April 11, 2002

Author Speaks on Seattle Protests

Print More

Employing a mix of searing political insight and tempered historical analysis, Iain Boal lectured to an intimate audience last night in the Borg Warner Room of the Tompkins County Public Library.

Boal, a professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley, presented the new book The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization, a compendium of essays concerning 1999’s World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle. Boal’s contribution to the volume is an incisive critical glossary designed to reexamine the lexicon of leftist activism.

Boal’s hour-long lecture was interspersed with readings from the book, as well as his own reflections about the evolution of the antiglobalization movement in the United States. Citing a “map of resistance” featured in the book, Boal contextualized the Seattle demonstrations as the inception of an antiglobal protest in North America rather than the pinnacle.

“Although Seattle has become iconic for the movement, it was really only the beginning of the movement in North America,” Boal said. “The movement began long before Seattle, perhaps as early the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund of the late 1970s.”

Referred to by the book’s authors as “the most visible and dramatic protest in the United States since the Vietnam War,” the uprising against the WTO in November 1999 in downtown Seattle resulted in the cancellation of some WTO events. Thousands of activists, representing interests ranging from labor to the environment, converged on the city to oppose the organization’s worldwide trade policies.

The WTO is the international organization responsible for regulating international trade and tariff levels. The organization has faced harsh criticism for its non-democratic orientation and its unilateral support of multinational corporations.

Emphasizing the link between the preponderance of neoliberal legislative and economic doctrine and the emergence of protest, Boal portrayed the antiglobalization movement as a reaction to the regimes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

“I am interested in tracing neoliberalism back to its roots–the fantastic view in which the market takes on a life of its own,” Boal said.

Boal traced the current neoliberal consensus to the writings of Ronald Coase, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1991. Coase related market efficiency, transaction costs and property in a cost-benefit calculus.

“No ethical distinction [is] made between the harm done by an oil refinery to those living downwind and the harm done to its owners by downwinders being in the way,” Boal read from the book’s glossary. “It’s just a cost-benefit matter requiring clear and absolute private property rights and enough police to enforce them.”

Using the image of the globe as an example, Boal delineated a conflict between activists and corporate interests over the vocabulary and symbolism of the antiglobalization movement.

“What is it about a symbol used by Mobil Oil and by its putative opponents–non-governmental organizations and environmental groups?” Boal asked. “Is the use of this image absolutely vital to contest? What kind of people are we if we think of the entire globe as our own?”

Before opening the floor to questions, Boal explained his critical definitions for terms such as anarchism, terrorism, democracy and globalization, which originated in business schools in the late 1970s.

“I thought the lecture was fascinating,” said Lyn Garry, host of the radio show “Unwelcome Guests” on WEOS FM. “I would have to say that Iain [Boal] is the most erudite person in my acquaintance, almost painfully so to the point where you can’t keep up with all of his historical references and allusions,” she added.

“Although stimulating at times, the lecture often veered into high-brow rhetorical flourishes that sailed straight over my head,” said Francis Kim ’03.

Archived article by Jason Leff