Brian Holmes on Wed, 2 Dec 2009 06:08:45 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Decade to Come: Ten Years After Seattle

[This short text was written for the show, Signs of Revolt, organized in 
London by Tony Credland and others, as a chance to reflect on the ten 
years that have passed since the Seattle WTO meeting and the global 
counter-movement that arose against it. See 
The same text with a few pictures and links can be found on my blog:
Best activist ciaos for the next two weeks and the next ten years, BH]


The Decade to Come:
Ten Years After Seattle

It was the heyday of globalization, the high point of the Internet boom 
and the last gasp of the New Economy: the WTO ministerial in Seattle was 
meant to celebrate the advent of a corporate millennium extending "free 
trade" to the furthest corners of the earth. Nobody on that fall morning 
of Tuesday, 30 November 1999, could have predicted that by nightfall the 
summit would be disrupted, downtown Seattle would be paralyzed by 
demonstrations and a full-scale police riot would have broken out, 
revealing to everyone what democracy really looks like and plunging the 
city into five days of chaos. Nobody, that is, except the thousands of 
protesters who prepared for months to put their bodies on the line and 
shut down the World Trade Organization - as well as their hundreds of 
thousands of other bodies across the world who learned the potentials of 
the networked society by participating in the far-flung renewal of 
leftist, anarchist, social justice and ecology movements that began in 
the wake of the Zapatista uprising five years before. The 30th of 
November was their day, our day, a tumultuous day in the streets, 
inaugurating a movement of movements whose resistance had become as 
transnational as capital.

The Peoples Global Action was essential to the success in Seattle, 
having launched the struggle against the WTO at its founding meeting in 
Geneva, Switzerland, in February 1998. The west coast Direct Action 
Network was essential, for coordinating the non-violent blockades of 
crucial intersections that stopped the delegates from reaching the 
meeting. The trade unionists who disobeyed their hierarchies and marched 
past their restraining marshals were essential, for joining the students 
and filling downtown with a militant crowd. The Black Blocs were 
essential, for trashing private property and radicalizing the movement. 
The nascent Indymedia network was essential, for setting up a new 
communications system that could bypass the state and corporate media. 
And all the groups and individuals who had come to Seattle from around 
the world were essential, for being there to derail the summit and then 
going home to tell in their own tongues what they had seen with their 
own eyes: a global protest with its feet on the ground and its fists in 
the air, ready to challenge corporate capitalism in America itself, with 
the support of over fifty thousand Americans. Ten years ago the 
narrative of globalization changed directions, and we are still living 
out that unfinished story.

All of the activist-artists in the report-back show, Signs of Revolt, 
took part somehow in the inspiring and dramatic events created by the 
movement of movements - events that started well before Seattle, for 
example at the Carnival against Capital in the City of London on June 
18th 1999, or at any one of the surprising and often hilarious Reclaim 
the Streets parties that broke out across the earth on that global day 
of action. Some of us would meet again and again beneath the tear gas 
and the water cannons: in Prague to shut down the meetings of the IMF 
and the World Bank, in Quebec City to refuse the Free Trade Area of the 
Americas, in Washington, Seoul, Nice, Miami, Barcelona, Brussels, Buenos 
Aires, Hong Kong, Geneva, Heilegendam or wherever the agenda of global 
capital could not be allowed to proceed with a cynical "no comment" from 
the citizenry. We would witness tragic scenes, in Genoa, Italy, where 
Carlo Giuliani was assassinated by the police, or in Cancun, Mexico, 
where the South Korean peasant activist Lee Kyung-hae stabbed himself in 
the heart out of grief for his fellow farmers forced by "free trade" to 
leave their land. Then we greeted each other once again at some local 
corner of the largest march in world history, on 15 February 2003, when 
over ten million people cried out against the impending war in Iraq - 
only to learn, dispirited, that the leaders of our supposedly democratic 
countries cared nothing for votes cast in the streets.

Despite that defeat we would go on journeying in wintertime to the World 
Social Forum under bright southern skies, or attend a local forum or a 
report-back session or read an article or a webpage or a book about this 
powerful articulation of ideas that has contributed so much cooperative 
knowledge to everyone involved in alternative politics - and 
particularly to the new generation of grassroots movements and leftist 
governments in Latin America. We would organize against the wars, mount 
Mayday parades across Europe and beyond, develop free software networks, 
squatted social centers, radical education projects and festivals for 
life and empowerment. At all these events and throughout long periods of 
organizing in between, the activist artists would be there, designing 
posters and fliers and puppets and websites, sewing costumes and flags, 
printing tee-shirts and tracts, making music, dreaming up tricks and 
displays and wild new mobilizing techniques - continuously searching for 
the deep subversion that changes lives on the spot, while sending out a 
message loud and clear to everyone. The colorful and inventive side of 
the worldwide movements has been as important as the political demands 
written in black and white on the page.

What is the paradoxical thread that links virtual images, embodied 
performances, graphic inventions and pranksterâs tricks to flagrant acts 
of dissent and disobedience, on the one hand, and reasoned debates of 
political philosophy, on the other? The artistic process of the global 
protest movements since the outburst of Seattle is everywhere traversed 
by a radical incompleteness, which expresses the individualâs or the 
communityâs relation to the social whole. Incompleteness is first of all 
an invitation to participate. You can take the image in your own hands, 
you can add to it and change it, explain it to others, paste it into 
some new creation for a different use. You can be part of the 
performance, experience its meanings and its feelings from the inside, 
share them with others on another day in another way, using different 
gestures and colors and words. You can help build the backdrop and the 
stage, or better, follow the pathways of art beyond representation, to 
construct new and unexpected ways of living where practical reality 
fuses with utopian desires and dreams. This is a philosophy of change 
that begins in the heart before it is translated into acts by the body 
and into words by the brain. Art has a prefigurative role in the protest 
movements, it offers a foretaste of a better life; but it also puts 
things together on the spot, it constructs a different world. With the 
realization that climate chaos is upon us, this constructive aspect of 
the artistic process takes on its full dimensions in the here and now: 
itâs about creating the conditions of another existence that doesnât 
poison the planet, and not just sitting around and waiting for others 
who will never do it for you.

Yet there is another meaning to the radical incompleteness of art in the 
grassroots movements, equally powerful and paradoxical. You can see it 
in the images themselves, in their ambivalence and ambiguity. Because 
they are joyful, surprising, hilarious - but often quite strange and 
threatening too. There is a kind of dark specter that the laughter 
dissipates but never quite chases away: Ronald McDonald with a machine 
gun in his hands, a red-nosed clown in army fatigues, images of people 
tied up in nets, an armored personnel carrier blaring Wagnerâs "Ride of 
the Valkyries." The prefigurative role of art, and even its constructive 
capacities, would become a lie if it did not also recall the world as it 
is, the really existing social whole with its immense problems bearing 
down on us at every moment. So the art of the protest movements mingles 
dream and reality, beauty and terror, and expresses the symbolic 
violence of a necessary break with society as it is, while never 
forgetting that the real violence continues. There is not yet any way to 
surmount this contradiction, this radical incompleteness - but each new 
wave of struggles brings fresh insights and new people too, more eyes 
and ears and tongues and hands to take hold of the scattered pieces and 
knit them together into another movement that will try and try again.

Ten years ago people power was reborn in Seattle, and not only there but 
wherever else human beings decided it was more urgent and inspiring and 
realistic to take to the streets. In one of the most memorable documents 
of those days - the documentary film "This Is What Democracy Looks 
Like," collectively authored by over a hundred video-activists - a 
chorus of voices repeats in a great rhythmic surge: "Ten years from now, 
the thing thatâs going to be written about Seattle is not what teargas 
bomb went off on what street corner, but that the WTO in 1999 was the 
birth of a global citizensâ movement for a democratic global economy" 
(click here for the whole film). Since then we saw a first crash that 
brought down the dot-com delusion, and then, in a weird and distorted 
slo-mo sequence, the inflation of a real-estate bubble that installed 
greed and self-satisfied blindness in peopleâs homes, in the very ground 
beneath our feet, generating a false sense of prosperity that would soon 
turn into real expropriation on a massive scale. The global economy was 
less democratic than ever, and for a while, the global citizensâ 
movement seemed to have disappeared.

Those were disturbing years to live through and it has been a relief to 
see the veil torn at last from everyoneâs eyes, with the departure of 
Bush-Blair from power, the collapse of bubble economics and the visible 
quagmire of the wars, now rejected by a majority in Britain and the USA. 
Yet the most important thing that happened in these last ten years is 
the achievement of a scientific consensus on climate change that not 
even the American Chamber of Commerce can deny anymore - since the Yes 
Men corrected their identity and voiced the truth that they would not 
admit. Today there is a new movement on the rise, far larger and more 
deeply rooted in daily life, reaching across the generations to say 
there is something more to existence than the economy.

The next ten years begins on 30 November 2009, with another WTO 
ministerial in Geneva. But the failed paradigm of corporate free trade, 
overdevelopment, expropriation, immiseration and endless pollution will 
be far overshadowed by the movement that has arisen to force the global 
climate negotiators in Copenhagen to stop concealing the real 
smokescreen of carbon in the atmosphere with their rhetorical 
smokescreens of false promises and non-solutions. We know in advance 
that they will not deliver, and that many more mobilizations will be 
needed. The decade to come will see the most passionate struggle of them 
all: the one that finally takes apart the neoliberal system, to invent a 
future that no one claims to own and that no one trades away for profit, 
a future that every body can live with.


In the run-up to Copenhagen, check out another great artist activist 
project, the Bike Bloc:

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