International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

Seattle 1999 - Capitalism on the Run

Jason Muir

On paper, it must have seemed like the perfect, unmissable propaganda opportunity to the corporate and governmental elite organising the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting.

Seattle, boom town of the new information economy and home to Microsoft, the epitome of post-Fordist corporate power, hosting the event to launch a new round of trade agreements to power global capitalism into the new millennium.

Fortunately, the reality did not live up to this sugar sweet vision!

"The WTO talks in Seattle that ended at the weekend were supposed to usher in a new dawn for the global trade system. Instead they turned into a nightmare." (Financial Times, 6/12/99).

The events at Seattle signalled a double blow to the aspirations of those seeking to advance the corporate agenda in pursuit of the ever-accelerating domination of free market capitalism and multi-national corporations. On the one hand, the meeting was besieged and held-up by the biggest mass protest on US soil since the 1968 protest against the Vietnam war at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

On the other hand, delegates to the meeting were unable to cobble together an agreement that would unify the disparate interests of constituent nations. The protestors were made up from a broad array of forces, including labour activists, environmentalists, human rights activists, religious groups and consumer interest groups. What united them all was a determination to stand up against the neo-liberal offensive designed to sacrifice their interests for the benefit of profit devouring multi-national capital represented by the WTO.

The opening meeting was cancelled after 5,000 protestors, under the direction of the Direct Action Network (DAN), blocked the conference venue, delegates' hotels and connecting routes. By midday, only 500 of the 3,000 intended participants had been able to barge their way into the venue and organisers had no other option but to cancel the meeting.

Battle of Seattle

This led the Seattle Police Department to launch a vicious, indiscriminate attack on protestors using all the barbaric, state-of-the-art weapons at their disposal - tear gas, pepper spray, plastic, rubber and paint-ball bullets, flash shock grenades, 3ft batons and armoured personnel carriers.

By late afternoon a state of emergency had been declared, with the National Guard and state troopers backing up the SPD in enforcing an after dark curfew.

The widespread offensive was justified on the grounds of responding to orchestrated violence by a small group of about 100 black-clad individuals widely reported as anarchists, with speculation that they were in fact agent provocateurs. Even then, the vast majority of property damaged was reported to belong to large multi-national corporations such as McDonalds and The Gap.

Demonstrations continued over the following days, while the SPD changed tack by imprisoning over 500 protestors. This led to a mass demonstration at the jail where they were being held, with the refrain "This is what democracy looks like!" echoing around the crowd. A labour rally was organised by the AFL-CIO in downtown Seattle at the Memorial Stadium, which followed on into a march of over 20,000 rank-and-file representatives from 50 unions and 25 states. This was boosted by the action of the ILU longshoremen who struck and closed down Seattle ports to join the demonstration.

The AFL-CIO position before Seattle was one of putting forward reform of the WTO in the interests of workers. Indeed, James Hoffa, President of the Teamsters was quoted as saying, "We are walking into the pages of history. We over time will have a place at the table of the WTO."

However, the events in Seattle showed the ability of rank-and-file pressure to enforce change in leadership declarations. Gerald McAntee, head of the 1 million-member public sector union AFSCME, was emboldened to declare "We will fight the WTO in the streets, we will fight them in the courts, we will fight them at the ballot box, and we will fight them on the picket lines. We will fight them."

This was quite clearly a position intended to fit in with the mood of ordinary union members gathered to vent their anger at the system threatening to destroy their jobs and communities. As Martha Baskin, an AFTRA rank-and-file activist pointed out "If the AFL-CIO thinks such an organisation is going to incorporate workers rights and child labour laws within its undemocratic structures then they are, perhaps, living on another planet."

Various media commentators and business interests implied that union activists' involvement was selfishly motivated to protect the jobs, pay and conditions of US workers. However, there was a far broader understanding of the implications of the WTO and its neo-liberal agenda on the part of union activists. At the labour rally, an enthusiastic welcome was given to a range of international speakers from the ICFTU, as well as a dissident Chinese trade unionist.

As one steelworker commented, "This WTO is about jobs. It's about standards of living falling right the way round the world as trade liberalises. Corporations are writing the rules to maximise profits. That's the sole purpose of the WTO." This is a worker at the sharp end of globalisation, having seen 10,000 fellow US steelworkers lose their jobs in the last year alone.

What's more, the development of consciousness in Seattle was rapid, demonstrating an intricate understanding of the implications of the further liberalisation of trade. One sign read "Teamsters and Turtles - Together at Last" while the President of one IUE union local explained the effect that Seattle had had on his level of understanding "we talked with lots of students, farmers from Japan, people from India, professors from Boston College, steelworkers from Ohio, environmentalists of various stripes, church activists, as well as anyone who happened to be seated next to us on a plane or in the airport, and the waitresses and cabbies that we met in Seattle. A year's worth of political discussion was compressed into six days".

Within the talks, a stalemate was reached. Developing countries combined to challenge the hegemony of the advanced nations in imposing their agenda behind closed doors, while the differences between advanced nations themselves, primarily the US and the EU on agriculture, led to a breakdown of the attempt to negotiate a new round of agreements to govern global trade.

A major bone of contention was thrown up when Clinton called for workers rights to be built into the WTO agreements, which would allow products from developing countries to be discriminated against if they did not measure up to certain minimum labour standards. Developing nations were quick to accuse the US of indirect protectionism, as cheap labour is the only area in which they compete.

Undoubtedly, Clinton was shocked by the scale of the anti-capitalist protest and this was a reaction measured to deflect flak from the under-siege WTO by alluding to potential reforms and democratisation, as well as boost the Gore presidential campaign by appeasing the AFL-CIO, from whom he requires support.

This said, the chances of labour standards being actively pursued and implemented within the WTO are slim, as this would have a negative impact on US foreign direct investment projects, by cutting across one of the core aims of trade liberalisation - driving down global wages.

The concern of the developing country delegates related to the threat core labour standards pose to their capacity to extract super-profits from their own working class and poor, which is then realised by global trade with Western nations.

Although the vast majority of the media attention focused on the events in Seattle, there were demonstrations around the world. There were over 20,000 demonstrators on the streets of Paris and 5,000 in Geneva, home of the WTO itself. London was the scene of a large, J-18 organised, anti-capitalist demonstration that also saw clashes with the police, bringing the city to a standstill.

This worldwide display of anger against neo-liberal globalisation represents a development in the consciousness of the working class and the poor. Despite the propaganda offensive carried out by big business, government and the media as to the benefits of the extension of global trade, people are increasingly noticing the contradictions in relation to the deterioration in standards of living, jobs, communities and the environment.

The union activists on the streets of Seattle see the effects of 500,000 manufacturing job losses in the last eighteen months. They feel the impact on their pocket when average real gross weekly earnings in 1996 are lower than in 1991, while they see their bosses get richer, with profits in the non-financial business sector rising by 3.5% between 1992 and 1996. And this while there is an economic boom in the US.

Modern communications and the mass media allow all to see the contradictions of the global free trade system in terms of the inequality it breeds and the environmental degradation it reeks. In 1960, the richest 20% of the world's population had 30 times the income of the poorest 20%. Three and a half decades later, in 1995, and following an enormous explosion in world trade, this now stands at 82 times.

This is a system where the richest 225 individuals have a combined wealth of more than $1 trillion, greater than the annual income of 47% of the world's population - nearly 3 billion people. A system where 1.3 billion people live on less than $1 per day and one man, Bill Gates, has a personal wealth greater than the annual income of the worlds 450 million poorest people.

The protests against the WTO have to be seen as a wider protest against the rule of international capital and the destruction that it brings. The Financial Times sees the protests as "a powerful backlash against globalisation - one felt not just in the US, but throughout the west " with the protestors sharing a "dislike of the market economy" (Financial Times, 8/12/99). What scares the strategists of international capital is the potential for radical transformations in consciousness that the effects of trade liberalisation can bring. The overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia as a result of the Southeast Asian financial crisis demonstrates the forces that can be unleashed. There is a stark contrast between the mood of the bosses at the dawn of the 21st Century and their mood a decade earlier. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the restoration of capitalist production in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republic, there was a torrent of speculation as to just how rosy the future was for international capital. History had even ended.

N30 Showdown

The reality has been very different. Capitalism, rather than bringing the promised undreamed of prosperity to Eastern Europe, has resulted in the wholesale destruction of these economies, with industrial production slumping by a third in some countries and unemployment increasing by millions.

At the same time, the advanced capitalist nations have been unable to even approach the growth rates achieved during the period following the second world war until the mid-seventies.

Rather, the world economy seems to be in an ever-precarious state. A financial crisis in South-east Asia spreading like wildfire around the globe to Russia and then South America. A Japanese economy mired in depression. A European economy in the midst of a fragile recovery. A US economy ready to pop and shatter the already shaky faith in the ability of global capitalism to overcome its internal contradictions. These are the triumphs of the brave new world created in the wake of communist collapse in Eastern Europe.

This situation has led to a developing anti-capitalist mood among a new generation of activists as seen in the events around Seattle. Despite the apparent confidence of capitalism at the satrt of the 1990's, the new centuary is opening with an entirely different balance of forces than was the case ten years earlier.

The possiblility of reaching a new generation with the ideas of marxism and socialist planning as an alternative to the anarchy of the market is now posed.

In the social movements that arise, the task of socialists is to present a clear analysis of the crisis, and a programme which categorically poses the bankruptcy of the system and the futility of reform. This would find an echo within the working class and the poor, matching their experience of capitalist chaos and illuminating the road to a socialist system of global trade where production is planned and managed for the benefit of the overwhelming majority of people, rather than the profit of a tiny corporate and governmental elite.