National Sections of the L5I:

The lessons of Seattle

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A review of Globalize this! The Battle against the World Trade Organisation

Globalise This! is a set of essays by prominent anti-globalisation activists. It opens with accounts of the Seattle protest at the World Trade Organisation last November and follows this up with contributions on the nature of the WTO, and the debates within the Seattle movement.

It ends with proposals for “democratizing the global economy.” It gives an excellent picture of the American movement after Seattle and provides some important lessons for the coming anti-IMF demonstration in Prague.

The book starts with a dramatic proclamation, “November 30th 1999 marked a turning point in history”. N30 was the mass demonstration which marked the opening ceremony of the WTO. Tens of thousand demonstrators disrupted the conference while, inside, Third World countries prevented delegates from reaching a deal on world trade.

It was a humiliating experience for the world’s most powerful imperialist power, delivered under the eyes of the world’s media.

How did the protesters do it? The key organisers, the Direct Action Network (DAN), had been planning for months how to bring the maximum number of protesters to Seattle.

They were aided in this by the fact that the American union federation, the AFL-CIO, was also organising for Seattle, for its own demonstration and rally.

Thousands of rank and file teamsters, postal workers, machinists, refused to follow their leaders away from the confrontations to a rally elsewhere in the city and joined the blockade. But it is a weakness of the book that they barely get a mention.

The DAN was a broad coalition committed to non-violent direct action to halt the conference. Decisions in the organising committees were taken by consensus, “Minority views were heeded and included. The basic rules shared by all were: no violence, physical or verbal, no weapons, no drugs or alcohol”.

The participants were organised into units called “affinity groups” which were empowered to decide how they would participate in the blockade. Affinity groups themselves were organised into smaller “clusters” to take on specific tasks.

Co-ordination was carried out at “spokescouncil meetings” where affinity groups sent along representatives “empowered to speak for them”.

Paul Hawken, in one of the essays, describes how this worked out on the day, “Protesters had divided the streets around the convention centre into 13 sections and individual groups and clusters were responsible for holding these sections. There were also ‘flying groups’ that moved at will from section to section, backing up groups under attack as needed.”

The blockade was effective, but the revenge was swift. The demonstrators were subjected to sustained violence from the police, they were tear-gassed, hit with batons, shot at with rubber bullets, squirted with pepper spray and driven away from the Convention Centre.

One protester describes what happened after being tear-gassed, “We all sat down, hunched over, and locked arms tightly. By then the tear gas was so strong our eyes could not open. One by one our heads were jerked back from the rear, and pepper was sprayed directly into each eye. It was very professional. Like a hair spray from a stylist. Sssst. Sssst.”

The question of violence on the day provoked the most disunity amongst the coalition at Seattle. The media concentrated on “anarchist violence” to deflect from, or justify, the massive police violence against the demonstrators. The “civil disobedience” strategists condemned the anarchist black bloc because of this.

Fortunately most of the demonstrators, which included thousands of trade unionists used to defending themselves, followed neither the pacifists, nor the window-breaking anarchists.

Barricades of burning “dumpsters” hindered the police charges, while tear gas cannisters were hurled back to police lines as fast as they were fired. For socialists, “self-defence is no offence” (see page 11, “Is non-violence the only way?”)

The essays on the WTO reveal another important lesson from Seattle, the ability of mass protest to take advantage of division amongst our rulers. The conference was already in trouble before N30. The EU and the USA were at odds over labelling of GM foods.

The normal procedure of the WTO was to stitch up such differences behind closed doors in meetings that exclude the majority of the poorest nations affiliated to the WTO – who are then expected to rubber stamp the decisions.

The mass protests emboldened the normally compliant ruling elites of Africa and Asia. They refused to play ball, adding to the disarray of the conference and contributing to its breakdown.

One of the proposals before the WTO was to introduce a set of general labour and environmental standards for all countries for trading purposes.

The AFL-CIO has been pressing for a so-called “social clause” in future trade agreements, setting basic labour standards including prohibitions of child and forced labour, and of violations of the rights of workers to organise.

This proposal has not only divided the WTO, with the Third World ruling classes generally opposed, but also the Seattle movement.

The contributions in Globalise This! reflect this disagreement. While many, like Manning Marable, recognise that unrestricted free trade under capitalism means a “race to the bottom” in terms of working and living conditions, others oppose the social clause as a new form of protectionism directed against the Third World by pampered US trade unionists.

A contribution by David Bacon reflects the latter view. He argues that “simply prohibiting child labour does not provide opportunity, it simply cuts family income” and counterposes support for a programme of “national development which seeks to protect local industries” rather than encouraging socially responsible foreign investment.

Clare Short, Labour’s “Minister for Colonialism”, has also weighed in recently on the side of the “right” to use child labour in poor countries.

Of course, the leaders of the AFL-CIO are more concerned about keeping out “cheap imports” than they are with child labour but this does not mean such a campaign is reactionary. Trade unionists in Third World countries are against child labour both for humanitarian reasons and because children are a cheap replacement for adult workers. The same is the case for forced or prison labour.

We should campaign against it. Regimes which ban trade unions, or have fraudulent “state unions” like China or repress workers in struggle should have workers’ sanctions applied against them.

Some of the most effective anti-capitalist campaigns in the USA have been against firms like Gap that profit from such super-exploitation.

It is to these methods of struggle the trade unionists and anti-globalisation movement should look to support their brothers and sisters overseas, not to measures taken by the imperialist WTO.

The weakest part of this book is its last section on “ways to restructure the global economy”. It calls for reform of international institutions like the WTO, the World Bank and the international financial system.

Predictably the Tobin Tax, a tariff of less than half a percent on foreign exchange deals, is peddled as a solution to foreign exchange speculation and international economic crisis.

Another essay suggests that the crisis in the WTO should be a signal for the United Nation’s Conference on Trade and Development to reassert itself, and for the “South to push for the creation of institutions which truly serve its interests”, a proposal that presumes that the workers and peasants of the “South” have the same interests as the rulers of these countries.
“Ten ways to democratise the global economy” argues that corporations must be accountable to public needs and suggests that “shareholder activism is an excellent tool for challenging corporate behaviour”. It isn’t: nationalisation under workers’ control is the answer.

N30 in Seattle will only be a “turning point in history” if the anti-capitalist workers and youth who braved tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets can build on their radical methods of struggle and organisation.

This means arming themselves with a clear understanding of the nature of international capitalism and the weapons to destroy it. The weapon is revolution, not reform.