The real meaning of Seattle -- WTO

MAKE no mistake: one day, your grandchildren will be asking you to describe the 1999 riots in Seattle, and their question probably won't have much to do with the specific attack on the World Trade Organisation.

  That might turn out to have been significant, too, but I suspect Seattle will ultimately come to be seen as a defining moment in a much bigger cultural revolution.

  This was a landmark protest against something more pervasive, but less tangible, than the normal targets of mass protest: a corrupt régime, an arrogant corporation or an unpopular war.

"The real meaning of Seattle"


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  It was a signpost to the looming reaction against overblown materialism.  A moment when citizens who had thought they were powerless against the forces of international capitalism found their voice.

  It gave us a glimpse of a new frontier -- a place where people will reclaim the right to attach their own meanings to their own lives.  Whether Seattle will be followed by similar protests around the world remains to be seen.

  What seems likely, though, is that those demonstrators will inspire millions more to affirm their belief in the high-minded principles of postmaterialism, such as the need to acknowledge the worth of every individual, the need to feel connected to a community and the importance of pursuing spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic gratification.

  All over the world, people will be noting that the primacy of the economic agenda has finally been challenged and they will have renewed faith that the social agenda will ultimately prevail.  That's what Seattle was really about: calling on world leaders to acknowledge that economics should be the servant of social policy and social justice - not the other way round.

  Even in Australia, where the policies of economic rationalism still hold sway and where recent political forays into social policy have seemed limp and cynical, there will be a flicker of hope that as the postmaterialistic movement gathers momentum, politicians might have to reorder their priorities.

  This is not to suggest that the Seattle protesters were less than serious in their attack on the WTO.

  But, with hindsight, we will see the WTO riots as a mere symptom of a malaise called materialism.

  In the service of materialism, "the economy" has become a synonym for society, and people have been conditioned to regard themselves as consumers rather than citizens.

  Take that appalling term, human resources.  If anything was calculated to diminish an employee's sense of worth, being regarded as a human resource would surely be it.

  Downsizing is another little beauty.  When we first heard that term, we thought it was a jokey piece of American management jargon.

  Now we know better.  It is actually a spectre stalking the labour market in the service of a tyrant known as short-term profit.

  And how about globalisation?  There's a word that can sound exciting and progressive, but it can also imply that strong countries will exploit the weak and burden them with debt, while wealthy companies increase their wealth by shopping around the world for the cheapest labour.

  Needless to say, devotees of the free market will insist that all such matters sort themselves out in the long run.

  In their view, the only thing wrong with capitalist economies is that bleeding-heart governments are too ready to interfere with the pure dynamics of free market forces.

  The key word in this whole debate is control.

  People who feel they are in control of their own destinies -- and, in some cases, many other people's destinies as well -- are perfectly happy to see a world crushed in the embrace of materialism.

  But those who feel they lack control over their own lives are understandably frustrated, resentful and angry.

  Beyond the specific criticism of the WTO, Seattle was a focal point for some previously unfocused anger.  A rallying point for those who have clung to the view that the quality of our lives depends on more than the quantity of our wealth.

  Some brave seer has already dubbed the 21st century the healing century.

  Perhaps Seattle will come to be recognised as a symbolic starting point. -- ©The West Australian, December 14 1999, p 17


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