Twenty Years After We Shut Down the WTO, the Left Is Finally Resurgent

On November 30, 1999, activists shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. The protests were a thrilling moment during bleak times for the socialist left. Now, years of resistance are finally paying off.

Protestors at the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests dressed as turtles. Seattle Municipal Archives / Wikimedia Commons

That WTO week in Seattle twenty years ago was exhilarating. It felt like extraordinary events were happening and a new left politics had been born. Maybe after all the defeats of the 1980s and 1990s — first Reagan leading the class war from above, then Clinton consolidating capital’s gains — things were turning. During a rally outside the city jail, where a few hundred protesters were kept on ice — the first place I ever heard the chant “this is what democracy looks like” — fellow boomer Marc Cooper of the Nation said to me, “They’re smarter than we were.” I had to agree, though in retrospect I’m not clear on just why.

I went because I thought it would be interesting but had no idea what to expect. I fell in with Cooper, John Nichols (then of Capital Times), and Peter Rothberg of the Nation, and we wandered around together, wrote it up for the magazine, and reported on it for its radio show. I also roamed around doing daily photojournalism.

The occasion for the counter-gathering was a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. The WTO had been founded five years earlier, to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). As their names suggest, GATT was a loose framework for periodic trade negotiations, known as rounds, which were named after the city they opened in. With the neoliberal exuberance characteristic of the mid-1990s, the WTO was created as a formal body with powers to adjudicate trade disputes according to principles established during those rounds.

Activists overestimated the WTO’s sway. As the Columbia economist and militant free-trader Jagdish Bhagwati told Liza Featherstone and me in an interview a couple of years later, the organization’s entire budget was smaller than the IMF’s travel budget, which should give you an idea of the two institutions’ relative importance. But it nonetheless served as something of a home address for global capitalism, which despite the boom of the late 1990s was in some disrepute, and so activists decided to disrupt the ministerial.

Going into the meeting, member countries were deeply divided over many issues — not just the rich nations against poor, but also within the rich and poor delegations. Much of the work that should have been done in advance of the conference, so that assembled bigwigs could just formalize deals already made by lower-level diplomats, wasn’t done because of all that internal conflict. So, while the protests cut the meeting short, it’s not like there was a great momentum interrupted.

But to be safe, the WTO scheduled its next major meeting for Doha, a site where riots seemed highly improbable, two years later. That 2001 meeting opened a trade round that continues to this day because no one can agree on anything still.

Seattle was often read as semi-spontaneous, but it took months of hard organizing to make it happen. There were several axes among the organizers. There were NGOs like the Naderite Public Citizen, whose Michael Dolan was a key figure; Global Exchange; the International Forum on Globalization (IFG); and mainstream enviro groups like Friends of the Earth. More radically, there were activist/anarchist groups, like the Direct Action Network (DAN), The Ruckus Society, and Earth First!.

Organized labor shed, at least briefly, some of its usual caution, and put a lot of bodies on the scene, some of whom split off from the official proceedings and joined the troublemakers. There was a strong presence of representatives from the Global South, who denounced the WTO as an imperialist enterprise — which it is, though not like the IMF. WTO is based on a one-country, one-vote principle; the IMF, on a one-dollar (or equivalent), one-vote principle. That more democratic voting structure is the major reason for the last twenty years of stalemated trade negotiations.

I arrived on Monday, November 29 and went to NGO headquarters, where I met José Bové, the French farmer who’d pulled the roof of a McDonald’s off with his tractor a few weeks earlier, and snapped a picture of his contraband cheese, which was subjected to punitive tariffs as part of a US trade war with the European Union. Bové had roused a crowd outside a McDonald’s with a speech against Monsanto and GMO, which then broke the restaurant’s windows. The Battle of Seattle, as it came to be known, was characterized by the bourgeois media as violent and destructive, but there was little of that. Those reports seem more driven by the ideological bruising capitalism itself was taking, which elites had been unaccustomed to for the previous couple of decades.

Tuesday brought a giant labor rally. Organized labor had, at least for this event, shunned the nationalist rhetoric of old in favor of international labor solidarity. A South African mineworker quoted Marx by name, urging the workers of the world to unite — to a great cheer from the crowd. There were jingoistic bleats from some Steelworkers and Teamsters, but it was largely contained.

But later on, organized labor split away from the march that was supposed to block the delegates from assembling, leaving the task to the serious militants. The reason for this cowardly move, as Jeffrey St. Clair reported at the time: “[Labor] would get a Wednesday meeting with Bill Clinton, with the promise that at future such WTO conclaves they would get ‘a seat at the table.’” This tactic works all too often. As organizer and writer Bill Fletcher once told me, a labor higher-up disclosed to him that “it’s better to have a seat at the table and not be listened to than be outside.”

Tuesday was also the anarchists’ star turn. In a memoir of Seattle week, DAN organizer Chris Dixon described the scene downtown: “Looking around, there was a group of activist Santa Clauses, many returning sea turtles, a sprinkling of stilt-walkers, a jubilant squad of radical cheerleaders, a vast number of giant puppets, an anarchist marching band with matching pink gas masks, and thousands of ordinary people who looked very determined.” Steelworkers marched with environmentalists, Lesbian Avengers with machinists.

It was a glorious moment. Anarchists chanted one of the great slogans of the late twentieth century: “Capitalism? No thanks! / We will burn your fucking banks!” Reading this twenty years later is both thrilling and painful: it felt marvelous at the time, but it all led essentially nowhere.

On Wednesday, cops shut the city center down, but troublemakers were still able to make plenty of trouble. (At the end of the week, I said to a trio of Seattle cops that I’m from New York and the NYPD would have shut things down hard. They admitted that was true because the NYPD knows crowd control and their force didn’t.) The labor internationalism of a day earlier was forgotten as unions staged a “tea party,” in which they dumped loads of imported steel products — actually Styrofoam painted to look like steel — off a pier. Bored with the speechifying that accompanied the tossing of the steel, some union workers joined the direct-action crew heading downtown where they were all met with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Things began winding down on Thursday. There was a modestly attended rally outside the city’s Labor Temple, where Nichols and I talked with a shirtless member of the Santa Cruz chapter of the Lesbian Avengers who said, “When we got here, the Steelworkers weren’t very queer-friendly. As the week wore on, they got more comfortable with us. My nipples stand in solidarity with the Steelworkers and Teamsters and all the laboring people!” A locked-out Kaiser Aluminum worker standing near her said: “A year ago I thought a redwood deck was the most beautiful thing in the world. Now I understand the importance of sustainability. I guess I’m an environmentalist now.” There’s nothing like common struggle to forge alliances among the most apparently unlikely people.

On Friday, the ministerial meeting collapsed. It felt like we’d won, though you had to step back a lot from the collective high to ask yourself exactly what.

Despite aspects of radicalism in the air, it was a hard time to be a socialist. Grand narratives were still deeply out of fashion. A few years before Seattle, the late organizer Joanne Landy confessed to me, feeling like she was in a safe space, “I’ve been a socialist my whole adult life but I’m afraid to say the word aloud.” Seattle didn’t change that.

The Seattle-era left was heavy with philanthropists and the NGOs they funded. Critiques of capitalism were largely over size and style, never critiques of capitalism as a social system. “Globalization” was identified as the major problem, a word that always sounded like a euphemism for capitalism and imperialism, but those concepts were shunned as hopelessly antique. If you pointed out the euphemizing, you were red-baited.

The old and homey ways of doing things were mourned. Despite the presence of people from all over the world, no one thought much about internationalism from the left.

That was the drift of the quasi-official counter-events. To the left of those events were anarchists, many of them anti-capitalist, but the refusal to talk about a new system was embedded in the “anti-” prefix. But it must be acknowledged that the meeting wouldn’t have been shut down without them.

In a reflection on the state of the movement in the Nation, published six months after Seattle, Naomi Klein celebrated its protean qualities — centerless, mobile, flexible. In the parlance of the time, it wasn’t a movement, but a movement of movements. As Klein put it, “these campaigns have not coalesced into a single movement. Rather, they are intricately and tightly linked to one another, much as ‘hotlinks’ connect their websites on the Internet.” (We used to capitalize “Internet.”) “[T]he communication technology that facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its own image,” she declared. No hierarchies and minimal organization were the gospel of the time.

Klein briefly wandered into some worries that the movements would devolve into little more than serial protest, endless attempts to replicate Seattle, which itself was a climax of the previous four or five years’ of demos at various economic summits around the world. The seriality was underscored by the convention of naming them after the first letter of the month and date: J18 (the June 18, 1999 Carnival Against Capital at the G7 summit in Germany), N30 (Seattle), A16 (the April 16, 2000 demonstrations against the World Bank and IMF), the forthcoming S26 (September 26, 2000 demonstrations in Prague, also against the World Bank and IMF).

The movements were starting to look, Klein lamented, like Grateful Dead groupies following the band around, only instead of a hippie jam band, they were trailing finance ministers and trade negotiators. They left “no trace behind, save for an archived website.”

But having raised this bit of disquiet, Klein moves away from it and back to celebrating the grand ad-hoc-ness of it all. What is needed is not stodgy, old organizations, with their tedious hierarchies, and certainly not ideologies, “like Marxism, democratic socialism, deep ecology, or social anarchy — on which they all agree. That is absolutely true, and for this we should be extraordinarily thankful.”

But the serial protests continued, still with few traces beyond their archived websites. Then came 9/11. In a show of ruling class solidarity, the World Economic Forum held its annual meeting in New York the following January instead of its usual location in Davos. It was welcomed with one of the last gasps of Seattle-style protest.

Some of the spirit of Seattle animated the Occupy movement — the same aversion to structure, hierarchy, and agenda, the same belief that taking up public space could lead to some kind of durable social transformation. But as marvelous as it was in many ways, it couldn’t.

It’s a much easier time now to be a socialist, even if there’s no consensus on what we mean by the word. But there is more ambition to ask big systemic questions now than ten or twenty years ago, and more interest in building organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America that can last beyond the counter-meeting or the park occupation.

We have a Left, much of it proudly socialist, that is willing to engage with the state by running for office, and one that doesn’t see a necessary contradiction between electoral and non-electoral work. (In the Seattle days, it was all about “civil society”; the state wasn’t seen as something that could be captured and transformed, but as an intractable part of the problem.) None of this would have happened without Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign — though that campaign probably couldn’t have happened had Occupy not prepared the ideological ground by making inequality a hot political issue.

A week or two after Seattle, I gave a report for a small left group on what had happened. (The meetings were almost always small, and often lifeless, in those days.) Countering my exuberance, a member of some small Trotskyist party (I can’t remember which one) complained that what I was describing “sounded like a carnival, not politics.”

At the time that seemed callously dismissive, and it still feels that way. But he had a point. It had little measurable effect on political discourse, much less so than Occupy. The contrast with the present, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can start talking about the Green New Deal and within weeks it becomes something everyone in politics has to take a position on, is stark.

On a website put together by a group of DAN activists to memorialize the Seattle events, there’s a page listing the moment’s heirs: the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Movement for Black Lives, the migrant justice movement, struggles for gender self-determination, against the prison-industrial complex. All these are thoroughly admirable and worthy of support (though, not surprisingly, there’s no mention of the revival of socialism). But the whole approach seems a holdover from the days of hot-linked nodes and movements of movements.

I’m happy to see today’s left thinking about how all these struggles fit together and are connected to the fight against capitalism. I hope this version is more durable and transformative.