The failure of the Seattle WTO meeting

by Phil, Seattle
(from Communist Voice #23, February 4, 2000)


. While the city still lay under a state of civil emergency on Friday, December 3, the last day of the WTO meeting, crowds of activists gathered in front of the county jail and the Westin Hotel to demand the release of those imprisoned by the police. Some of the activists at the Westin chained themselves to the hotel doors, while the rest blocked the street, chanting and dancing and discussing the weeks events. Around the corner, out of sight and near another entrance to the hotel, stood a group of cops. For the time being, they chose not to bother the activists, but their very presence lent an air of menace to the evening.

. The main slogan of the evening, besides the demand for the freedom of the prisoners, was Africa, don't sign! This slogan reflected the realization that the internal politics of the WTO meeting had reached a critical point, at which the failure or success of the meeting rested on the decision of the African delegations whether or not to sign the final communique. At about 9:30 in the evening, one of the leaders of the crowd announced the collapse of the meeting, and as each phrase of the announcement was read, the crowd repeated the phrase so that all could hear it clearly. At the end of the announcement, a loud cheer went up from the crowd, reflecting the sense of victory filling the night air.

. It would be tempting to ascribe the failure of the Third WTO Ministerial Meeting wholly to the efforts of the activists who crowded the streets of Seattle on November 30, and to the sacrifices of those who risked arrest because of their opposition to the police during the curfew clampdown over the next few days, but a sober analysis of this event reveals a much more complex set of reasons. In truth, the staff of the WTO had been unable to decide on an agenda before the meeting, and they had come to Seattle with only a vague idea of the script they were to follow.Important meetings like this are usually carefully scripted in advance by the bureaucrats and functionaries who staff bodies such as the WTO. The ministers and trade officials typically spend their time networking and wining and dining influential people and listening to politicians elaborate on matters already decided on. Not so at the Third Ministerial. Because of the failure to decide on an agenda, many key matters were to be decided on at the ministerial level, in green rooms attended by key ministers from the great powers and the developed countries. Because of the atmosphere of crisis stemming from the activities on November 30, these negotiations were impeded and the glare of publicity fell on the undemocratic character of the negotiations.

. When President Clinton arrived in Seattle to speak at the meeting on Wednesday, December 1, it was clear that the fragile consensus on trade issues between the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO labor hacks was fraying at the seams. The presence of a large labor contingent on the streets the day before and the unity between the environmental and human-rights activists and the workers sent a clear message to the President which he had to answer with some verbal assurances. And answer it favorably he did, and by this mainly symbolic kowtow to the power of the crowds in the streets, he further exacerbated the divisions inherent in the already divided meeting. The United States had wanted a narrow agenda, which would reflect its opposition to European agricultural subsidies, demands for the freedom of electronic commerce, and restrictions on dumping of low-cost Asian goods. The Europeans had wanted a broad agenda, one that addressed a number of other issues such as services, industrial tariffs, investment and competition rules, and core labor standards. Another bloc in the meeting was the bloc of less-developed nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which had begun to feel very left out of the green-room discussions and backstage horse-trading between the major industrial powers. In previous meetings, they had taken positions against environmental safeguards and protection of workers rights, viewing these measures as the source of costs which the industrial world had refused to bear on its own right during earlier times. Now, upon hearing President Clinton pander to the crowds outside, they were further alienated from the WTO agenda, and the deep differences between the American and European views left them wondering what the real benefits of WTO membership would be. Even though Clinton's call for a working group on labor rights would not have changed any of the existing rules of operation for the WTO, it still sent a disquieting message to the delegates from the less-developed countries.

. The delegates from the less-developed countries found themselves put on the defensive for their positions on political issues, labor rights, and the environment by activists from their own countries who had traveled to Seattle from all over the world to bring the deliberations of the WTO out into the light of day. Furthermore, it should be clear that both sides of this dispute were not acting out of any concern for the working masses; quite the contrary. When the industrial countries called for more attention to issues of labor rights, they did so not from any sincere concern for working people, but out of a cynical bid for political advantage. It is well known that strikes in the industrial world are frequently repressed with just as much savagery and ruthlessness as in the less developed countries. And in addition, the capitalist ruling class keeps paid labor hacks on a string to do its bidding in sabotaging the struggles of working people in their countries. And it hardly needs to be emphasized that the leaders of the less-developed countries have little regard for their working masses as well, because in their mad rush to grab a share of the surplus value left to them by the rampages of the imperialists, they will stop at nothing to foster sweatshop conditions and the brutal exploitation of child labor.

. For the rest of the week, the US delegation tried to patch together a consensus. They sought to overcome the differences in views on such issues as dumping, agricultural subsidies, capital investment rules, trade in services, protection of intellectual property, biotechnology, and regulation of electronic commerce. The European delegations viewed these US efforts as bullying, while the African delegations, hamstrung by gigantic foreign debts, saw no benefit in a free trade agreement under which all the advantages accrued to the major industrial powers. On Friday evening, it all came unglued, and the delegations had to admit that these issues would have to wait until another day and another meeting.

. Was this "the beginning of the end" of the WTO, as some have said? Although this is a tempting evaluation, the importance of this event lies more in the lessons which a new generation of activists draw from it, in the course of an eventual struggle against modern-day imperialist monopoly capitalism. Were it not for the role of the activists in this event, it would be simply the failure of one session of trade negotiations. But because of the peculiar circumstances of this failure, it revealed that all the capitalist governments, both of the developed and of the developing countries are the enemies of the working class movement. Neither hypocritical talk of labor standards while wages are being forced down around the world, nor the open defense of starvation wages can replace the need for the workers to develop their independent class struggle.The demonstrations in Seattle become one more event in a growing chain -- against APEC in Vancouver, the MAI agreement in Montreal, the WTO in Geneva, Switzerland and now Seattle -- which has been frustrating the imperialist free-trade agenda of the US and the other major industrial powers. These demonstrations reveal the depth of the anger at this agenda. The ideas guiding this movement do not explicitly target the capitalist system, but the objective thrust the events do, and in order to increase the effectiveness of these actions, this anti-capitalist content must be made more explicit. This means that the activists must fundamentally criticize the varying political views expressed by the different trends at these demonstrations, and find a way to encourage the development of a revolutionary working-class movement. They need to sharpen their understanding that both "free-trade" and protectionist state-capitalism serve the interests of the rich and powerful corporations, and that they necessarily rest on the superexploitation of the poor and oppressed peoples of the world, the rape of the environment, and the destruction of indigenous culture by the homogenized onslaught of Western commercialism.

. The growth of a protest movement against neo-liberal trade agencies, at a time of the general decline of the left, is an encouraging development. But this movement cannot restrict itself merely to stopping international trade meetings, because the international bourgeoisie will find a way, by hook or by crook, to have their meetings and to move their agenda forward. What these actions can do is to mitigate some of the worst evils accompanying the free-trade agenda. At the same time, they can also provide a field of battle in which activists can gain experience and sharpen their political consciousness. The movement will inevitably come face to face with its own contradictions. As it has developed so far, it bears the stamp of many disparate trends -- of the anarchist, populist, reformist, revisionist, or narrow labor-movement ideologies that are a feature of the movement today, and the activists must become aware of the misconceptions inherent in these ideologies. Also, to really have a lasting effect, the activists will have to learn to distinguish between protectionist state-capitalism which falsely parades as "Marxism" and real revolutionary Marxism, and this will revolutionize their understanding of socialism and Marxism.

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Last changed on October 16, 2001.