by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
As just about all the world knows, November 2009 was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and its “bloc” of countries, mostly in Eastern Europe. But it was also the tenth anniversary of another, far less well remembered event that took place in the streets, not of Berlin, Prague or Bucharest, but Seattle: the demonstrations at the 1999 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that united union leaders, environmentalists, young anarchists, older progressives and a lot of other unlikely bedfellows in an unexpected challenge to international capitalism. Though only about 20 people attended, Activist San Diego commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Seattle demonstrations at an event November 16 that featured showings of films from the protests and polite but wide-ranging discussions of what we should be doing next.
The events of 1989 and 1999 are strongly linked historically, for it was the triumphalism of the worldwide corporate elite and its political and intellectual apologists that set the stage for the creation of the WTO in the first place and the implementation of its agenda to destroy virtually all popular and social control of the worldwide economy in the name of “free trade.” One grim irony of 1989 was that for decades, democratic socialists had lamented the damage done to their ideal by the dictatorial rule of Communist parties led by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, their successors and those who saw them as role models. We long wished that the Soviet and Chinese systems would simply collapse under their own weight of bureaucratic deadwood and the socialist ideals would emerge newly purified, freed from their association with dictatorship and repression and ready to be seized by a new generation of activists and organizers looking for ways to create a democratically run and controlled economy.
Instead, 1989 became the epicenter of a matter-antimatter reaction in which the “bad” socialism indeed blew up — but it took the “good” socialism down with it. Thanks partly to the brutality many so-called “really existing socialist” regimes had inflicted on their populations (which dashed Mikhail Gorbachev’s dream of reforming the Soviet Union while keeping it socialist) and partly due to the extraordinary myth-making and history-shaping powers of the worldwide corporate media, the lesson most people came away with from 1989 was that all socialism had failed. The legend of the fall of Communism became the basis for a belief that any attempt to regulate an economy, any interference with the dictates of The Market, would inevitably lead to a dictatorship of intellectual and political elitists sapping the energy of a society and keeping themselves in power at the expense of their people’s well-being.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it with her usual bluntness when she coined the acronym “TINA” — “There Is No Alternative.” Earlier Thatcher had summed up the modern-day version of the ideology of lassiez-faire capitalism when she famously said, “There is no such thing as ‘society.’ There are only individuals.” For years socialists had been insisting that humanity’s alternatives were “socialism or barbarism.” Now the capitalist media and political structures worldwide were loudly proclaiming that the history of socialism’s “failure” proved that the only alternatives were lassiez-faire or barbarism.
The project of deregulating the world’s major capitalist economies — especially in the U.S. and Great Britain — had actually begun in the early 1970’s, when high rates of inflation and the so-called “energy crisis” led the corporate elites and their well-trained politicians towards a strategy of driving down workers’ real wages and redistributing wealth and income from poor to rich. In order to pull this off in countries that were at least nominally democratic, they had to convince working people to vote for politicians who would implement deregulation and other upwardly redistributionist strategies — which they did by encouraging nationalist, racial and cultural prejudices that would get most workers (especially white workers) convinced that the real threats to their well-being came not from those above them, but from those below: people of color, undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants and people living alternative lifestyles.
So many Leftists in the 1990’s felt trapped in a nasty historical bind, as the collapse of Soviet-style “socialism” led to a renewed offensive by capitalist elites to drive down wages and workers’ incomes even further. One of the principal strategies to achieve this came to be called “globalization.” It rested on the idea that with modern technology being able to move products around the world faster and more efficiently than before — and the nascent technology of the Internet being able to move information around even faster — capitalists were no longer restricted to exploiting the workforce of a particular country. Instead they could travel around the world, rapaciously playing country off against country to push wages, benefits and working conditions as low as possible.
To facilitate that, they took an international working group called the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and, at a meeting in Uruguay in 1994, transformed it into the World Trade Organization. The WTO had a mission to control the terms of business throughout the world, always in favor of corporations and against labor, the environment, democracy and any other factor that might interfere with the relentless pursuit of profits über alles. Its primary tactic was called “investor-to-state dispute resolution,” meaning that a corporation could actually sue a country in a private WTO “court” and challenge a law protecting workers’ health and safety or preserving the environment as an impermissible “restraint of trade.” The WTO didn’t have the power to order a government to repeal a law a WTO court said it couldn’t have, but it had a weapon almost as good: the power to impose highly costly trade sanctions on any nation that defied it.
For many Americans, the first inkling of what sort of a future the corporate lords of the universe had in store for them was the debate over the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990’s. NAFTA wiped out the tariff protections the Mexican government had previously been able to use to protect its agricultural sector from competition from giant U.S. agribusiness companies — and as a result, Mexico’s farm economy was decimated and millions of Mexicans crossed the border in search of work in the U.S. (That, not the “amnesty” bill passed in 1986, is the reason there were three million undocumented immigrants from Mexico in the U.S. in 1986 and over 12 million today.) What’s more, NAFTA contained an “investor-to-state dispute resolution” clause by which both the U.S. and Canada were forbidden from preventing oil companies’ use of highly toxic pollutants in their gasoline.
The 1999 demonstrations in Seattle were the result of quite a lot of behind-the-scenes planning that brought together various elements of a coalition dedicating to turning TINA on its ear and proclaiming, “Another world is possible.” Like most opposition movements, it was a lot better at saying another world was possible than defining what that world would look like — but for Leftists all over the world, the sight of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets of Seattle, demanding an end to the “free trade” regime that was literally putting corporations and their profits above the law, was galvanic. The so-called “Teamsters and turtles” marches, putting labor leaders next to environmentalists they’d generally regarded as enemies before, seemed to offer exciting new possibilities for the Left. So did the presence of massive numbers of young people in the streets, for the first time since the 1960’s, energetically challenging capitalism — even if most of them identified as anarchists, not socialists, because they too had bought into decades of propaganda equating socialism with dictatorship.
The anti-globalization movement set out to challenge the World Trade Organization and its corporate-controlled brethren — the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and G-8 (now G-20), an association of the richest countries in the world — by holding massive protests whenever and wherever those groups met. It also set up its own global entity, the World Social Forum — an alternative and a challenge to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the ruling elites of nations and corporations meet annually — and through that sought to set up discussions of what that future “other world” might actually look like.
What happened? There are still anti-globalization activists, trooping around the world to confront and challenge the international meetings of global capitalism — and facing an increasingly brutal degree of repression from the corporate elites and their political stooges. But their movement doesn’t have the same mojo it used to, and it’s never been able to grow beyond opposition. The potential of anti-globalization as a movement to revitalize and energize the world Left — especially the American Left — largely went up in smoke and flames along with New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, which overnight made any challenge to the corporate orthodoxy seem disloyal and unpatriotic and inspired such a bellicose attitude in the U.S. government and its people that what was left of the Left pretty much abandoned anti-capitalist activism in favor of anti-war activism.
In 1989 the world’s most energetic protests came from the people of the Soviet bloc in eastern Europe, throwing off their sclerotic regimes and the tired old men who ran them and tearing down walls to proclaim that another world was possible. In 1999 the energy came from progressives in the U.S. and throughout the world turning out into the streets and challenging the so-called “Washington consensus” that the triumph of globalization and lassiez-faire capitalism was irreversible. Today, at least in the U.S., the most energetic and powerful protests are coming from the Right: the “teabag” actions, vigilante campaigns against “illegal” immigration, disruptions of Congressmembers leading town-hall meetings and other expressions of revulsion and disgust against a government that has found literally trillions of dollars to bail out failing banks and auto companies and push a corporate-welfare version of health-care “reform” whose big beneficiaries will be health insurers and pharmaceutical companies, while working-class people continue to lose their jobs and homes.
The doors that seemed to open in 1999 have been slammed shut, and U.S. politics seems torn between two political parties that are both more relentlessly pro-corporate than they ever have been before. The choice is between a Democratic party that bails out the corporations directly and a Republican party that says let them die, no matter how many more people lose their jobs in the process — so they can be replaced by new, more aggressive, more “entrepreneurial” capitalists playing the same old game of driving the working class to subsistence and starvation. Meanwhile, in Europe voters are rejecting the traditional Leftist parties and voting instead for traditional conservatives, far-Right parties or Leftist remnants which haven’t yet developed viable political or economic platforms. Indeed, Europe’s voter turnouts are plunging towards American levels as increasing numbers of Europeans see the political system as irrelevant to their lives.
All this is taking place at a time when the world economy is in a tailspin, thanks to something Karl Marx predicted and called the “crisis of overproduction.” Capitalists can push down the wages and incomes of their workers all they want, but if they do too good a job of that they end up with almost nobody able to buy the products they produce. Real wages in the U.S. declined every year but two (1999 and 2000) from 1973 to the present — and American workers generally kept up their living standards by going deeper and deeper into debt. Then the 2008 collapse of the financial system brought a screeching halt to their ability to borrow, which sent the entire economy into a tailspin. The Left, here and throughout the world, is at a crossroads. We have to work out a response to the economic crisis that makes sense, serves people and can be sold to them in the face of a relentless onslaught of Right-wing propaganda from the corporate media. That’s probably even harder than it sounds, but the events of both 1989 and 1999 prove that it’s by no means impossible.