Return to site

The Millennial Turns and the New Period: An Introduction

From "Movements at the Millennium: Seattle+20," a special issue of the journal of Socialism and Democracy

· Democracy,Social Movements

The following excerpt is from the first pages of an introduction by Ben Manski, Hillary Lazar, and Suren Moodliar to a special issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy looking back to the Seattle 1999 uprising and U.S. movements at the millennium. You can read the entire paper and other articles here:

Twenty years ago a movement of movements came together in the streets of the largest city of the U.S. Pacific Northwest and defeated the World Trade Organization (WTO), the central state building project of global capitalism. The “Battle in Seattle” was an exclamation punctuating a larger period of struggle. What is the relevance of that last period to the current one? What produced it, and what in turn have the movements of that period left for us today?

We argue that in the 1990s popular movements in the United States made a series of cultural turns that, by the turn of the millennium, made possible not only the Seattle WTO uprising but also the promise of another world to come. These “movement turns” – anarchist, democratic, and global – were closely linked reorientations of popular movements around paradigms of autonomy, participation, and globality. Together, they produced movements with significantly different goals, practices, and trajectories than the movements of the preceding period. Activism, organizing, and struggle in the first millennial years felt and looked different: Confident, assertive, and visionary.

With this study we analyze the period of struggle of 1994–2014 in the U.S. The Seattle WTO uprising was a transformative event in this period. We briefly address what happened in Seattle, where the Seattle moment came from, and how what happened in Seattle related to the movements of the period. We answer these questions not only to document a vital recent history but also to systematically bring knowledge about the last period into engagement with the movements of today. We also address what is different about the current period: a socialist turn on the U.S. left contending with a nationalist turn on the U.S. right.

What happened in Seattle? Over the week of November 28th to December 3, 1999, the streets of Seattle were filled with marchers whose banners flew the colors of every hue of the social movements of the 1990s. At that historical moment, that unity in diversity was remarkable, especially where it revealed new alliances between labor unions and environmental groups, urban organizers and rural farmers, and people of the Global North and the Global South. More remarkable still was that these alliances succeeded in their ambitious goal of shutting down the WTO meeting. Led by thousands of young activists trained in the nonviolent wilderness defense campaigns of the Pacific Northwest and Cascadian region, on November 30, 1999, the Seattle protesters effectively blocked the entrances to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

In response police cracked skulls, broke arms, attacked the protesters with pepper spray, plastic projectiles, tear gas, and stun grenades, and instituted martial law in much of the city. By the next day, tens of thousands of Seattleites, angered by the police violence, had joined the protests. Next, scores of WTO delegates walked out in a show of support for the uprising, sounding the beginning of the end for the WTO meeting. Supporters of the Seattle uprising rallied in hundreds of communities around the world. By the end of the week, labor unions and community groups had called a one-day regional general strike, the first such mass work stoppage widely observed in the area in nearly a century. 1

Seattle was an exclamation that punctuated the times. Describing the uprising as an exclamation is appropriate because, from the revolutionary ecological movement Earth First! to the social justice service sector union UNITE HERE!, the exclamation point was the punctuation mark most idiosyncratic of the popular movements of the 1990s. Just as Chicago ’68 took on a particular set of meanings for U.S. movements in later years, Seattle ’99 became a signifier for a repertoire of collective action and of a “Seattle Moment” in world history (Wood 2012). It became the object of academic studies (Butko 2006; Cockburn and St. Clair 2000; Juris 2008;), activist retrospectives (Boyd 2002; Notes from Nowhere 2003; Guilloud 2009; Dossani 2019; Starr 2019), documentaries (Friedberg and Rowley 2000), and even big budget film thrillers (Townsend 2008). Many of these came at anniversaries or in the years immediately following the uprising. But missing until now has been a disciplined attempt to bring social movement scholarship into engagement with activist experience in providing a systematic analysis not only of what happened in the streets of Seattle, and what occurred in the Seattle Moment, but of the larger period of struggle.

What was the relationship between that moment and the larger period? For popular movements in North America, events elsewhere were what set the larger millennial period in motion. Movements from below took down edifices of the Cold War from the Berlin Wall to apartheid Soweto. A movement from above imposed new regimes of governance through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) process, General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATT), World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The single most influential event that opened this period in the U.S. was something that happened almost a thousand miles south of the border in Jovel, Chiapas, México on January 1, 1994 – the Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle by the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). For many activists within the U.S., the audacity of the Zapatistas in declaring “Ya Basta!” and making war on colonialism, empire, racism, and neoliberal capitalism deeply resonated. The coalition that had resisted NAFTA was strong and growing. Support for the LA Uprising of 1993 – the mass protests against police brutality that followed the beating of Rodney King – was widespread and led to demands for prison and police abolition. A new anti-corporate politics was taking hold in the resistance campaigns against the austerity, deregulation, privatization, and corporatization policies of the Clinton era. And an upsurge of immigrant rights organizing responded to President, Clinton’s implementation of new anti-immigrant laws.

The trajectory of popular movements of this period shared several tendencies. One was a cognitive and emotional shift from an activist pose of “doing what one can” and building for an as-yet not visible future in which, as a popular bumper sticker of the 1980s declared, “The U.S. Left Will Rise Again,” and toward a more assertive posture expressed in the chant, “Ain’t No Power Like the Power of the People” and then later that, “Another World is Possible,” and “Another U.S. is Necessary,” and finally, by the 2010s, that “We Are Unstoppable, Another World is Possible.”

Another tendency of movements in this period is shown in the shift from single issue politics in the early 1980s, to multi-issue politics by the early 1990s, to intersectional, synthetic, and eventually, systemic politics by the early 2000s. This shift is illustrated by the change from so-called “corporate campaigns” targeting individual corporate bad actors such as Exxon or Dow in the 1980s, to campaigns seeking wholesale reform of corporate law in the 1990s, to the emergence of a popular anti-capitalist politics by the early 2000s. 2 Another example of this change can be found in the late 1990s articulation of a politics of prison and police abolition as a response to anti-police brutality and community police reform campaigns of earlier years.

Our contributions to the study of Seattle 1999 and the Seattle Moment come in our situating Seattle as a transformative event in a transformative period for the movements of the U.S. Thus, we address the millennial period, the movements particularly relevant to what happened in Seattle. And we focus on the U.S. Seattle resonated globally, with solidarity actions organized around the world, and Seattle was part of a global process. But Seattle was also significant for the U.S. in that it both represented a qualitative leap in the participation of U.S. movements in global struggles to levels unseen since the beginning of the Cold War and also in that it involved processes quite particular to the U.S.’s domestic politics of corporate power, austerity, and resource extraction.

In the next pages we provide an orchestral score introducing the works collected here, showing how they speak to each other in sounding a larger understanding of our times. We elaborate a way to conceptualize the dimensions and trajectories of the movements of the millennial period. We introduce and analyze the three millennial turns – anarchist, democratic, and global – most relevant to Seattle and much of what followed from it. We describe the contemporary socialist turn and explore how that is related and yet different from what the movements of the previous period produced. And we conclude with our observations about the prospects for socialism and democracy after the millennial turns.