This story first appeared at the TomDispatch website.
Next month, at the climate change summit in Copenhagen, the wealthy nations that produce most of the excess carbon in our atmosphere will almost certainly fail to embrace measures adequate to ward off the devastation of our planet by heat and chaotic weather. Their leaders will probably promise us teaspoons with which to put out the firestorm and insist that springing for fire hoses would be far too onerous a burden for business to bear. They have already backed off from any binding deals at this global summit. There will be a lot of wrangling about who should cut what when, and how, with a lot of nations claiming that they would act if others would act first. Activists—farmers, environmentalists, island-dwellers—around the world will try to write a different future, a bolder one, and if anniversaries are an omen, then they have history on their side.
A decade ago, and a decade before that, popular power turned the tide of history. November 30, 1999, was the day that activists shut down a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle and started to chart another course for the planet than the one that corporations and their servant nation-states had presumed they’d execute without impediment. Since then, events have strayed increasingly far from the WTO’s road map for global domination and the financial scenarios that captains of industry once liked to entertain.
Until that day when tens of thousands of protestors poured into the streets of Seattle (as well as other cities from Winnipeg to Athens, Limerick to Seoul), the might of the corporations made their agenda seem nothing short of inevitable—and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Disrupted by demonstrators outside its door and, on the inside, by dissent from poor nations galvanized by the ruckus, the meeting collapsed in confusion. Today, the WTO is puny compared to its ambitions only a decade ago.
The mass civil disobedience in the streets was, in a way, an answer to another landmark day a decade earlier: November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and tens of thousands of Germans swarmed across the forbidden zone splitting their once and future capital city to celebrate, and eventually to reunite their nation. The fall of the Wall is now often remembered as if the gracious acquiescence of officialdom brought it about. It was not so.
“I announced the wall would open, but it was only the pressure by the people that made it possible” said Günter Schabowski, then-East German Communist Party central committee spokesperson, earlier this year. Had those East Germans not shown up and overwhelmed the guards at the Wall, nothing would have changed that night. In fact, popular will toppled several regimes that season. Thanks to creative civil-society organizing, steadfastness, astonishing courage, and imagination, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary also slipped out of the Soviet bloc and so out of a version of communism tantamount to totalitarianism as well.
There was a lot of triumphalism in the West thereafter. From the White House to business magazines and newspapers came a drumbeat of pronouncements that communism had failed and capitalism had triumphed. As it happened, those weren’t the binaries at stake in the astonishing uprisings that season in Eastern Europe, or in the failed uprising in Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital Beijing that spring. People certainly wanted freedom, but it wasn’t the freedom to trade mysterious debt instruments and buy Double Whoppers, exactly. Nor was it capitalism, but civil society, very nearly its antithesis, that had risen up and brought down the Wall. The real binary then was: civil society versus top-down authoritarianism—and framed that way, our situation didn’t look quite as good as Washington and the media then made out.
Nevertheless, for a decade afterward, it wasn’t that easy to argue with the logic of capitalism’s triumph, since even China was making a beeline for a market economy and, in the process, doing an especially good job of proving that capitalism and democracy were separate phenomena. It was also the decade of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the first of a series of broad international treaties meant to secure the terms of corporate power for a long time to come. Its implementation on January 1, 1994, prompted the Zapatistas, the indigenous peasants of southern Mexico’s jungle, to rise up against the treaty, which promised—and has now delivered—a grim new chapter in the deprivation and dispossession of Mexico’s majority. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Zapatistas came as a great shock.
The Sucking Sound and the Turning Tide
Few remember how dissent against NAFTA was dismissed and even mocked in the era when the treaty was debated, signed, and ratified. In his debate with Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot was ignored when he said, “We have got to stop sending jobs overseas.” He was ridiculed for describing the “giant sucking sound” of those jobs heading south. Which, of course, they did—and then on to China in a financial “race to the bottom,” while cheap corn raised by Midwestern agribusiness also went south where it bankrupted Mexico’s small farmers.
Cheap food, cheap labor, cheap products turned out to be very, very expensive for the majority of us. It’s a sign of how much things have changed that Hillary Clinton felt compelled to lie in last year’s presidential campaign, claiming she had long been against NAFTA. In that, she was just a weathervane for changing times. After all, in the decade since Seattle, most of South America liberated itself not just from a legacy of American-supported dictators and death squads, but from the economic programs those instruments existed to enforce.
Venezuela lent Argentina enough money to pay off its debts to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that earlier instrument for imposing free-market ideology and corporate profit. Various other countries did the same, and the continent largely freed itself from the imposition of neoliberal policies that mainly benefited Washington and international corporations. The IMF was so impoverished by Latin American divestment—which went from 80% of its loans to about 1%—that it’s been reduced to selling off its gold reserves. The World Bank is doing well only by comparison. By 2005, the tide had clearly turned, and the power of these institutions and of the so-called Washington Consensus that went with them was on the wane.
That tide had just begun to turn 10 years ago, when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman referred to the people in the streets of Seattle as “a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960's fix.” He charged, “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.”
Nice though our labor and environmental standards might have been elsewhere too, most of us didn’t want the WTO to do anything or to have any power. As the Direct Action Network organizing leaflet from August 1999 put it, the WTO’s “overall goal is to eliminate ‘trade barriers,’ frequently including labor laws, public health regulations, and environmental protection measures.”
That day in Seattle a crane dangled a pair of gigantic banners shaped like arrows: the first, inscribed “Democracy,” pointed one way; the second, labeled “WTO,” pointed the other. The leaflet and banners were pieces of a carefully organized resistance, and it’s important to remember that events like the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia 20 years ago or the shutdown of the WTO weren’t just spontaneous uprisings; they were the fruit of long toil. While the right and too many American media outlets like to remember a fictitious Seattle that was nothing but a cauldron of activist violence (while ignoring serious police violence), too many on the left wanted to think of it as a miraculous convergence rather than the result of careful coalition-building, strategizing, outreach, and all the usual labors.