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By the pond

Seattle was an end, and a beginning


What did the battle in Seattle mean?

The End. And The Beginning.

To recap: World Trade Organization members gathered in Seattle the first week of December 1999 to further globalize world trade, to knock down any remaining elements of national sovereignty. Also gathered were members of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, labor, environmental and other groups.

In Seattle, issues were paraded in the streets rather than debated in the Green Room (named for a room in Geneva, Switzerland, where you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours trade meetings among the First World rich and powerful are held).

In return, Seattle unleashed its modest variant of the enraged powers-that-be response. Not quite up to the standards of the Peterloo Massacre (when sabre-slashing soldiers were loosed in 1819 on English protesters seeking lower food prices) or in 1914 when John D. Rockefeller’s deputized thugs shot through the tents housing Colorado families and strikers. The Seattle police force isn’t as practiced as a British prime minister’s or American robber baron’s.

Meanwhile, inside the World Trade Organization’s hallowed halls, the United States and the European Union had already decided that if the rest of the world was hungry, “it’s because they can’t handle globalization, so let them eat cake.” As far as the powerful were concerned, it was simply a matter of whose cake the world would eat. The Americans wanted it to be American cake, and the Europeans, European cake.

However, Seattle was about democracy, not just trade. And to understand that requires an historical reprise.

Item 1: In July 1789, the simple English village peasantry was astonished by a rare sight: the local nobility, the aristocrats, suddenly attending church on a Sunday. What could it mean?

In an era of slow communications, it meant that English aristocrats had heard about the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille before the rural villagers had. The powerful were fearful for their lives. Would the French Revolution jump the English Channel? No wonder they were at church.

Item 2: At almost the same time, around most English villages, there was a “common.” It’s a word still used to describe open, public land. The villagers used it for common grazing. But the landowning aristocracy and local squires, feeling the pressure of agricultural imports and the need to engage in “high farming” (the 18th-century term for agribusiness), decided more acreage and larger farms were imperative in order to compete. The squires and their like enclosed the commons. They simply took the land. The farming peasantry who could no longer make a living found themselves working in the “dark, Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution and living in slums. (It’s happening today from Mexico to Malaysia.)

Item 3: Bowling along a highway behind an 18-wheeler hauling those huge international shipping containers, you’ll occasionally see a baby blue one with a white star on it and the name Maersk. In Denmark, it’s a name to conjure with. The Maersk family’s shipping firm was once the small nation’s largest corporation. The story goes that early in the 19th century, when it was time for the company to pay taxes, Maersk would meet with a cabinet member and strike a deal on how much Maersk was willing to pay versus how much the government wanted.

Item 4: When two or more are gathered in Mammon’s name in the first class lounge of any airport, or at their clubs off Park Avenue, or in Paris or on London’s Pall Mall, when men keep their limousines running late into the night outside international meetings of business insiders or World Bankers at hotels where the room rate exceeds $800 a night -- the fix is in.

Item 5: When the satraps and advance folk of those interests -- meaning the appointed officials or the elected officials whose election was funded by the late night financial and corporate wheeler-dealers -- when they gather for something called a Green Room meeting, to divide up world trade to suit the world powers, the fix also is in.

In Geneva, maybe. In Seattle, it wasn’t.

Seattle was beginning of The End of that way of doing world trade, that sort of business.

Now to The Beginning.

What followed the French Revolution was the dissemination of the rights of man that in time came to include the rights of women. These were new concepts for the soon-to-be attempted Western democracies, democracies not granted, but won. (And it’s taken two centuries to just get democratically this far.)

What followed the enclosure of the commons and the departure of the peasantry to the factories was, in time, the trade union movement.

What followed the European and American world, where governments and wealth, Maersks or Rothschilds, Morgans or Baruchs, went one-on-one with their government counterparts, was a public taxation system open to view and public vexatious dispute.

And what happened at Seattle -- call it the storming of the Green Room -- was the first wedge of democracy. The protesters were asserting the right of nations and movements, regardless of size, to take part in public, open, contentious, vexatious negotiation on world trade.

The various factions in the Seattle street parliament included, but were not limited to, environmentalists, the labor movement and protectors of child laborers. They are kin to the small nations locked out of the Green Room. In Seattle, the nations that made the deals included only the United States and similar heavyweights, along with a handful of normally left-outs like Brazil, Egypt and Singapore. The Seattle club was to decide The Fate of the World. Or at least of World Trade.

The little guys wouldn’t have any. They protested. By and large peacefully.

They protested because globalization is calling up from the bowels of the earth a global democracy, whether the movers and shakers want it or not.

And when the national security state attempts to gas or smack down the protesters into the old mold, the world takes to the Internet, the Web site, the e-mail -- the new Jacobin cell. (France’s revolutionaries were organized into cells; the name came from an old monastery where the first meeting was held.)

But we must not fall into the trap of thinking that, because of Seattle, much has changed. The financial corporate culture certainly won’t turn the other cheek. The Masters of the Universe are not at this moment riffling through the pages of Pope John Paul II’s World Peace Day message, responding to his invitation to “economists and financial professionals, as well as political leaders, to recognize the urgency of the need to ensure that economic practices and related political policies have as their aim the good of every person.” More likely, they are dusting off their copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

To repeat, Seattle was a street meeting because the normal venues for democracies, parliaments and congresses have been bought by the limocrats.

History tells the tale. The only way world trade is going to function fairly is for the little guys to get their acts together. Environmentalists and poor nations have to link arms to overcome.

They need the clout that numbers and pressure bring.

The First World is looting the planet. Thailand goes into a tailspin because of flawed U.S. policies? That’s OK. The First World corporations don’t wait until the dust settles; they go in and snap up the bargains in banking and financial and industrial infrastructure at fire sale prices.

Thailand and South Korea and Indonesia wake up to find they are in new hands, American more often than not. These nations’ politicians know all that. It’s why India built a fence around itself for years, hoping protectionism would keep India Indian.

Globalization bulldozes down everyone’s fences. Small nations don’t want to throw in their lot with America, Europe and Japan, and get swallowed up. They don’t want only to keep their name on the door while First Worlders own the entire building.

But laissez-faire capitalism’s supporters, the neoconservatives, say, “Nonsense! Join the one-world family, in which the rich get richer and the poor get further screwed.”

It’s happening. And if the little movements and big labor and poor nations large and small, don’t hang together, by God they’ll hang separately. The One World will be complete, on First World terms.

Before the next World Trade Organization meeting, presumably in Geneva, the poor nations and the environmentalists, labor and those who depend on their children’s labor for tonight’s meal and tomorrow’s rent, need to get together on their own and sort out how they can cooperate. And on what.

And once more hold their meeting in the street.

So the world can see who attacks them next time.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000