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Rattling the System from Seattle to Quebec

By: 
Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
June 1, 2001

I’m in my late 40s. I’ve worked inside government. I’ve worked in the trade union movement. It’s easy to become cynical. But this, this is real. This is a rejection of, I guess, capitalism.

—Carol Phillips, Director of the International Department of the Canadian Auto Workers

A rising tide

By all accounts and by any indicator, the Quebec City protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) were an unqualified success. Despite the hated “wall of shame” and the lavish use of gas by the authorities (one canister per minute over a 48-hour period), thousands of protestors defied the rubber bullets and police clubs and tore down the perimeter fence within the first few hours of protest. They managed on at least two occasions to disrupt the Summit of the Americas, which brought together 34 heads of state.

After a day of direct action on April 20, a monster labor march of nearly 70,000 assembled on the second day for a legal march. Thousands of youth—often joined by hundreds of trade unionists—returned to the perimeter fence to confront the 6,000 police and sundry security forces. Many of the residents of the working class neighborhoods near the fence gladly assisted the protestors, opening up their homes for refuge. In the end 463 people were arrested including Jaggi Singh of CLAC (the anarchist direct action group) who was virtually kidnapped by the police in an unmarked van and later denied bail.

The sheer number of protestors (probably around 80,000 altogether) and their sustained militancy demonstrate beyond a doubt that the movement that exploded on the streets of Seattle in November 1999 continues to grow. The level of union participation, particularly in the direct action, was unprecedented—somewhere around two thousand trade unionists marched to the fence on the first day alone. The fact that the vast bulk of the protestors were Canadian, who did not participate in previous mobilizations in Seattle or Washington DC, suggests that new activists are flooding into the movement.

After Seattle, Washington DC, Melbourne, and Prague, many commentators—some of them sympathetic to the protestors—voiced doubt about the sustainability of the movement. They warned against summit hopping and predicted the onset of “demonstration fatigue.” Although they may be proven right in the long run, Quebec shows that their concerns were premature. The large mobilizations around the gatherings of the rich and powerful continue to motivate large numbers of activists and remain to this day the main engines of the movement.

Many who rightly want to see the movement root itself in local struggles and open up a space for those who cannot participate in the mass protests have at times gone too far in the other direction and belittled the importance of the mobilizations. Naomi Klein, whose name is virtually synonymous with the anticapitalist movement, at one point compared the protestors to followers of the Grateful Dead, chasing summits around the world. But to acknowledge the centrality of the large-scale protests does not preclude the need to find more sustainable and inclusive methods of organizing. Occasional mass protests can be effectively combined with local organizing—in fact this has already begun to happen as far back as A16 in Washington DC and arguably even in Seattle itself.

After Seattle, activists began to use the run up to the big events to form broad-based coalitions not only to mobilize their campuses or cities for the protests but increasingly to organize around local issues. In the run up to Quebec, for example, the Mobilization for Global Justice in Washington DC was involved in a local struggle against the privatization of DC General Hospital. Jobs with Justice organized dozens of solidarity actions to coincide with A20, many in support of a local labor struggle. And in California and the Southwest, activists took up the issue of the militarization of the US-Mexican border and racism against immigrants. Far from confining the movement to a small cadre of long-distance protestors, the mobilizations have in fact invigorated increasing numbers of people to fight on many fronts.

The charm offensive

The reaction of our rulers to this growing movement has been either to find ways to divide the protestors (the direct action “hooligans” versus the “respectable” non-governmental organizations) or to make the most cosmetic changes and pass them off as reforms. Because so many of the demands of the movement strike at the heart of capitalism, all that they can muster is little more than a change in rhetoric—Orwellian double-speak may be more accurate—combined with the occasional “I feel your pain” pronouncements.

Prague, for example, produced earnest declarations by the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (IMF/WB) about a new turn toward more consultation with poor countries and an emphasis on poverty reduction. They no longer talked of their notorious “structural adjustment programs” (SAP); they referred to them as “Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers” (PRSP) instead. It sounds good, but the new name, of course, changed very little. The sweet talk did not save the promising debt cancellation initiative for the 41 most heavily indebted countries. It was whittled down to a few crumbs, prompting Ann Pettifor of Jubilee 2000 to declare that “the credibility of the World Bank/IMF debt initiative evaporated in the Prague sunshine.”

Quebec City delivered more Orwell. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and our very own George W. introduced the dramatic-sounding “democracy clause,” which would ensure that any country that dares to stray from democratic rule would be immediately expelled from the continental free trade zone. The media didn’t ask the heads of state why such a clause was even necessary if, as free marketeers always insist, trade liberalization inevitably spreads democracy in its wake. Clearly, the democracy clause—like its two predecessors, the environmental and labor protection clauses—are intended to mollify the protestors or, at the very least, divide them.

And in another slight of hand, the fast track authority was cleverly renamed the “trade promotion authority.” Ironically, by restricting Congress to voting the final treaty up or down with no possibility of attaching amendments, fast track will allow Bush to bypass the very democratic process enshrined in his “democracy clause.”

All this is not to say that the protest movement has had little effect; in fact, its impact has been profound. It is often difficult, even for the activists, to detect what they have achieved. The very fact that the heads of the IMF and WB along with Bush and Chretien are offering anything at all reflects that they are feeling some pressure. The fact that 34 heads of state have to meet behind an 8-foot fence with a security force of 6,000 guarding them puts lie to their claims that they are working in the interest of the people they represent. That the next round of WTO negotiations could only be held in a place like Qatar certainly suggests that the Seattle events were a resounding victory for the protestors.

The End of the End of History

But perhaps the most important achievement of the movement has been on the ideological level—this may be a subtle gain but it is nevertheless profound in its impact. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, very few—even on the left—felt confident to challenge the avalanche of free market triumphalism that followed. Francis Fukyama, an obscure State Department official, was virtually unchallenged when he declared that the collapse of Stalinism marked “the end of history”—in effect that alternatives to capitalism have ceased to exist. The market was posed as the solution to all the world’s ills as neoliberal policies were imposed on every corner of the globe. Needless to say, the results were devastating—the gap between rich and poor reached undreamed of levels while the planet’s environment was pushed to edge of collapse.

It was this very process of capitalism being applied to every nook and cranny of our existence that stirred the Zapatistas from their remote jungle in southern Mexico in 1994, and put into motion a worldwide rebellion against the market. But it was not until Seattle that the revolt broke through into mass consciousness and gave birth to a new wave of resistance against global capitalism. Today, globalization and the multinationals are universally hated, and it is the free marketeers who are fighting an increasingly desperate battle to defend their policies. Naomi Klein has appropriately named this reversal of fortunes “the end of the end of history.”

Last November, one of the citadels of untrammeled capitalism, Businessweek magazine, was humble enough to concede that even though “many of the radicals leading the protests may be on the political fringe, they have helped to kick-start a profound rethinking about globalization among governments, mainstream economists and corporations that, until recently, was carried on mostly in obscure think tanks.”

Up against the system

But even as the protests have spurred a profound ideological shift, a standoff of sorts has prevailed between the two sides. Our side has certainly scored a major victory when several drug companies were forced to drop their lawsuit against the South African government over AIDS drugs. We need to build on this by winning more concrete change—whether it is defeating the General Agreement on Trade in Service (GATS) or forcing the cancellation of Third World debt. Meanwhile, the multinationals and their friends continue to search for new ways to impose their will. The Mulilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) may have been defeated 3 years ago, but bits and pieces of it live on in the WTO and FTAA. What can’t be accomplished through one treaty or institution is then quietly routed through other avenues—capitalists have their own version of “by any means necessary.”

We should expect nothing less from the corporations: To compete in search of ever-greater profits is not a choice for them, it is an imperative. They can neither slow down nor stop; a momentary pause can cost them millions and give their competitors an edge. And globalization has only intensified competition on an international scale. Demanding that they put people and the environment before their profits may sound simple and compelling, but to make it a reality requires a mammoth struggle.

Many of the core demands of the movement, whether the protestors are aware of it or not, go to the heart of capitalism—that is why in the face of such a vigorous and international rebellion, the corporation are unwilling or, better yet, unable to change their ways. They can only concede under the most extreme pressure when the costs of resisting change begin to outweigh the benefits. For them the smallest concession, such the loosening of patent laws on AIDS drugs for example, could be the beginning of a slippery slope in which they lose control of their monopoly over their products.

It is critical that the our movement understand that we are posing fundamental questions about how society is organized—what we see as reasonable reforms, the corporations see as a mortal threat. By buying governments, the media and think tanks to serve them, the corporations marshal a powerful array of forces to combat us. We have no choice but to develop our own arsenal. Our movement has no shortage of supporters, even enthusiasts. Collectively, we need to figure out how to best organize ourselves with the largest possible forces to take back our lives and our planet from the corporations and the rule of profit. Left Turn hopes to be part of that process.