Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Protest against capitalism

The battle after Seattle

The demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation marked a turning point and provided clear evidence of the depth of the anti-capitalist mood internationally. John Rees argues that this mood must develop into a challenge to the structures of capitalism

History is no great respecter of the human calendar. It does not often care to arrange events so that they neatly mark the passing of decades or centuries. But, every now and again, it does grant us the special favour of such coincidence.

The Battle of Seattle provides one such spectacle. A decade almost to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall a huge outpouring of popular anger halted the summit of the most powerful political and industrial leaders in the world. It represented the best possible riposte to all the pro-capitalist boobies, Francis Fukuyama foremost among them, who insisted ten years ago that there would never again be an alternative to the ideology of capitalism. Now, whatever else future historians write about the 20th century, they will have to record that the last great demonstration in that 100 years took place in the hometown of some of the greatest international corporations in the world. And they will have to record that it rejected, root and branch, all the ideas for which those corporations and their political supporters stand.

The greatest victory of the Battle of Seattle is that it has transformed how people see themselves. Before Seattle socialists used the term 'anti-capitalist' to describe other people--the millions who in opinion poll after opinion poll showed that they want to tax the rich, nationalise the railways, reject welfare cuts and bitterly oppose the 'fat cat' corporate culture. After Seattle the term 'anti-capitalist' is a commonplace of astounded journalists and news readers who surely would, if they could, use another, less inflammatory description. But establishment vocabulary cannot supply a suitable alternative. 'Anti-capitalist' is, after all, the term which the protesters themselves use.

The demonstration in Seattle, however surprising its scope and militancy, did not drop from a clear Tory blue sky. It is of a piece with the mass strikes in France that began in 1995 and have been followed by a series of social struggles that have transformed the prospects for the left. Seattle grew from the same soil as the UPS strikers' victory a few years ago in America. It flourished in the same air that produced 11 city wide, one day general strikes just across the border in Canada in recent years. It is part of the same environment as the anti-Tory electoral landslides in Britain, France and Germany.

Above all the Battle of Seattle shows that the anti-capitalist mood is not something ephemeral, not something to be dismissed as a passing discontent because it has not yet reversed every defeat of the 1980s. The anti-capitalist mood is a profound shift in working class consciousness, as real as a strike wave or a mass demonstration. But how do we build such a movement into more demonstrations and strikes? How do we move from a recovery in the consciousness of the working class to a movement that can defeat the ruling class?

The crisis of capitalism

The Battle of Seattle and the fall of the Stalinist states are connected by more than a coincidence of dates. Deep-seated economic forces link them. The economic precondition of the 1989 revolutions was the way in which military and economic competition with the Western powers undermined the state capitalist regimes. They were forced, first, to try to finance industrial regeneration through western loans, and then by the 'shock therapy' of a sudden and complete integration with the world market.

At the other end of the decade, the World Trade Organisation represented an attempt to allow that gale of 'creative destruction', as one neo-liberal commentator described it, to blow through every corner of the newly unified global economy. Every commodity and service was to be declared open to free trade--from turnips to school textbooks, from intellectual ideas to health provision. Any state subsidy in any of these areas could be declared a barrier to free trade. After all, the neo-liberal economists argue, why should the great pharmaceutical giants have to put up with 'unfair competition' from the subsidised monopoly of the NHS?

This argument will, of course, be used selectively. It seems unlikely that the huge subsidy being paid to the privatised rail companies in Britain will fall victim to free trade arguments. Likewise the arms industry internationally will retain its massive state subsidies, whether hidden or open. Indeed the ultimate failure of the WTO summit had much to do with the fact that what is, for some states, an absolutely necessary defence of an industry which they cannot allow to be destroyed by free trade is, to other countries, an intolerable barrier to free trade.

Seattle peacekeepers

Raw anger at the capitalist system dominated the protest

Up against the law: protesters find which side the police are on

It must come as a special, if joyless, irony to those in the east European economies who have seen their livelihoods undermined by this process in the last ten years to see western rulers so discomfited by these very same forces. Once it seemed that only in Eastern Europe would societies be cracked open by the forces of international economic competition colliding with the national state. Now it is clear that this was only the first stage of a global crisis.

Perhaps the neo-liberals should have seen this crisis coming. The Indonesian Revolution was fair warning. In Indonesia, after all, the state was a powerful economic player, but not in the old East European 'protectionist' mould. In Indonesia the state followed the very latest neo-liberal nostrums. It acted as a facilitator of international capital, not as a buffer between the world market and the local population. The Indonesian state laboured for more than 20 years to integrate its economy into the world market, to suck in foreign investment and to orient its own production to the world market. Yet it was precisely this integration into the world market that imported a ferocious economic collapse in 1997. In this sense the Indonesian Revolution is not the last revolution of the 20th century, but the first revolution of the 21st century.

The heartlands of industrial capitalism have, of course, many differences with Indonesia. They are mostly more powerful economies. Their old ruling classes long ago learned to govern through the institutions of parliamentary democracy (although European fascism in the 1930s reminds us that what has been granted can also be taken away in times of crisis). Consequently there is a reformist and trade union bureaucracy with roots much deeper than in less developed economies. Moreover, throughout the western world the Reagan-Thatcher era was one of working class reverses from which the 1990s marked a slow recovery. Nevertheless the Battle of Seattle marks a further decisive step forward. The international crisis in the system, the global instability between capitalist economies and capitalist state structures will produce more Seattles, more Indonesias, and indeed more wars like that in the Balkans. How do we consolidate the gains already made and prepare to move forward again?

The working class, reform and revolution

One of the really magnificent aspects of the Seattle demonstrations was the direct involvement of organised workers. The steel workers and teamsters were present in large numbers. Canadian workers travelled south to join them. Longshoremen on America's west coast struck in solidarity. Even the much smaller demonstration in London was co-sponsored by the London region of the RMT and two of the most effective speeches at the rally were made by trade unionists.

Naturally, many of the workers held contradictory ideas--though the protectionist themes which have often dominated in the past were much less in evidence. Many of the demonstrators have also been motivated by 'single issues' like Third World debt or environmental concerns--although these were merged much more completely with a broader critique of capitalism than they were even a few months ago.

What did dominate this time was raw anger at the capitalist system. The argument that now needs to be addressed is this: is the working class merely a victim or the central force for change? Socialists have to win the idea that working class self emancipation is the key to challenging global capitalism. This argument will inevitably be conducted at the level of organised party politics. No movement, especially a movement whose adversary is as all encompassing as the global capitalist system, can survive on a slogan or as an inchoate coalition. It must develop a leadership, a strategy and an organisational core if it is to be effective.

Some who were on the anti-capitalist demonstrations will prefer to avoid this issue. But the result of avoiding the issue of party organisation is that it simply reasserts itself in other forms. We have already seen that the anti-capitalist mood can benefit Labour parties internationally. In Britain Blair's New Labour was the electoral beneficiary of the anti-Tory mood in 1997--in spite of the fact that most Labour voters believed in ideas diametrically opposed to those in Labour's manifesto. The French strikes of 1995 had a logic very different to the policies of Jospin's Socialist Party or Hue's Communist Party--yet these were the political beneficiaries of those struggles.

Mass movements don't get the political representation that they deserve unless a minority of activists within the movement seek to create a political leadership, which means a political party that shares their vision of political power from below. Such a party will be much less than the movement numerically, but much more than the movement ideologically and organisationally. The anti-capitalist mood does not mean that reformism is dead or that reformist organisations can be bypassed. Reformist organisations will continue until they are replaced by revolutionary organisation. The choice is not between revolutionary organisation and no organisation; it is between reformist organisation and revolutionary organisation.

Many who were on the anti-capitalist demonstrations or sympathised with them will also be members of the Labour Party, will support Ken Livingstone for London mayor, be part of single issue campaigns and so on. They are open to revolutionary socialist arguments, more open than for many years, but they are not yet convinced. Some will be convinced today and tomorrow. Some will want to work alongside revolutionaries and see in practice how our ideas and our actions provide a better practical lead for the movement than do those of even the best reformists. The first precondition of influencing future struggles is to be involved in them--deeply, organisationally involved. Only sectarians could dismiss a movement as profound as that now developing because it is 'protectionist' or 'Third Worldist' or whatever. As if any such movement ever emerged fully formed clutching the Communist Manifesto to its breast.

The movement is still under construction and socialists can shape it so long as they are wholeheartedly a part of it. In this work a revolutionary organisation is an overwhelming advantage--not simply for its own members but for every activist in the working class. A revolutionary party is active on many fronts--in the elections for the London mayor, in the increasingly frequent strikes, in protests against the Miss World competition, against student tuition fees--to name only some recent examples. What other organisation can offer those engaged in any one of these struggles a way in which they can become active in all of them or a view of the world which explains the connections between each of them? Where else can these activists meet to discuss and debate the issues arising from the struggle, especially since New Labour has abandoned the political meeting in favour of stage managed appearances of 'the leader'.

Only if revolutionaries make full use of the advantages of their own organisation can the movement continue to progress. Only if revolutionaries work alongside these activists, discuss and debate the logic of their own actions, and win them to building a revolutionary party, will the anti-capitalist mood give birth to an alternative to reformism and, therefore, an alternative to capitalism.

Charlie Kimber 'It's time to fight'

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