The attacks on September 11 had an unforeseen consequence for the Left. The “anti-globalization” movement abruptly entered public consciousness after the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and disappeared just as quickly. But, for a moment, radical politics appeared pregnant with possibility.
It’s hard to say how much of this was a fantasy. While the fight for Seattle’s streets caught the media by surprise, it was the result of months of planning and organizing, and underpinned by broader historical shifts. Occurring almost exactly a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the protests couldn’t have been imagined in the era of “actually existing socialism.” Stalinism and “democratic centralism” lay discredited and new organizational forms—less ossified and ideological, more ad hoc and lyrical—gained currency among leftists.
Yet this new conjuncture simultaneously called into question the future of radicalism itself. The economy was booming. The Left, seemingly, transformed overnight. Eurocommunists shed all pretenses and embraced liberalism. Postcolonial states abandoned economic nationalism and courted foreign investment. Venerable labor parties fell under the sway of third-way modernizers. All, whether with delight or remorse, recognized there was no visible rival to free market capitalism. Perry Anderson put it bluntly: “Whatever limitations persist to its practice, neoliberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history.” Facing a triumphant capitalism, with debates ended and battles lost, radicals were forced to mimic William F. Buckley’s injunction to stand athwart history, yelling stop.
Seattle rattled this consensus. Street mobilizations, long dormant, remerged. And this generation’s marchers found new allies. Labor participated in the protests, reflecting a progressive turn inside unions. Commentary at the time harped on Seattle’s “teamster-turtle” unity and how it represented the healing of wounds cut during the Vietnam era. Abandoned by a rightward drifting Democratic Party, a party whose trumpeting of NAFTA and “welfare reform” put it at the vanguard of neoliberal restructuring, labor saw potential allies in the new social movements. This recognition was only possible through reformed stances on immigration and overtures to environmentalism, evolutions born in response to the breakdown of the postwar consensus.
Many on the left were quick to trumpet the confluence’s potential. The carnival-like atmosphere and frenzy of the protests struck a chord with its participants. Naomi Klein wrote at the time:
On the ground, the results of these miniature protests converging is either frighteningly chaotic or inspiringly poetic—or both. Rather than presenting a unified front, small units of activists surround their target from all directions. And rather than build elaborate national or international bureaucracies, temporary structures are thrown up instead: empty buildings are hastily turned into ‘convergence centres’, and independent media producers assemble impromptu activist news centres. The ad hoc coalitions behind these demonstrations are frequently named after the date of the planned event—J18, N30, A16, S11, S26—and when the date is passed, they leave virtually no trace behind, save for an archived website.
Her account is telling. After an “inspiringly poetic” protest, the actions she championed left “virtually no trace behind.”
Ironically, the climate within the young counter-hegemonic movement mirrored a neoliberal, “post-ideological” disdain for grand narratives and mass organizations. The mainstream press spoke of a “new economy” that was light and adaptive, the product of an unprecedented technological and organizational revolution. The old Fordist workplace was dying, but we had an immaterial, recession-proof future to look forward to. The radical press may have envisioned something similar with its alternative.
But the broader climate did seem to signal change. Ralph Nader, whose campaigns for president were ignored in 1992 and 1996, packed Madison Square Garden in 2000. A dense text written by a forgotten Italian revolutionary and an obscure American academic, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire, became an international bestseller. Marxist sects resumed polemicizing against anarchism with urgency worthy of the 1930s. Nor were the often somber and professorial pages of this magazine immune to the new spirit. Dissent inaugurated a series on globalization in 1999. Fittingly, it was over by the end of 2001.
A common sentiment among those who took part in the movement is that of a historical moment cut short. The Islamist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon fostered a domestic environment that allowed American troops to be deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The “anti-globalization” movement receded from view, but before long street protests returned. The build-up to the Second Gulf War saw history’s largest demonstrations. But now the Left was on the defensive. “Anti-imperialist” rhetoric was resurrected, Students for a Democratic Society was reborn, but the anti-war movement proved no more able to stop war than the “anti-globalization” movement was able to end capitalism.
But a narrative that begins on a cloudy November day in Seattle and ends on a sunny September one in New York is a bit too neat. Other factors have worked against the protesters in the last decade. Activists portrayed the World Trade Organization as a purveyor of old-style imperialism: unaccountable and undemocratic, holding the periphery hostage to the core. But with the continued rise of China and India and the success of a market-oriented, left-wing government in Brazil, one has to question whether these assumptions hold true.
There were signs, even then, that the future would not be kind to the Left. In December 1999, while broken storefront windows were still being swept up in parts of Seattle, Ahmed Ressam was arrested around eighty miles west of the city. He was found with an impressive cache of explosives, weapons he loaded into the trunk of a rental car and planned to use to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. At the dawn of the millennium, some socialists looked forward to the resurgence of the Left, but this may have always been reaction’s moment.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the editor of Jacobin.