By Rebecca Solnit · 26 Nov 2009
Next month, at the climate change summit in Copenhagen, the wealthy nations that produce most of the excess carbon in our atmosphere will almost certainly fail to embrace measures adequate to ward off the devastation of our planet by heat and chaotic weather. Their leaders will probably promise us teaspoons with which to put out the firestorm and insist that springing for fire hoses would be far too onerous a burden for business to bear. They have already backed off from any binding deals at this global summit. There will be a lot of wrangling about who should cut what when, and how, with a lot of nations claiming that they would act if others would act first. Activists -- farmers, environmentalists, island-dwellers -- around the world will try to write a different future, a bolder one, and if anniversaries are an omen, then they have history on their side.
A decade ago, and a decade before that, popular power turned the tide of history. November 30, 1999, was the day that activists shut down a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle and started to chart another course for the planet than the one that corporations and their servant nation-states had presumed they’d execute without impediment. Since then, events have strayed increasingly far from the WTO’s road map for global domination and the financial scenarios that captains of industry once liked to entertain.
Until that day when tens of thousands of protestors poured into the streets of Seattle (as well as other cities from Winnipeg to Athens, Limerick to Seoul), the might of the corporations made their agenda seem nothing short of inevitable -- and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Disrupted by demonstrators outside its door and, on the inside, by dissent from poor nations galvanized by the ruckus, the meeting collapsed in confusion. Today, the WTO is puny compared to its ambitions only a decade ago.
The mass civil disobedience in the streets was, in a way, an answer to another landmark day a decade earlier: November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and tens of thousands of Germans swarmed across the forbidden zone splitting their once and future capital city to celebrate, and eventually to reunite their nation. The fall of the Wall is now often remembered as if the gracious acquiescence of officialdom brought it about. It was not so.
“I announced the wall would open, but it was only the pressure by the people that made it possible” said Günter Schabowski, then-East German Communist Party central committee spokesperson, earlier this year. Had those East Germans not shown up and overwhelmed the guards at the Wall, nothing would have changed that night. In fact, popular will toppled several regimes that season. Thanks to creative civil-society organizing, steadfastness, astonishing courage, and imagination, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary also slipped out of the Soviet bloc and so out of a version of communism tantamount to totalitarianism as well.
There was a lot of triumphalism in the West thereafter. From the White House to business magazines and newspapers came a drumbeat of pronouncements that communism had failed and capitalism had triumphed. As it happened, those weren’t the binaries at stake in the astonishing uprisings that season in Eastern Europe, or in the failed uprising in Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital Beijing that spring. People certainly wanted freedom, but it wasn’t the freedom to trade mysterious debt instruments and buy Double Whoppers, exactly. Nor was it capitalism, but civil society, very nearly its antithesis, that had risen up and brought down the Wall. The real binary then was: civil society versus top-down authoritarianism -- and framed that way, our situation didn’t look quite as good as Washington and the media then made out.
Nevertheless, for a decade afterward, it wasn’t that easy to argue with the logic of capitalism’s triumph, since even China was making a beeline for a market economy and, in the process, doing an especially good job of proving that capitalism and democracy were separate phenomena. It was also the decade of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the first of a series of broad international treaties meant to secure the terms of corporate power for a long time to come. Its implementation on January 1, 1994, prompted the Zapatistas, the indigenous peasants of southern Mexico’s jungle, to rise up against the treaty, which promised -- and has now delivered -- a grim new chapter in the deprivation and dispossession of Mexico’s majority. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Zapatistas came as a great shock.
The Sucking Sound and the Turning Tide
Few remember how dissent against NAFTA was dismissed and even mocked in the era when the treaty was debated, signed, and ratified. In his debate with Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot was ignored when he said, “We have got to stop sending jobs overseas.” He was ridiculed for describing the “giant sucking sound” of those jobs heading south. Which, of course, they did -- and then on to China in a financial “race to the bottom,” while cheap corn raised by Midwestern agribusiness also went south where it bankrupted Mexico’s small farmers.
Cheap food, cheap labor, cheap products turned out to be very, very expensive for the majority of us. It’s a sign of how much things have changed that Hillary Clinton felt compelled to lie in last year’s presidential campaign, claiming she had long been against NAFTA. In that, she was just a weathervane for changing times. After all, in the decade since Seattle, most of South America liberated itself not just from a legacy of American-supported dictators and death squads, but from the economic programs those instruments existed to enforce.
Venezuela lent Argentina enough money to pay off its debts to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that earlier instrument for imposing free-market ideology and corporate profit. Various other countries did the same, and the continent largely freed itself from the imposition of neoliberal policies that mainly benefited Washington and international corporations. The IMF was so impoverished by Latin American divestment -- which went from 80% of its loans to about 1% -- that it’s been reduced to selling off its gold reserves. The World Bank is doing well only by comparison. By 2005, the tide had clearly turned, and the power of these institutions and of the so-called Washington Consensus that went with them was on the wane.
That tide had just begun to turn 10 years ago, when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman referred to the people in the streets of Seattle as “a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960's fix.” He charged, “What's crazy is that the protesters want the W.T.O. to become precisely what they accuse it of already being -- a global government. They want it to set more rules -- their rules, which would impose our labor and environmental standards on everyone else.”
Nice though our labor and environmental standards might have been elsewhere too, most of us didn’t want the WTO to do anything or to have any power. As the Direct Action Network organizing leaflet from August 1999 put it, the WTO’s “overall goal is to eliminate ‘trade barriers,’ frequently including labor laws, public health regulations, and environmental protection measures.”
That day in Seattle a crane dangled a pair of gigantic banners shaped like arrows: the first, inscribed “Democracy,” pointed one way; the second, labeled “WTO,” pointed the other. The leaflet and banners were pieces of a carefully organized resistance, and it’s important to remember that events like the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia 20 years ago or the shutdown of the WTO weren’t just spontaneous uprisings; they were the fruit of long toil. While the right and too many American media outlets like to remember a fictitious Seattle that was nothing but a cauldron of activist violence (while ignoring serious police violence), too many on the left wanted to think of it as a miraculous convergence rather than the result of careful coalition-building, strategizing, outreach, and all the usual labors.
Straying Far from the Blueprint for Our Era
In the twenty-first century, free-trade agreements came down with their own version of swine flu, a disease likely generated on a gigantic Smithfield Farms hog-raising operation in Veracruz, Mexico, and nicknamed the NAFTA flu. NAFTA itself has been widely reviled. Presidential candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador campaigned in Mexico’s 2006 election on promises to renegotiate it; Hillary disowned it. The plan for a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was met with massive opposition in Miami in 2003. It crashed and burned in Argentina in 2005 and has since been abandoned.
Latin America went its own way while the Bush Administration locked its attention on the Middle East. Indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Bolivia had a particularly rousing set of victories, while the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, astonishingly, defeated U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation's privatization of their water, and Ecuadorans are suing Chevron for environmental devastation in what could be the biggest corporate settlement in history -- $27 billion.
Meanwhile, the WTO lurched from one meeting to another, safe in the Doha round from pesky protesters, if not from the dissent of developing nations. It was again besieged by activists in 2003 in Cancún, Mexico -- in scale and impact another Seattle -- and then further battered in 2005 in Hong Kong. The next ministerial conference of the WTO actually convenes in Geneva on November 30th, a decade to the day since the Seattle shutdown, still attempting to resolve issues that arose in Doha. Of course, in the meantime, sneakier bilateral trade agreements have taken the place of big multilateral ones, but this has hardly been the triumphant era predicted a decade earlier. Even Iraq hardly proved the hog trough the big oil and contracting corporations had anticipated.
In fact, for the corporations nothing much has turned out as planned. Capitalism itself failed a little more than a year ago. Or rather the bizarrely rigged corporate-run market economies that determine at least some portion of nearly everyone’s life on Earth imploded in a frenzy of deregulated fecklessness and weirdly disassociative procedures. Then, they were propped up by governments in a way that made the phrase “socialism for the rich” truer than ever. For a while, the same business newspapers that had celebrated capitalism’s triumph in 1999 were proclaiming “the end of American capitalism as we knew it” and the “collapse of finance.”
It was as though the world economy had been a car driven by a drunk. Even if we have now let that drunk back behind the wheel, at least his credibility and the logic of what he claimed to be doing have been irreparably harmed. On the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Time Magazine’s cover story was: “Why Main Street Hates Wall Street” and it told readers in its opening passage that they should be furious. The fall of Wall Street, you could call it, if you want to hear the echo from Berlin.
Oil-price hikes, the misadventures in turning food into biofuels, and economic meltdowns have had other consequences. Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times more than a year ago:
"In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. Nations that opened their markets to the global flood of cheap grain (under pressure from previous administrations as well as the World Bank and the I.M.F.) lost so many farmers that they now find their ability to feed their own populations hinges on decisions made in Washington... and on Wall Street. They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Not only the Doha round, but the whole cause of free trade in agriculture is probably dead..."
Another death knell for the sunny corporate vision of globalization had nothing to do with ideology; it was about oil, since the more it cost to ship things around the world the less financial sense it made to do so. As the New York Times put it this August:
“Cheap oil, the lubricant of quick, inexpensive transportation links across the world, may not return anytime soon, upsetting the logic of diffuse global supply chains that treat geography as a footnote in the pursuit of lower wages. Rising concern about global warming, the reaction against lost jobs in rich countries, worries about food safety and security, and the collapse of world trade talks in Geneva last week also signal that political and environmental concerns may make the calculus of globalization far more complex.”
The passages cited above came from the New York Times, not the Nation or Mother Jones. Which is to say that if communism failed 20 years ago, then capitalism staggered 10 years ago in Seattle, and fell to its knees a year ago. The crises of petroleum and food costs only augment this reality. But the crisis of climate change matters more than all the rest.
Futures that Work
There are endless questions and conundrums about the largely unforeseen situation in which we now find ourselves, all six billion of us. One of them is: if capitalism and communism both failed, what’s the alternative? The big tent of subversions and traditions called the left hasn’t, in recent times, done a very good job of providing pictures of the possibilities available to us. Still, perhaps the answer to what the political and social alternatives might be will prove very close to what a sustainable world in the face of climate change might look like: small, local, smart, flexible economies and technologies, democracy as direct as possible, an elimination of excess wealth as part of a leveling that might also eliminate dire poverty.
Some of our hope for the future has to be that, one day, the ecological and the economic can be aligned so that, among other things, petroleum and coal become increasingly expensive, as well as increasingly offensive, ways to run our machines. Will we be creative enough to embrace change before crashing systems and wild weather force change on us in the form of an unbearable crisis? Decisions about the nature of that change to come must be made by the citizenry, which seems to be fairly willing to face change when it gets its facts straight, rather than by wealthier nation-states and their leaders who seem, at this juncture, more interested in protecting business than life on Earth.
To survive the coming era, we need to re-imagine what constitutes wealth and well-being and what constitutes poverty. This doesn’t mean telling the destitute not to hope for decent housing, adequate food, and some chance at education, as well as some pleasures and power. It means paring back on the mad consumption machine that has