a number of Saudi Arabian terrorists that took place on September 11, 2001.

Twenty years on, the messages of November 30, 1999 are more relevant than ever. Neoliberalism is not compatible with democracy, a lesson many of us learned from events that took place years before and thousands of miles south of Seattle.

Though mainstream media only pays attention to protests in developed countries, one point of origin for the global movement against neoliberalism is the uprising that took place in Chiapas Mexico on January 1, 1994. That day is remembered for two reasons. For proponents of “free trade” it is remembered as the day that NAFTA came into effect. For proponents of democracy, it is remembered as the day that the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico declared that they would rise up against the neoliberal order in Mexico and elsewhere under the leadership of their armed wing, the Zapatistas. They didn’t choose the day accidentally – NAFTA and the elitist, anti-union trade agenda that it represented was a symbol of the predatory nature of global capitalism.

It’s worth quoting at length from the Zapatista declaration:

“We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first against slavery, then during the War of Independence against Spain led by insurgents, then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism…. [Those who lead us] don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education.”

The Zapatistas knew that democracy and neoliberalism are incompatible. At the time we argued that, although neoliberalism may indeed lead to economic growth, human rights and ecological sustainability are more important for a functioning democracy. In retrospect that argument gives neoliberals too much credit.

Neoliberalism (or, if you prefer, the Washington consensus, Reaganism, or Thatcherism) more closely resembles a religion than a science. In order for a scientific hypothesis to be worth anything, it has to be falsifiable. If one believes that budget cuts, privatization and liberalization lead to high growth rates, she should test those hypotheses. When they are time and again proven wrong, she should reject them.

But the priests of the church of neoliberalism care little for the evidence. When austerity doesn’t lead to growth they have but one answer – more austerity.  A definition of insanity comes to mind.

The insanity is amplified when we take recent events into account. Experts disagree about how much the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis cost taxpayers. For the USA alone, estimates start at about $498 billion and go up to $25 trillion. This doesn’t include the 1.6 trillion Euros Europe spent bailing out banks and the nearly $600 billion China spent on stimulus to avoid being affected by the crisis. The vast majority of this money was spent within a year of the crash of Lehman Brothers, the event that marked the beginning of the crisis. Government planners spending trillions of dollars for little gain sounds more like a capitalists critique of Soviet state planning than an uncontroversial description of wealthy Northern elites being saved from themselves.

By contrast, the amount of money needed to meet basic demands of justice, human rights and ecological sustainability are relatively small. Experts estimate that the entire amount needed to end global poverty could be as low as $175 billion per year over twenty years. Yet the poor suffer first when governments choose austerity. That’s the case in countries like India and South Africa, but it’s also the case in countries like the UK and the USA. And that’s bad enough when austerity policies are pursued by democratically elected governments, but it’s much worse when the IMF forces countries to cut social services in order to balance budgets. The hypocrisy is no longer hidden. The IMF’s own research unit agrees that austerity causes more harm than good; developed countries like the USA have never balanced their budgets. (Balancing a country’s budget is an idiotic idea; national economies are not households.)

Neoliberalism does not stand up to its own criteria for success. Unfortunately being proved wrong does not seem to have stopped it. Neoliberalism works well for the 1% (to borrow the language of the next wave of economic justice movements). And for now, that seems to be enough.

The environmental damage Seattle protesters warned us about is approaching a nightmare scenario. Some call this the Anthropocene; humans are ushering  in a new geological era. But we do not share equal responsibility for this catastrophe. The ultra rich and their enablers in governments and international financial institutions ignored the warning alarms sounded by the Seattle protesters (among many others before and since); they are the ones who must be held accountable. Conveniently, they are also the ones who have the resources necessary to change things.

It is not too late to revisit the Seattle moment. But the crisis has become more serious than we could have imagined. Solutions must be even more radical.

The 1994 Zapatista uprising didn’t come from nowhere. The people and movements behind it were led by the indigenous people of Chiapas, who had been practicing far deeper forms of democracy than anything that exists today. Radical transformation of our institutions involves a project of decolonization. In this endeavor we must be led by the example of the Zapatistas and those of other indigenous peoples’ movements around the world who’ve been resisting the colonial structures that still dominate our lives. Some necessary steps include:

Redefine work: Where did the idea that everybody should work 8 to ten hours a day originate? It’s certainly not natural. It’s not even possible without institutionalizing a gendered division of work, where care work is devalued and gendered in order to enable men to spend time working for their masters. Historically this process – proletarianization in Marxist terms – happened only when violence could be used to privatize collective land. The beneficiaries of this process – the first modern capitalists – ruled over their newfound riches like kings and treated the rest of us as slaves. Modern slavery in both its European and transAtlantic forms are also part of this story. Sociologically, these kings still exist in the form of CEOs and stock owners. Why should societies that claim to value freedom create institutions where we all compete with each other to be of some service to the billionaires who rule us?

Redefine  government: One of the slogans I learned in the runup to Seattle is “Democracy is not a spectator sport”. We all should have a say in decisions that affect our lives. The question of how much debt I should go into in order to have my child’s appendix removed should be something we all have a say in; it certainly shouldn’t be dictated by the “laws” of the market. (Remember, they aren’t laws. If they were, the entire system would have crashed in 2008.) The Sanders’ campaign is taking some good steps in this direction, but they won’t be sufficient. Deep changes in how we govern ourselves are in order. Some have suggested sortition, others a deeper kind of decentralization. These proposals are certainly worth exploration, but no proposal to deepen democracy can be implemented if the power of the billionaires remains unchecked.

In retrospect, our demands at the time of Seattle were naive. We asked regulators to keep billionaires in check. But billions are more than enough to buy out regulators. A neoliberal system designed on the premise that people have an infinite capacity for selfishness – what amounts to an assumption of universal sociopathy – ends up rewarding sociopathic behavior. Government ultimately ends up being a tool for sociopathic billionaires to make more billions. Trump may be an extreme example of this, but the “profit-above-all” principle is deeply embedded in the system. The transition from neoliberalism to democracy is overdue.

Sameer Dossani is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation in South Africa, and former Director of 50 Years Is Enough: US Network for Global Economic Justice.