Protest Power: Activists of the world, unite!
People everywhere spoke out against global capitalism last week. And they used capitalism's own tools to do it
Sunday 05 December 1999
"All the WTO's money and power and influence wasn't enough to move all those concerned, committed people out of the way," crowed Sam Corl, designer of the society's website, last week. Other organisations, such as the Seattle-based People for Fair Trade and Network Opposed to WTO, also used the internet to invite volunteers to converge on the talks. Website graphics included world maps, allowing activists to click on to individual countries and find out where and when smaller N30 events - named for November 30, the first day of the summit - were being organised. An anti-WTO demonstration outside Euston station in London on Tuesday ended in violent scenes, as police fought battles with the protesters.
In Seattle, the Starbucks coffee shop chain was targeted by a violent minority of protesters, who characterised it as the benign but unacceptable face of corporate capitalism. The city authorities, palpably taken aback by the scale and ferocity of the demonstrations, made a PR error in sending heavily-armed "Robocops" on to the streets, where they were photographed laying into unarmed protesters as well as looters. Perhaps WTO leaders had begun by then to absorb the contents of the protest's main website, with its alarming pledge: "May our resistance be as transnational as capital."
Throughout the week the Seattle demonstrations gave fresh life to a whole host of interest groups and ideas that not so long ago had been consigned to the unfashionable past: trade unionist marchers who, after 20 years of waning power and dwindling membership, suddenly found themselves in the front line of an enthusiastically supported push for better labour standards; tie-dyed environmentalists and animal rights activists, usually ridiculed as fringe groups with no impact on public opinion, who were treated courteously and seriously; and old-fashioned 1960s-style activists, whose rhetoric about the bankruptcy of the capitalist system succeeded not only in grabbing attention but actually gave pause to the bewildered delegates huddled inside the meeting.
Each group succeeded in bolstering the others, with the result that farmers and industrial workers found themselves marching side-by-side. Traditional labour movements also discovered unusually fertile common ground with the newer generation of disenchanted youth groups.
The euphoria of the occasion served to cover up the potentially huge cracks in the various agendas being pushed forward. Among the marchers were Republican county councillors, right-wing Christian activists, old- fashioned trade protectionists and one-world government conspiracy theorists. As more than one protest leader observed, "This is no longer about left versus right; it's about the bottom against the top."
In a sense it was a classic revival of the 1968-era ideal that said workers and students had enough common cause to break out of the classic class- and-political-party mould. There was also a similar - but updated - sensitivity to the importance of playing to the media. The banners and costumes were irresistible draws for the world's television networks, from the ghoulish undertakers bearing the coffin of world humanity felled by corporate greed, to the Lesbian Avengers who marched topless with slogans scrawled on their bodies about the sanctity of the body and the need to protect human life from big-company patenting.
Yet despite the presence of old radicals like Tom Hayden and new-wave ethical entrepreneurs like Anita Roddick, the Sixties flavour went only so far. These kids were not simply passionate idealists and they certainly weren't pushing anything as frivolous as free love, dope and rock'n'roll. Instead, the political awareness of the N30 protesters is sophisticated and highly theoretical. "The globalisation process is presented by the corporate press as a benign and natural historical development that supposedly has taken us from regional to national and now international market relations," claims People for Fair Trade. "The reality is very different: it is now clear that the WTO has elevated corporate power above the sovereign powers of all nation states."
"This is a new order of things," says Dr Anthony Grayling, lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck College in London and a longstanding observer of protest movements. "It wasn't merely a march. It completely buggered up the World Trade meeting for a whole day. Some people from small countries were saying that a lot of what the demonstrators were suggesting made sense from their point of view."
In fact, the success of the protesters in bringing downtown Seattle to a halt involved meticulous planning. For weeks before 30 November, websites were offering lists of hotels near the convention centre, including details of group discounts.
If this is anarchy - and groups such as Anarchy Now! were involved in the preparations - it is organised anarchy, turning information technology, which has fostered the growth of globalisation, into a formidable weapon against capitalism. Much of the intellectual energy that sparked the popular anger against the WTO came from independent lobby groups based in Geneva or Washington.
For many observers, last week's protests were also a consequence of the way conventional politics is perceived to have let down ordinary people, whether the issue is GM foods - regarded too benevolently for most of us by the Blair government in Britain - or the ruthless effects of free trade on the world's poorest populations. Where previous protest movements in this country have had a narrow focus - the poll tax riots of 1990, for example - the N30 demonstrators have one big target, global capitalism, and a long list of very specific grievances.
They cite, for instance, a WTO ruling in 1998 that the EU must allow hormone-treated US beef into Europe, even though the European parliament voted three years ago to maintain a ban on health grounds. Some of the protesters in Seattle last week dressed as sea turtles, drawing attention to another WTO ruling, this time forcing the US government to rescind a ban on the shrimp nets which have turned the creatures into an endangered species. It is decisions like these, overturning legislation passed by elected governments, which have led the N30 organisers to accuse the WTO of the dismantling of democracy disguised as a trade pact. It is a powerful accusation, and one which has resonance here in Britain.
"This is a new, radical politics born out of anger and frustration," suggests Grayling, pointing out that even backbench MPs have little power to represent the voters who elected them. "Most politicians in Britain today are impotent. They have so many interest groups to appease. They're voting fodder. Their one concern is to get re-elected."
Mark Seddon, editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune, sees this reflected in voting patterns. "If you look at the miserable turnout in elections, it's getting worse and worse," he says. "It's a sign of powerlessness. People feel they can't influence anything."
But the burning question is whether the new politics represented by N30 can do more than seize headlines. What happens when the novelty of a protest movement which exploits capitalism's own technology wears off?
Sam Corl of the Ruckus Society recognises the uncertainty which exists even among activists. "The size of this protest and its success is impressive enough, but the long-term significance is yet to be discovered," he declared last week. But two things are clear. One is that something changed in Seattle last week, sending shivers down the spines of the world's most powerful leaders. The other is that a politics is emerging which insists that, if the anti-democratic tendencies of international capital are to be opposed, the movement against them has to be global.
The key to it is information. Almost 40 years ago President John F Kennedy was already reflecting ruefully on his inability to control it as tightly as he would like - and he had never even heard of the internet. "One of the problems of a free society, a problem not met by a dictatorship, is this problem of information," he grumbled. Last week an American president who has consciously modelled himself on JFK discovered the truth of his hero's observation - in spades. "Globalise this!" the demonstrators demanded, deliberately appropriating not just the methods of transnational corporations but their rhetoric as well.
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