Seattle WTO Collapsed 14 Years Ago: Lessons For Today


December 3, 2013 – Today government officials and corporate lobbyists will meet for the 9th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial. It is exactly 14 years after the global 1%’s “plan A” to use the WTO further concentrate their power in wealth collapsed on Dec 3, 1999 amidst a “state of emergency” suspending basic rights, teargas in and National Gaurd troops in the streets and jails full of hundreds of people (and surrounded by hundreds more supporters) from North Americas emerging global justice movement.

The WTO negotiations had collapsed in failure as a result of the combination of a week of a mass direct action shutdown of the entire opening day of the WTO on November 30 and continued street heat through the week together with the refusal of government officials from poorer global South countries–under pressure from strong movements at home–to submit with the manipulation of the rich countries. Two years later and their every-two-year meeting in the “no-protest” dictatorship of Quatar, the rich elites did mange to take a first step toward their dystopian corporate ruled world with the with the “Doha Round,” but in the 12 years since then they have failed to move it forward.  Because social movements defeated the global 1%’s “Plan A” of the using the WTO to impose their policies on the entire world, they have had to resort to a piecemeal “Plan B” of bilateral (nation to nation) and regional trade pacts, like the US-Colombia trade Agreement and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership)

Deborah James of the global civil society Our World Is Not For Sale (OWINFS) network, wrote last week that, “WTO talks towards an agreement [in Geneva] in advance of the 9th Ministerial [in Bali] ended in an impasse today.” in a statement signed by hundreds of organizations, Our World is Not for Sale network critiqued the policies that the WTO seeks to further:

“After more than three decades of experience with a corporate-led model of globalization, it is clear that this particular model of globalization has failed workers, farmers, and the environment, while facilitating the vast enrichment of a privileged few. The emergence of the global financial and economic crises of the last five years have exposed many negative impacts of policies, such as: deregulation of the financial sector resulting in financial collapse and job loss; commodification of the agricultural markets resulting in food price volatility and hunger; ’race to the bottom’ liberalization policies for production leading to deadly calamites, such as the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh where more than 1000 textile workers perished; intellectual property monopolies limiting global access to life-saving medicines; and corporate-trade-expansion (rather than trade-for-development) policies exacerbating the climate crisis. Despite this incredible harm, these liberalization, deregulation, and corporate monopolization policies form the backbone of the current global trade system, consolidated by the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 1995.”

Fourteen years later, the value of looking back to the streets of Seattle–a moment when North American movements stepped up shoulder to shoulder with other global movements– is to see how people power can work and to draw lessons for today. I found the best analysis of the week long street and information battles was written by Washington State researcher and organizer Paul deArmand in his in-depth analysis, Black Flag Over Seattle, which was later republished as part of the book Networks and Netwars. Paul passed away this year after an amazing and full life. Thank you Paul for your good, hard work and sharp thinking. Here is an obituary–“A Giant Passes”– from his colleagues at the Cascadia Weekly.

I had the pleasure to talk at length with him by phone and then conduct an written interview with him about his pioneering thinking and writing on network organizing and strategy analysis in 2009 in preparation for the book ‘The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle.’

Interview with Paul deArmond, author of ‘Black Flag Over Seattle’ (by David Solnit, July 2009)


Solnit: You wrote ten years Ago in Black Flag Over Seattle: ”..governmental authorities may have learned more from the Battle of Seattle than the activists did.

Law enforcement, government authorities, and even the American Civil Liberties Union have conducted instructive after-action analyses of the Battle of Seattle.  By way of contrast, none of the protest organizations has rendered an after-action analysis of the strategies and tactics used in Seattle, even though the Internet teems with eyewitness accounts. In all forms of protracted conflict, early confrontations are seedbeds of doctrinal innovation—on all sides.”

What lessons should activists have learned?

deArmond: At the time, the obvious one was: How did this happen and where does it take us.  The result in Seattle was some half-baked protests against Microsoft.  Evidently on the basis that corporations were bad and Microsoft was a big corporation.  At the time I wrote this, the obvious lesson to me seemed the unexpected political power of ad-hoc, even accidental, coalitions.  But the tenor in the new left energized by Seattle was one of inward focus and a quest for “authenticity.”  It was a rejection of the political in exchange for the experience of protest.

Probably the biggest unlearned lesson was the failure to appreciate the crucial role of the revolt of the Seattle police against their own leadership, the mayor and the chief of police.  That was a crucial ingredient that was never to be repeated.  Law enforcement learned this lesson well and the protests that followed Seattle were all examples of police acting under unified command.  The protest movement kept trying to recreate the “spirit of Seattle” in an environment that would never again present them with an internal power struggle inside the police.  So the lesson that should have been learned was about the sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

At the time I wrote this, one obvious lesson to me seemed the unexpected political power of ad-hoc, even accidental, coalitions. Movements grow by expansion and recruitment.  Instead, the movement seemed to turn inwards to the point that some protests were an in-joke known only to the participants.  The failure to address building coalitions became painfully obvious when the war in Iraq finally got under way.  The protests weren’t demonstrations of strength – which is what demonstrations are – a demonstration of political numbers and power, but instead turned into a closed world of opposition for opposition’s sake.  The collapse of the anti-war movement after the war started was more or less guaranteed by the demands for closed society of war opponents who had to pass tests of “authenticity.”

It was not apparent at the time but a major weakness that developed after Seattle grew out of the cult of “leaderlessness.”  Leaders don’t create movements and successful movements will create leaders.  A movement that is openly opposed to leadership in principle is dooming itself to marginality.  If the “protest movement” predicted after Seattle succeeded, leaders would have emerged on the national level.  Instead, we got the “911 Truth” movement and fantasies about “peak oil.”  We should be worrying about peak CO2…

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