When I was able to open my eyes, I saw lying next to me a young man, nineteen, maybe twenty at the oldest. He was in shock, twitching and shivering uncontrollably from being tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed at close range. His burned eyes were tightly closed, and he was panting irregularly. Then he passed out. The sidewalk was wet from the water that a medic had poured over him to flush his eyes.
On November 30, 1999, in Seattle, Washington, more than seven hundred organizations and between forty and sixty thousand people took part in protests against the World Trade Organization’s Third Ministerial. Seattle was not the beginning but simply the most publicized example of citizens struggling against a worldwide, corporate-financed oligarchy — in effect, a plutocracy.
Oligarchy and plutocracy are words often used to describe the governments of Third World countries where small groups of wealthy people rule, but not the “First World” nations — the United States, Japan, Germany, and Canada. The WTO, however, is trying to cement into place a corporate plutocracy. Already, the world’s top two hundred companies have twice the assets of 80 percent of the world’s people. Global corporations represent a new empire, whether they admit it or not. With such massive amounts of capital at their disposal, they can influence politicians and the public at will, putting all democratic institutions at risk. Corporate free-market policies, as promulgated by the WTO, subvert culture, democracy, and community, creating a true tyranny. The American Revolution occurred because of crown-chartered corporate abuse, a “remote tyranny,” in Thomas Jefferson’s words. To see Seattle as a singular event, as did most of the media, is to look at the battles of Lexington and Concord as isolated skirmishes.
The mainstream media, consistently problematic in their coverage of any protest, had an especially difficult time understanding and covering the issues and activists in Seattle. No charismatic leader led. No religious figure engaged in direct action. No movie stars starred. There was no “alpha” group. The Ruckus Society, the Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, and hundreds more independent organizations were there, coordinated primarily by cell phones, e-mail, and the Direct Action Network — main organizer of the downtown protests. They were up against the Seattle Police Department, the Secret Service, and the FBI — to say nothing of the media and the WTO itself.
Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of an encomium to globalization titled The Lexus and the Olive Tree, angrily wrote that the demonstrators were “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.” Not so. They were organized, educated, and determined. They were human-rights activists, labor activists, indigenous people, people of faith, steelworkers, and farmers. They were forest activists, environmentalists, social-justice workers, students, and teachers. They were speaking on behalf of a world that has not been made better by globalization, and they wanted the WTO to listen. Income disparity is growing rapidly. The difference between the earnings of the top and bottom fifths has doubled in the past thirty years. Eighty-six percent of the world’s goods go to the top fifth; the bottom fifth gets 1 percent.
Despite Friedman’s invective about “the circus in Seattle,” the demonstrators and activists who showed up there are not against trade. They merely demand proof that trade — as the WTO constructs it — benefits workers and the environment in developing nations, as well as at home. Since that proof has yet to be offered, the protesters came to Seattle to hold the WTO accountable.
On the morning of Tuesday, November 30, I walked toward the Seattle Convention Center, the site of the planned Third Ministerial, with Randy Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network. As soon as we turned the corner of First Avenue and Pike Street, we could hear drums, chants, sirens, roars. At Fifth Avenue, police stopped us. We could go no farther without credentials. Ahead of us were thousands of protesters. Beyond them was a large cordon of gas-masked and riot-shielded police, an armored personnel carrier, and firetrucks. On one corner was Niketown; on the other, the Sheraton Hotel, through which there was a passage to the convention center.
The line of police in front of us were trying to prevent more protesters from joining those blocking the entrances to the convention center. Randy was a credentialed WTO delegate, which meant he could join the proceedings as an observer. He showed his pass to the officer, who thought the picture on it looked like me. The officer kidded Randy about having my credentials and then winked and let us both through. The police were still relaxed at that point.
Ahead of us, crowds were milling and moving about. The anarchists were there, maybe forty in all, dressed in black pants, black bandannas, black balaclavas, and jackboots — one of two groups identifiable by costume. The other was a group of three hundred children dressed brightly as turtles, who had taken part in the Sierra Club march the day before.
The children’s costumes were symbolic of a serious complaint against the WTO. When the U.S. attempted to block imports of shrimp caught in the same nets that capture and drown 150,000 sea turtles each year, the WTO called the block “arbitrary and unjustified.” Thus far, in every environmental dispute that has come before the WTO (whose three-judge panels deliberate in secret), it has ruled for business, against the environment. The panel members are selected from lawyers and government officials who are not educated in biology, the environment, social issues, or anthropology.
Opening ceremonies for the WTO’s Third Ministerial were to be held that morning at the Paramount Theater, near the convention center. Police had ringed the theater with Metro buses touching bumper to bumper, but they were unable to provide safe corridors for members and ambassadors. The protesters had completely surrounded the steel circle. Only a few hundred of the five thousand delegates made it inside, so the theater was virtually empty when U.S. Trade Representative and meeting cochair Charlene Barshevsky was to have delivered the opening keynote. Instead, she was captive in her hotel room a block from the meeting site. WTO Executive Director Michael Moore was said to have been apoplectic.
Inside the Paramount, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell stood despondently near the stage. Since no scheduled speakers were present, Kevin Danaher, Medea Benjamin, and Juliet Beck from Global Exchange went to the lectern and offered to begin a dialogue. The community of nongovernmental organizations had drafted a consensus agreement about globalization, and the three thought this would be a good time to present it, even if the hall had only a paltry number of delegates. Although Danaher, Benjamin, and Beck were credentialed WTO delegates, the sound system was quickly turned off, and the police armlocked and handcuffed them. Benjamin’s wrist was sprained. All three were dragged offstage and arrested.
Listening to people is not the WTO’s strong point. Since its inception in 1995, the WTO has run roughshod over local laws and regulations. It relentlessly pursues the elimination of any restriction on the free flow of trade, including local, national, or international laws that distinguish between products based on how they are made and by whom. The WTO is thus eliminating the ability of countries and regions to set standards, express values, and decide what they do or don’t support. Child labor, prison labor, forced labor, substandard wages, and unsafe working conditions cannot be used as a basis to discriminate against goods, nor can a country’s human-rights record, environmental destructiveness, habitat loss, toxic-waste production, or use of transgenic materials or synthetic hormones. Under WTO rules, the boycott of South Africa would not have existed.
If the world could vote on the WTO’s mandate, would it pass? No one knows. Not one of the WTO’s 135 member states has held a vote to see if its people support the WTO. The delegates trying to meet in the Seattle Convention Center were not elected. Even their head, Michael Moore, was not elected.
While Global Exchange was being temporarily silenced, the Direct Action Network was executing its plan outside the convention center to brilliant effect. The plan was simple: insert “affinity groups” of trained nonviolent activists into key intersections and entrances downtown, making it impossible for delegates to move around. The hope was that fifteen hundred people would show up. Close to ten thousand did.
The two thousand people who’d marched from Victor Steinbrueck Park and Seattle Central Community College to the convention center at 7 A.M. had trained for weeks in some cases, for hours in others. The streets around the convention center were divided into thirteen sections, and each self-organized affinity group was responsible for holding one. There were also “flying groups” that moved at will from section to section, backing up any who were under attack. The groups were further divided into those who were willing to be arrested and those who were not.
All decisions prior to the demonstrations were reached by consensus. Minority views were heeded and included. The one thing all agreed to was that there would be no violence — physical or verbal — no weapons, and no drugs or alcohol.
Throughout most of the day, using a variety of techniques, the groups held intersections and other key points downtown. As they were beaten, gassed, clubbed, and pushed back, new groups would replace them. There were no charismatic leaders barking orders. There was no command chain. There was no one in charge. Police said that they were not prepared for the level of “violence,” but, as one protester later commented, what they were unprepared for was a network of nonviolent protesters totally committed to one task: shutting down the WTO.
Meanwhile, Moore and Barshevsky’s frustration was growing by the minute. Their anger and disappointment were shared by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the Clinton advance team, and, back in Washington, Chief of Staff John Podesta. This was to have been a celebration, a victory, one of the crowning achievements of the Clinton administration, the moment when it would consolidate its centrist free-trade policies and show multinational corporations that the Democrats could deliver the goods. This was to have been Barshevsky’s moment, an event that would give her the inside track to become secretary of commerce in the Gore administration. This was to have been Moore’s moment, reviving what had been a mediocre political ascendancy in New Zealand. And it would have been Monsanto’s moment, too. If the as-yet-unapproved draft agenda were ratified, the Europeans could no longer block or demand labeling on Monsanto’s genetically modified crops without being slapped with punitive lawsuits and tariffs.
The draft also contained provisions that would allow all water in the world to be privatized. It would allow corporations patent protection on all forms of life, even genetic material that has been in cultural use for millenniums. Farmers who for thousands of years have grown crops in a valley in India could, within a decade, be required to pay for their water and purchase seeds containing genetic traits their ancestors developed. And these seeds will have been engineered not to reproduce unless the farmer annually buys expensive chemicals to restore the seeds’ viability. If this happens, the CEOs of Novartis and Enron, two of the companies engineering the seeds and privatizing the water, will have more money. What will Indian farmers have?
But the perfect moment for Clinton, Barshevsky, Moore, and Monsanto didn’t arrive. The meeting couldn’t start. Demonstrators were everywhere. Private security guards locked down the hotels. The downtown stores were shut. Hundreds of delegates were on the street trying to get into the convention center. No one could help them. For WTO delegates accustomed to an ordered corporate/governmental world, it was a calamity.
Randy and I walked up Pike Street toward Seventh Avenue while to our right, on Sixth Avenue, protesters faced armored cars, horses, and police in full riot gear. In between, demonstrators ringed the Sheraton to prevent an alternative entry to the convention center. At one point, police guarding the steps to the lobby pummeled and broke through a crowd of protesters to allow eight delegates in. On Sixth Avenue, Police Sergeant Richard Goldstein asked demonstrators seated on the street in front of the police line to “cooperate” and move back forty feet. No one understood why, but that hardly mattered. No one was going to move. Then he announced that “chemical irritants” would be used if they did not leave.
The police were anonymous, faceless, expressionless. You could not see their eyes. They were masked Hollywood caricatures burdened with sixty to seventy pounds of weaponry. These were not the men and women of the Sixth Precinct. These were the Gang Squads and the SWAT teams of the Tactical Operations Division, closer in training to soldiers from the School of the Americas than to local cops on the beat. Behind and around them were special forces from the FBI, the Secret Service, and even the CIA.
The police were equipped with U.S. military–issue M40AI double-canister gas masks; uncalibrated, semiautomatic, high-velocity Autocockers loaded with solid plastic shot; Monadnock disposable plastic cuffs; Nomex slash resistant gloves; commando boots; Centurion tactical leg guards; combat harnesses; DK5-H pivot-and-lock riot face shields; black Monadnock PR-24 polycarbonate riot batons with Trumbull stop handles; NO. 2 continuous-discharge CS (orthochlorobenzylidene-malononitrile) chemical grenades; M651 CN (chloroacetophenone) pyrotechnic grenades; T16 flameless OC expulsion grenades; DTCA rubber-bullet grenades (Stingers); M2o3 40mm grenade launchers, First Defense MK-46 OC (oleoresin capsicum) aerosol tanks with hoses and wands; .6o caliber rubber-ball impact munitions; lightweight tactical Kevlar composite ballistic helmets; combat butt packs; .30 caliber thirty-round magazine pouches; and Kevlar body armor. None of the police had visible badges or forms of identification.
The demonstrators seated in front of the black-clad police were equipped with hooded jackets for protection against rain and chemicals. They carried toothpaste and baking powder for protecting their skin and cotton cloths impregnated with vinegar to cover their mouths and noses against tear gas. In their backpacks were bottled water and food for the day ahead.
Ten Koreans came around the corner carrying a banner protesting genetically modified foods. They were impeccable in white robes, sashes, and headbands. One was a Buddhist priest. They played flutes and drums and marched straight toward the police and the seated demonstrators. Everyone cheered at the sight and chanted, “The whole world is watching.” The sun broke through the gauzy clouds. It was a beautiful day. Over cell phones, we could hear the cheers coming from the labor rally at the football stadium. The air was still and quiet.
At 10 A.M. the police fired the first seven canisters of tear gas into the crowd. The whitish clouds wafted slowly down the street. The seated protesters were overwhelmed, yet most did not budge. Police poured over them. Then came the truncheons and the rubber bullets.
I was with a couple of hundred people who had ringed the hotel, arms locked, several hundred feet from Sergeant Goldstein’s forty-foot “cooperation” zone. The tear gas was like a fog through which protesters moved in slow, strange dances of shock and pain and resistance. We watched as long as we could until the gas slowly enveloped us, and then we covered our faces with rags and cloths. Before shutting my eyes, I snatched a glimpse of people being clubbed in the street.
“Tear gas” is a misnomer. It’s not a gas; it’s a drug. Imagine being simultaneously asphyxiated and blinded. Breathing becomes labored. Vision is blurred. The mind is disoriented. The nose and throat burn. Gas-masked police hit, pushed, and speared us with the butt ends of their batons. We sat down, hunched over, and locked arms more tightly. By then, the tear gas was so strong we couldn’t open our eyes. One by one, our heads were jerked back from the rear, and pepper spray was shot directly into each eye. It was very professional, like hair spray from a stylist. Sssst. Sssst.
Pepper spray is derived from food-grade cayenne peppers. The spray used in Seattle is the strongest available, with a Scoville heat-unit rating of 1.5 to 2 million. (One to three Scoville units are when your tongue can first detect hotness. The habanero, usually considered the hottest pepper in the world, is rated around three hundred thousand Scoville units.) The following was written by a police officer who sells pepper spray on his web site. It describes his first experience being sprayed during a training exercise:
It felt as if two red-hot pieces of steel were grinding into my eyes, as if someone was blowing a red hot cutting torch into my face. I fell to the ground just like all the others and started to rub my eyes, even though I knew better. . . . I could not resist trying to rub it off of my face. The pepper spray caused my eyes to shut very quickly. The only way I could open them was by prying them open with my fingers. Everything that we had been taught about pepper spray turned out to be true.
Unable to see after the tear gas and pepper spray, I tried to find my way down Sixth Avenue. The person who found and guided me was Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop and probably the only CEO in the world who was on the streets of Seattle helping people that day. When your eyes fail, your ears take over. I could hear acutely the anger, dismay, and shock. For many people, including the police, this was their first direct action. Demonstrators who had received nonviolence training were astonished at the police brutality. The demonstrators were students, professors, clergy, lawyers, and medical personnel. They held signs against Burma and violence. They dressed as butterflies.
The Seattle police had made a decision not to arrest anyone on the first day of the protests (a decision that was reversed for the rest of the week). Throughout the day, the affinity groups stayed together. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray were used so frequently that supplies ran low. What seemed like an afternoon standoff was really a lull while officers combed surrounding counties for stores of tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades, and munitions. As police restocked, the word came down from the White House to secure downtown Seattle or the WTO meeting would be called off. By late afternoon, the mayor and the police chief had announced a 7 P.M. curfew, outlined “no protest” zones, and declared the city under civil emergency. The police were fatigued and frustrated. Over the next seven hours and into the night, they would turn downtown Seattle into Beirut.
That morning, it had been the police commanders who were out of control, ordering the gassing and spraying and shooting of nonviolent protesters. By evening, it was the individual police officers who were running wild. As their anger escalated, the police kneed and kicked protesters in the groin and used their thumbs to grind the eyes of pepper spray victims. A few demonstrators danced on burning dumpsters ignited by pyrotechnic tear-gas grenades (the same ones used in Waco).
Protesters were defiant. Tear-gas canisters were thrown back as fast as they were launched. Drum corps marched using empty five-gallon water bottles for instruments. Despite their steadily dwindling number — maybe fifteen hundred by evening — the hardy protesters held their ground, seated in front of heavily armed police, hands raised in peace signs, submitting to tear gas, pepper spray, and riot batons. As they retreated to the medics, new groups replaced them. Every channel covered the police riots live. On TV, the police looked absurd, frantic, and mean. Passing Metro buses filled with passengers were gassed. Police were pepper-spraying residents and bystanders. The mayor went on TV that night to say that, as a former protester from the sixties, he could never have imagined doing what he was going to do next: call in the National Guard.
This is what I remember about the violence: There was almost none until police attacked demonstrators. (Michael Meacher, environment minister of the United Kingdom, said afterward, “What we hadn’t reckoned with was the Seattle Police Department, which single-handedly managed to turn a peaceful protest into a riot.”) There was no police restraint, despite what Mayor Schell proudly told television viewers all day. There were rubber bullets, which Schell kept denying. In the end, more copy and video were given to broken windows than to broken teeth.
During the day, the anarchist black blocs were in full view. Numbering about a hundred, they could have been arrested at any time, but the police were so weighed down by their own equipment that they literally couldn’t run. For months prior to the WTO meeting, both the police and the Direct Action Network had mutually apprised each other of the anarchists’ intentions. The police department of Eugene, Oregon — home to many of the anarchists — had volunteered information and suggested specific techniques to handle the black blocs, but the Seattle police had rebuffed the offers. It was widely known the anarchists would be there and that they had property damage in mind. To the credit of the mayor, the police chief, and the Seattle press, distinctions were consistently made between the protesters and the anarchists (who were joined by vandals as the night wore on). But the anarchists were not primitivists, nor were they all from Eugene. They were well organized. They had a plan.
The black blocs came with tools — crowbars, hammers, acid-filled eggs — and hit-lists targeting multinational corporations that they saw as benefiting from repression, exploitation of workers, and low wages. They went after Fidelity Investments but not Charles Schwab; Starbucks but not Tully’s; the Gap but not REI. Fidelity Investments because it is a large investor in Occidental Petroleum, the oil company most responsible for the violence against the U’wa tribe in Colombia. Starbucks because it doesn’t support fair-traded coffee. The Gap because of the purchase by its owners — the Fisher family — of northern-California forests.
According to one anarchist group, the ACME Collective, “Most of us have been studying the effects of the global economy, genetic engineering, resource extraction, transportation, labor practices, and elimination of indigenous autonomy, animal rights, and human rights, and we’ve been active on these issues for many years. We are neither ill-informed nor inexperienced.” The anarchists don’t believe we live in a democracy, and do believe that property damage (breaking windows and spray-paint “tagging,” primarily) is a legitimate form of protest and that it is not violent unless it harms a person. For the black blocs, breaking windows was a way to break the spells cast by corporate hegemony, an attempt to shatter the smooth exterior façade that hides corporate crime and violence. And that’s what they did. And what the media did is what I just did in the last two paragraphs: focus inordinately on a tiny sliver of the forty to sixty thousand marchers and demonstrators.
One could make an apt comparison between the pointed lawlessness of the anarchists and the WTO’s carefully considered flouting of the laws of sovereign nations. When the Final Act Embodying the Results of the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations was enacted on April 15, 1994, in Marrakech, Morocco, the 550-page agreement was then sent to the U.S. Congress for passage. Ralph Nader offered to donate ten thousand dollars to the chosen charity of any member of Congress who could prove he or she had read it. Only one legislator — Senator Hank Brown, a Colorado Republican — took him up on it. After reading the document, Brown changed his opinion and voted against the agreement.
There were no public hearings, dialogue, or education. Congress passed an agreement that gives the WTO the ability to overrule or undermine international conventions, acts, treaties, and agreements. The WTO directly violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. (The proposed draft agenda presented in Seattle went further, in that it would have made multilateral environmental agreements subordinate to WTO trade policies.) The final Marrakech Agreement contained provisions that most of the delegates — even the heads-of-country delegations — were unaware, and statutes drafted by subgroups of bureaucrats and lawyers, some of whom represented transnational corporations.
The police mandate to clear downtown was achieved by 9 P.M. Tuesday night. But police, some of them fresh recruits from outlying towns, didn’t stop there. They chased demonstrators into neighborhoods, where the distinctions between protesters and citizens vanished. The police began attacking bystanders, residents, and commuters. When President Clinton sped from Boeing Airfield to the Westin Hotel at 1:30 A.M. Wednesday, his limousines entered a police-ringed city of broken glass, helicopters, and boarded windows. He was too late. The mandate for the WTO had vanished sometime that afternoon.
The next morning, a surprised press corps went to work spinning webs. Columnists vented thinly veiled anger and pointed guilt-mongering fingers at brash, misguided white kids. They created myths, told fables. They said that anarchists led by John Zerzan from Eugene ran rampant. A majority of the media claimed, in an often contradictory manner, that the protesters are afraid of a world without walls; that they want the WTO to have even more rules; that they blame the WTO for the world’s problems; that they are opposed to global integration; that they are against trade; that they are ignorant and insensitive to the world’s poor; that they want to tell other people how to live. The list is long and tendentious. The outstanding coverage came from the Nation and Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on Pacifica Radio.
Patricia King, one of two Newsweek reporters in Seattle, called me from her hotel room at the Four Seasons to ask if this was the sixties redux. No, I told her. The sixties was primarily an American event; the protests against the WTO are international.
“Who are the leaders?” she wanted to know.
There are no leaders in the traditional sense, I told her. But there are thought leaders.
“Who are they?” she asked.
I began to name some: Martin Khor and Vandana Shiva of the Third World Network in Asia; Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South; Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians; Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute; Jerry Mander of the International Forum on Globalization; Susan George of the Transnational Institute; David Korten of the People-Centered Development Forum; John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies; Lori Wallach of Public Citizen; Mark Ritchie of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy; Anuradha Mittal of the Institute for Food and Development Policy; Helena Norberg-Hodge of the International Society for Ecology and Culture; Owens Wiwa of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People; Chakravarthi Raghavan of the Third World Network in Geneva; Debra Harry of the Indigenous Peoples Coalition Against Biopiracy; José Bové of the Confederation Paysanne Europèenne; Tetteh Hormoku of the Third World Network in Africa; Randy Hayes of Rainforest Action Network —
“Stop, stop,” she said. “I can’t use these names in my article.”
I asked why not.
“Because Americans have never heard of them.”
Instead, Newsweek editors published a picture of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, with the article because he had once purchased some of John Zerzan’s writings.
Some of the mainstream media even blamed the protesters for the meeting’s outcome. But, ultimately, it was not on the streets that the WTO broke down. It was inside. It was a heated and rancorous ministerial, and the meeting ended in a stalemate, with some African, Caribbean, and Asian countries refusing to support a draft agenda that had been negotiated behind closed doors without their participation.
With so much contention inside and outside the WTO, the question, it seems, is not how to make trade rules more uniform — as corporations would like — but how to make them more differentiated so that different cultures, cities, peoples, places, and countries benefit the most. Arnold Toynbee wrote that “civilizations in decline are consistently characterized by a tendency toward standardization and uniformity. Conversely, during the growth stage of civilization, the tendency is toward differentiation and diversity.”
Those who marched and protested in Seattle opposed the tyrannies of globalization, uniformity, and corporatization, but they did not necessarily oppose internationalization of trade. Economist Herman Daly has long made a distinction between the two. Internationalization means trade between nations. Globalization refers to a uniform system for the entire world in which capital and goods move at will without the control of individual nations. With internationalization, nations, for good or ill, set their own trade standards. Those who meet a nation’s standards can do business with it. Do nations abuse this power? Constantly, the U.S. being the worst offender. But where democracies prevail, nations provide a means for people to set policies, influence trade decisions, and determine their own future. Globalization supplants the nation, the state, the region, and the village. While eliminating nationalism is a good idea, the elimination of sovereignty is not.
One example of the power of the WTO is the case of Chiquita Brands International, a $2 billion corporation that recently made a large donation to the Democratic Party. Coincidentally, the U.S. filed a complaint with the WTO against the European Union because European trade policies favored bananas coming from small Caribbean growers instead of the giant conglomerates. The Europeans freely admitted this bias in their policy: they restricted imports from large multinational companies in Central America (whose plantation lands were secured by U.S. military forces during the past century) and favored small family farmers from former European colonies, who used fewer chemicals. It seemed like a decent thing to do, and everyone thought the bananas tasted better. For the banana giants, this was untenable.
The U.S. prevailed in the WTO-arbitrated case, but who really won? Did the Central American employees of Chiquita Brands win? Ask the hundreds of workers in Honduras who were made infertile by the use of dibromochloropropane on banana plantations. Ask the mothers whose children have birth defects from pesticide poisoning. Did the Chiquita shareholders win? At the end of 1999, Chiquita Brands was losing money because it was selling bananas at below cost to muscle its way into the European market. Its stock was at a thirteen-year low, its shareholders were angry, and the company was up for sale. But the price of bananas in Europe is really cheap. An easier question to answer is: Who lost? Caribbean farmers who could formerly make a living and send their kids to school can no longer do so because of low prices and demand.
Globalization leads to the concentration of wealth inside such large multinational corporations as Time Warner, Microsoft, GE, Exxon, and Wal-Mart. These giants can obliterate social capital and local equity and create cultural homogeneity in their wake. Under the WTO, countries as different as Mongolia, Bhutan, and Uganda will have no choice but to allow Blockbuster, Burger King, and Pizza Hut to operate within their borders. Even decisions by local communities to keep out McDonald’s, for example — as Martha’s Vineyard did — could be overruled. The as-yet-unapproved draft agenda could force WTO member governments to open up their procurement process to multinational corporations. No longer would local governments be able to buy preferentially from local vendors. Countries could be made to privatize health care and take bids from foreign companies on delivering national health programs. The draft agenda could privatize and commodify education and ban cultural restrictions to entertainment, advertising, or commercialism. Globalization destroys self-reliance, since smaller local businesses can hardly compete with firms that seek market share over profits. Thus, developing regions may become more subservient to distant companies, with more of their income exported rather than reinvested locally.
On the weekend prior to the WTO meeting, the International Forum on Globalization held a two-day teach-in at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle on the question of how countries can maintain autonomy in the face of globalization. More than twenty-five hundred people from around the world attended. A similar number were turned away. It was the hottest ticket in town — but somehow it didn’t get into the hands of pundits and columnists. It was an extravagant display of research, intelligence, and concern from scholars, diplomats, writers, academics, fishermen, scientists, farmers, geneticists, businesspeople, and lawyers — many of whom had been issuing papers, communiqués, press releases, books, and pamphlets for years. They were almost entirely ignored by the WTO.
But something else was happening in Seattle underneath the debates and protests. In his new book, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand discusses what makes a civilization resilient and adaptive. Scientists have studied the same question about ecosystems. How does a system, be it cultural or natural, manage change, absorb shocks, and survive, especially when change is rapid and accelerating? The answer has much to do with time, both our use of it and our respect for it. Biological diversity buffers ecosystems against sudden shifts because different organisms and elements react at different time scales. Flowers, fungi, spiders, trees, laterite, and foxes all have different rates of change and response, so that the system, when subjected to stress, can move, sway, and give, and then return and restore.
The WTO was a clash of time frames or chronologies — at least three, probably more. The dominant time frame is commercial. Businesses are quick, welcome innovation in general, and have a bias toward change. They need to grow more quickly than ever before, and they are punished, pummeled, and bankrupted if they do not. With worldwide capital mobility, companies and investments are rewarded or penalized instantly by a network of technocrats and money managers who move $2 trillion a day, seeking the highest return on capital. The Internet, greed, global communications, and high-speed transportation are all making businesses move faster than ever before.
The second time frame is culture. It moves more slowly. Cultural revolutions are resisted by deeper, historical beliefs. The first institution to blossom under perestroika was the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1989, I walked into a church near Boris Pasternak’s dacha and heard priests and babushkas reciting the litany with perfect recall, as if seventy-two years of repression had never happened. Culture provides the slow template of change within which family, community, and religion prosper. Culture provides identity, and in a fast-changing world of displacement and rootlessness, it becomes ever more important.
In between culture and business is governance — faster than culture, slower than commerce. And at the heart of it all is the third and slowest chronology: earth, nature, the web of life. The planet is the slowest clock, always ticking, responding to long, ancient evolutionary cycles that are beyond civilization.
These three chronologies often conflict. As Brand points out, business unchecked becomes crime. Look at Russia. Look at Microsoft. Look at history. Commerce requires the governance of politics, culture, and nature to slow it down, make it heedful, force it to pay attention to people and place. It has never done this on its own. What makes life worthwhile and allows civilizations to endure is everything that produces “bad” returns under commercial rules: universities, temples, poetry, choirs, language, museums, terraced fields, long marriages, line-dancing, art. Most everything we hold valuable is slow to develop and slow to change. The destruction of languages, cultures, forests, and fisheries is being carried out worldwide in the name of speeding up business. The rate of change is unnerving to all, even those who are supposedly benefiting; business itself is stressed to the breaking point by rapid change. To those who do not benefit, such change is devastating.
Slower time marched in the streets of Seattle. Ancient identity strode into the WTO. The cloaks of the forgotten paraded on the backs of our children. What appeared in Seattle were the details, dramas, stories, peoples, and puppet creatures that have been ignored by bankers, diplomats, and the rich. Corporate leaders believe they have discovered a treasure of immeasurable value, a trove so great that all will surely benefit. It is the treasure of unimpeded commerce, flowing everywhere as fast as possible. But in Seattle, quick time met slow time. The turtles, farmers, workers, and priests weren’t invited and didn’t need to be, because they are the shadow world that in the end cannot be overlooked, that will tail and haunt the WTO for as long as it exists. It will be there even if the WTO meets in totalitarian countries where free speech is criminalized. It will be there in dreams of delegates high in the Four Seasons Hotel. It will haunt the public-relations flacks who solemnly insist that putting the genes of scorpions into our food is a good thing. What gathered around the convention center and hotels was everything the WTO left behind.
In the Inuit tradition, there is a story of a fisherman who trolls an inlet. When a heavy pull on his line drags his kayak out to sea, the fisherman thinks he has caught “the big one,” a fish so large he will eat for weeks, a fish so fat that he will prosper ever after, a fish so amazing that the whole village will wonder at his prowess. As he imagines his fame and coming ease, he reels up not a fish but Skeleton Woman, a woman flung from a cliff and sunken long ago, a fish-eaten carcass that once rested at the bottom of the sea and now is entangled in his line. Skeleton Woman is so snarled that she is dragged behind the fisherman wherever he goes. He pulls her across the water, over the beach, and into his house, where he collapses in terror.
In Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s retelling of this story, Skeleton Woman represents both life and death. She is a specter reminding us that with every beginning there is an ending; that for all that is taken, something must be given in return; that the earth is cyclical and requires respect. The fisherman, feeling pity for her, slowly disentangles her, straightens her bony carcass, and finally falls asleep. During the night, Skeleton Woman scratches and crawls her way across the floor, drinks the tears of the dreaming fisherman, and grows anew her flesh and heart and body.
This myth applies to business as much as it does to a fisherman. The apologists for the WTO want engineered food, sleeker planes, computers everywhere, golf courses that are preternaturally green. They see no limits; they know of no downside. But life always comes with death, a tab, a reckoning. The two are consorts, inseparable and fast. These expansive dreams of the world’s future wealth were perfectly embodied by Bill Gates III, cochair of the Seattle Host Committee and the world’s richest man.
But Skeleton Woman also showed up in Seattle, the uninvited guest, and the illusion of wealth, the fantasy of unfettered growth and expansion, became small and barren in the eyes of the world. Dancing, drumming, ululating, marching in black with a symbolic coffin for the world, she wove through the sulfurous, rainy streets. She couldn’t be destroyed, no matter how much gas or pepper spray, or how many rubber bullets were used. She kept coming back and sitting in front of the police, her hands raised in the peace sign. She was kicked and trod upon, but it didn’t make any difference. Skeleton Woman told corporate delegates and rich nations that they could not have the world. It is not for sale. The illusions of world domination have to die, as do all illusions. Skeleton Woman was there to say that if business is going to trade with the world, it has to recognize and honor the world, her life, and her people. Skeleton Woman was telling the WTO that it has to grow up and be brave enough to listen, strong enough to yield, courageous enough to give.
Skeleton Woman has been brought up from the depths. She has regained her eyes, voice, and spirit. She is about in the world, and her dreams are different. She believes that the right to self-sufficiency is a human right; she imagines a world where producing the means to kill people is not a business but a crime, where families do not starve, where fathers can work, where children are never sold, where women are not impoverished because they choose to be mothers and not whores. She cannot see a time when a man holds a patent to a living seed, or animals are factories, or people are enslaved by money, or water belongs to a stockholder. Hers are deep dreams from slow time. She is patient. She will not be quiet or flung to sea any time soon.
Different versions of this essay previously appeared in Amicus and Yes!