Seattle From the Seine

Seattle From the Seine

“Le monde n’est pas une marchandise”–the world is not a commodity–proclaimed the large banner in the Parisian demonstration against the WTO.


“Le monde n’est pas une marchandise”–the world is not a commodity–proclaimed the large banner in the Parisian demonstration against the WTO. Seen from Paris, what happened in Seattle was striking. It was the revolt of citizens against governments that instead of being their servants are the servants of the multinational corporations. It was a movement from below, across frontiers, against the powers that be.

For years Western Europeans have been told that they must not only accept the existing system but also endorse its latest version, the American model. Since, in practical terms, that implied the dismantling of their welfare state, it met real resistance. The first blow against TINA–the resigned acceptance that There Is No Alternative–was delivered by the French, in their winter of discontent of 1995, when the protesters said in substance: “If that is the future you are offering us, to hell with your future!” That refusal was momentous, because as long as people believe there is no way out, they will not be looking for one. Yet, so far, the French movement has failed to gather momentum and to outline an alternative, possibly because it lacked a global perspective. Now comes Seattle, with Americans leading the battle against the American model, to provide an international dimension.

For radicals opposing the Maastricht Treaty on one side of the ocean or NAFTA on the other, it was imperative that their stand not be confused with the jingoist opposition of the ultra-right–of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Pat Buchanan or even the Tory Euroskeptics. We must not put the blame for the ills of our society on the alien, the stranger. And we must, while we defend our “sovereignty” against the encroachment of big business, make it plain that we are ready to give it up for the sake of collaboration with labor unions and other rank-and-file organizations. In the battle against the WTO, this rhetoric was turned into practice. The community across frontiers was shown when part of the money needed to free José Bové–jailed in France because he took part in the symbolic dismantling of a McDonald’s–was raised by the National Family Farm Coalition, and when the same Bové–turned hero overnight because his attack on malbouffe (bad food) struck a deep chord–refused to be used by the French government propagandists; he was against export subsidies, because they favored the big farmers, agribusiness, the corporations. The struggle against multinationals and against malbouffe knows no frontiers. Viewed from the Seine, the protesters in Seattle–the unionists and the ecologists–seemed united, and kids from “have” nations fought for the damned of the earth against their own multinationals.

Let us not get carried away. The tasks ahead are tremendous. Wages and working conditions in the Third World will not be the only divisive issue. If we allow the profit-driven expansion to continue, we shall soon reach the ecological limits of the planet. The Western nations cannot tell the Chinese or the Indians not to do what we are doing; if we want to survive together we must reshape fundamentally our own patterns of production and consumption. Yet we are intellectually and politically unprepared for such an exercise.

As the events unfolded in Seattle, a small cultural Franco-German television channel broadcast a recorded dialogue between two of Europe’s most famous protesters: Günter Grass, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who for years has used his prestige to help the expression of dissent. They criticized the extraordinary hold the ruling ideology now has, thanks to the media, on people’s minds. They condemned the submission or cowardice of their fellow intellectuals. They deplored the fact that trade unionists cannot organize across frontiers even within the European Union.

It wouldn’t be difficult to expand their gloomy perspective. The establishment, clearly taken aback by the sweep and scope of popular discontent, is getting its mighty propaganda machine ready for the counteroffensive. Nor will it be easy to tame the financial Frankenstein unleashed in the recent period. Among the French associations mobilizing against the WTO is an interesting newcomer–ATTAC. Barely two years old, it has 130 local committees and more than 16,000 members. Its primary purpose is to advocate the introduction of a tax on international financial transactions, known as the Tobin tax because it was originally suggested by James Tobin, Nobel laureate in economics. It is no revolutionary measure–merely “some sand into the wheels,” in Tobin’s words–but it is resisted tooth and nail by the financial establishment as dangerously utopian. In any case, there is a long way from the Tobin tax to a world that is not a commodity.

And yet the protesters in Seattle and beyond have revived the forgotten belief that people can shape things through collective action. Despite the odds, they have set the agenda for the coming millennium by reminding us that there are many people on this planet ready to struggle from below against their own governments and corporations and for a different world–one in which human beings will no longer be merchandise.

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