Issue 250 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Anti-capitalism

THE WISDOM OF THE MASSES

Kevin Danaher was a key organiser of the 'Battle of Seattle'. He recently spoke to Socialist Review about the future of the anti-capitalist movement
Thousands demonstrated at Porto Alegre in Brazil at a counter summit to the World Economic Forum in Davos
Thousands demonstrated at Porto Alegre in Brazil at a counter summit to the World Economic Forum in Davos
Kevin Danaher speaking at Globalise Resistance
Kevin Danaher speaking at Globalise Resistance

What impact did Seattle have on the left in the US and internationally?
The impact was nothing less than explosive--it was really a historic turning point. Because the movement was fragmented it was necessary for us to use a very horizontal and participatory approach that could involve all sorts of different sectors. The WTO did us a big favour by attacking so many different areas--human rights, workers' rights, the environment, the sea turtles, the dolphins, the banana farmers--that it brought people together. It's almost like when Marx talks about capitalism having a strangely progressive effect in bringing workers off the land together into the factories, and that sets the objective basis for trade union consciousness. The WTO, by starting to create a global state with commerce as the dominant focus rather than human rights, angers so many people and makes them realise that if you don't join together you're going to get stepped on. We also knew it was the only time the WTO was going to meet in the US--so we knew we only had one chance and this was it.


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?
It's almost like building a house. You have to get a solid foundation, and then you can start adding the first and second floor. Out of Seattle we immediately started planning the April protests in Washington, then after that Prague. That forced the US movement to create a lot of additional links with people in Europe and the rest of the world. Then we realised that we have to protest against transnational elites when they try to meet to do planning, but we also have to create an alternative vision and alternative institutions to show what we propose replacing them with. We have to have very concrete alternatives so that people have a place where they can buy shoes that aren't sweatshop shoes and coffee that isn't plantation coffee, and to build an alternative model of accumulation that's not based on exploitation of people or nature. The Porto Alegre conference in late January 2001 came out of this thinking, so its emphasis was positive alternatives--what would we replace the existing system with? There are going to be disagreements about the details, but as long as we stay in dialogue we'll move forward. Porto Alegre was beyond all expectations--three times as many people turned up as expected. Any time you expand a market it helps big capital. If you treasure those aspects of local power and local economy, then you have to fight this stuff because the bigger it gets, the more globalised capital becomes, the stronger they are and the more they are able to crush us.

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.
The way to critique anybody in the movement is to follow your path and see who wins more people over. But it isn't incompatible for people to be doing trade union organising and buying fair trade products. None of these things will be a revolution in itself. Obviously there's a hierarchy of actions--if you can have a general strike, that has a lot more power. I was on the board of Transfair USA when it first got started. Then Global Exchange could get into corporate hectoring by saying to these companies 'You saw what we did to Nike, you don't want us to do that to you'. After Seattle we did a couple of demonstrations outside Starbucks and got 2,000 people. We went to Starbucks executives and said it would be really nice if you would sign up to sell fair trade coffee, it would really help the 550,000 small farmers selling fair trade beans. These are people struggling to get a cement floor or running water. We in the industrial core enjoy the benefits of imperialism at the same time we get to critique it. We have to be extra self critical about our politics--water and electricity are a luxury to most people in the world. Starbucks told us to kiss off, so we said we would prepare a 30-city campaign, and Starbucks is going to look bad. About a week before the campaign launch they sent three top executives to our office and surrendered. That's not a revolution, but it means a lot to the coffee farmers, and we'll direct capital away from Nescafé-type plantations to largely co-op farmers producing in an ecologically sustainable way. So that victory is not the final destination, but you've improved conditions along the way.

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

The No Logo generation: taking on the multinationals
The No Logo generation: taking on the multinationals

What impact did the Nader campaign have on the left in the US?
It was a very positive campaign, even at the very end when some of the left of the Democratic Party began to vehemently criticise Nader for running, as if the left has no right to run candidates. He raised the corporate power issue. If Nader hadn't run, the secret institution called the electoral college would not have been exposed. Because the outcome was so close there had to be all this media reporting asking, 'What is this electoral college which has its roots in slavery, and each state gets as many electoral college votes as it has representatives in the House and Senate?' And those House and Senate numbers were originally set on counting slaves as three fifths of a person--it was a compromise between the Northern states and the Southern states. The electoral college works by a winner take all system, so it acts as a buffer against popular democracy. For a lot of people in the US that was a real breath of fresh air, to find out that the US is not really a democracy. Most voters who did not get their votes counted in Florida were Gore supporters, either Jewish, Black, Latin or Haitian. In the final week the Supreme Court saw five Republican judges overrule four Democrats and hand the election to Bush, who got half a million votes less than Gore.

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?
You have to put it in the larger context--between 20,000 and 30,000 children die every day from hunger and hunger-related diseases. This is genocide, and it's on a scale with slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust. This is created by the global market economy. In order to protect the people who are perpetrating the policies that produce that violence, the capitalist state sends the police and sometimes the military out into the street to commit violence against us. So you have the structural violence of the capitalist system, then you have the violence of the capitalist state, and then within the opposition movement, the movement for change and for progress, occasionally there is a very small section carrying out some kind of property destruction--sometimes out of frustration or some kind of theoretical justification--but it is relatively small, such as windows being smashed. So we have to keep this in perspective.

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?
I'm totally impressed, because there are huge numbers and all sorts of people coming out. At most of the venues we have spoken at people have said things like this hasn't happened in ten years, 20 years. I get older guys coming up to me saying, 'Gee, I've been around for years, but this new movement looks really good. I'm going to get involved.' Young people coming up and saying they didn't know these things were possible--do you really think we can change the world?

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.


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