The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization
Edited by Eddie Yuen, George Katsiaficas, and Daniel Burton Rose
Reviewed by Chris Dixon
Monday, September 23 2002, 8:20 AM
Since the WTO protests of 1999, there have been countless articles and books purporting to "document" and "explain" the so-called "anti-globalization movement." Plenty of academics, journalists, and NGO directors have capitalized on this opportunity; indeed, more than a few have launched their careers with it. But out of all the reams of commentary, very little is useful for those of us on the ground as we work to broaden grassroots resistance, link movements, and build anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist alternatives. Accurate, relevant documentation and sharp analysis are hard to come by, particularly in books.
Enter The Battle of Seattle. Bringing together contributions from some fifty radicals stretching around the globe, this book is a welcome breath of fresh air. Although it is dated by its obvious composition before the events of September 11, 2001, the vibrancy and the lessons are even more necessary and relevant today. As Eddie Yuen explains in the Introduction, "one of the goals of this volume is to open up a dialogue between militants and the broader movement, rather than denying that articulate militant voices exist, as other collections have done." This it does, in a thankfully nondogmatic way.
The lucidity of many of the authors is in fact striking, as is the richness of their discussion of capitalist globalization and the movements that resist it. Rather than relying on the vagueness of the term "globalization," for instance, many situate it within a nexus of structural oppression woven together by capitalism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, imperialism, and authoritarianism, among others. I suspect this clarity comes, in part, from the fact that most of the contributors to this book are grounded in the movements that they write about.
Particularly exemplary is Stephanie Guilloud, who offers us a deeply reflective glimpse into the radical organizing leading to Seattle, complete with its glaring weaknesses. Like me, she was a co-founding organizer of what came to be known as the Direct Action Network. After the WTO protests, she left that organization, like a number of us, exhilarated yet disenchanted with the intransigence of white radicals unwilling to confront privilege, build ties to local communities, and acknowledge "invisible hierarchies" based on race, gender, age, and experience. Her voice is compelling: "the spirit of Seattle should guide us, but with a realistic understanding of what it was and what it lacked."
The Battle of Seattle obviously embraces this approach, for among the most compelling features of this collection is the way in which it debunks major myths of the Seattle mobilization. For one, it disputes exactly how representative and victorious the protests were, asking with Elizabeth Martinez, "Where was the color in Seattle?" In this regard, contributions from Guilloud, Kristine Wong, Andrew Hsiao, and Juan Gonzalez are particularly important. "To be a genuine victory," notes Wong, a Seattle environmental justice organizer, "the protests would have to broaden and unite existing grassroots movements, not recreate the oppressive structures they attempt to replace."
These concerns are vital, especially in a social climate of intensified repression as war continues, criminalization of communities of color and dissidents expands, and the US government cranks down the screws of domestic structural adjustment. Race and racism, in particular, have been clear fissures within US (and Canadian) anti-globalization and anti-war mobilizations. Another contributor, L.A. Kauffman, puts it pointedly, asking "whether this predominantly white movement will make the connections between global corporate power and the criminal injustice system here at home, and whether it will build productive alliances with movements of color, directly confronting institutionalized racism in the United States." The success and growth of US and Canadian movements resisting capitalist globalization, racism, and war will depend on just these kinds of connections and alliances.
As well as laudably tackling the thorny issue of race, Battle of Seattle also adeptly moves beyond the tactical mythologies of the WTO protests. To their credit, contributors largely abandon the simplistic dichotomies and name-calling that have erupted in "nonviolence" versus"violence" debates. Indeed, this book is unique in that it provides critical space for open discussion of black blocs and the very relevant history of the German Autonomen, neither fetishizing nor demonizing them. Likewise, this volume includes some provocative material from Ya Basta!, the Italian organization known for its (not unproblematic) efforts to chart a new tactical path, its flair for colorful confrontation, and its incisive analysis of the relationship between the mobility of capital and the enforced immobility of people. Longtime nonviolent direct action organizer George Lakey also contributes his own strategic recommendations for "how to make our protests more powerful."
The insight in this discussion is less in unequivocal answers and more in modeling honest dialogue. Many of the authors clearly favor tactical diversity. In the influential words of George Katsiaficas, "Diversity of tactics, organizations and beliefs is one of the great strengths of autonomous social movements." However, instead of reducing the scope of analysis to street tactics as many accounts do, there is far more nuanced reference to strategy in this book. Andrew Hsiao importantly frames the question of tactics in terms of who is excluded: "direct-action tactics have a different meaning in communities where many are undocumented or already have a perilous relationship with the police." Rachel Neumann, for her part, insists that we must acknowledge the place of rage, stressing that it is "dishonest not to talk about the intangibles: the feeling in the air and the smiles on people's faces as the Nike sign was being dismantled in Seattle." The real beauty here, specific to an extensive anthology like this one, is in presenting questions of tactics in a multifaceted way. The challenge is to bring these kinds of strategic considerations and this unique multi-perspective approach into everyday organizing.
Battle of Seattle has much more to offer as well. Sure to be controversial is reprinted work from Eric Krebbers and Merijn Schoenmaker of De Fabel van de Illegaal, a Dutch anti-racist group. They critically probe collusion with right-wing forces under the "anti-globalization" banner and highlight some of the major weaknesses in the build-up to Seattle. James Davis, meanwhile, offers a trenchant critique of NGOs in an essay tellingly titled "This is What Bureaucracy Looks Like." Charting the rise of NGOs (the "new social workers" as he calls them) with the ascendancy of the neoliberal project, he reminds us, "the ideal for capitalism would be to create and co-opt a 'responsible' leadership who could then negotiate on behalf of the hordes and diffuse the movement while recuperating it."
In addition to these and other contributions, Battle of Seattle includes already widely-circulated articles from Naomi Klein, Liza Featherstone, Jaggi Singh, Noam Chomsky, John Zerzan, and others. At times, these reprints can lend the impression that one is simply re-reading highlights from the last few years, especially when combined with the unfortunate brevity of some of the newer, original pieces. But altogether, the breadth and diversity of materials here is definitely a strength. And it is nicely punctuated by firsthand accounts from Seattle, D.C., Prague, Genoa, and Cancun, as well as exhaustive run-downs of mobilizations throughout the world on international days of action.
Perhaps what this book offers more than anything else is much-needed context, both international and historical, for what happened in Seattle and what has developed since then. Dispensing with "origins" myths of a movement magically catalyzed outside the WTO Ministerial, George Katsiaficas, James Davis and Paul Rowley, Kristine Wong, and others paint a picture of steadily expanding resistance in the global South as well as among communities of color and low-income communities in the North. Similarly, Barbara Epstein, L.A. Kauffman, and David Kubrin explore some of the critical, often unacknowledged, movement antecedents in the United States. In effect, they help us demystify the past so as to better act in the present.
Illustrated with fantastic artwork and photos of mobilizations worldwide, Battle of Seattle raises key issues of the moment: multiracial organizing and alliance-building, honest discussion of tactical diversity, wariness of right-wing forces and co-optation, and much more. As well, it properly locates recent upsurges on the global stage, where they belong, rather than divided by the borders of nation-states. With urgency and vitality, this collection exhibits the very best of the latest wave of resistance--the courage, the critique, and the commitment.
The Battle of Seattle is available from Soft Skull Press
Chris Dixon is a radical Alaskan activist and writer.