Ten Years After Seattle
It was the heyday of globalization, the high point of the Internet boom and the last gasp of the New Economy: the WTO ministerial in Seattle was meant to celebrate the advent of a corporate millennium extending “free trade” to the furthest corners of the earth. Nobody on that fall morning of Tuesday, 30 November 1999, could have predicted that by nightfall the summit would be disrupted, downtown Seattle would be paralyzed by demonstrations and a full-scale police riot would have broken out, revealing to everyone what democracy really looks like and plunging the city into five days of chaos. Nobody, that is, except the thousands of protesters who prepared for months to put their bodies on the line and shut down the World Trade Organization – as well as their hundreds of thousands of other bodies across the world who learned the potentials of the networked society by participating in the far-flung renewal of leftist, anarchist, social justice and ecology movements that began in the wake of the Zapatista uprising five years before. The 30th of November was their day, our day, a tumultuous day in the streets, inaugurating a movement of movements whose resistance had become as transnational as capital.
The Peoples Global Action was essential to the success in Seattle, having launched the struggle against the WTO at its founding meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in February 1998. The west coast Direct Action Network was essential, for coordinating the non-violent blockades of crucial intersections that stopped the delegates from reaching the meeting. The trade unionists who disobeyed their hierarchies and marched past their restraining marshals were essential, for joining the students and filling downtown with a militant crowd. The Black Blocs were essential, for trashing private property and radicalizing the movement. The nascent Indymedia network was essential, for setting up a new communications system that could bypass the state and corporate media. And all the groups and individuals who had come to Seattle from around the world were essential, for being there to derail the summit and then going home to tell in their own tongues what they had seen with their own eyes: a global protest with its feet on the ground and its fists in the air, ready to challenge corporate capitalism in America itself, with the support of over fifty thousand Americans. Ten years ago the narrative of globalization changed directions, and we are still living out that unfinished story.
All of the activist-artists in the report-back show, Signs of Revolt, took part somehow in the inspiring and dramatic events created by the movement of movements – events that started well before Seattle, for example at the Carnival against Capital in the City of London on June 18th 1999, or at any one of the surprising and often hilarious Reclaim the Streets parties that broke out across the earth on that global day of action. Some of us would meet again and again beneath the tear gas and the water cannons: in Prague to shut down the meetings of the IMF and the World Bank, in Quebec City to refuse the Free Trade Area of the Americas, in Washington, Seoul, Nice, Miami, Barcelona, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Geneva, Heilegendam or wherever the agenda of global capital could not be allowed to proceed with a cynical “no comment” from the citizenry. We would witness tragic scenes, in Genoa, Italy, where Carlo Giuliani was assassinated by the police, or in Cancún, Mexico, where the South Korean peasant activist Lee Kyung-hae stabbed himself in the heart out of grief for his fellow farmers forced by “free trade” to leave their land. Then we greeted each other once again at some local corner of the largest march in world history, on 15 February 2003, when over ten million people cried out against the impending war in Iraq – only to learn, dispirited, that the leaders of our supposedly democratic countries cared nothing for votes cast in the streets.
Despite that defeat we would go on journeying in wintertime to the World Social Forum under bright southern skies, or attend a local forum or a report-back session or read an article or a webpage or a book about this powerful articulation of ideas that has contributed so much cooperative knowledge to everyone involved in alternative politics – and particularly to the new generation of grassroots movements and leftist governments in Latin America. We would organize against the wars, mount Mayday parades across Europe and beyond, develop free software networks, squatted social centers, radical education projects and festivals for life and empowerment. At all these events and throughout long periods of organizing in between, the activist artists would be there, designing posters and fliers and puppets and websites, sewing costumes and flags, printing tee-shirts and tracts, making music, dreaming up tricks and displays and wild new mobilizing techniques – continuously searching for the deep subversion that changes lives on the spot, while sending out a message loud and clear to everyone. The colorful and inventive side of the worldwide movements has been as important as the political demands written in black and white on the page.
What is the paradoxical thread that links virtual images, embodied performances, graphic inventions and prankster’s tricks to flagrant acts of dissent and disobedience, on the one hand, and reasoned debates of political philosophy, on the other? The artistic process of the global protest movements since the outburst of Seattle is everywhere traversed by a radical incompleteness, which expresses the individual’s or the community’s relation to the social whole. Incompleteness is first of all an invitation to participate. You can take the image in your own hands, you can add to it and change it, explain it to others, paste it into some new creation for a different use. You can be part of the performance, experience its meanings and its feelings from the inside, share them with others on another day in another way, using different gestures and colors and words. You can help build the backdrop and the stage, or better, follow the pathways of art beyond representation, to construct new and unexpected ways of living where practical reality fuses with utopian desires and dreams. This is a philosophy of change that begins in the heart before it is translated into acts by the body and into words by the brain. Art has a prefigurative role in the protest movements, it offers a foretaste of a better life; but it also puts things together on the spot, it constructs a different world. With the realization that climate chaos is upon us, this constructive aspect of the artistic process takes on its full dimensions in the here and now: it’s about creating the conditions of another existence that doesn’t poison the planet, and not just sitting around and waiting for others who will never do it for you.
Yet there is another meaning to the radical incompleteness of art in the grassroots movements, equally powerful and paradoxical. You can see it in the images themselves, in their ambivalence and ambiguity. Because they are joyful, surprising, hilarious – but often quite strange and threatening too. There is a kind of dark specter that the laughter dissipates but never quite chases away: Ronald McDonald with a machine gun in his hands, a red-nosed clown in army fatigues, images of people tied up in nets, an armored personnel carrier blaring Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The prefigurative role of art, and even its constructive capacities, would become a lie if it did not also recall the world as it is, the really existing social whole with its immense problems bearing down on us at every moment. So the art of the protest movements mingles dream and reality, beauty and terror, and expresses the symbolic violence of a necessary break with society as it is, while never forgetting that the real violence continues. There is not yet any way to surmount this contradiction, this radical incompleteness – but each new wave of struggles brings fresh insights and new people too, more eyes and ears and tongues and hands to take hold of the scattered pieces and knit them together into another movement that will try and try again.
Ten years ago people power was reborn in Seattle, and not only there but wherever else human beings decided it was more urgent and inspiring and realistic to take to the streets. In one of the most memorable documents of those days – the documentary film “This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” collectively authored by over a hundred video-activists – a chorus of voices repeats in a great rhythmic surge: “Ten years from now, the thing that’s going to be written about Seattle is not what teargas bomb went off on what street corner, but that the WTO in 1999 was the birth of a global citizens’ movement for a democratic global economy” (click here for the whole film). Since then we saw a first crash that brought down the dot-com delusion, and then, in a weird and distorted slo-mo sequence, the inflation of a real-estate bubble that installed greed and self-satisfied blindness in people’s homes, in the very ground beneath our feet, generating a false sense of prosperity that would soon turn into real expropriation on a massive scale. The global economy was less democratic than ever, and for a while, the global citizens’ movement seemed to have disappeared.
Those were disturbing years to live through and it has been a relief to see the veil torn at last from everyone’s eyes, with the departure of Bush-Blair from power, the collapse of bubble economics and the visible quagmire of the wars, now rejected by a majority in Britain and the USA. Yet the most important thing that happened in these last ten years is the achievement of a scientific consensus on climate change that not even the American Chamber of Commerce can deny anymore – since the Yes Men corrected their identity and voiced the truth that they would not admit. Today there is a new movement on the rise, far larger and more deeply rooted in daily life, reaching across the generations to say there is something more to existence than the economy.
The next ten years begins on 30 November 2009, with another WTO ministerial in Geneva. But the failed paradigm of corporate free trade, overdevelopment, expropriation, immiseration and endless pollution will be far overshadowed by the movement that has arisen to force the global climate negotiators in Copenhagen to stop concealing the real smokescreen of carbon in the atmosphere with their rhetorical smokescreens of false promises and non-solutions. We know in advance that they will not deliver, and that many more mobilizations will be needed. The decade to come will see the most passionate struggle of them all: the one that finally takes apart the neoliberal system, to invent a future that no one claims to own and that no one trades away for profit, a future that every body can live with.