Issue 245 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

The movement

Anti-capitalism: what next?

'The labour movement has returned to its historic role in the forefront of struggles'

Noam Chomsky, campaigner and writer

Noam Chomsky

Campaigner and writer

Integration of the global economy has been increasing since the Second World War, reversing the interwar decline. There have been two phases: (1) until the early 1970s; (2) the period since, with the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system of regulated exchange rates and controls on movement of capital. The design of phase (1) permitted social democratic measures; phase (2) is designed to unravel them by means of financial liberalisation and 'neo-liberal policies': the 'Washington consensus' for much of the world, and a version of the same policies in the more advanced industrial societies themselves. It is phase (2) that is usually called 'globalisation'.

Phase (2) is unabashedly corporate-led and designed for the interests of investors and lenders, masked in misleading rhetoric of 'free trade'. It has also been accompanied by deterioration of standard macro-economic measures and social indicators, and increasing inequality. There is variation, but the general pattern has been striking, notably in the world's richest country.

Not surprisingly, the phase (2) effects have led to substantial protest. In the US, despite overwhelming elite agreement and virtual media unanimity, much of the population remains opposed to neo-liberal globalisation, in ways that are increasingly difficult to ignore. Institutions and advocates have become deeply concerned. Opponents of corporate-led globalisation have an 'ultimate weapon', the Wall Street Journal lamented: the general public.

One defensive reaction is to depict protests as uninformed and irrational. On the contrary, there has been extensive education and organisation, and the effects show. Many have come to understand the effects of even greater transfer of control to unaccountable private power and its international institutions. Protests have engaged diverse constituencies, overcoming much antagonism and conflict. The labour movement has been returning to its historic role in the forefront of struggles for freedom and rights. The movements have also become international--'globalisation' of a perhaps far-reaching kind that is hardly what planners had in mind.

To take only one case, there is growing outrage over the pricing of pharmaceuticals, yielding enormous profits by reliance on publicly-funded research and the highly protectionist conditions of the 'free trade' agreements. The effects are lethal in the poor countries and felt very directly in the richer ones as well, opening the doors to unprecedented attack on the sacred rights of corporate tyrannies, even their right to exist, not just in this case.

There are serious barriers to overcome: for example, legitimate concerns over the environment and labour rights can be converted all too easily into weapons to enhance the bias of the international trading system against the Third World. But there are opportunities of unusual importance to defend the majority of the world's population from the attack on fundamental human rights, and to move on to break down illegitimate power concentrations. It's a historic moment, rich in prospects.

'It is really important to keep up the pressure on these big global institutions'

Guardian columnist

George Monbiot

Guardian columnist

The recent protests have managed to draw attention to a lot of issues that are outside the mainstream political process in Britain. The protesters have created publicity round issues such as globalisation, the deregulation of companies and so on which have been successful in drawing attention to issues which have otherwise been off the political map. At the same time I have had some concerns at the way in which some protests have been organised, in particular the recent May Day demo in London. It was not made sufficiently clear that this was a protest at which violent demonstrations would not be welcomed. One of the results was that a lot of people turned up for a ruck with the police because they felt that this would be an acceptable part of the protest.

It's important to start building alliances across political lines. People have been doing this--for example, a few years ago Reclaim the Streets built up an alliance with the Liverpool dockers--and I think there is a lot more scope for this. Not least because the mainstream leadership of the trade union movement has been constrained, partly by the government anti-union legislation and partly by a reluctance to really get out there and kick butt. Therefore a lot of the more radical people in the unions feel that they are very poorly represented by the union leadership.

Governments and institutions like the IMF and the World Bank are very worried. For the first time they are having to justify their existence and what they have been doing. In the past they have said, 'We are doing this because there is no alternative. Globalisation and the deregulated free markets are the only thing because all the alternatives are far worse.' Now they are having to say why they think that their particular brand of neo-liberal economics is a good idea. They are having difficulty explaining this because, as anyone can see, from the point of view of the poorest and weakest in society it is a very bad idea indeed. So they are struggling to justify themselves. This is quite a step towards political change.

I think it is really important to keep up the pressure on these big global institutions, but at the same time to provide clear alternatives. We should be showing what sort of global financial architecture we do want if we are going to protect the weakest people in the world and if we are going to protect the environment. There are some very clear alternatives that have been formulated and we should be putting them forward. At the moment what the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the governments are saying is that the free market is the only way of doing things. This is patently untrue but we have to demonstrate the untruth of that again and again, and talk about all the very positive alternatives for creating a fairer world.

'We are really all in this together and we have to defend a whole world '

campaigner and writer

Susan George

campaigner and writer

The first defining feature of the protests that have taken place recently is strong national coalitions, which then very often coalesced. The basis of the success is that in each country, according to the political culture and the forces that are prepared to act, many small national coalitions have been formed. I don't think people should expect a Seattle every three months or so. Now I think what we should be communicating is that wherever they are, some of us will be--but not all of us.

In terms of how the protest should develop, I believe we've not been very good at including minorities. We haven't been able to show to everyone that they too are in danger from the international economic system. In the US, for instance, the national minorities were not well represented in Seattle, and in Europe the immigrant communities are not either, so that is one group we should be reaching out to. I don't think that the junction is perfect yet between trade unions and the rest of civil society forces, although that is definitely improving. Those are two areas we could do better in.

Trade unions are waking up to a lot of new dangers, and though they are not generally structured to act internationally, they are doing so more and more. The thing everyone noticed was that in the US the environmentalists and the trade unionists were working together for the first time--turtles and Teamsters together at last. I hope that continues. The more we are separated, the easier it is for the adversary to pick us off one by one. What I find encouraging in France is that it's no longer a matter of defending your sectoral interest. The small farmers' confederation is not just interested in agriculture; the cultural people are not just interested in audio-visual or copyright. The trade unions are not just interested in jobs. Everybody understands that we are really all in this together and that we have to defend a whole area and not just go for one thing that is the main feature for our constituency, and that I think is a very hopeful development.

Governments and big business are definitely on the defensive and the proof of that is that they are immediately trying to figure out how to oppose us. There was an immediate meeting after the demonstrations in Washington where major political and industrial figures were saying, 'How do we cut off these NGOs from their funding sources and how do we discredit them?' There was a recent conference of the French employers' organisation and they were saying, 'Ah, these people are using the internet, which is democratic, to destroy democracy and we have to see what we can do about that.' They are making noises about cutting off free speech, and they cannot stand it that they are no longer the only people who have a say. I think that will get nastier.

People are extraordinarily hungry for knowledge. Maybe five years ago they would have thought it's too technical or economic, and now that has changed. In France we have just had a summer university for Attac, which now has 26,000 members, and there were 700 people there, which was all we could accommodate. There were six hours of courses a day and people came back and wanted more. This is absolutely new. People are coming in droves. They are reading. They've discovered it's not inevitable. Before it was treated like the law of gravity--a natural law which we cannot do anything about--but now I think that mentality is being rapidly overcome.

'Either we take control of our own lives once and for all--or the planet dies'

Comedian, writer and campaigner

Rob Newman

Comedian, writer and campaigner

Broad grassroots alliances have been one of the defining features of the recent protests, which make it very difficult for the state to ghettoise protesters as being somehow 'not like you'.

We're not going to get what we want without a sustained attack on the corporate propaganda industry. Some 40 percent of all 'news items' we see are laundered PR messages from 'issues management' public affairs companies like Burson Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton. Sometimes it's specific issues for corporate coalitions, and sometimes to create a general free market, business-friendly, there is no alternative, culture and 'indoctrinate people with the capitalist story'. How will this protest develop? Well, institutional tyrannies like the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF have shown themselves extremely vulnerable to what US public citizens call the 'Dracula syndrome': they flourish in the dark but daylight kills them. Any hope of building a mass movement depends on the degree to which the same tactic succeeds against corporate PR.

The left has underestimated what a central obstacle to revolutionary social change corporate PR presents. It's hard to overstate the importance of this multi-billion dollar industry to the ruling class in its ability to keep capitalism from the final knacker's yard. Alix Carey put it best: 'The last century saw three developments of great political importance: the rise of democracy, the rise of corporate power and the rise of corporate propaganda as a weapon in the hands of corporate power against democracy.'

A link between the trade union rank and file and the global upsurge of protest and popular organising is the Holy Grail. There is a false distinction between direct action movements and trade unions, which ignores the great history of rank and file direct action--for example, Oakland construction workers' recent 'direct casework' where they respond to unfair evictions by occupying landlords' offices. If local councillors don't get involved, people go round their gaff and stack all their furniture on the pavement!

The Simon Jones Campaign, for example, would be helped immensely by a strong Ucatt presence and benefits would be mutual now that corporate killings have gone off the chart. But the link has to be made at the rank and file. The desertion of the mighty Hillingdon women has once again reminded us all how trade union officials are less into workers' control than control of workers on behalf of elite rule.

If you check out the panic in elite circles expressed in 'tree tops' and leaked memos from business round-tables you will see that big business is scared shitless. The Economist is even warning of the danger that 'soon the Washington Consensus will be a consensus of one'.

The next ten years are, I believe, the most crucial in human history. Humans have to make a historic collective decision. Either we decide to take control of our own lives once and for all, and have the first real participatory democracy ever--or the planet dies (after a last bout of absolutist tyranny.) And there is nothing in between. But I am very optimistic. These are extremely exciting times. More and more people are waking up to the fact that even in the face of imminent and total ecological collapse capitalism cannot change its ways. There exists a massive vacuum for a radical movement (not a party) to fill.

'For me the common thread is socialism, democracy and international-

Labour MP for Chesterfield

Tony Benn

Labour MP for Chesterfield
Corporate expansion is tied to welfare contraction

All political parties in what are called parliamentary democracies now have a common conviction that capitalism, market forces and globalisation are desirable, inevitable and irresistible. Those like the Labour Party in Britain, which developed originally based on trade unions and socialist ideas, have been decapitated at the top. Now New Labour, the Tories and the Liberals share a common philosophy. So people who looked to the labour and trade union movement for an alternative now find there is no alternative offered through the official party system. The leaders of all parties have recognised that the power of international capital is so great that if you are going to be re-elected you have to come to terms with it. Then, to complete the process, corporate finance funds the political parties, buys them off, and then expects a payoff.

So there is a wide body of people--trade unionists, socialists, Christians, the peace movement, the women's movement and the environmental movement--who aren't represented. What is called the protest movement is really a political movement. The fact that it is opposed to what is happening makes it sound too negative. It is a political movement arguing, however disjointedly, for a different sort of system. Today they are brought together by the issue of globalisation because it impacts on everything. This is a growing and thoughtful movement challenging the whole central philosophy of all the political parties in all the so called parliamentary democracies.

This is not the first time this has happened. When the Chartists began only 2 percent of people in Britain had the vote--they were all rich white men. In the debate in the House of Commons on the 1832 Reform Bill the Tories said that if the vote were extended it would destroy parliamentary democracy. What they meant by parliamentary democracy was the fraud whereby 2 percent kept everybody else out. Later on Asquith, the Liberal prime minister, said if women got the vote it would undermine democracy.

Today a political movement is being born outside the party structure, and it has to plan a strategy to gain majority support. It has to persuade rather than frighten and undermine people's confidence in the possibility of an alternative movement. When I heard that McDonald's had been attacked (on 1 May) I thought that's almost certain to have been the security services. If you see a guy in a balaclava throwing a brick through a window, watch to see he doesn't slip behind police lines and have a cup of tea.

So we need a strategy. In order to be effective it has to build coherence out of different issues. It's no good taking the environment alone or democracy alone or the peace movement alone--you have to find from all the issues being raised a common thread. For me the common thread is socialism, democracy and internationalism, because internationalism is the answer to globalisation.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs wanted trade unions, the Chartists wanted the vote, so did the Suffragettes. People campaigning against apartheid wanted equal rights. So the development of a set of demands is the next stage, and then you have to find a way to get these across. Of course the media is controlled by state organisations or multinational companies, so you have to find other ways--public meetings, demonstrations, the internet.

Something has to be developed with a view to success. We cannot repudiate the potentiality of the limited democracy we have because movements outside the system do eventually have to end up inside if they are going to be effective. I wept when Mandela voted for the first time at the age of 76. So I don't agree with the argument that the whole thing is a fraud. It's only a fraud because people don't use it and don't control it. And I think this begins to impact on the Labour Party because people realise you can't win unless you take account of all this. The environmental movement is a good example. You have to try to insert these arguments into the mainstream political debate, and that means pressure.

face an increasingly brutal and organised capitalist class'

SWP and editor of Socialist Review

Lindsey German

SWP and editor of Socialist Review

The German socialist writer Bertolt Brecht once wrote, 'Sometimes when you fight you lose, but if you don't fight you've already lost.' The protests of the past year have shown the same spirit--that it's better to do something to fight back rather than allow the terrible injustices and inequalities of the world to continue. The movement which started at Seattle last year, and which has spread to Washington, Millau and now Prague demonstrates that people are not just concerned to change the system in small ways, but that inevitably they want an end to the capitalist system itself. That system is now widely seen as the root of the social and environmental problems which face ordinary working people throughout the world. The questions of debt, pollution, increased exploitation of labour and poverty cannot be dealt with piecemeal but only through a global challenge to global capital.

The same spirit of resistance is evident in the wave of strikes which have swept France in recent months, and in the increasing class struggle in the US. The workers who suffer downsizing, longer hours and low pay face the same enemy--an increasingly brutal and organised capitalist class which operates outside national boundaries, which is not subject to any democratic control, and which defends its methods in the name of the supreme interests of global investment. The working class internationally has the power to take on this class.

The mood today reminds me of the 1960s. Then the movements involved masses of people fighting for their rights, against war, and for an end to racism and sexism. Millions around the world wanted to change things for the better, and there was a sense of optimism and hope that this could be achieved if enough people protested about it. Few who were involved in those movements then would have believed that 30 years later there would still be the threat of war, inequality would be far greater than in the 1960s, and that the problems of the poorer countries would have been exacerbated by the policies of the IMF and World Bank.

Today should be a time of great optimism and hope as increasing numbers come together to challenge capital. But there also has to be an assessment of how we go forward. In all the great years of hope from 1848 to 1968 the problem has never been how to build the movement, but what direction the movement takes. The aspirations of the 1960s turned into the retreats of the late 1970s and 1980s, in no little part because of political weaknesses in the movements themselves, and in many of the political organisations involved. Today we have ample evidence of what happens when the challenge to capital is only partial or half-hearted--we have suffered enough under Tory and then Labour governments committed to the priorities of big business. If we are to build a successful and permanent challenge to capitalism we need enthusiasm and commitment. We also need ideas, politics and organisation which can lead to the revolutionary overthrow of the system to replace it with one which provides for people's need, not profit.

'There is a need for socialists to provide a rigorous critique of global capital'

Writer and member of the London Socialist Alliance steering committee

Mike Marqusee

writer and member of the London Socialist Alliance steering committee

Some of the significance of the new protest movement was brought home to me when I visited the city of Multan in Pakistan earlier this year. A group of social activists working in a community-based NGO there told me how they had organised a local 'solidarity march' in support of the Seattle protesters. These activists struggle under extremely difficult conditions; currently they are ruled by a military dictatorship implementing IMF-sponsored economic policies; debt repayments account for half of all state spending. Because of the television coverage of Seattle, for the first time they saw western workers and youth raising their issues--the issues of the Third World. They discovered allies in their struggle against authoritarianism and 'globalisation'. Like many activists elsewhere, the people in Multan increasingly feel themselves to be part of an international movement.

Globalisation is already breeding its own gravediggers in the form of a new internationalism--the salient characteristic of the protest movement. It's on this shared ground that economic, environmental, democratic and cultural resistance converges.

There is also a shared search for new means of communicating to and mobilising masses of people. Our rulers' capacities to build and police a pro-capital consensus are greater than ever. If those who dissent from the consensus are to be heard they will have to deploy imagination and ingenuity, wit, humour, outrage. Above all, we have to construct vehicles for participation. The culture of the postmodern consumer society promotes cynicism and passivity. In that context, the chance to take an active, autonomous part in public life is in itself one of the most powerful attractions of the protest movement--and a challenge to the media-modulated charade of elite politics.

The trade unions have much to teach and much to learn from the protest movements. Certainly in Britain and the US, it's hard to see any future for the unions as serious political agents unless they turn outward and embrace that movement's broader agenda and anti-corporate perspective.

The protest movement itself must be on its guard against attempts by the establishment to co-opt its concerns and its rhetoric. Chain clothing stores in America are already promoting the 'Seattle look'! The chief antidote to this is political debate and analysis. But while there is therefore a need for socialists to provide a rigorous critique of global capital, they must do so without seeking to impose any kind of orthodoxy on a movement that can thrive only on a spirit of diversity, growth and experiment.

Finally, the protest movement must acquire an electoral dimension. That has begun to happen--with the Nader campaign in the US and the Socialist Alliances in Britain. It's the first step on a very long journey, but the protest movement as a whole must understand that we are in this for the long haul or it will come to nothing.

'The direct action movement has avoided formal hierarchies and structures'

Broadcaster and comedian

Mark Thomas

broadcaster and comedian
Police felt the anger of anti-capitalist protesters in Melbourne recently
Police felt the anger of anti-capitalist protesters in Melbourne recently

The lead up to Seattle was as important as Seattle itself. What is interesting is the number of people that came out of the Campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill. The number of people who were politicised through this was quite important, and it galvanised a whole load of people who might be considered on the fringe of what is described as 'mainstream' society. The activists that emerged were coming from a very different perspective.

At the same time as this was happening people were growing aware of globalisation. Suddenly there was a politicisation that went on there, and globalisation became important because everyone saw how things were working in terms of capitalism, the market and the WTO/liberal trade lobby. People could see that events in their own country were linked to events in other people's countries. The type of activists you would get would be those who were not just involved in a single issue campaign, but they were aware of capital and the value of things--like the value of the environment, of human life, of people's surroundings, and how they behave and interact.

The value of this was immense--you had activists who were not just green activists, or human activists, or environmentalists, but were people who were able to get a grasp on all of it. So a single issue would not just be a single issue, but would be part of a bigger understanding of the way the world works, and the importance of trying to respond and trying to set an agenda. Seattle was the pinnacle of this.

The left and the trade unions have got an awful amount to learn from this movement, and it is pleasing that the SWP is working with the movement, and that the LSA is getting people together. You work with people where you have common interests; it's as simple as that. We have enough enemies. If corporations were as organised as we were they'd be laughing. There are so many gains that we have to make that it's very important the coalitions that are building up work and function. I would hope that they would not be used as recruiting grounds for anyone, but that people have to work together. That's not to say that there is a death of ideology, but if you want to get practical results you have to work together.

The unions have got a way to catch up--they're not revolutionary organisations. In a way they are a reactive body because they have to protect their members' interests. You get an immense amount of good people in the trade unions, but the unions and the left generally have to take on board what has happened. Part of the reason why the direct action movement has been so successful is because of the way it has avoided formal hierarchies and structures, and relied upon people who have had a direct and equal input into the planning and execution of what goes on. Direct action now involves other people, not just a few individuals who climb Nelson's Column and unfurl a banner. There has been a democratisation of the process, and the trade union movement has got to catch up with this. Some trade unionists are doing wonderful stuff, but it is happening on a small scale. The trade unions need to get off their knees and do some work--you only have to look at France and see how great it is. But there is a lot of optimism at the moment.

The trade union movement has to break with the Labour Party--completely. And people on the left of the Labour Party have got to say, are we doing anything of value or are we merely providing the illusion of a broad church? I think that day of reckoning has come.

The institutions and governments who have been attacked do not like it. We often perceive them as this all-powerful corporate beast, but they are often weaker than they appear. Prague may not be another Seattle as they are a lot more prepared--it is a former Eastern bloc country, the cops will be a lot more ruthless, and the whole conference is in the one building so the chance of disruption is not as easy as Seattle. It may be more violent, but the important thing is that the work continues.

'At one point anything that the west wanted went. That is no longer the case'

MEP for London region, Green Party

Jean Lambert

MEP for London region, Green Party

What has defined the recent protests is the integration of development, environment and social protection--really challenging the current economic system. This is the new coalition. You can trace this back to the big Rio summit in 1992, the year the WTO was set up--these two things are in opposition to each other, and the conflict has developed since.

I see the Seattle protests as part of this process. There have been various other things which have been going on since. You had the link between the environment movement and the trade unions in the US when they were opposing the Nafta free trade agreement. They were the only two groups who were really calling into question whether the free trade agreement was worth having. Then you've seen the campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). This was quite a sophisticated global internet campaign with a lot of environment groups and some unions--particularly in the US where those links are quite close and which really worked to stall the whole MAI agreement. Seattle was the next stage on from that. Having seen that we could stop the MAI, or at least halt it at a certain point, then we've got an opportunity to show what's going on with the WTO.

At the moment it's a question of whether there is to be another round of negotiations or whether the WTO is to be halted. There is growing pressure that the WTO regime is not acceptable unless there are some radical changes. The involvement of a growing number of networks and governments from developing world countries has also been crucial in that campaign as it helps to shift the balance of power. At one point anything that the west wanted went. That is no longer the case.

Face-less corporations

The trade union and labour movement has been a little slow to recognise what has been going on. In many parts of the world there is still a battle for their own members' interests. One of the things that has been missing has been an international dimension. Also, if we have a government that is keen to have workers taking share options in their own company then I think that gives them a fair amount of potential power as to how that company may operate.

There is a lot more to be done to put the government on the defensive.

The movement must now focus on some key demands. There will be a lot of disagreements about what exactly people want at the end of the day, but we must be focussed about what we want at a particular point. The debt issue is one which is still winnable--there is a lot of public support for this. Governments have made promises which they have still not put into place. If we begin to reorient the issue on debt and the criteria which are used to judge whether an economy is successful or not, this begins to fracture a lot of the economic assumptions that underlie it. Then we can move on. We are looking at the 'WTO Shrink or Sink' movement at the moment, which has a set of very specific demands. But it needs a focus so people know what it is, or what it's asking for in terms of change. Anything that is too diffuse can be shrugged off.

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