Globalization & Its Discontents
Proletarian Internationalism—Not Protectionism!
John F. Kennedy’s celebrated early 1960s observation that “a rising tide lifts all boats” has been amply refuted by the bull market of the past decade, which has chiefly benefited yacht owners. Many in smaller craft are anxious about the future, and deeply distrustful of capitalist ideologues who celebrate the growth of social inequality in a “globalized” world economy.
The defining feature of the political system regularly touted by America’s corporate media as “the world’s greatest democracy” is that only candidates backed by multi-millionaires can get elected. As a result, electoral contests tend to revolve around issues of how best to promote the interests of multi-millionaires. Many of the concerns and priorities of the average voter normally never find electoral expression. Middle America may be more naively religious and patriotic than its rulers, but it is also less attached to notions of “free-market” infallibility and the sanctity of social privileges for the elite. At the same time, the racist, right-wing populists who rail against “tax-and-spend” liberals and oppose abortion, affirmative action and welfare find it necessary to swear allegiance to Social Security and other entitlements provided by “big government.”
Public-opinion surveys in the U.S. routinely reveal widespread hostility toward big banks and corporations, and a conviction, held by a majority of Americans, that the current economic system is inherently unfair. Such attitudes are not deemed “newsworthy” by the corporate media, which, particularly since the Vietnam War, has been acutely conscious of its duty to shape political opinion in accordance with the maintenance of social stability. Normally, permissible expressions of “left-wing” opinion do not go beyond the old-fashioned idea that government should pressure corporations to behave in a socially responsible manner, and provide some relief for those whose lives are crushed beneath the wheels of the “globalization” juggernaut. On the right, utopian ideologues of unregulated competition assert that the accumulation of capital is the highest and noblest form of human endeavour, and argue that the only useful function of government is to remove obstacles to this estimable pursuit and to protect the exploiters from their victims.
Occasionally, events too important to ignore occur outside the framework of the “politics as usual” covered by the mass media. Such events illuminate, if only for a moment, the profound alienation felt by vast layers of citizens who are normally too cynical about the “democratic process” to even bother to register an opinion. The mobilization against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle last November was one such event. The determination of the mainly youthful protesters who shut down the WTO caught both cops and media by surprise. What particularly alarmed the ruling class was the extent to which this willingness to defy authority and resist the “inevitability” of corporate control, resonated with tens of millions of ordinary Americans sitting at home watching events on television.
In the widely anticipated follow-up to Seattle, 15,000 protesters demonstrated against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. in mid-April. This time, the media provided plenty of advance coverage, much of it advertising the cops’ “proactive, precautionary and preventive” contingency plans to corral the demonstrators. On 15 April, the day before the main IMF protest was scheduled, police seized the organizers’ headquarters, and illegally arrested 678 participants in a demonstration initiated by the Workers’ World Party to “Shut Down the Prison-Industrial Complex, Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!” The youthful arrestees were charged with “parading without a permit,” despite the fact that a permit had been obtained, and the police had consented to the march route. For many of the participants, this was a valuable lesson in the practical limits of “democratic rights” that collide with the priorities of the powerful capitalist interests for whom “law and order” is maintained.
These demonstrations have involved a range of politically disparate elements, many with sharply conflicting programs. But most of the protesters share a concern about the social consequences of the pursuit of short-term profit. Youth today see working people thrown out of jobs and peasants driven off their land; they watch the social gains won by past generations being shredded as the biosphere is degraded by the toxic emissions of transnational corporations. They live in a world where hundreds of millions of human lives are destroyed by hopeless poverty and disease. At the same time, obscene aggregations of wealth are piled up by a tiny elite: it is estimated that today the income of the world’s 500 richest individuals exceeds the combined income of half of humanity—three billion people.
Bill Gates, one of the privileged 500, and an official co-host of the Seattle WTO confab, unctuously intoned:
“The greater the success of this meeting at establishing fair and predictable conditions for expanded world trade, the better the future prospects not only for our own economy but for global prosperity.”
— New York Times, 29 November 1999
But “success” never materialized as 20,000 protesters blockaded the meeting hall and turned the conference into a debacle. One corporate consultancy firm, “Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healy,” described events in Seattle as “an alarming window on the future,” and produced a “Compendium of Activists at the WTO Ministerial” listing 49 of the organizations involved. It was quite a melange: trade unionists, feminist “witches,” Christians, anarchists and eco-activists concerned about turtles, butterflies and rain forests.
The AFL-CIO rally that drew 30,000 unionists was a dull and rigidly-controlled affair in which the pro-capitalist labor tops reiterated their usual litany of reformist and chauvinist nostrums. The main objective of the labor bureaucrats was to get a seat at the table, and so they were immensely pleased to be invited to participate in a WTO “working group.”
Far more significant was the action of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) which closed all West Coast ports for the first day of the WTO meeting. This is the second time in less than a year that the dockers’ union has shut down the coast in a political protest action (the first time was in April 1999 in solidarity with black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal). The ILWU leadership is ultimately as pro-capitalist as the rest of the American labor establishment, but they sit atop a union with a militant tradition and a relatively combative membership. The ILWU’s demonstration of union muscle was considered too dangerous for the New York Times to report. It preferred to concentrate on denunciations of the “violence” by a handful of youthful window-breakers.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the Seattle demonstration was that the union bureaucrats, environmental lobbyists, consumer advocates and NGO staffers did not call the shots. The direct action of thousands of protesters made the impact. Opinion polls after the event confirmed that for every demonstrator on the streets in Seattle, there were thousands of people back home cheering them on. Sizable anti-WTO demonstrations also took place in Manila, London and New Delhi along with smaller ones in Prague, Paris, Berlin, Geneva and across North America.
Setback for “Globalizers”
Bill Clinton cynically attempted to co-opt the dissidents by meeting with a few union bureaucrats and promising to push for trade sanctions to enforce “core” labor standards. As police beat protesters outside, Clinton told the assembled delegates:
“What they are telling us in the streets is that this is an issue we’ve been silent on…and we won’t be silent anymore.”
— New York Times, 2 December 1999
Clinton’s immediate objective was to enhance Al Gore’s presidential prospects, but the Indian, Brazilian and other “third-world” delegates immediately recognized that WTO-imposed labor and environmental standards would be used by the U.S. and other imperialist powers as a protectionist instrument. Working people in the semi-colonies will get no support from the imperialist overlords in their struggles. What they need in their battles with their domestic rulers and the transnationals is active internationalist labor solidarity.
Clinton’s talk of mandated labor standards helped derail the attempt to extend the WTO’s mandate over agriculture and “services” (i.e., education, healthcare, housing, transport, libraries and other public-sector activities.) WTO Secretary-General Mike Moore, a former prime minister of New Zealand, complained that:
“he was shafted by the Americans. He won’t say it publicly, but once President Bill Clinton decided to use Seattle to back Al Gore’s presidential run, there was no way to get the thing back on track.”
— Sunday Star Times, Auckland, 26 March
Business Week, the Economist and every other major business publication internationally acknowledged that the protestors had come out on top in Seattle.
Life Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
The young protesters who stood side by side in the streets for the first time discovered both the efficacy of mass action and the extreme brutality with which capitalist “order” is maintained. Seattle cops repeatedly attacked peaceful protesters with billy clubs, pepper spray, concussion grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. Buying, selling or carrying gas masks was prohibited within city limits. Many demonstrators were injured and over 500 were arrested, although most charges have since been dropped.
The confrontation at the WTO confab represented the highest point of broad-based mass resistance to the effects of capitalism in the U.S. since the 1970s. It was a novel event for a generation whose experience has been shaped by a string of defeats and retreats for the left: from the fall of the Soviet Union to the collapse of leftist insurrectionary movements from Latin America to South Africa. The neo-liberal insistence on the omnipotence of the market that has so permeated the world’s mass social-democratic labor parties has also had its effects in the extra-parliamentary left. The events in Seattle resonated with rebellious youth around the world because they revealed, on a small scale, that popular resistance to the elites is not necessarily futile and that a different kind of future is at least a tangible possibility.
Lessons from the 1960s
It is hardly surprising that the forces gathered for mass action against symbols of imperial power are today a very mixed bag. For earlier generations there was an assumption that if you didn’t like capitalism you could always support one or another brand of “Communism.” But the demise of the bureaucratized “actually existing socialism” of the former Soviet bloc has been widely interpreted as proof that a modern industrial economy can only be organized on the basis of a competitive market system. Consequently most youth who hate the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the rest of the international agencies of imperial rule, do not identify themselves as socialists.
Despite this difference, the social and political character of many of the forces gathered in Seattle last year was not so very different from the forces that in 1968 shook the established order from Paris to Chicago. Then, as now, insurgent youth mixed anti-authoritarianism, utopianism and idealist third-worldism with liberal, single-issue reformism. Then, as now, the denominator sufficiently common to allow fleeting unity was a vague “anti-capitalism,” subject to a wide variety of interpretations. For some capitalism was an eternal evil to be kept in check through trust-busting and regulation. Others were prepared to strike more rhetorically radical postures but usually lacked clear conceptions about how the existing social system could be uprooted or what should replace it.
The rebel youth of the 1960s were shaped by the ultimately successful military struggle, led by the Vietnamese Communist Party, to drive U.S. imperialism out of South East Asia. Today Stalinism in all its variants has lost its allure, and the default political identification for dissident youth is “anarchism,” which can mean anything from vegetarian lifestylism to syndicalist trade unionism.
The turn of the 1960s New Left toward Stalinism was marked by a rash of political exclusions and physical attacks on adherents of rival groupings. Those who practiced such “hard” tactics imagined that they were demonstrating revolutionary firmness, but in reality the attempt to suppress other points of view within the radical left blocked the process of political development toward a genuinely revolutionary praxis.
Regrettably some of the same tendencies are evident today among elements of the “anti-authoritarian” left. In Britain, the anarchist movers behind last year’s June 18 demonstrations are currently planning a major “Mayday 2000″ celebration where Marxists are not going to be permitted to run workshops or sell literature. The organizers’ rationale is that ”unless you are non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian and anti-state you are not anti-capitalist.” There is something downright Pythonesque about one group of leftists excluding others for being insufficiently “anti-authoritarian.” Such behavior ensures that the necessary process of thinking through “what is to be done” will be short-circuited.
Revolution vs. Reformism
In participating in struggles against the symptoms of capitalist rule (e.g., poverty, racism, sexism, unemployment or environmental degradation) revolutionaries seek to explain the necessity to overturn the social system which produces them. Important victories can be won through struggles around particular issues, but any concessions gained can later be reversed as long as social priorities are determined by the pursuit of private profit rather than human need.
“Globalization” has always been a feature of capitalism, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels observed a century and a half ago in the Communist Manifesto:
“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country….In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production.”
Revolutionaries oppose the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank as imperialist agencies, but we do not imagine that if they were to disappear tomorrow, the market system could somehow be made to “serve the people.” However capitalism is organized, it will always be characterized by oppression, poverty and war.
The starting point for building effective resistance to imperialism is the recognition that our main enemy is at home, i.e., our own ruling class. The AFL-CIO leadership, which for generations has acted as a tool of American corporations in undermining militant workers’ movements around the world, today pushes the poison of trade protectionism and national economic retrenchment as the answer to capitalist “globalization.” In particular, the union bureaucrats are trying to direct popular protests away from resistance to U.S. corporate power and toward a focus on China bashing. Their campaign, which combines a noxious mixture of “yellow-peril” racism, anti-communism and chauvinist “human rights” hypocrisy, plays right into the hands of Pat Buchanan and other reactionary “Fortress America” demagogues.
Half a century ago the Chinese masses, led by Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party, carried out a social revolution that expropriated the foreign capitalists. Owing to the absence of revolutionary working-class leadership, the result was a deformed workers’ state, qualitatively similar to the USSR under Stalin. The U.S. and its allies, stung by the “loss” of China, have never given up their ambition to reassert control over this strategically important country. Washington sees China’s integration into the WTO as a means of promoting this objective. Revolutionary Marxists adamantly oppose the restoration of capitalism in China, while advocating a working-class political revolution against the venal and repressive Chinese bureaucracy whose policies are paving the way for that restoration. At the same time, we oppose any imperialist trade sanctions against China.
Despite rhetorical commitments to “free trade,” questions of trade and flag are as intertwined as ever. All the major capitalist powers engage in one or another form of protectionism. The U.S. uses “anti-dumping” duties, while Japan relies on complex regulatory requirements. In the European Union agricultural producers get an annual $44 billion subsidy.
Contemporary capitalism is characterized by an increasing drive to move money and goods internationally in pursuit of maximum profit. Even so, capital retains a national identity to the extent that, politically and militarily, the profiteers remain organized on a national basis. Global capitalism is administered by a patchwork of national states. As the interests of the major powers diverge, the contradiction between the international extension of capital and its national roots will strain the framework of the IMF, WTO, World Bank and other institutions designed to ameliorate inter-imperialist antagonisms. This will lead to overt trade wars between competing imperialist blocs. Economic conflict between the major powers has twice in the past century led to world wars. If that were to occur again, it could very well mean a thermonuclear World War III, an event which would threaten the very existence of human civilization.
But it is also possible for humanity to transcend the irrationality of global capitalist disorder through a social revolution that expropriates the transnational corporations and establishes a rational, planned economy. The chief obstacle that a mass revolutionary movement would face is the armed force of the state. A decisive victory against the capitalist social order requires that the coercive state apparatus wielded by the elites be broken up and replaced by a social power based on the exploited and oppressed. This requires the active participation of an aroused working class, championing the interests of all the oppressed, and committed to establishing a new and egalitarian world order.
Such class-consciousness and unity of purpose may seem unattainable today, and indeed it will be impossible to achieve without the creation of a revolutionary organization that can win the confidence of millions of those oppressed and exploited by capitalism. It is through the struggle to create such a political instrument that the revolutionary consciousness and unity of purpose necessary to vanquish world capitalism can and will be forged.
Neither Free Trade nor Protectionism—Expropriate the Transnationals!
No to AFL-CIA’s China-Bashing!
Workers of the World Unite!