Issue 250 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Thousands demonstrated at Porto Alegre in Brazil at a counter summit to the World Economic Forum in Davos|
What impact did Seattle have on the left in the US and internationally?
By the time the event came we were pretty prepared, even though we didn't know that we would be successful. It was a nice surprise when enough people turned up. When the police saw they couldn't just brush us away with some teargas and rubber bullets it freaked them out, and you had a police riot. It lit a fuse within the movement. When the tens of thousands of people who were there went back to their communities they had elevated status. They were veterans of the 'Battle of Seattle'. So their main message was that we've got to link up, we've got to come together, we've got to build a mass movement. There's a sort of alchemy to it. Once people experience that, it fires people up and charges the movement with new energy. Before the teargas even cleared in Seattle we were already strategising the April World Bank/IMF protest in Washington. I've been doing those World Bank protests for a long time. In April 1999 we had about 25 people--a year later we had 25,000. At this year's World Bank/IMF meetings in Washington from 26 September to 4 October the protest will be huge because we have experience.
There have been a series of demonstrations worldwide which took their inspiration from Seattle, but there is an argument in the movement about whether it is going to develop into a left NGO type of movement or whether it will be much more grassroots. How do you see the movement developing?
But as the movement develops what do we put in the place of the system and the multinationals? We're not powerless, and if people do stop a multinational building a supermarket then that's a big step forward. But there's still a problem over the fair trade question. How would these companies then compete? They are forced into competition with big capital, and so it's a question of a much more thoroughgoing change to society if we are to be successful.
Everybody has a different tactical focus--the trick for the movement is how we link those struggles together, and then whoever has the best politics and the best analysis will rise to the leadership of the movement through a democratic process of interaction, not through any one group imposing an ideology. Part of this involves developing a democratic culture that respects the wisdom of the masses. Even if you disagree you still maintain a dialogue. Obviously industrial action is what's going to turn the tide, but getting to that point--when that action happens on a global general strike level which is now possible--obviously its going to bring down repression. That's the point when it really matters how many people will support that industrial action. That's when you get a change in power, when you get so many people refusing to be ruled in the old way. We're not at that point yet, but we're moving in that direction.
We've experienced a need to upgrade and change the organisational structure as we grow. If we don't have structures then the most forceful personalities will dictate, and you can't let that happen. The only thing that isn't constantly changing is something that's dead. I see it happen with organisations that get rigidified in a structure that doesn't update itself as conditions change, and so they get left behind. But now that's not enough. We need to figure out how we link up each organisation. People realise in a concrete way what the definition of solidarity is. How do we create the mechanism for that to happen? I'll use the term 'global citizen's party' or 'global people's alliance'--a transnational political organisation designed to seize state power at a national and global level because we're in the transition to a global state. As capitalism takes over every corner of geographic space and social space people start to react. How many canaries have to die in a coalmine before even the dumbest coalminer says, 'We have to get out'? The objective conditions are pushing people toward our life-centred ideology, away from the money-centred ideology of capitalism. Now we have to develop a culture of being on the offensive. We have to think ahead.
We've got to link up, we've got to come together, we've got to build a mass movement
What impact did the Nader campaign have on the left in the US?
If you put together Gore's votes and Nader's votes it is the largest centre-left vote in the US since 1964. The biggest block of voters was those who did not vote--the apathy vote was over 49 percent of the voters, who boycotted the election. This is a political choice. If you add this to the centre-left vote then today we have a regime on the thinnest base. It's the most delegitimated White House since Nixon was chased out in the early 1970s.
Bush's policies are not capable of mobilising any kind of mass support, which leaves a political vacuum for us as a movement to step into. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated on the day of his inauguration--on the main section of the parade there were more protesters than there were supporters. This has an impact on society, and I'm quite hopeful. If Gore had been elected the AFL/CIO trade union movement would have had one leg in the White House and one leg out in the grassroots with us. Now they have no access to the White House and the door has been slammed in their face.
You have had a lot of arguments with people while you have been here on the question of violence. Do you think violence is ever justified?
In Seattle it wasn't so much about the relationship between people and things, it was the relationship between people and people. The movement had gone through a long, laborious and democratic consensus-building process of determining the rules of engagement on the street. We came up with very specific rules for the blockade--we wanted to divide the police by being nice to them. We got out there at 6am and set up our blockades. By 10am the police, out of frustration, started a police riot--shooting and beating us, and spraying us with pepper spray. This went on for hours. And after hours of abuse some windows started to get broken, and they were the corporate places that you'd expect. Spontaneously a whole bunch of people from the crowd jumped up and said to those who were breaking windows, 'Why are you doing this?' Unfortunately the effect of those who destroyed property was a sectarian one--it got people debating this tactic of property destruction instead of keeping focused on shutting down the WTO.
In Seattle the property destruction was just a tiny amount of what went on. The most important stuff was the unity between the trade unionists and the anti-capitalists. On day three and four when a lot of the activists had been arrested the trade unionists came back in force into the no-protest zone. Our unity on the outside fostered disunity on the inside. Clinton's immediate response to us building a coalition between the trade union movement and the anti-capitalists was to try to divide us. He made a speech on supporting enforceable workers' rights on the second day of the demonstration. That was intended to split the trade union movement away from us, which it didn't do because they know him well enough. But also the impact inside the WTO was for the Third World leaders to say, 'What the hell are you talking about? The only thing we have to woo these multinationals is to serve our workers up on a platter and you want to take that away.' It created divisions on their side. It was our wildest dream come true.
What are your impressions of the conferences that you have spoken at over the last few days?
People realise the dots exist, but we have to connect the dots. If we can connect all these different movements and institutions, we have an alternative system--and that's the challenge. You have the energy of the youth and the experience of the older people. What I sense from many older people from my generation is a willingness to step back and leave room for younger people, black people and women, who have been kept out of positions of leadership, to step forward and take over the leadership. And there's all sorts of creativity. When you see that potential within a mass movement you start saying anything is possible. And you start to dream unimaginable things.