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Seattle Ten Years On 

The Perfect Storm

Gerry Fitzpatrick

20 August 2010

Some time ago I wrote a letter to the site and the editor asked me to expand. A more detailed view of the recent evolution of globalism is given below.

The WTO Seattle protest was significant for the following reasons: it marked a change in the organisation and make up of the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations from an aggressively conservative organisation to one more liberal in nature. This in turn helped extend the influence of Labour NGOs who had successfully persuaded the main American unions to join the campaign against protectionism and to attend the Seattle protest. The next important element was the Seattle City government itself who signed up for the growing international campaign to reject the WTO Multilateral Agreement on Investment. These last two developments were significant as it showed that the NGO campaign had considerable support from within government itself. Last but not least was the arrival on the scene of the new Direct Action Movement. 

By mid morning on the day of the protest The Seattle Convention Centre was cut off from the rest of the city both by activists and by the police. Not surprisingly, the result was several pitched battles at a number of key locations. The demonstrators’ element of surprise was important, in that the police were simply not able to judge what was happening, or where the next significant action (planned or otherwise) was about to come from (the large number of young anarchist revellers from a punk rock concert in Eugene Oregon added significantly to the confused police picture, as the police could not easily identify them or be sure if this particular group were about to perform another lightening action or not). 

Although Seattle was the NGOs demonstration, on the day it was the Black Bloc tactic that was seen to be dominating the events (with heavy media coverage given to attacks on retail outlets and the police battling demonstrators).  The temporary loss of control/overreaction by the police was understandably misunderstood as politically significant.  It certainly became significant for the leaderships of the Revolutionary Left in terms of their possible future programme and tactics.  Seattle was indeed a watershed of social protest but not in the way that the leaderships of the Revolutionary Left thought. For it indicated the peak of the NGO movement. In the weeks and months after Seattle that did not appear to be the case - at all.

Indeed, rather it appeared to be the opposite as the leaderships of the Troskyist movement enthusiastically urged their member’s to organise fronts of support for this new anti- globalisation movement and its programmed events. With hindsight it is difficult to see how any small Troskyist group could have played a historically significant role at Seattle or internationally at the World Social Forum. 

The Political Operation of The NGO Before and After Seattle

Prior to the changes in the operation of finance capital, state funds and tax transfers were made available to social groups and anti-poverty networks on the basis that the state would not then be politically responsible for issues it had once had a politically reforming interest in - such as housing, health and low wages. In the market led 1980s, government funding to NGOs concerned with these issues grew and is inversely related to the decline in governments’ actual commitment to providing, improving and developing fairer and better wages, health and housing. The (labour and community) NGO having a vested interest in tax transfers and state funds it is extremely important to accept - in a Marxist understanding - that low and no tax regimes mean no funds to implement any NGO critique. And that in that sense NGOs and their associations were not and are not ‘anti-capitalist’. 

Where previously micro management by an NGO of capital or community monies could be supported for reform purposes, now the buying and selling of debt by banks and Hedge Funds meant that socially responsible management of those community monies  - never mind fair finance, was an illusion. The only people who made money were and are the ones who traded in those illusions. The market was now in complete control and that meant: NO REFORMS. What was left was the belief that reforms were still possible and that Left Fronts based on that belief could be transformed and redirected towards building a new revolutionary working class movement.   That too proved to be an illusion as over the next ten years various popular-front schemes were tried by world Trotskyism in Germany, Scotland, Ireland, France and Britain. Throughout Europe the results were what had been predicted as rightward moving reformist leaderships dominated the fronts (electoral, anti-war and ‘anti-capitalist’) and it was their liberal and reformist political strategies that became the Fronts strategies.   Where once individual Leftwing Trade Union leaders were complaining about the hostility they had received from the Trotskyist Left they were now made more than welcome at Trotskyist events and conferences  - the revolutionary lefts’ traditional critique of the left Trade Union leaders - was abandoned.

The absolute dominance of the market also meant an absolute decline in reformism – weather that was the traditional church based or community based (NGO) or Labour movement based. The process whereby these same elements could combine in one movement, but then go on to secure the rule of the banks and the bondholders by disciplining the working class has been described in detail by Paul Flannagan: 

Within the ideal capitalist legal framework ‘citizens’ are accorded equal rights, and an equal access and influence over both local and central government. But in the real world of capitalism some voices shout louder than others and are listened to more attentively, the divine right of citizen capital to dictate is supreme.  The logic of citizenship is determined by the holders of capital - and in Brazil it is doubly determined by finance capital that isn’t even resident: the international bond holders that control the country’s debt. A socialist strategy that adhered to the logic of responsible citizenship under capitalist conditions would easily become the dupe of capital and its programme of cost cutting and low taxation. The working class ought to be steered well away from every citizenship morality, including the communitarian version, lest they become the responsible law-abiding citizens of capitalist law. (Flannagan Socialist Democracy 2004)
The ‘Porto Alegre’ strategy of Popular Front and ideal People’s Budget’s became a blue print for one of reformisms’ most poignant disasters. International Trotskyism did play a small role in that disaster and now considered their involvement as a mistake. It remains to be seen if the experience will prove to be terminal. 

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