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The 1999 Seattle protests gave birth to a global movement

by Alex Callinicos

Ten years ago, on 30 November 1999, like a lightning flash in an empty sky, the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle was paralysed by mass protests. Trade unionists, and environmental and debt campaigners came together to expose the damaging effects of the drive for free trade.

Thanks to internal divisions as well as the demonstrations outside, the summit collapsed. And what came to be known as the anti-globalisation or anti-capitalist movement – or, more recently, the movement for another globalisation – was born.

In fact, Seattle didn’t come out of the blue. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes at the end of the 1980s encouraged the relentless imposition of the Washington Consensus of neoliberal economic and social “reforms” throughout the world.

But this drive provoked resistance. The most important landmarks were the Zapatista rising in Chiapas, Mexico, at the beginning of 1994 and the French public sector strikes of November and December 1995.

Meanwhile intellectuals developed a critique of the neoliberal version of capitalism that started to reach a mass audience. Two landmark books appeared in 2000 – Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Michael Hardt’s and Toni’s Negri’s Empire. The French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, and its versions in other languages, became the main forum for this critique.

Seattle was decisive in turning disparate protests and criticisms into a movement for two reasons. First, simply by happening, it punctured the despair that pervaded much of the left after 1989. It showed that neoliberalism could be resisted.

Second, by bringing together so many different campaigns, the protests represented a moment of political generalisation. It was the system that was now being targeted, more than some specific policy or injustice.

From Seattle there was a rising momentum of mobilisation directed at various neoliberal gatherings that reached its climax at the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001. More than 300,000 people demonstrated after Silvio Berlusconi’s riot police murdered a young protester, Carlo Giuliani.

The 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington broke the cycle of mobilisations in the US – a blow from which the movement there never recovered.

Networks

But in Europe and Latin America the movement continued to grow. The World Social Forum (WSF), whose first three gatherings took place in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001–3, acted as a giant anti-capitalist university and parliament.

Many of the same networks that had been involved in the Genoa protests went on to organise the first anti-war demonstrations in the autumn of 2001. The Stop the War Coalition in Britain represented a new style of campaigning, infused with the radical spirit of the anti-capitalist movement.

The first European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence in November 2002 brought the same spirit to fever pitch. Culminating in a million-strong anti-war march, it launched a call for an international day of protest on 15 February 2003 against the imminent invasion of Iraq, which was taken up by the WSF the following January.

The protests of 15 February, and the other anti-war demonstrations that took place around the outbreak of war in March 2003, represented a landmark in the history of mass movements. According to one academic study, 35.5 million people around the world took part in 2,978 demonstrations against war on Iraq between 3 January and 12 April 2003.

But 15 February also represented the high point of the movement for another globalisation. The radicalising impetus of the protests continued for a while. The WSF held in Mumbai, India, in January 2004 was a giant anti-imperialist festival.

Attac, a campaign group targeting financial speculation, played an important role in the coalition that successfully campaigned for a No vote in the French referendum on the European Constitution in June 2005. But, after this important victory, the movement went visibly into decline – indeed Attac in France underwent a damaging split.

The cause was fundamentally political. The many names given the movement reflected an uncertainty about its character. It was against the system, but what was that system – was it capitalism itself, or was it merely the neoliberal version of capitalism?

The logic of Attac’s campaign for a Tobin Tax on international financial transfers was to seek a return to a more regulated form of capitalism. The tax is now supported by such eminent establishment figures as Gordon Brown and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Various political currents therefore developed within the movement – more reformist tendencies such as Attac, the so-called autonomists who increasingly argued that the best way to resist capitalism was to create spaces where a liberated lifestyle could be achieved without overthrowing the system, and a small but active and influential minority of revolutionary socialists.

Addressing these differences was made harder by the WSF’s insistence on formally excluding political parties. This practice was always hypocritical – for example, the Workers Party, in office after Lula’s election as president in 2002, was a major force in all the forums held in Brazil.

The real dependence of the movement on parties was demonstrated negatively in 2004–6 in Italy, the European country where the radicalisation had gone furthest.

Disorienting

Rifondazione Comunista, which had politically dominated the Florence ESF, moved sharply to the right, eventually joining a centre-left coalition government that sent Italian troops to Afghanistan. This temporarily broke the Italian anti-war movement and had a demoralising and disorienting effect throughout Europe.

The ESF dwindled into a bureaucratic nightmare. The WSF, which meets in different parts of the Global South, still has some life to it, depending on where it meets. The last, in Belem in Brazil in January, reflected the continuing radicalisation in Latin America.

Nevertheless, as a global force, the movement is the merest shadow of what it was five years ago. It is a bitter irony that this should have happened just as capitalism descended into its worst crisis since the 1930s.

But the movement has left a powerful legacy in the continuing ideological radicalisation against capitalism, imperialism, and war, and in the memory left by Seattle, Genoa, and Mumbai that the system can be fought globally.

New struggles will carry forward the anti-capitalist spirit.


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Features
Tue 24 Nov 2009, 18:05 GMT
Issue No. 2179
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