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06 December 1999

The problem with anti-capitalist demonstrations

This article was originally published in The Times (London) on 6 December 1999

'The disparate demonstrations against capitalism represented more of a general moan about life than a movement to change the world'

by Mick Hume, LM editor

When Karl Marx suggested that capitalism would create its own gravediggers it seems unlikely that he had in mind a motley collection of individuals dressed as turtles and butterflies, jigging around with giant inflatable dolphins to the beat of native drums, whose slogans ranged from 'Barbie Kills' and 'Trust Jesus' to 'Free Tibet' and 'Go Vegan' and whose aims were apparently endorsed by the president of the United States. The 'demonstration against capitalism' in Seattle (and its runt offspring in London), staged during the World Trade Organisation conference, captured well the degraded state of radical politics at the century's end.

As the face of faceless multinational capital, with a director-general who looks as if he personally put the fat in 'fat cat', the WTO makes the perfect Bond villain against whom a global diaspora of the disaffected can vent its frustrations. Protest organisers claim that the wide range of issues raised shows their movement's strength. In fact, those who protest against everything end up challenging nothing in particular. The disparate demonstrations against capitalism represented more of a general moan about life than a movement to change the world.

For many of the protesters this kind of gesture politics is primarily an exercise in self-flattery. Those who claim to speak for the masses often end up expressing a kind of exclusive moral elitism. Their message is that 'I am a better person than you', because they don't eat at McDonald's, or buy clothes from stores with politically incorrect names such as Banana Republic, and they were once pushed by a policeman.

A century is a long time in politics. 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, the Seattle protesters' basic complaint was that capitalism has gone too far, too fast, and that economic growth should be reined in. One does not need to be a fan of the WTO to see that developing nations need to develop, and that the alternative on offer from these backward-looking anti-capitalists is even worse than that which they attack.

For all of their talk about protecting the world's poor, many of the fin de si cle anti-capitalists' proposed measures of environmental protectionism would hit third world economies hardest. Whatever the intention, their approach ends up endorsing a new neo-colonial division between the moral West and the immoral rest - or, as the boss of the American Teamsters union put it, between 'good citizens of the world' such as the US, and 'these renegades' with their 'low standards'. Many who complain about the global domination of the WTO applauded NATO's air war against the 'renegade' Serbs.

If this is what anti-capitalism has become it poses less of a threat to the powers that be than at any time over the past two centuries. So, while President Clinton proclaimed that the critics should be inside the WTO conference, the media treated the protesters in fancy dress like teenage hero turtles, and even the Seattle riot cops put on the nearest thing they have to kid gloves. Those who tried to compare the Seattle state of emergency to the repression of past civil rights and anti-war protests might recall that the National Guardsmen sent to pacify American campuses in 1970 used, not rubber pellets, but live ammunition. Those protests were sparked by the decision to send US forces into Cambodia. If Washington invaded South-East Asia again, it would probably have the support of today's anti-capitalists - so long as the president pledged to use the napalm and Agent Orange to end unsustainable logging.

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