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social meaning of the protests -The World's Still Watching-

WSWS : News & Analysis : World Economy

By Editorial Board  World Socialist Web Site
6 December 1999

The protests and clashes between demonstrators and police outside the
World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle are a harbinger of things to
come. These events reveal the explosiveness of the social tensions
building up within world capitalism, and especially within America.

The Seattle protests were the biggest American civil disturbances sparked
by political issues since the Vietnam War era. Except for disturbances
where race was a major factor, as in the 1992 Los Angeles rioting sparked
by the police acquittal in the Rodney King beating, it has been nearly
thirty years since the National Guard was called out in a major American

The scale of the protests and police mobilization in Seattle did not, of
course, approach those of the 1960s antiwar demonstrations or ghetto
rebellions. But they are nonetheless symptomatic of new interest in
political and social issues among American working people and youth.

Those who came to the Seattle in the tens of thousands raised a myriad of
issues related to the environment and the exploitation of child labor and
workers in the Third World. But what united the overwhelming majority of
them was concern over growing social inequality and hostility to the
domination of the transnational corporate giants over working people, not
just in America but all over the world.

As the Washington Post commented, describing the protesters: "They are
folks who don't check each day to see how their 401(k) is doing or hang
out with people who have become millionaires when their companies went
public ... What they all seem to agree on is that giant corporations have
gone too far in gaining control over their lives and defining the values
of the culture and that the WTO has become a handmaiden to those corporate

According to one public opinion poll released during the Seattle
conference, American attitudes toward the agenda of the WTO and the
transnationals are sharply divided along economic and class lines. Among
families making less than $20,000 a year, there was a three to one
majority believing that free-trade agreements were harmful. Only among
those with incomes over $50,000 a year was there a narrow margin in favor
of such agreements, with broad support only among those in the highest
income brackets.

It is clear that such sentiments reflect, not hostility to foreign trade
in the abstract, but deep suspicion of the globalization of the world
economy under the control of a few hundred giant transnational
corporations, and fear of its impact on jobs, living standards, working
conditions and democratic rights.

The protests in Seattle were noticeable for the relative absence of crude
nationalism or American chauvinism, which was limited to the AFL-CIO
bureaucrats and the handful of Buchanan supporters. Many of the
demonstrators were either espousing the interests of the peoples of the
less developed countries, or directly representing them, in delegations
which brought to Seattle representatives of peasants and exploited workers
from many countries.


The emergence of such anticorporate, anticapitalist sentiments among broad
layers of the population is a political fact of the greatest importance.
It is a product of the extraordinary polarization of American society over
the past two decades, in which the privileged layer at the top, perhaps
five or ten percent of the population, has grown wealthy beyond their
wildest dreams, while the vast majority of middle class and working people
face an increasingly difficult struggle to maintain a decent life for
their families.

This socio-economic polarization - documented in countless studies in
recent years - has been accompanied by a parallel political process. The
American two-party system, always a tool in the hands of the monied elite,
has become more and more removed from the interests of the bulk of the
people. The result is that when serious social issues are raised in
America, the authorities have no answer but police truncheons, tear gas
and rubber bullets, turning the downtown of a major city into a war zone.

The events in Seattle demonstrate the increasing distance between the
representatives of big business and ordinary people. The public reaction
to the protests, especially in Seattle itself, has been generally one of
sympathy toward the protesters and revulsion toward the police tactics.
But Microsoft boss Bill Gates, in a television interview at the height of
the protests, fumed at the failure of the police to act more forcefully
against the demonstrators who were disrupting the conference at which he
was co-host.

The shocked reaction to the anti-WTO protests on the part of the ruling
elite and the mass media which it controls shows their own disorientation.
What else did they expect, when they summoned a conference to discuss the
fate of the world economy, in which only big business and its political
stooges were represented?

It is not merely the undemocratic and secretive operation of the WTO
itself, as Clinton and the American media sought to suggest. The US
government is just as much the instrument of the corporate elite as the
WTO. In no other industrialized country are the interests of the
non-wealthy so completely excluded from the political system and the
official media as in the United States. The ruling circles, believing in
their own propaganda that the stock market boom of the 1990s has benefited
every American, are as oblivious to the real conditions facing working
people in America as they are to the suffering of child laborers in

Among the most rabid exponents of free market ideology, the reaction to
Seattle was a mixture of incomprehension and contempt. The British
business journal The Economist editorialized against any concession to
anti-WTO protests, declaring, "It is hard to say which was worse -
watching the militant dunces parade their ignorance through the streets of
Seattle, or listening to their lame-brained governments respond to the
'arguments.'" The Wall Street Journal denounced those concerned by
sweatshop exploitation in the Third World, saying: "if you are a
Salvadoran mother desperate to feed your family or a Chinese teenager with
no local job prospects, that 'sweatshop' and 'exploitation' might look
more and more like opportunity."

The response of the Clinton administration combined rhetorical posturing
and cynicism. The White House had initially hoped to exploit the protests
to further its trade agenda against opposition from Europe and the Third
World countries. It closely coordinated its position in the WTO talks with
the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, hiring a former top aide to AFL-CIO President
John Sweeney as counsel to White House chief of staff John Podesta, with
the responsibility to manage the Seattle conference.

But the events in Seattle went far beyond what the trade union bureaucrats
and establishment environmental lobbyists had intended. And when the
protests began to overshadow the WTO meeting itself, instead of serving as
useful backdrop, the administration responded ruthlessly. Both the New
York Times and the Wall Street Journal reported that it was direct
pressure from the White House which induced the Seattle authorities to
intensify police violence against the protests, impose a curfew and call
out the National Guard.

This did not stop Clinton from posing as the friend of peaceful protest,
in his speeches at the Port of Seattle and to the WTO conference itself,
even while his aides were spearheading the assault on democratic rights in
the streets of Seattle.


The demonstrations in Seattle raised issues of critical importance to the
world's population. But neither the organizers nor the participants
possessed a program which could provide a genuine alternative to the
agenda of the transnational corporations and capitalist governments. Worse
yet, the trade union bureaucrats, bourgeois environmentalists and
Democratic Party politicians seek to turn the growing opposition to
capitalist globalization in the direction of nationalist chauvinism and
the defense of the capitalist nation-state.

Typical among these is Tom Hayden, leader of antiwar protests at the
Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, and a longtime
Democratic state legislator in California. In a column Sunday in the
Washington Post, he wrote approvingly that the anti-WTO protesters could
attack the policies of Clinton from the standpoint of American

"For the first time in memory, the patriotism of the corporate globalizers
is in question, not that of their opponents," he wrote. "Do the Clinton
administration's investor-based trade priorities benefit America's
interest in high-wage jobs, environmental protection and human rights? Are
American democratic values and middle-class interests secondary to those
of transnational corporations? As a grass-roots movement seeking the
overthrow of what it sees as an oppressive system, Seattle '99 was more
like the Boston Tea Party than the days of rage we knew in the late '60s."

In a similar fashion, Ralph Nader and other environmental and consumer
activists focus their critique of the WTO on the claim that trade pacts
constitute a violation of US national sovereignty - a position which is
nearly identical to that of extreme-right-wing chauvinists like Patrick
Buchanan, now seeking the Reform Party presidential nomination, who
participated in some of the Seattle protest activities.

The development of a political movement against global capitalism requires
above all a conscious recognition that it is capitalism, not the
increasingly global character of modern society, which is the real enemy.
Capitalist globalization - i.e., the subordination of humanity to the
profit interests of a few hundred giant transnational corporations -
cannot be fought by seeking to return to a historically outmoded system of
relatively isolated and unintegrated national economies.

The revolutionary developments of modern technology, from computers and
lasers to biotechnology and genetic engineering, would, under democratic
and popular control, have an enormously positive potential. As they are
now, however, in the grip of capitalist corporations and the national
state, these new technologies serve mainly to swell the profits of the
super-rich, and provide ever more destructive weapons for the military.

The historical task confronting mankind is not to reject science and
technology or to resurrect a bygone era of small-scale or localized
economy, but to take the enormous productive forces created by human labor
out of the hands of the transnational corporations and national states,
and make them the common possession of all humanity, with their
development subordinated, in a rational and planned way, to human needs.

This socialist perspective can only be realized on an international basis.
Oppression and exploitation cannot be abolished within the existing
framework of rival nation-states, whose economic and political competition
at a certain stage inexorably develops into military conflict. Both
capitalist private ownership and the nation-state system are relics of the
past. They have been superseded by the development of world economy, which
requires the establishment of a system of worldwide economic planning,
controlled democratically by the people, and taking into account both the
need for economic development and the rational utilization and
conservation of natural resources.

The decade of the 1990s began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
state established by the world's first socialist revolution in 1917. While
the spokesmen for world capitalism hailed the collapse of the USSR as the
failure of socialism, it represented in reality the bankruptcy of
Stalinism, the reactionary and anti-Marxist perspective of the bureaucracy
which usurped power in the Soviet Union and suppressed the working class.
The essence of Stalinism was its rejection of socialist internationalism
in favor of a nationalist perspective - the building of "socialism in a
single country."

For all the triumphalism of Wall Street, it is therefore significant that
the 1990s end with the first signs of the emergence of an international
movement against the capitalist system. This movement can only go forward
by assimilating the lessons of the 20th century, above all the struggle
for socialist internationalism against Stalinism, social democracy and
bourgeois nationalism.


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