The politics of Waaaah!
The demands of today's anti-capitalists are often worse than anything they criticise, argues Jennie Bristow
At first sight, November's 'carnival against capitalism' in Seattle seemed to have more in common with a music festival than with a mass political demonstration. Inflatable dolphins danced with people dressed as butterflies and mock turtles to the rhythm of native drums, brandishing placards proclaiming 'Barbie kills' and 'Go vegan'. News reports dripped the spirit of togetherness over several pages, detailing how eco-activists had lined up with textile workers in a harmonious display of solidarity that cut across generations, social classes and even political concerns.
The protest outside the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in Seattle, and its runt offspring in London, were certainly as self-regarding as a festival. Every protester emerged from the fray with his own gushing account of the uplifting mood and personal tale of police violence. Take Nicholas Keeble, a 16-year-old public schoolboy from Westminster School, who found himself on the wrong end of a cop at Euston. 'I was just sitting down by the road being peaceful and offering the police flowers and playing the bongos', he told the Daily Telegraph on 2 December, as he recuperated from 'shock' at his mother's home. 'I was also taking photos for a project. When the police charged...I was hit on the head with a truncheon.' Ah, bless.
Nicholas wonders why none of the pictures of the police attacking protesters appeared in the newspapers. He can't be very widely read. In fact, the papers and TV news gave substantial space to images of 'police brutality' in Seattle and London, while the state of emergency declared in Seattle was compared to the repression of civil rights and anti-war protests three decades ago. Few thought to point out that the National Guardsmen sent to pacify American campuses in 1970 used, not rubber pellets, but bayonets and live ammunition; and at that time the media almost always erred on the side of the police. Now you could probably put being pushed over by a policeman in your National Record of Achievement.
If Seattle had simply been Woodstock-with-an-edge, you could write it off as harmless self-indulgence. But there was a serious message behind all of this, which has been endorsed by many more than those protesting on the streets.
Like the J18 demonstration in the summer, where protesters swept through the City of London smashing branches of McDonald's and car showrooms and spitting at men in suits, Seattle was self-consciously a protest 'against capitalism'. Its rainbow coalition of eco-warriors, manual workers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had no one demand, and no clear goal. The message that brought them together amounted to little more than Nicholas Keeble's adolescent bleat: 'I was protesting because of my beliefs in anti-capitalism and police brutality [sic].'
A protest 'against capitalism' sounds very bold. But all being 'against capitalism' can mean, when there is nothing else on offer, is that the world is a nasty, nasty place, and it's about time the media knew about it. As a call to arms (or in this case, flowers), this is about as depressing - and pointless - as it can get. It is the politics of 'Waaaah!' - a tantrum against the general crappiness of life. The gains of the past and present are rejected with the catch-all label 'anti', and the only solution posed is a demand for humility and restraint.
At the start of the twentieth century, anti-capitalists wanted to go beyond the best that the market economy could offer, to build on the achievements of capitalism and raise productivity further. By contrast, anti-capitalists ushered in the twenty-first century by complaining that capitalism has gone too far, too fast, and that economic growth should be reined in. They argue against growth in the third world and for sustainable development instead; they want industry and new technologies to produce less and more slowly, to avoid harming the environment; they hold up Starbucks coffee houses as the enemy of the people, and call for those in the West to reduce their consumption. Less is best is their motto; and nobody dares to disagree.
On one level, of course, you can't disagree. How could anybody be for unsustainable development and environmental degradation? Why would any ordinary person side with the ever-unpopular World Trade Organisation and claim that double espressos are a basic human need? But by picking soft targets and easy-to-swallow platitudes, the 'less is best' lobby have managed to popularise a philosophy that is as destructive as it is simplistic.
The protesters had barely got their fancy dress on when President Clinton proclaimed they should be invited into the WTO conference. In what seems like a bizarre twist of history, the door of capitalist leaders has been flung wide open to the concerns of 'anti-capitalists'. But as Phil Mullan argues on the centre pages, today's capitalists are only too comfortable with the principles of restraint and restriction. Lacking the nerve to invest in their own system and the will to push things forward, those running the world are increasingly reluctant to make the most of what limited potential for progress exists today. So new technologies, bogged down by indecision and ethical soul-searching, are developed at a snail's pace; and the third world, caught between its own limited resources and the diktat of the richer industrial countries, is hardly allowed to develop at all.
Seattle's 'anti-capitalists' have more in common with government and corporate leaders than they would like to admit. All are united in the miserable view that humanity should move forward, if at all, only with the lowest ambitions and the utmost caution. That really is something to protest about.
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000