The Meaning of Seattle: Truth Only Becomes True Through Action
WTO+10: Before 1999, the momentum of globalization seemed to sweep everything in front of it, including the truth. But in Seattle, ordinary women and men made truth real with collective action.
It is now generally accepted that globalization has been a failure in terms of delivering on its triple promise of lifting countries from stagnation, eliminating poverty, and reducing inequality. The current deep global downturn, which is rooted in corporate-driven globalization and financial liberalization and the ideology of neoliberalism that legitimized them, has driven the last nail into the coffin of globalization.
But things were very different over a decade ago. I still remember the note of triumphalism surrounding the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Singapore in November 1996. There, we were told by representatives of the U.S. and other developed countries that corporate-driven globalization was inevitable, that it was the wave of the future, and that the sole remaining task was to make the policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the WTO more “coherent” in order to more swiftly get to the neoliberal utopia of an integrated global economy.
Indeed, the momentum of globalization seemed to sweep everything in front of it, including the truth. In the decade prior to Seattle, there were a lot of studies, including UN reports, that questioned the claim that globalization and free market policies were leading to sustained growth and prosperity. Indeed, the data showed that globalization and pro-market policies were promoting more inequality and more poverty and consolidating economic stagnation, especially in the global South. However, these figures remained “factoids” rather than facts in the eyes of academics, the press, and policymakers, who dutifully repeated the neoliberal mantra that economic liberalization promoted growth and prosperity. The orthodox view, repeated ad nauseam in the classroom, the media, and policy circles was that the critics of globalization were modern-day incarnations of Luddites, the people who smashed machines during the Industrial Revolution, or, as Thomas Friedman disdainfully branded us, believers in a flat earth.
Then came Seattle. After those tumultuous days, the press began to talk about the “dark side of globalization,” about the inequalities and poverty being created by globalization. After that, we had the spectacular defections from the camp of neoliberal globalization, such as those of the financier George Soros, the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, and the star economist Jeffery Sachs. The intellectual retreat from globalization probably reached its high point over two years ago in a comprehensive report by a panel of neoclassical economists headed by Princeton’s Angus Deaton and former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff, which sternly asserted that the World Bank Research Department—the source of most assertions that globalization and trade liberalization were leading to lower rates of poverty, sustained economic growth, and less inequality—had been deliberately distorting the data and/or making unwarranted claims.
True, neoliberalism continues to be the default discourse among many economists and technocrats. But even before the recent global financial collapse, it had already lost much of its credibility and legitimacy. What made the difference? Not so much research or debate but action. It took the anti-globalization actions of masses of people in the streets of Seattle, which interacted in synergistic fashion with the resistance of developing country representatives in the Sheraton Convention Center and a police riot, to bring about the spectacular collapse of a WTO ministerial meeting to translate factoids into facts, into truth. And the intellectual debacle inflicted on globalization by Seattle had very real consequences. Today, the Economist, the prime avatar of neoliberal globalization, admits that the “integration of the world economy is in retreat on almost every front,” and a process of “deglobalization” that it once considered unthinkable is actually unfolding.
Seattle was what the philosopher Hegel called a “world-historic event.” Its enduring lesson is that truth is not just out there, existing objectively and eternally. Truth is completed, made real, and ratified by action. In Seattle, ordinary women and men made truth real with collective action that smashed an intellectual paradigm that had served as the ideological warden of corporate control.