The Washington Times

One could not say that the anti-globalization protesters in Washington for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings last week were any more coherent in their objectives than they were on previous occasions here and elsewhere, going back to Seattle in 1999. Nevertheless, there has been a net reduction in incoherence for the simple reason that the protests are getting smaller. This is progress.

It turns out that there is a persistent myth about the 1999 Seattle protests during the meeting of the World Trade Organization there, at which parties hoped to launch a new round of trade talks. It is that the protests derailed the start of the new round.

One can understand the utility of the myth to those hoping for bigger and better protests against globalization in the future. By this reckoning, Seattle was the founding event of a new and effective political movement of potentially global reach. Here, against the forces of Empire [to borrow the neo-Marxist terminology of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt], the power of “the multitudes” was at last asserting itself – and to great effect.

The municipal police seemed entirely unprepared for the magnitude and the intensity of the demonstrations. They quickly lost control and were unwilling to fight to regain it, leaving large parts of the city in a condition of anarchy in which the more violent among the protesters had a free hand. WTO ceremonies were cancelled and meetings postponed, as officials scrambled to save the summit – to no avail, as talks among delegates collapsed amid angry recriminations. All in all, a great victory for the forces gathered under the rubric of anti-globalization and a promise of even bigger things to come. And promise the organizers did, warning that the institutions of global capitalism would come under further fire as people came to feel empowered to stand up and take action.

What’s wrong with this picture? Very simply this: The protesters were on the street. The Seattle talks collapsed not there, but in conference and meeting rooms at which the protesters were not even present. And the reason the talks collapsed is that the Clinton administration pressed forward with its long-stated but entirely underprepared initiative to take a step toward bringing international labors standards under the aegis of the WTO. The reason the “Seattle Round” never got under way was because there was no support in either developing countries or in Europe for even a preliminary step in that direction at Seattle.

Under heavy pressure from within the Democratic Party from key union constituencies [as well as from environmentalists, who wanted environmental standards brought into the trade talks], the administration sought to broaden the trade discussion from the liberalization agenda that had been its theme since the end of World War II.

I can’t say whether such a thing is in principle impossible. Some people thought GATT, the WTO’s predecessor, would find it impossible to move beyond tariff reduction and consider non-tariff barriers to trade, yet that expansion of the agenda worked rather well. On the other hand, the Bush administration, not feeling the same domestic pressure, was able to relaunch the stalled talks in Doha, Qatar last November with agricultural subsidies as the centerpiece and no attempt to reintroduce the subject of labor standards, suggesting [once again] the broad incompatibility of labor standards and the trade talks, at least at present. What one can say is that if the Clinton administration wanted to launch a successful round in Seattle, it would either have had to do far more to win support internationally [as well as domestically] for including labor standards or it would have had to drop the effort, a politically difficult course.

None of which had anything to do with the protesters, notwithstanding their self-mythologizing – nor, perhaps, a certain willingness among some administration officials to let the blame for the collapse of the talks fall elsewhere.

The intervening period has in any case not been kind to the forces arrayed against globalization. The biggest problem, of course, is that we have all had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of somebody who really opposes globalization. The point is not to compare our protesters with Osama bin Laden, but to show the vast gulf that separates the fundamentally bourgeois anti-globalization protestors here and in Europe from somebody who is willing to kill people in large numbers to make his point. The latter is a serious phenomenon, the former is not – unless or until those involved begin creeping toward bin Ladenism as an operating style, something which they currently either oppose or are afraid to pursue.

By noontime downtown near Farragut Square on Friday, the underwhelming protest left me and two colleagues pondering the choice of going to our lunch appointment by Metro or by taxi. We picked taxi, out of solidarity with the workers who braved the streets that day.