The "Battle in Seattle" at 10
With the protests that took place in the wake of Seattle, finance ministers who had grown accustomed to meeting in secretive sessions behind closed doors were suddenly forced to defend their positions before the public. Often, official spokespeople hardly offered a defense of WTO, IMF, and World Bank policies at all. Instead they spent most of their time trying to convince audiences that they, too, cared about poverty. In particular, the elites who gather annually in the Swiss Alps for the exclusive World Economic Forum became obsessed with branding themselves as defenders of the world’s poor. The Washington Post noted of the 2002 Forum, “The titles of workshops read like headlines from the Nation: ‘Understanding Global Anger,’ ‘Bridging the Digital Divide,’ and ‘The Politics of Apology.’”
Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank who was purged after he outspokenly criticized the IMF, perhaps most clearly described the remarkable shift in elite discussion that has taken place since global justice protests first captured the media spotlight. In a 2006 book, he wrote:
I have been going to the annual meetings [in Davos, Switzerland] for many years, and had always heard globalization spoken of with great enthusiasm. What was fascinating… was the speed at which views had shifted [by 2004]…. This change is emblematic of the massive change in thinking about globalization that has taken place in the last five years all around the world. In the 1990s, the discussion at Davos had been about the virtues of opening international markets. By the early years of the millennium, it centered on poverty reduction, human rights, and the need for fairer trade arrangements.
More reflections on the 10th anniversary of Seattle WTO protests:
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Dispatches from the 1999 event:
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Of course, much of the shift at Davos was just talk. But the wider political changes go far beyond rhetoric. Specific elements of the neoliberal “Washington Consensus,” such as prying open countries’ capital markets, fell into disrepute amid widespread criticism. As Stiglitz noted in 2006, “Even the IMF now agrees that capital market liberalization has contributed neither to growth nor to stability.” That was well before the start of the current economic crisis, which has gone much further in discrediting market fundamentalist policies.
Grassroots activity translated into concrete change on other levels as well. Even some critics of the global justice movement have noted that activists have scored a number of significant policy victories. In a September 2000 editorial entitled “Angry and Effective,” The Economist reported that the movement
has changed things—and not just the cocktail schedule for the upcoming meetings. Protests... succeeded in scuttling the OECD's planned Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998; then came the greater victory in Seattle, where the hoped-for launch of global trade talks was aborted... The activists have also raised the profile of "backlash" issues—notably, labor and environmental conditions in trade, and debt relief for the poorest countries. This has dramatically increased the influence of mainstream NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Oxfam. Such groups have traditionally had some say (albeit less than they would have wished) in policymaking. Assaulted by unruly protesters, firms and governments are suddenly eager to do business with the respectable face of dissent.
Various combinations of "respectable" negotiators and "unruly" dissidents forced shifts on a wide range of issues. It is not glamorous work to trace the issue-by-issue changes that activists have eked out—whether it’s compelling multinational pharmaceutical companies to drop intellectual property lawsuits against African governments seeking to provide affordable AIDS drugs for their citizens, or creating a congressional ban on World Bank loans that impose user fees on basic health care and education for the poor, or persuading administrators at more than 140 colleges to make their institutions take part in the anti-sweatshop Worker’s Rights Consortium. Yet these changes affect many lives.
Take just one demand: debt relief. For decades, countries whose people suffer tremendous deprivation have been forced to send billions of dollars to Washington in payment for past debts—many of which were accumulated by dictators overthrown years ago. Debt relief advocates were among the thousands who joined the Seattle mobilization, and they saw their cause quickly gain mainstream respectability in the altered climate that followed. In 2005, the world’s wealthiest countries agreed to a breakthrough debt cancellation agreement that, while imperfect, shifted roughly $1 billion per year in resources back to the global South.
In early 2007, Imani Countess, national coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee Africa Program, noted that the impact of the deal has been profound:
In Ghana, the money saved is being used for basic infrastructure, including rural feeder roads, as well as increased expenditure on education and health care.
In Burundi, elimination of school fees in 2005 allowed an additional 300,000 children to enroll.
In Zambia, since March 31, 2006, free basic health care has been provided for all [along with] a pledge to recruit 800 medical personnel and slightly over 4,000 teachers.
In Cameroon, [the government made] a pledge to recruit some 30,000 new teachers by the year 2015 and to construct some 1,000 health facilities within the next six years.
“They won the verbal and policy battle,” said Gary Hufbauer, a “pro-globalization” economist at the Institute for International Economics in 2002, speaking of the groups that have organized major globalization protests. “They did shift policy. Are they happy that they shifted it enough? No, they're not ever going to be totally happy, because they're always pushing."
A Crisis of Legitimacy
In its review of Battle in Seattle, the Hollywood industry publication Variety noted that “the post-9/11 war on terror did a great deal to bury [the] momentum” of the global justice movement. This idea has become a well-worn trope; however, it is only partially true. In the wake of 9/11, activists did shift attention to opposing the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. But, especially in the global South, protesters combined a condemnation of U.S. militarism with a critique of “Washington Consensus” economic policies. In the post-Seattle era, these polices faced a crisis of legitimacy throughout much of the world.
Privatization, deregulation, and corporate market access have failed to reduce inequality or create sustained growth in developing countries. This led an increasing number of mainstream economists, Stiglitz most prominent among them, to question some of the most cherished tenets of neoliberal “free trade” economics. Not only are the intellectual foundations of neoliberal doctrine under assault, the supposed beneficiaries of these economic prescriptions have been walking away. Throughout Latin America, waves of popular opposition to Washington Consensus policies have forced conservative governments from power. In election after election since the turn of the millennium, the people have put left-of-center leaders in office.
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More recently, similar disaffection has reached the United States. Last year, as the current economic crisis was escalating, we were afforded the rare sight of Sen. John McCain blasting “Wall Street greed” and accusing financiers of “[treating] the American economy like a casino.” Meanwhile, then-candidate Barack Obama decried the removal of government oversight on markets and the doctrine of trickle-down prosperity as “an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” In each case, their words might have been plucked from Seattle’s teach-ins and protest signs.
With Obama now in the White House, there is an ongoing need to compel him and others in power to transform campaign-trail rhetoric into a real rejection of corporate globalization. The White House has been ambivalent about whether it will promote new “free trade” agreements. And the WTO, while bruised and battered, has not been eliminated entirely. Because its original mandate is still intact, the institution has considerable power in dictating the terms of economic development in parts of the world. Opposing this will require continued grassroots pressure.
On a broader level, huge challenges of global poverty, inequality, militarism, and environmental degradation remain. Few, if any, participants in the 1999 mobilization believed that a single demonstration would eliminate these problems in one tidy swoop. But the coming fight will be easier if the spirit that drove the Seattle protests animates a new surge of citizen activism in the Obama era.
Mark Engler wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mark is a writer based in New York City, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). He can be reached via DemocracyUprising.com.
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