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A commentary on “The Battle of Seattle” by Corey Robin, Theory & Event, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2000)

In November of 1997, almost exactly two years prior to the Battle in Seattle, a group of world leaders met at the Asia Pacific Economic Council or APEC in Vancouver, Canada. The meeting was held on the campus of the University of British Columbia—a silly mistake that economic summit organizers would not make a second time. It was greeted by a significant protest—one that, I have always believed, in some sense paved the way for what would happen in Seattle a short time hence. I was a graduate student, a member of the teaching assistant union’s executive, and a budding leftist. But APEC was my first real political protest. To my naïve astonishment, protest leaders were summarily arrested early in the day and detained for the duration. It seemed like anyone with a bullhorn got tackled and thrown into the back of a police car, never to be charged with any crime. Tensions mounted, but things remained relatively peaceful—until, that is, the very end of the day. At the time when the world leaders (including President Clinton) were expected to leave campus, small groups of protesters sat down to block each of the exits. A decision was made somewhere, and one of the exits was quickly cleared with a liberal dose of pepper spray and brute force. For a couple of months, the episode was a minor scandal in Canadian politics. The Prime Minister dismissed the protesters, and joked in public that he ‘put pepper on his plate’. The media dubbed the police officer in charge of the operation ‘Sargent Pepper’. The militants who had been arrested without charge, or harmed in some fashion during the day, got bogged down in juridical processes—investigations, committees, hearings, and the like. They splintered in various ways, and after a while, the whole thing blew over—the only lasting change being that, because of the event, a considerable number of people had become instantly radicalized, myself included.

Two years on, Seattle hit like Mike Tyson in the 1980s. For a generation that had been brought up on the dying embers of identity politics, and a theoretical frame the main purpose of which was to promote [End Page 19] something called ‘democracy’ so as to prevent the return of something called ‘totalitarianism’ (a non-concept, as far as I am concerned today), Seattle was more than a revelation. It felt like history, which we previously had been assured was well and truly dead, was now alive again. Exaggeration ruled the day. 1999 would be our 1968, even our 1917, our 1871, our 1789! It set off a whole series of exhilarating protests at economic meetings all around the world—‘summit hopping’, as we called it at the time. We had been told by nearly everyone that ‘taking it to the streets’ was not an option, that we had to struggle for hegemony within established political institutions, or work inside the system. Do not take it to the streets. At best, take it to the courts. But now the romance of revolution was back. Balaclavas. Smashed shop windows. Paving stones versus tear gas. Barricades. Hardt and Negri. Pitch battles with police in riot gear in the dead of night. And then came 2001, or more specifically, September 11, 2001. And all of a sudden, everything seemed to change again. In fairly short order, enthusiasm was vanquished by paranoia. For example, at the time, I was a member of a small organization that called itself the ‘extreme theory collective’, or ‘etc.’—little more than a reading group, really, and hardly that. But, fearing unwanted attention from unspecified authorities, we had serious discussions about replacing the word ‘extreme’ with something less inflammatory—as if anyone, anywhere, could possibly have cared in the least.

Corey Robin’s ‘The Battle in Seattle’ captures the mood of that narrow window between 1999 and 2001 extraordinarily well. Like much of the writing for which he has since become a bit of a leftist icon, Robin’s piece mixes together a sense of youthful enthusiasm and measured common sense. Thus, it begins by speculating, a little preposterously, that 1999, and not 1989, might one day be remembered as the defining fin de siècle date of the twentieth century—that the Battle in Seattle might outstrip the fall of the Berlin Wall in the history books of the future. But it then goes on to provide a perfectly sober and level-headed discussion of political organization, political theory, and political action—one that is not too far off, I would venture to say, from what most of us take for granted today. I have no idea whether, before it was published, Robin’s piece was commissioned by Theory & Event or submitted cold. But I also have little doubt that, when the editors of the then still fledgling journal first encountered it, they knew instantly that it fit the bill. For, as I understand it, the whole purpose of Theory & Event was then, as it is now, to use the celerity of on-line publication as a platform for theoretical investigations that might respond to real events in a timely, meaningful, and therefore politically effective manner. The Battle in Seattle took place on November 30, 1999. Robin’s essay was published in the first issue of Theory & Event of 2000. [End Page 20]

‘The Battle in Seattle’ is, precisely, an effort rapidly to realign what had become a rather moribund academic leftist political theory in the wake of an overwhelming, and in some sense unpredictable, activist political event. It focuses primarily on the manner in which a left that had been largely fragmented by identity politics and the ‘culture wars’ might suddenly be quickened, or reunited, in the face of a ‘common enemy’—namely ‘corporate capitalism’, ‘globalization’, or what Robin, writing all those years ago, even has the prescience on one occasion to call ‘neoliberalism’. In essence, it advances two kinds of claims—one a response to the enemy, another an appeal to friends. In the first instance, Robin seeks to counter the wide-spread media portrayal of the Seattle protesters as reactionary protectionists calling for a return to the welfare state. Seattle was not a battle between backward facing trade unionists seeking to shore up the borders of the nation, on the one side, and progressive proponents of globalization and international liberation, on the other. Rather, it was a struggle between two conceptions of what globalization and internationalism should look like—those who wanted to see it as a vehicle for the expansion of justice, and of the hard-fought victories of western workers and activists, and those who wanted to use it to reinstate the worst excesses of the free market in the west by exporting precisely those structures to the rest. Robin thus characterizes the protesters as ‘internationalist and anti-corporate’ or ‘anti-corporate capitalism’. And he points to a number of specific examples of traditional trade unions working in solidarity, not only with the international working class, but with oppressed peoples of various types in an effort to construct what he calls ‘an internationalist vision of a neo-Keynesian new world’.

Robin’s appeal to his friends picks up on a similar theme. He challenges the theoretical framework that, from about 1989 onward, sought to set aside economic issues, and focus instead on problems of ‘meaning, symbols, and identities’. Perhaps a little unjustly, he associates this development in primarily academic discourse with the emergence of metaphors of ‘understanding, being, way, [and] place’ that, for him at least, ‘have a disquieting Heideggerian timbre’. I am not entirely sure, in fact I am entirely unsure, that Robin’s characterization here really exhausts what was happening among leftist intellectuals prior to Seattle. Particularly among feminists, I can recall far more sophisticated approaches to the question of identity—Spivak’s concept of ‘strategic essentialism’, for example, or Haraway on ‘situated knowledge’, or, of course, Butler’s treatment of gender as a performance, or something we do rather than something we have. And, for one reason or another, some of the more fragmenting aspects of leftist thought from the 1990s appear to be on the agenda again today, even if they are coupled with a renewed interest in political universalism and, let us say, the problem [End Page 21] of organization. In any case, Robin’s goal is not to do away with all of these particular struggles, or to subsume them under a reanimated, totalizing conception of the working class, but to show how, as intimated above, all political subjects are in some sense the effect, as much as they are the prior condition, of political struggle and disagreement. Whence the significance of identifying and setting ourselves off against a, to repeat Robin’s words, ‘common enemy’.

To be honest, I cannot remember whether I read ‘The Battle in Seattle’ back in 2000, when it first appeared—although, returning to it today, it does sound rather familiar. I can say that, among my friends in those days, who I would still have the temerity to call comrades, Theory & Event was understood to be an important resource for anyone who could secure access to an internet connection. But in either case, while it may not be the most cited article ever published by this excellent and now strangely encroaching upon venerable journal (long may it reign!), like so much of what has appeared in these pages (or, rather, on these screens), it bears the mark of the very best kind of political theory I know. That is to say, it is both entirely situated or singular, on the one side, and entirely universal, on the other. It smells of history. It makes me nostalgic for a time when I was young and convinced and engaged and fearless and in love with politics—not to mention countless other people, places, and things, most of whom or which I have not seen in far too long. But it also has lessons to teach me today—lessons about today’s world, which, while it may not have been invented by the Battle in Seattle, as Robin’s opening hyperbole does all but predict, nevertheless would not be exactly the same world had that event not taken place.

A coda, by way of conclusion: The evening after the APEC protest, I wandered back to my place, slightly indignant, slightly elated. I had discovered, I guess, that freedom is as much the experience as it is the consequence of political action—that, if we are free, it is not when we are home alone disposing of our property as we see fit, but in the fray of political exchange, a notion that I went on to develop into a PhD dissertation, and much later a book, on the early polemical writings of Karl Marx. When I entered my one room, ground floor, starving-artist flat, I immediately noticed that it was unusually cold inside. In the far corner, a slight breeze lifted the curtains in front of my patio door. Had I left it open? No. It had been broken open. My meagre belongings— CDs, a laptop, a stereo, my guitar—were gone. A very clever time for a thief to operate in the student ghetto, given that, not only most of the students, but also most of the police, were busy fighting one another on campus a few blocks away. And, of course, once I figured out what had happened, the police were the first people I had to call. And when they arrived, the first question they asked was entirely predictable: [End Page 22] ‘Where were you when the crime took place?’ To which I replied: ‘Well, I guess I was on campus fighting you guys’. Everybody had a great laugh at that one. ‘I’m not going to get my stuff back any time soon, am I?’, I ventured. At which point one officer looked me square in the eye, and wryly responded: ‘Mr. Barbour, I can assure you, we will make it our top priority’.

That night, as I recall, I went out and got terrifically drunk, and comforted myself with the thought that, whatever else had happened in my apartment that afternoon, I was committed from that day forward to fighting an exponentially larger crime—one that takes place more or less every day, more or less all the time, in more or less every corner of the globe. [End Page 23]

Charles Barbour

Charles Barbour is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Western Sydney University. Along with numerous articles and chapters, he is the author of The Marx-Machine (Lexington, 2012) and Derrida’s Secret (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). Charles’ email address is

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