The Next Seattle: Naomi Klein looks into the future of the movement

It has been a full year since the “Battle in Seattle” gave the globalizers a wake-up call. Many on the left were equally jolted by the commitment and radicalism of the young protesters, who seemed to arrive out of nowhere. But the events of Seattle were foretold by 30-year-old Canadian Naomi Klein. In her 1999 book, No Logo, Klein explained how corporations’ twin profit strategies–their hyper-marketing and their outsourcing of labor–had created a generation of activists who feel no stake in the system.

It has been a full year since the “Battle in Seattle” gave the globalizers a wake-up call. Many on the left were equally jolted by the commitment and radicalism of the young protesters, who seemed to arrive out of nowhere. But the events of Seattle were foretold by 30-year-old Canadian Naomi Klein. In her 1999 book, No Logo, Klein explained how corporations’ twin profit strategies–their hyper-marketing and their outsourcing of labor–had created a generation of activists who feel no stake in the system.

The daughter of American parents who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, Klein edited This Magazine, based in Toronto, and wrote a weekly column on marketing and advertising for the Toronto Star. She now writes a column for the Toronto Globe and Mail and has just completed a documentary version of No Logo for Britain’s Channel Four. Far from just a commentator on the movement, though, Klein is a self-described “anti-corporate deadhead”: Yes, she was in Washington, Windsor, Los Angeles and Prague.

Klein spoke with In These Times from Seattle.

The Conversation

No Logo came out before Seattle and yet ended with a very Seattle-type moment. Now you’re credited with “predicting Seattle.”

It was easy to predict if you weren’t just looking at the United States. Seattle didn’t begin it all. The United States is playing catch-up. There had been protests of that size, of that level of militancy, even with that level of diversity, in other cities around the world. Seattle was really about Americans joining an international movement in mid-stream.

The strength of Seattle was the coalition of young protesters and labor. It was Teamsters and turtles; that was what made it extraordinary. But Seattle was also about Jose Bove [the French sheep farmer who led an attack on a McDonald’s outlet] coming from France and meeting the leader of the Philippines peasant movement, who then came and testified at Bove’s trial in France; and maquiladora workers marching with Steelworkers; and Indian farmers, who had been campaigning against genetic modification of foods, meeting British and American campaigners. That was the strength of Seattle–it was all those coalitions, many of them cross-border.

But for a lot of people it was such a surprise that Seattle even happened that they felt, “Whatever strange alchemy led us to this moment, we can’t let it go.” And the way in which it seemed most obvious to hold onto it was to try to replicate it in other “next Seattles,” whether it was Washington or Los Angeles or Philadelphia [at the party conventions].

When people talk about replicating Seattle, it seems to be just about shutting down a city while there’s a meeting going on. The thing about Seattle was that it was radical tactics meeting a radical target and producing a radical political victory. It had the concrete goal of stopping the Millennium Round. In Washington [at the World Bank and IMF meetings in April] they were trying to stop the World Bank in general. Which is really different, because you don’t have the potential for leaving with that sense of concrete victory.

And now a lot of the people who were involved in that process of “replicating Seattle”–and I include myself in that, if more peripherally–are questioning these strategies. You have somebody like John Sellers of the Ruckus Society, who has been so instrumental in training people in these radical shutdown tactics, saying, “We’re leading with our tactics, not our message.” I think we’re seeing a kind of a mass realization.

After Seattle everyone talked about the “coalition in the streets” between labor and the direct action folks, but then the AFL-CIO seemed to quickly lose interest. In Washington, the AFL-CIO’s priority was arguing against China being in the WTO, and they put all their effort into their own separate rally. Are there any prospects for the Seattle “coalition” being rebuilt?

The AFL-CIO absolutely dropped the ball. They got a taste of being a part of a genuine social movement, and the power that would be implicit in that, and ever since then they’ve sabotaged it at every step. They haven’t just damaged the coalition with the students, though. They’ve damaged the coalition with the [global] South by joining with the American right and being associated with this borderline racist, protectionist rhetoric against China. We’re talking shortsighted goals, immediate political expediency. And the point of Seattle, to me, was that here was this taste of a whole level of politics that was not about expediency.

The Canadian labor movement is not that shortsighted. Since Seattle, there has been really great work between the labor movement and the student movement and the anarchists. We saw it in Windsor when the meeting of the Organization of American States was held in June. This is a union town, and on these issues the Canadian Auto Workers is a truly visionary union. They understand themselves to be part of a social movement, and that means giving money to and working with very radical anti-poverty groups that are organizing the unemployed and are occupying buildings. They understand there has to be a diversity of tactics depending on the level of enfranchisement, and that they happen to represent people who are very middle-class at this point. They understand that that doesn’t mean that everybody is middle-class.

Historically it has been true that the top leaders of the labor movement have been leery of being part of coalitions they don’t control.

There is already quite a lot of distrust, and there’s such a vast gulf in organizing styles. So many of the key organizers believe passionately in decentralized, nonhierarchical organizing–the cornerstone of the way these protests have been organized, through affinity groups and convergence centers, really radically decentralized democracy. In that context a lot of unions look incredibly hierarchical and seem to replicate traditional power structures. The only way to get through some of this is to work together, and if you don’t, then a lot of bad blood gets created.

Part of it has to do with the fact that a lot of the young people are coming from an environmental background, not a labor background. A lot of young people see unions as a job-protection racket. They also see unions as representing polluting industries and not being terribly concerned with the issues that move them. So there needs to be serious work done that’s more than marching together for an afternoon. And I don’t see much evidence from the AFL-CIO leadership that they are interested in doing that serious work.

It’s really too bad, because labor has much to contribute to this movement, particularly in terms of educating some of the younger activists on what it means to take power seriously. To not just protest, but actually sit down at the table and negotiate it and go to the next step. It’s not just getting labor’s bodies, it’s getting labor’s skills and expertise.

Most of the young people I worked with in Detroit for an anti-WTO day, who then went on to organize the anti-OAS protest, didn’t seem to be interested in attracting people who weren’t just like themselves.

There is a much broader issue: the very basic concept of convincing people who disagree with you, reaching out to people who don’t understand what you’re talking about if they haven’t been to all the meetings; the idea of basic respectful communication, assuming that you need to convince people instead of just acting out. That’s something we all have to think about and is the real key to building a broad-based movement.

I’ve made this criticism in activist gatherings, and people are just like, “Well, come and help us, because we are totally burned out and we’re giving this everything we have, and you’re right, we don’t have time to decode all this language and come up with incredibly accessible agitprop as well.” A lot of what’s coming off as “fuck you, we don’t care” is really about resources.

So that’s where the issue of serial protesting comes back. Because it’s a bit of a vicious cycle. Organizing these protests takes every bit of energy that the movement has, everything, all of its resources, all of its money to bail everybody out of jail. So much more energy is going into jail solidarity training than into how to talk to the media.

I don’t think the issue is that we need a manifesto or a 10-point plan. For everyone who’s involved in this movement, the task intellectually now is to identify the common threads of this web. One of the threads is privatization, another is militarization. That’s where the treatment of protesters by the cops ties in with the explosion of the prison system and ties in with the drug war and ties in with U.S. military spending. It’s there, but it’s not enough to just say, “We live in a police state. Fuck the cops.” That’s not going to get us anywhere.

As far as I know, there isn’t a big mass protest planned for the United States in the near future. If there is a down period, then there should be time to develop the threads internationally and think about how you translate these issues into messages that are going to resonate with people who don’t agree with you. How do you talk to people? It’s a skill just like nonviolence training and jail solidarity, and it should be taken as seriously.

I think it’s very good that there isn’t a “next Seattle” next week.

– A Brief Bio –

Born in Montreal in 1970, Naomi Klein is award-winning journalist and bestselling author.

Her articles have appeared in numerous publications including The Nation, The New Statesman, Newsweek International, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Ms., The Baffler, and Saturday Night. She writes a weekly column in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper.

For the past five years, Klein has travelled throughout North America, Asia, and Europe, tracking the rise of anti-corporate activism. She is a frequent media commentator and has guest lectured at Harvard, Yale and New York University.

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Naomi Klein was interviewed for In These Times by Jane Slaughter

Author: Naomi Klein

News Service: In These Times


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