I can put a date on the moment of my political awakening: November 29, 1999. It was the first day of the mass direct action to shut down the World Trade Organization ministerial, in Seattle.
The day before, I had hopped on a flight to Seattle from San Francisco with a couple of friends of mine who worked as labor organizers. As none of us were particularly plugged in with the leaders of the protest, we sort of freelanced a role for ourselves. We dressed head to toe in black, got a hold of some sticks and some empty office water cooler jugs, slung the jugs over our shoulders and became a DIY drum troupe.
By 7am the morning of the 29th, we were marching down the streets of Seattle with thousands of others, our makeshift percussion reverberating off the walls of office towers and apartment buildings. Within an hour, downtown Seattle was ours. The police were cordoned off from the area by human blockades at each intersection: lines of activists sitting cross-legged, wrists inside fortified PVC pipe, handcuffed to one another.
Inside those lines was anarchy, in the best sense of the word. There was no legal authority in this cop-free zone, and no hierarchy. It was just spontaneous collective self-organization. If it had lasted more than a day, it would inevitably have begun to fracture, as the Occupy Wall Street protests did more than a decade later, and as CHAZ did almost a decade after that. But for a few hours, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
Then it got ugly.
I don’t think it occurred to us when we put on our black outfits that we were basically donning the uniforms of the radical anarchist movement that had deep roots in the Pacific Northwest. But at some point, one of those anarchists summoned us. “Drums!” he yelled. “We need drums!” Not knowing any better and happy to oblige, we followed him to a larger group of anarchists, in black bloc formation. Pounding away at our water jugs, we watched them take hammers out of their backpacks and start shattering windows of stores and restaurants, spray painting circle As on windows and walls and sidewalks. We watched this play out for maybe two or three minutes, not quite sure how to feel about it. Eventually we decided how we felt was not good. We left.
What we witnessed was, of course, the imagery that came to dominate the public perception of the protests in Seattle. Not the tens of thousands of people peacefully protesting, not the lines of activists subjecting themselves to hour upon hour of point blank range tear gassing from phalanxes of police officers in paramilitary garb, not the cops who, the next day, sought vengeance by roaming around Capitol Hill, beating the shit out of dozens of defenseless civilians, including people who had nothing to do with the protests. The iconic images, endlessly looped on the national news, were of these couple dozen masked, black clad wannabe revolutionaries, smashing things and running, shielded from the consequences of their actions by the locked down activists on the front lines, several blocks away, who had volunteered to take an epic beating from the state to create this freedom for the people within the perimeter to either build new things or destroy them.
In retrospect, it’s funny to think that those black clad, property-destroying anarchists were mostly Gen Xers. Their style of radical posturing has become so prevalent among Millennials, and now Zoomers, that I have to remind myself that the kids breaking windows in Seattle didn’t grow up with TikTok and YouTube, but with landlines and Saturday morning cartoons, like me. In 1999, their approach to politics was marginal and slightly ridiculous. Today, the world belongs to them.
There was an old saying back in the last century: “All politics is local.” You don’t hear it much nowadays, probably because it isn’t true anymore. That year, 1999, was one of the last in which it still made a modicum of sense.
The phrase is meant to suggest that at the end of the day, normal people only really care about what affects their pocketbooks and what impacts their daily lives. Issues on the national or even global stages are seen by average voters only through the lens of their immediate realities. Education reform matters insofar as it shapes the elementary school down the street where their kids go to school. Global geopolitics matter insofar as international threats might come home to endanger their families. If those local ramifications feel urgent enough to people, their passions can be mobilized behind a cause. But beyond the horizons of their parochial political imaginations, they don’t tend much to care.
It’s a very twentieth century conception of the incentives of our political system. Over the last two decades things have changed, radically, starting with the media and percolating out to everything else. Today, go to any random neighborhood in a metropolitan area and every other window has a Black Lives Matter placard in it, while in rural regions every other house has a Make America Great Again sign in the front lawn. Go chat with your neighbor over the backyard fence and you’re as likely to end up in a conversation about national politics as about local sports.
Not to sound like a broken record, but in the last century, the mass media sustained itself financially through the sale of commercial advertising space. In order to sell as many ads as possible at the highest price point, media outlets were obsessed with expanding their audience as much as possible. Alienating readers and viewers came at a financial cost, so outlets calibrated their coverage to be as inclusive as they could be. When covering hot button issues, they reported straight down the middle, and tried not to lean too far from the political center. Outside of issues that commanded a working national consensus, such as the fear of Soviet Communism, they avoided eliciting too much anxiety or passion from their consumers.
The outcome of this kind of staid, milquetoast coverage was relative political apathy from the broad middle of mainstream America and political centrism in state capitols and Washington DC. It’s hard to believe now, but back then the big gripe was that the two parties were exactly the same. The only place you found any serious ideological differences was at the extremes. The broad center of American politics was blandly and uniformly neoliberal.
The internet destroyed the old business model of the news media and political centrism along with it. Today, Facebook and Google have appropriated the ad market from the media wholesale. Starved of revenue, outlets have resorted to begging for financial support from their readers and viewers. But asking for money just to report the news in the boring old traditional style isn’t nearly enough to make a compelling sales pitch to people who are long accustomed to getting their news for free; the media has found it far more lucrative to persuade audiences that by contributing to their operations you’re assisting in a political cause. In exchange for their money, the outlets supply their audiences with two things: an endless churn of cortisol-spiking hyperbole designed to provoke the social division and political polarization that keeps their readers and viewers coming back to them, and the mass production of advocacy for one side or the other of that divide, to justify their continued solicitations. Today, political apathy is no longer an issue in American democracy. The byproduct of the media’s new business model is tribal political obsession.
Another of its byproducts is political paralysis. Instead of centrism and ideological homogeneity in our politics, the media’s polarization-driven business model now produces gridlock by driving each side to its extreme fringes, and removing any and all incentives to compromise. That gridlock, in turn, has contributed greatly to Americans’ quickly eroding confidence in established institutions — who really believes the government is going to solve any of our major problems anymore? So on the one hand, we have been conditioned to believe that if our political enemies prevail, the world will come apart: the government will be seized by white supremacist storm troopers or we’ll all be shipped off to Communist re-education camps, depending on your partisan leanings. But at the same time, we’ve been convinced that nobody in a position of power has the interest, integrity, or competence to do anything constructive about it. It’s a recipe for futility. Nothing short of radical upheaval can save us, but nobody is capable of making even incremental change. We’re left with nothing to do but scream about our fears and resentments into the digital abyss, like Grandpa Simpson shaking his fist at clouds.
This hypercharged anxiety coupled with learned helplessness has turned our politics into a nonstop parade of nihilism on both the left and the right. We have so little of an idea of how to fix our problems that we’ve just stopped being interested in solutions at all. The only thing we’re interested in now is tearing things down, and being seen by as many people as possible doing so.
The internet was still in its infancy in 1999, and social media didn’t exist yet. We didn’t know it, of course, but we were living through the last years of our principally analog lives. Within a few years, the blurring of the boundaries between our material existences and the virtual habitats emerging around us would begin, accelerating with each passing day. But in Seattle, the stakes of the battle we were waging still felt very much of this world.
The WTO protests grew out of a decade of mounting anger and frustration with the so-called Washington Consensus and the relentless drive toward a hegemonic, global “free trade” regime that tolerated no restraints whatsoever on capitalist activity, no matter what ruin it left in its wake. The deregulatory movement that started under Jimmy Carter, found its champion in Ronald Reagan, continued its glide path under Bush Sr. before finding its second champion with Bill Clinton, had collected so many scalps by 1999 that it could unify even the terminally sectarian left in opposition to it. Environmental activists, labor unions, and advocates for human rights and international poverty alleviation all believed themselves to be invested in an existential fight against this dystopian historical project. Capitulation was death; compromise was just a slower version of the same.
The activists who organized the direct action contingent of the WTO protests (there was also a separately organized labor march) were by and large anti-capitalists, I think it’s more than fair to presume. Given the militancy of their actions, I think it’s also safe to say that they were sympathetic, in theory at least, to the idea of social revolution. But their radicalism was also highly practical.
Many of the groups that showed up on the streets in Seattle had been working for years to impede or mitigate multinational trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT. They had participated in past WTO ministerials as voices of opposition, had lobbied their governments and had engaged in electoral campaigns. None of it helped; the momentum behind the corporate globalization agenda was impervious to institutional democratic restraint. Other means were required.
The activists gathered in Seattle for a specific purpose: to physically stop the WTO meetings from taking place. Doing so would set back the corporate globalization negotiations by at least a few years, while also demonstrating to the world the trade body’s utter lack of democratic legitimacy. These were radical goals, but they were specific and measurable ones, with real world outcomes. The human blockades were organized to achieve them; they would either succeed or fail to attain this goal. As it turns out, they succeeded, wildly.
Breaking the windows of Starbuck’s and Nike stores was not part of this plan. It provided no instrumental value toward shutting down the meetings, or toward discrediting the WTO, or toward really anything at all, other than generating attention for its own sake. It belonged to another class of politics entirely: those of performance.
The black bloc anarchists who unilaterally derailed much of the political impact of the protests by supplying the media with images of vandalism and looting cared, I assume, quite sincerely about the social, economic and environmental destruction wrought by globalization. Indeed, they cared so deeply about it that shutting down the ministerial and creating a crisis of legitimacy for the free trade architects were far too modest goals for their aspirations. They wanted the total dismantling of capitalism; any gains short of it were quaint, ephemeral and futile. But Seattle in 1999 was not Boston in 1773 or Paris in 1789 or Petrograd in 1917. Revolution was not on the table. There was no action the anarchists could take that would advance their all-or-nothing agenda. So, as always, they were compelled to exchange the virtue of efficacy for the catharsis of self-expression. They engaged in radical melodrama.
The dilemma those anarchists found themselves in — the simultaneous conviction that something must be done and that nothing short of the impossible could possibly change anything — has now been extended, by the media’s desperate bid for survival, to the whole nation. Last summer, the media hoovered up new subscribers by convincing us the police were literally hunting black people to shoot for sport. At the same time, we were persuaded that police departments were an extension of slavery, infiltrated by white supremacists, and fundamentally beyond reform. The result of this hopeless combination of urgency and futility was a movement to eviscerate police budgets, but with no plausible alternative for protecting communities from crime, and a wave of violent riots that achieved nothing. Likewise, audiences on the right were told that Covid-19 was a hoax and the election was stolen, leading to militant opposition to basic public health measures in the middle of a global pandemic and possibly the most absurd political theatrics in American history on January 6 in the Capitol. Despite the political differences, all of these movements boiled down to the same basic posture toward the world, which was the one shared by the anarchists in Seattle: distrust all institutions; tear it all down; never mind the consequences.
Thanks to the incentives of our digital reality, the most visible activism today — the kind that gets media coverage and shapes the national discourse — is just a litany of antics aimed at obtaining nothing more than attention. Needless to say, politics have always been spectacle, but underneath them, once upon a time, were serious aims, whether for good or for evil. Today, the spectacle is the entire point. Whether consciously or intuitively, activists and politicians are aware that, in accordance with the media’s new business model, the journalists’ craft is no longer rooted in skepticism, but in credulity. It is no longer in the economic interest of media outlets to get to the bottom of the story; they have a pre-cooked narrative to sell to their ideologically committed readers and viewers, and that narrative is not on the bottom but at the very surface. The media isn’t there to strip away the bullshit and figure out what’s really going on. They’re there to do public relations for one side or the other — and the partisans on each side are there to let them do just that. The struggle for social change has thus been reduced to just another competition for eyeballs.
Two decades ago, the attention economy swallowed the advertising industry. Then it assimilated the media. Now, the very struggle for power itself — politics and social activism — is just another industry within its orbit. Mass marches on American city streets; votes in the United States Congress; Facebook Live updates by celebrity politicians in their kitchens; YouTube makeup influencers; TikTok egirls; Twitch streamers — your newsfeeds don’t distinguish between them. Why would they? It’s all just content.