Democracy Bites the WTO

Democracy Bites the WTO

Seattle was indeed a milestone for a new kind of politics. 


During the Battle in Seattle, The Nation and The Nation Institute kept a high profile, deploying a contingent of staff and contributors and helping to stage one of the best-received events of the week, a debate on “Globalization and the World Trade Organization,” which was carried on C-SPAN. RadioNation provided daily reports from the scene, broadcast on dozens of public radio stations. (The debate and RadioNation reports can be heard at Nation reporters Marc Cooper, Doug Henwood and John Nichols and associate publisher Peter Rothberg put together this report.


If there were still doubts about the coalition forged in the heat of the Battle in Seattle, they were swept away by the almost impromptu closing march of the contentious week. Organizing overnight, the King County Central Labor Council brought 5,000 high-spirited marchers out at noon on December 3 with two objectives: to violate the city’s downtown “no protest” zone and to show solidarity with the hundreds of peaceful demonstrators still in jail. A rumbling Teamster semi-tractor-trailer with a sign reading Free the Seattle 600 headed a procession that mixed longshoremen and sheet-metal workers with Earth First!ers, bearded rabbis with a contingent of bare-breasted Lesbian Avengers–all chanting with one voice: “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!”

There was no better symbol of this new union/activist alliance than a moment at the labor rally preceding the march when the mikes suddenly went dead. As a bullhorn was being pressed into ineffectual service, a small group of black-clad protesters–looking much like the “Oregon anarchists” who had attacked the Gap and Starbucks–went to the stage with a sound system. It appeared that tensions could spill over if they were to broadcast their more provocative message. But they merely offered the use of their equipment to the assembled group of faith-based activists, union leaders and nonviolent protesters.

Machinists and antilogging activists didn’t just march together, they learned from each other. “I used to say the most beautiful thing in the world was a redwood deck,” said Cory McKinley, a six-foot-one, 275-pound steelworker from Spokane at the front of the Friday march. “Now, after hanging out with these green kids, I know there’s another way to do this. We can preserve the old-growth trees. We can have sustainability. I guess I’m an environmentalist now.” Is this the fabled red-green alliance seen in Europe but a leftist fantasy here? Steelworkers president George Becker wasn’t dismissing the prospect: “We’re seeing real coalitions built here that aren’t going to disappear when we leave Seattle.”

Seattle was indeed a milestone for a new kind of politics. Splits between labor and environmentalists, young and old, were not merely forgotten, they were actively overcome. Aging boomers marveled at the intelligence, discipline and imagination of a generation they had written off as slackers. Labor shed its nationalism for a new rhetoric of internationalism and solidarity. Progressives replaced their apologetic demeanor of the past twenty years with confidence, style and wit. Environmentalists paraded through the streets with a fifteen-foot condom bearing the slogan, WTO–Practice Safe Trade. Direct Action Network cadres confronted WTO delegates in the streets, convincing a nattily dressed representative from the Dominican Republic to join them in chanting “Hell no, WTO!” Drawing as much from The Clash, Fugazi and the Riot Grrrlz as from Bakunin, Marx or SDS, the courageous Direct Action protesters–many of them students–represented the closing of the sixties divide between cultural activists and politicos. And with their cell phones, camcorders, coalition-building and courage, who knows where this movement can go?

At least a thousand–maybe three or four times that number–battle-hardened organizers, fresh from a week of standing-room-only teach-ins, seminars and debates, will return home and, in the words of Ralph Nader, “decentralize this fight across the nation.” The Administration’s proposal for most-favored-nation status for China, considered a slam-dunk two weeks before Seattle, may now be a long shot. Ditto any proposal to fast-track the expansion of NAFTA. Meanwhile, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has called for a review of WTO policies to insure that they comply with international human rights treaties, and populist Congressman Dennis Kucinich has already signed up 113 House Democrats to demand a renegotiation of all WTO agreements with the goal of linking trade to workers’ rights. Nader has promised to make the WTO an issue in next year’s Congressional races. Protests led by Seattle battle veterans could push the issue into the presidential campaign, and if the unions are angry enough, they could pressure Gore to embrace their goals or lose their endorsement.

As a result of Seattle, it’s likely that genetic modification of food–a huge issue in Europe but not in the States, until now–will move up the agenda. Genetically Modify the WTO, declared posters in the streets. French farmer José Bové handed out organic cheese outside a McDonald’s, and former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower told several thousand family farmers, “We’re here to tell Monsanto and the other corporations: Get your modified seeds and your chemicals out of our food supply!”

Although the collapse of the conference has generated talk of the demise of the WTO, it’s premature to draw up the death certificate. Negotiators will soon head to Geneva to talk again under far less scrutiny. But what has been accomplished is remarkable. Five years ago it was unimaginable that thousands would fill the streets and hundreds get arrested over trade and capital flows (although those have been hot issues in Europe and the developing world for some time). Protesters can take some of the credit for the last-minute implosion of the WTO talks; many dissident trade ministers, seeing the eroding support for the US agenda on Clinton’s own streets, felt less compelled to comply with US unilateralism in the convention halls. (Other factors ranged from resentment over US antidumping laws to Clinton’s call, quickly muted, to include labor rights in the agreement–which alienated many delegates from the Third World, where elites routinely exploit workers and ravage environments.)

The energy that erupted in Seattle will be put to the test in the months to come. Maybe it will dissipate. But maybe it heralds something new: an American political debate that’s no longer between liberals and conservatives but between populists and corporatists. If what we saw in Seattle is what democracy looks like–well, it’s looking pretty damn good.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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