A Twitch in the Body Politic
The Battle of Seattle Was the Most Encouraging Display of Outrage Americans Have Managed in a Generation
One thing is already clear. The events of last week were the most dramatic shot yet fired across the bow of transnational capital, and they issued from a heartening multiplicity of quarters: "a motley collection of protesters ranging from Dyke Action and Raging Grannies to trade unionists and environmentalists," as one visiting U.K. journalist sniffed. The diversity of the dissenters was one of the most bracing aspects of Tuesday's mass action. Twenty-thousand AFL-CIO members showed up, and the rest of the crowd (10,000 of them, if you believe the numbers in the American press; 30,000-40,000 if you prefer the estimates of the European press and activists on the scene) represented a broad spectrum of causes -- greens, lefties, labor, farm groups, peace groups, consumer advocates, and anti-consumerists (anarchist and otherwise).
The Seattle confrontation inevitably led on every front page and every television broadcast across the country, but in most instances the tone was strangely muted, almost blank. There was little of the excitement that usually attends a big breaking story, much less such a gloriously photogenic one; many of the reporters and anchors seemed a little in shock. They worked relentlessly, if unconsciously, to minimize what they were seeing, mostly by their obsessive concentration on the actions of the rowdy few. The handful of anarchist window-breakers and dumpster-burners has gotten a bum rap from nearly everyone. They attacked property, not people, after all, and the disruption they caused helped ensure that police could not break up the more peaceable types blocking intersections and hotel doorways in time to salvage any of Tuesday's WTO session.
About the only half-decent U.S. coverage I saw on Wednesday and Thursday was in the Los Angeles Times. The Times was practically alone in noting that (1) sympathy shutdowns of shipping ports all along the West Coast (Seattle/Tacoma, Oakland, Los Angeles/Long Beach) had occurred in concert with Tuesday's action, and (2) the demonstrations were well-conceived affairs, not the strange, spontaneous madness that most news accounts tacitly wished to make them seem.
Wrote Times reporter Kim Murphy: "Demonstrators caught law enforcement officials by surprise Tuesday not only with their numbers, but with their level of organization. They mounted at least half a dozen major acts of civil disobedience in various locations, making it impossible to control them, police said." The Times neglected to mention the cheers that followed when a South African mineworker speaking at Tuesday's AFL-CIO rally quoted Marx's plea for workers of the world to unite; that happy bit of reportage fell to Doug Henwood, of the Left Business Observer newsletter and website. Henwood further reported seeing numerous instances of ad hoc crossover support between divergent protesters, including a group of Steelworkers and Teamsters who accompanied younger protesters downtown to march behind a banner proclaiming, "Capitalism Cannot Be Reformed."
As media spectacle the Battle of Seattle was proof, if any was needed, of just how insular the American media have grown in their role as valets to big capital and its elected proxies in Washington, D.C. It's one thing to give the picture a routine ideological tilt, another to lose sight of it altogether. Here was the greatest planned political uprising the country has seen since the days of Vietnam and civil rights, and it not only caught the American media establishment napping; its scope and vehemence left them choking on halfhearted explanations in its wake. How, in a country where all is growth and abundance and happy consumption -- how could it happen, Ted?
Ted? Never in all the years since the launching of the "Reagan revolution" has there been a more succinct testament to the naked hegemony of capital than the stricken, discombobulated faces of official truth in recent days. For years now, whether the subject was welfare, education, care of the sick or elderly -- anything, it doesn't matter -- one has only had to invoke the hard but ceaselessly wise dictates of the marketplace to carry any public argument in America. Because everyone agrees that the market knows best. Or so it was made to appear. The Seattle uprising shattered, at least for a moment, the false consensus on the subject. I say we're only weeks, maybe days, from the official announcement of another "crisis of democracy" like the one that so worried the best political minds of the late '60s and early '70s. Now, as then, the "crisis" is precisely that the governed are rearing their heads at all.
SEATTLE WAS CHOSEN to host the WTO meeting because of its role as symbolic U.S. capital of the global age -- one in three jobs locally are owed to foreign trade, which generates $34 billion a year in exports thanks largely to Boeing and Microsoft. I can only wonder what Bill Gates, ferreted away in his Redmond bunker, made of Tuesday's events, for he must have realized pretty quickly what the talking heads on this side of the Atlantic had yet to figure out as of late last week: A carefully tuned mass gathering on this scale could only have been orchestrated so well and so quietly on the Internet, no doubt using Microsoft browsers. Thursday's Telegraph of London discussed the Internet angle in a commentary piece by Philip Delves Broughton that identified several of the websites most instrumental in the organizing effort. As we tread the long road from Seattle, you can be sure that the crisis-of-democracy crowd will do plenty of talking about the need to crack down on irresponsible elements working their evil on the Net; a lot of their groundwork has already been laid by American liberals carping about right-wing militia crackpots and their nefarious, Internet-borne schemes.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Bill Clinton came to town, and by mid-day his notorious capacity for feeling the pain of others was wafting over the streets of downtown Seattle to join all the other noxious clouds of gas released there. Yes, the president understood the protesters' feelings; heck, he was glad they'd come -- this as state and local police forces and the National Guard were establishing a cordon of the downtown area to ensure that those same protesters would not see another WTO delegate, or vice versa, for the rest of the week. Meanwhile, U.S. officials were working their cell phones feverishly to push an agenda that included placing trade rules above 13 different international environmental agreements between member nations.
Clinton went on to reiterate the staunch U.S. commitment to developing international standards for outlawing child labor and ensuring a minimum wage in developing countries -- or more precisely, the staunch U.S. commitment to appointing a working group to study the subject. A sop to American labor is required for its support of Al Gore in the upcoming presidential pageant; it will prove easy to forget later, as were Clinton's murmurings about pro-labor provisions in the NAFTA agreement six years ago. But it all made for a reasonable-sounding gloss on the American position in American media.
Where the affairs of global capital are concerned, it's always interesting to consult the foreign English-language press -- which in many cases is no less avid in its neo-liberalism, but is generally less given to puffery and self-delusion. By and large they saw the portents of Seattle much more clearly than their American confreres. Last week's issue of The Economist, the conservative British weekly, speculated that as many as 100,000 malcontents from around the globe would descend on Seattle. "Around the world," wrote their editorialist, "support for free trade is weak at best; and the WTO is copping the blame for the perceived evils of globalization. It is under attack from trade unions, greens and even consumer groups, all of whom say its rules advance big companies' global ambitions at the expense of jobs and the environment."
So the American public is learning something the rest of the world has long known -- namely that the edifice of multinational capital is not as "natural" or as invincible or as lacking in opponents as we've been given to believe. And the rest of the world in turn is perhaps learning something about Americans: that we are not all the fat, contented cattle we're made out to be. What's happened in the past week is the most dramatic and most compelling sign of political life this country has produced in a very long time. And for those who were paying any attention at all, there will be no forgetting it.