Welcome to the militant wing of the Third Way
`All of us, except for those who fetishise the free market, know that there is something to protest against'
Friday 03 December 1999
It would be surprising if, given their histories, there weren't many in power in the developed world who, watching events in Seattle, found themselves repeating the Duke's line. No wonder Bill, while condemning the odd bit of property destruction, suggested that representatives of the protesters should be allowed inside the World Trade Organisation meeting. He did it, in his day; Tone did it; Jack did it; Lionel did it. Unlike Maggie and Ron, these leaders look at the young men and women on the streets and see themselves.
They're not the only ones. A relative of mine, an activist for years, was recently horrified when his son, aged 26, announced that he was thinking of campaigning for the right to have loud parties till six in the morning, since he was fed up with neighbours' complaints. "Is that the best issue he can find?" wailed my relative, "in a world full of war and poverty?" Together we lamented the "me" generation. Had we realised what was going to happen in Seattle, we should certainly have offered the boy a return air ticket there.
If that sounds a bit patronising, so does the cliche that the existence of a protest proves the existence of a problem. Yerrss, maybe. But it doesn't make the protesters right; the pro-Enoch-Powell demonstrations of 1968 were both the most proletarian and the most unpleasant protests of that eventful year.
But in this case we all - all of us, that is, except those who fetishise the free market - know that there is something to protest about. Many things, in fact. The world is full of unfairness, illogicality, greed and bad government. Russians may have emerged freer from the collapse of Communism, but their world is now one of kleptocracy, of Mafia shootings, of dodgy billionaires and of widespread, grinding poverty. The Wall came down, but the ceiling followed.
Most of this is not the fault of the World Trade Organisation, of course. That body merely represents, largely through the words of its name, the gulf between reality and tolerable expectation. And the demands and preoccupations of the protesters are amazingly diverse and often contradictory.
It's fun, for instance, to see anarchists demonstrating against the anarchy of markets. How many protesters realise that allowing more power to national governments to set terms of trade will usually mean tolerating more child labour, not less? This particular problem led to the interesting spectacle of delegates from less-developed countries being forced to listen to pithy lectures delivered by some of the wealthiest students in the world.
And despite the emphasis on globalisation, the form that the protest has taken and its extraordinary repression owe more to localism than to world policies. A teenage protester named Rain, as reported in yesterday's paper, announced that "property destruction is not violence. It's fun, and gets people's attention". Douglas Coupland's latest book, Girlfriend in a Coma, reveals, casually, almost, the widespread north-west Pacific coast practice of teen house-trashing parties. Are they related? And those bizarre and ridiculous Darth Vaders of the Seattle police - at whom even people such as Chris Patten and Carol Smillie would want to throw Molotov cocktails - are also products of a local, not a global, environment.
What is also striking is the lack of any broad ideological approach unifying the protesters. That's true of most protests, of course. But that's because most protests are single-issue in nature, as in "Bourgeois Liberals, Trotskyists, and Vicars Against the Nazis". This one, however, claims to be anti-capitalist, and capitalism is, and has been for four centuries, the dominant economic system in the world.
On Tuesday night, one man pontificating on television about the importance of Seattle was the leading academic within Britain's Socialist Workers Party. And what is their alternative to world capitalism? I looked it up. It turned out to be: "A workers' state based on councils of workers' delegates and a workers' militia. Combining political and economic functions, workers' councils will allow direct participation in the running of society by the working masses."
Oh, and just to make sure we all keep to the necessary path, "The most militant workers must be organised into a revolutionary socialist party to provide the political leadership and organisation essential to a successful revolution."
Been there, done that, didn't like it. And nor, I suspect, would the large bulk of protesters have any such destination in mind. Their critique of capitalism is not so theoretical or disciplined, thank God. I know Tommy Archer is a fictional character, but it is quite significant that, after trashing the local GM rape-seed crop in BBC Radio 4's The Archers, he continued his protest by creating his own organic sausage business.
It isn't capitalism, then, per se, that is their target, but the march of the big battalions, those who restructure and reorganise and redefine the way we live, according to the dictates of their corporate balance sheets. In the case of the young, the pressure from advertising to be the person who will need to buy the product is utterly relentless. "Everyone into cords," says the advert from Gap clothes. And instead of telling Gap to take a running jump, some of the kids buy the cords.
Even much of the diversity in music and arts created by enterprise, and liberated by technology, is often then colonised by the money guys; turned into an etiolated version of itself. Right now someone is planning a range of spring eco-terrorist fashions, involving bandannas and militant expressions. The young woman pictured yesterday clambering in white sneakers over the counter of the looted Starbucks coffee shop in Seattle will, mark my words, feature in a huge ad campaign for teen shoes.
Now, watch me run out on to the thinnest limb of my already fragile tree. I believe that the social democratic governments of the West also desire change. I think the people in them retain sufficient radicalism to want to re-engineer society, not merely manage capitalism. But I also think they are nervous and occasionally pessimistic about it. Often their argument is with their own electors, as our Government's cosying up to the "motorist" this week suggests.
The inability of the American people to get into their heads the need to consume less oil, and to pollute less, is not just a function of capitalism but a function of politics. With siren voices on the right telling them that they need not suffer such pain, the danger is that they will opt for complete short-term selfishness.
And that's what protest is sometimes about - saying the things that politicians can't say, couching the debate in the language of morality and in the context of the long term. So my contention is that, whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not (and they certainly won't) the Seattle demonstrators are, in effect, the militant wing of the Third Way. Spurring their steeds into the foam.
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