Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Is 'Taking it to the Streets' Worth it?"

Is 'Taking it to the Streets' Worth the

Bruises, Tear Gas and Arrests?

By Mark Engler, AlterNet

Posted on September 29, 2008, Printed on September 29, 2008


Nine years after the World Trade Organization came to

Seattle, a new feature film sets out to dramatize the

historic protests that the institution's meetings

provoked. The issue that "Battle in Seattle" filmmaker

Stuart Townsend seeks to raise, as he recently stated,

is "(what it takes) to create real and meaningful change."

The question is notoriously difficult. In the film,

characters like Martin Henderson's Jay, a veteran

environmental campaigner driven by a tragedy

experienced on a past logging campaign, and Michelle

Rodriguez's Lou, a hard-bitten animal rights activist,

debate the effectiveness of protest. Even as they take

to Seattle's streets, staring down armor-clad cops

(Woody Harrelson, Channing Tatum) commanded by a

tormented and indecisive mayor (Ray Liotta), they

wonder whether their actions can have an impact.

Generally speaking, the response of many Americans is

to dismiss protests out of hand, arguing that

demonstrators are just blowing off steam and won't make

a difference. But if any case can be held as a

counter-example, Seattle is it.

The 1999 mobilization against the World Trade

Organization has never been free from criticism. As

Andre 3000's character in the movie quips, even the

label "Battle in Seattle" makes the protests sound less

like a serious political event and more "like a monster

truck rally." While the demonstrations were still

playing out and police were busy arresting some 600

people, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman issued

his now-famous edict stating that deluded activists

were just "looking for their 1960s fix." This type of

disregard has continued with the release of the film. A

review in the Seattle Weekly dismissively asked,

"Remind me again what those demonstrations against the

WTO actually accomplished."

While cynicism comes cheap, those concerned about

global poverty, sweatshop labor, outsourced jobs and

threats to the environment can witness remarkable

changes on the international scene. Today, trade talks

at the WTO are in shambles, sister institutions such as

the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are now

shriveled versions of their once-imposing selves, and

the ideology of neoliberal corporate globalization is

under intense fire, with mainstream economists

defecting from its ranks and entire regions such as

Latin America in outright revolt. As global justice

advocates have long argued, the forces that created

these changes "did not start in Seattle." Yet few trade

observers would deny that the week of protest late in

the last millennium marked a critical turning point.

What Happened in Seattle?

"Battle in Seattle" accurately depicts the mainstream

media as being overwhelmingly focused on the smashed

windows of Starbucks and Niketown -- property

destruction carried out by a small minority of

protesters. In the past two decades, the editorial

boards of major U.S. newspapers have been more dogged

than even many pro-corporate legislators in pushing the

"free trade" agenda. Yet, remarkably, acknowledgement

of the WTO protests' impact on globalization politics

could be found even in their pages. Shortly after the

event, the Los Angeles Times wrote, "On the

teargas-shrouded streets of Seattle, the unruly forces

of democracy collided with the elite world of trade

policy. And when the meeting ended in failure ... the

elitists had lost and the debate had changed forever."

Seattle was supposed to be a moment of crowning

achievement for corporate globalization. Big-business

sponsors of the Seattle Ministerial (donors of $75,000

or more included Procter & Gamble, Microsoft,

Weyerhaeuser, Boeing and GM) invested millions to make

it a showcase of "New Economy" grandeur. Any student of

public relations could see that the debacle they

experienced instead could hardly be less desirable for

advancing their agenda.

Rarely do protesters have the satisfaction of achieving

their immediate goals, especially when their stated

aims are as grandiose as shutting down a major trade

meeting. Yet the direct action in Seattle did just that

on its first day, with activists chained around the

conference center forcing the WTO to cancel its opening ceremonies.

By the end of the week, negotiations had collapsed

altogether. Trade representatives from the global

South, emboldened by the push from civil society,

launched their own revolt from within the conference.

Jumping between scenes of street protest and depictions

of the ministers' trade debate, Townsend's film

illustrates this inside-outside dynamic. Dialogue at

one point in the movie for actor Isaach De Bankole, who

plays an African trade minister, is pulled almost

verbatim from a real statement released that week by

Organization of African Unity. The ministers railed

against "being marginalized and generally excluded on

issues of vital importance for our peoples and their future."

The demands of the developing countries' governments

were not always the same as those of the outside

protesters. However, the diverse forces agreed on some

key points. Expressing his disgust for how the WTO

negotiations had been conducted, Sir Shridath Ramphal,

the chief Caribbean negotiator, argued, "This should

not be a game about enhancing corporate profits. This

should not be a time when big countries, strong

countries, the world's wealthiest countries, are

setting about a process designed to enrich themselves."

Given that less powerful countries had typically been

bullied into compliance at trade ministerials, this was

highly unusual stuff. Yet it would become increasingly

normal. Seattle launched a series of setbacks for the

WTO and, to this day, the institution has yet to

recover. Efforts to expand the reach of the WTO have

repeatedly failed, and the overtly unilateralist Bush

White House has been even less effective than the

"cooperative" Clinton administration at getting its way

in negotiations.

This past summer, analyst Walden Bello dubbed the

current round of WTO talks the "Dracula Round" because

it lives in an undead state. No matter how many times

elites try to revive the round, it seems destined to

suffer a new death -- as it did most recently in late

July. Other agreements, such as the Free Trade Area of

the Americas, which aimed to extend NAFTA throughout

the hemisphere and which drew protests in places like

Quebec City and Miami, have since been abandoned altogether.

"We Care Too"

The altered fate of the WTO is itself very significant.

But this is only part of a wider series of

transformations that the global justice protests of the

Seattle era helped to usher in. Toward the end of

"Battle in Seattle," Andre 3000's character, an

activist who spends a decent part of the film dressed

as a sea turtle, makes a key point: "A week ago nobody

knew what the WTO was," he says. "Now ... they still

don't know what it is. But at least they know it's bad."

The Seattle protests launched thousands of

conversations about what type of global society we want

to live in. While they have often been depicted as

mindless rioters, activists were able to push their

message through. A poll published in Business Week in

late December 1999 showed that 52 percent of

respondents were sympathetic with the protesters,

compared with 39 percent who were not. Seventy-two

percent agreed that the United States should

"strengthen labor, environmental and endangered species

protection standards" in international treaties, while

only 21 percent disagreed.

A wave of increased sympathy and awareness dramatically

changed the climate for longtime campaigners. People

who had been quietly laboring in obscurity for years

suddenly found themselves amid a huge surge of popular

energy, resources and legitimacy. Obviously, the

majority of Americans did not drop everything to become

trade experts. But an impressive number, especially on

college campuses and in union halls, did take time to

learn more -- about sweatshops and corporate power,

about global access to water and the need for local

food systems, about the connection between job loss at

home and exploitation abroad.

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.

Changing Policy

Of course, much of the shift at Davos is just talk. But

the wider political changes go far beyond rhetoric. As

Stiglitz noted, "Even the IMF now agrees that capital

market liberalization has contributed neither to growth

nor to stability." Grassroots activity has 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 titled "Angry

and Effective," the Economist reported that the movement

... already has changed things -- and not just the

cocktail schedule for the upcoming meetings. Protests

... succeeded in scuttling the (Organisation for

Economic Co-operation and Development'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. ... This has

dramatically increased the influence of mainstream

NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Oxfam.

... 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 have 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 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 notes 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 have 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 has 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 are now 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.

The Asian financial crisis, which occurred shortly

before Seattle, and the collapse of Argentina's

economy, which took place shortly afterward, starkly

illustrated the risks of linking a country's future to

the whims of international financial speculators. Those

Asian countries hammered in 1997 and 1998 have now

stockpiled massive currency reserves so that the White

House and the IMF will not be able to dictate their

economic policies in the future. Similarly, Latin

American nations have paid off IMF loans early to

escape the institution's control.

The result has been swift and decisive. In 2004, the

IMF's loan portfolio was roughly $100 billion. Today it

has fallen to around $10 billion, rendering the

institution almost impotent. As economist Mark Weisbrot

noted, "the IMF's loss of influence is probably the

most important change in the international financial

system in more than half a century."

Currently, the United States is experiencing its own

crisis of deregulation and financial gambling. We are

now afforded the rare sight of Sen. John McCain

blasting "Wall Street greed" and accusing financiers of

"(treating) the American economy like a casino."

Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama decries 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.

Townsend's film ends with the admonition that "the

battle continues." The struggle in the coming years

will be to compel those in power to transform

campaign-trail rhetoric into a real rejection of

corporate globalization. The White House would still

like to pass ever-newer "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 much 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, and I very

much doubt that anyone involved with the "Battle in

Seattle" thinks a single film will solve them, either.

But the coming fight will be easier if the spirit that

drove those protests animates a new surge of citizen

activism in the post-Bush era.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is 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, 2008). He can be reached

via the Web site DemocracyUprising.com

(c) 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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