The Battle in Seattle



The last time the World Trade Organization had a major meeting, it was in Singapore, and now we know why.

Singapore, of course, is the city-state that accords near-perfect freedom to banks and corporations while jailing political activists and caning messy tenants and people who chew gum in public. When WTO ministers gathered in Singapore in 1997, their business was unimpeded by any outside agitators. (Or, for that matter, any internal dissidents: Advocates for worker rights or environmental standards are not allowed into the deliberations that set the rules for global commerce.)

That Seattle wasn\'t going to be another Singapore was never in question. On Tuesday, though, Seattle wasn\'t even Seattle. It was more like Petrograd-for-a-Day. The TV news may be filled with replays of the day\'s violence, but that was just a small part of the Seattle revolution, and something that hundreds of demonstrators personally tried to stop. But like Petrograd circa 1917, Seattle in just the past 24 hours has had something for nearly every species of reformer and revolutionary. Here was economist Bob Kuttner, with a scholarly presentation to an upscale and decorous gathering on the perils of laissez-faire capitalism. Over there, Ralph Nader was giving a more spirited rendition of the same basic tune. On the waterfront, the entire port clanged shut, as the longshoremen welcomed the trade ministers to Seattle by closing off trade altogether. Down one boulevard paraded 100 uniformed airline pilots indignant about growing employer power; down another, 100 environmentalists decked out in turtle suits to dramatize the WTO\'s overturning of national endangered-species laws. Not to mention the thousands of students who trudged downtown from the University of Washington, the leaders of the American union movement who suddenly sounded like Gene Debs, and the nearly 20,000 workers who paraded around the outskirts of downtown while 20,000 other activists, most of them college-age, peaceably sat down in the middle of downtown and kept the WTO from convening.

Most astonishing, there was the intermingling of all these disparate movements, generations, nations and lifestyles. There were the kids blocking the WTO delegates, who parted like the Red Sea to make way for a group of Steelworkers, identifiable by their blue-poncho rain gear as members of the most ubiquitous of the protesting unions this week. There was Amparo Reyes, a single mother who puts in a 74-hour week (for a lordly $69) at her local maquiladora, shouting "Long live the Zapatistas!" at the official AFL-CIO rally. And amid Teamsters chanting "Hoffa! Hoffa!" and baby-faced animal rightsters chanting "No violence! No violence!" there was the sign that proclaimed, "Teamsters and Turtles -- Together at Last!"

Team the Teamsters with the turtles, and what you get -- what the world got in Seattle on Tuesday -- could well be an ideological turning point -- or at least, an end to the unchallenged dominance that right-wing economics has enjoyed for the past two decades.

For 20 years now, the greatest achievements of the world\'s industrial democracies -- the broadly shared prosperity created by unions and social insurance, the attempts to restore and preserve clean air and water, the whole idea of leisure time -- have been eroded by the resurrection of laissez-faire economics on the global level, even while living standards in much of the developing world have been held in check by the coming of laissez faire. For 20 years, movements that knew how to change national and state and local laws were paralyzed by this shift to the global. At first, this new global terrain was a realm of practices, not laws; there was no legislature to lobby or win over; there was just business without government -- Singapore writ large. National governments remained, but they were whipsawed by multinational businesses just as state governments had been whipsawed by the first national businesses -- the railroads -- 100 years ago.

At which point, the global corporate and financial powers -- preponderantly American -- made a serious mistake. Mere practices weren\'t enough for them; they wanted some global codes. France was still blocking the exports of American food out of some sentimental attachment to its farmers; nations of the former communist bloc were pirating American films without paying the studios; and investment houses wanted developing nations to make their banks and businesses keep