Nine-eleven's ten-year anniversary is sparking retrospectives ranging from lives lost to a War on Terror launched. But media accounts have omitted an important political casualty: the short-lived “anti-globalization” movement, perhaps the largest American social movement since the civil rights and Vietnam War era.
I watched the massive November 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) from my computer, a high school student with a budding interest in social justice eagerly clicking “refresh” on the brand new Indymedia web site: Teamsters and Turtles, steelworkers and socialists shutting down streets and anarchists smashing Starbucks' windows. The police conducted mass arrests and unleashed tear gas, but a shocked elite was forced to hunker down in hotel rooms: the summit failed and the march of global capitalism stumbled.
We had no idea it would come to such a quick and sudden end. A rapid-fire series of mass demonstrations forced secretive financial institutions, corporations (and political parties) to make their case to the American people for the first time in a very long time, and there was a sense of incredible optimism and power. Older activists were amazed to see people back in the streets and I felt like it was an incredible time to be a young activist. We expected major social change and so did everyone else.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
“The surprisingly large protests in Seattle by critics of the World Trade Organization point to the emergence of a new and vocal coalition that will make it far harder for the Clinton administration to move ahead with its plans for freer trade,” observed The New York Times in December 1999. “In addition, many Seattle protesters hope their movement will last longer than the Vietnam War movement because their target, globalization, is not a single issue that can be resolved by a peace treaty.”
“A Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960's fix,” grumbled Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist and owner of a 11,400-square-foot mansion who would, six years later, release a bestselling manifesto praising globalization for making the world, umm, “flat.”
In Seattle, 50,000 students, union members and environmentalists shocked the powers that be and shut down the meeting of global financial and political elites, demanding an end to corporate “free trade” that, five years after NAFTA was signed, was pitting the peoples of the worlds against one another in a race to the bottom: whatever country had the lowest wages, weakest environmental protections and offered the most outrageous protections for big business “won.”
A movement against corporate globalization, also known as neoliberalism, that was initiated in the global South had arrived in the United States – and big time. My classmates and I organized dozens of high school students onto buses to protest against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Washington, DC, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City. We brought hundreds of students into the streets protesting sweatshop labor outside Gap and Nike stores.
I settled in for the movement of a generation: I bought a copy of Naomi Klein's “No Logo,” sent in for a subscription to The Nation and put together meetings on my high school campus. (“It is a modern conceit that each generation must have its defining cause,” wrote Time in its January 2001 review of “No Logo.” “True or not, the current crop of 18-to-30-year-olds has certainly acquired one. It is called globalization.”)
We were sick of a Democratic Party led by Bill Clinton that prosecuted a racist “war on crime” and accomplished business-friendly feats Republicans could never have won, from NAFTA to “ending welfare as we know it.” I organized students to campaign for Ralph Nader (we couldn't vote yet). An Los Angeles Police Department officer's baton cracked one of my ribs during protests against the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
The movement fell apart as rapidly as it had emerged: the Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush president and, during my first week of college, al-Qaeda attacked New York and Washington. The White House initiated a global War on Terror that continues ten years later – and it sucked all the political air out of the room.
The movement against corporate globalization switched gears to confront the unforeseen reality of neo-conservatism imperialism. A DC action against the IMF and the World Bank scheduled for September 26, 2001 – The Associated Press reported that police anticipated 100,000 protesters – quietly fizzled after the meetings were canceled. Small protests against the Afghanistan war were met with a bipartisan dose of jingoistic opprobrium and though the invasion of Iraq sparked mass demonstrations in 2003, that movement also fizzled into a puddle of futility and disorganization.
David Solnit, an organizer of the mass direct action in Seattle, writes in an email that the two-year stint of mass actions were a movement of movements and that activists went on to animate other fights.
“Many of us at the core of the global justice mobilizations – including thousands of new activists/organizers and hundreds of new groups – became the anti-war movement and went into many community, worker and global solidarity movements. Today we are in the middle of climate, anti-corporate/bank, worker and other movements and campaigns.”
But the anti-globalization was not just a movement against. It was a statement that, as the World Social Forum puts it, Another World Is Possible. The movements that followed were defensive maneuvers against a Bush administration that was truly more dangerous than anything we could have envisioned.
The collapse of the anti-corporate globalization movement was caused in part by the overwhelming if latent power of American militarism and nationalism and in part by the institutional disorganization of the left. After all, the closest thing we had to a left over the last decade, according to the mainstream media, was not a mass-based social movement – it was a collection of liberal bloggers dubbed “the Netroots.” The online left is great; MoveOn is great, but they do not constitute a movement.
Protesters in Seattle challenged the narrative of the booming high-tech nineties, holding up the deepening socio-economic inequality that made prosperity possible for the few. The movement died and that inequality continued – right through the debt-fueled financial bubble's tragic pop. And incredibly, the corporate elite turned the global financial crisis to their political-economic advantage.
The resulting anger cultivated the Tea Party, a business-funded right-wing campaign that was much smaller than either the anti-corporate globalization or anti-war movements, but eclipsed both on newspaper front pages and in the mouths of cable television's 24-hour talking heads. Today, the left is still on the defensive, scrambling to protect Medicare and the right to organize unions while swatting back clownish offensives from the likes of Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe. Global capitalism is far from running scared: they're so drunk with power that they viciously attack a president who is in reality their best friend.
Though the FTAA never came to fruition (thanks in large part to Latin America's leftward swing), the movement without a doubt fell short politically. The movement that was born in Seattle and died on the vine less than two years later was a coming-of-age moment for many of today's activists in the US. We are currently in the midst of another business-friendly Democratic presidency and a resurgent right wing, and the left is trying, once again, to get its act together.
Discontent of various forms is bubbling up from London and Athens to Damascus, Cairo and Wisconsin. In the US, the union movement is the left's greatest institutional force and it is signaling that is perhaps finally sick and tired of the Democratic Party treating it like an Election Day errand boy.
As austerity measures cut deep into the bone, the elites might find themselves once again back on their heels. This time, perhaps, the left will be ready.