Viewpoint: Transnationals After Seattle

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

Loren Goldner

MASS POLITICS IN the streets disappeared in the United States between 1970 and 1973. In retrospect, it is clear that the years 1964 to 1970 were not a “pre-revolutionary situation,” but anyone who lived through those years as an activist can be forgiven for thinking it was. Any number of people in the ruling circles shared the same error of judgment.

The Black urban insurrections of 1964 to 1968, the working-class wildcat rebellion (often led by Black workers) from 1966 to 1973, the breakdown of the U.S. military in Indochina, the “student” and “youth” rebellions, and the appearance of militant feminist, gay and ecology movements were all indicators of a major social earthquake.

Thirty years after they ended, the “sixties,” for the left and for the right, still hang over American society like smoke after a conflagration.

The “oil crisis” and world recession of 1973-75 closed that era, and the revolutionary movement in the United States and everywhere else has been retrenching and regrouping ever since. If the ebb has seemed deeper here than in Europe, it is only because U.S. capital is the cutting edge of the dismantling of the old Keynesian “social contract,” such as it was, a dismantling in which Europe is still at the halfway point.

The Necessity of Transnationalism

The ebb of open struggle in the United States, punctuated briefly but hardly reversed by actions against the Gulf War in 1990-91 or by the Los Angeles riots of 1992, expresses a vast “recomposition” of class lines in a world restructuring of capital. Many formerly successful forms of struggle, most notably the wildcat strike, have all but disappeared.

The movements of the sixties were internationalist in sentiment, but they rarely transcended the national framework in practice. However much one wants to quibble about the reality of “globalization,” it has been clear for a long time, even to avowed reformists, that any meaningful strategy, even in the day-to-day sense, has to be international, or better, “transnational,” from the outset to win anything worth talking about.

“Think globally, act locally” may sound like a solution, but its practical result usually comes down to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some American and Chinese workers may have had a more radical consciousness, and perhaps were even more internationalist rhetorically in the 1920s than today, but today conditions exist in which they are compelled, practically, to make internationalism concrete in a way that was unthinkable in the 1920s.

Awareness of the need for a global strategy has been widespread, for a long time, but it has been extremely difficult to make practical. The reformists at places such as the Institute for Policy Studies, supported by a few capitalists, are working hard to develop something like a “global Keynesianism” and a “global welfare state,” once they solve the little problem of the “separate body of armed men,” the sovereign nation state, which has not exactly disappeared.

Meanwhile, the “centrist” Clinton administration has since 1993 pushed through NAFTA, the WTO, the ASEAN agreement, and the dismantling of welfare, a set of attacks on working people in America that would have been opposed in the streets if undertaken by the “right.” It has delivered everything the globalists have asked for.

American workers have reacted to this situation in contradictory ways. There has been an important protectionist sentiment among American workers for a long time: “Buy American,” “Save American Jobs,” “Park Your Toyota in Tokyo,” support for anti-immigrant legislation, occasional violence against Asians, the vile anti-Mexican propaganda of the Teamsters, the USW’s (United Steel Workers) anti-dumping campaign, or the working-class electoral base for Buchanan’s “Fortress America” are all ugly examples.

Beyond it all ultimately lies the sentiment: Lay off someone else, or don’t hire someone else, and save my job, not to mention a fair dose of anti-Asian, anti-Latino racism. Many workers have been won over to sympathy for their employers, who are beleaguered by imports, and have swallowed big concessions on that basis.

On the other hand, traditional unions such as the UAW as well as union reform projects like Labor Notes have made some serious attempts to hook up with workers (usually along industry lines) in Mexico, Asia and Europe, but strictly within a union and often corporatist framework.

There have been some coordinated job actions in auto between the U.S. and Mexico, or the Bridgestone-Firestone campaign of U.S. and Japanese workers. But all these actions have been strictly under the control of some faction of union bureaucrats, in or out of power, and represent the extension of sectoral trade union reformism to a world scale.

Break the Barriers

There exists an inchoate desire in the United States, including among some American workers (which surfaced during the campaigns against NAFTA or 1995 “fast track legislation”), for a different kind of internationalism than that offered by either the globalist ruling class or by the timid actions of official unionists who unquestioningly accept capitalism.

If, as seems to be the case, the world economy has become a “negative sum game” for workers, a “race to the bottom,” then a “different kind of internationalism” would mean creating a situation for a “positive sum game” in which workers can concretely fight for their own interests on a CLASS FOR ITSELF basis, in a way that implicitly, or better still explicitly, recognizes the practical unity of interests of working people in the United States and China, Japan and Bangladesh, Italy and Albania.

Since society, like nature, abhors a vacuum, without this kind of perspective the reformists, protectionist and/or internationalist anti-protectionist, will rush in and contribute to a new anti-working class reshuffling of the deck, in the capitalist “sum which can never be a totality,” as Bordiga used to say.

From a revolutionary viewpoint, it is easy to be skeptical about the events in Seattle. The American participants, both among the trade union contingent and the direct action groups, were overwhelmingly white, in a country in which thirty percent of the population is now constituted by people of color.

The slogan “Fair Trade, Not Free Trade” could certainly be seen as a slightly concealed variant of protectionism by those (and there were many) who wished to do so. The dominant nerve of the demonstrators was activated by the very real prospect of little groups of transnational corporate appointees overruling and overturning national labor and environmental laws and agreements, but just behind that animus was, for some, the idea of Chinese bureaucrats having such influence.

Steelworkers threw foreign steel into Seattle harbor and others held a “Seattle Tea Party” against imports, with China the obvious main target. Few questioned as vociferously the negative impact of WTO entry on Chinese workers, who obviously could not be present.

Throughout, the trade union bureaucracy remained firmly in control of the worker contingents — determined, and successful, in their plan to have nothing but a peaceful, disciplined, unthreatening march independent of, if not indifferent to, the “crazies” of the direct action groups –- and few if any workers seriously challenged that control.

In the Boston area, where I live, much of the “post-Seattle” organizing has an even more overtly protectionist agenda, with repugnant slogans such as “Not One More American Job to Mexico,” and I doubt that this is exceptional.

In the Face of Repression

Nevertheless, despite all the elements of “uneven,” parochial or simply reactionary (“Buchananite”) consciousness it may have contained, one has to characterize Seattle as a breakthrough.

There was, in the patent lack of official preparedness for what happened, an unrepeatable singularity (no international trade summit will ever again take place, anywhere, with so little readiness for heavy repression), an opening to exactly that element of the unknown and unexpected that characterizes a situation momentarily beyond all manipulative control, whether by the state or the unions or the “left,” when power lies for a moment “in the streets.”

Clinton’s kind words for the rights of the Seattle demonstrators should be seen in this context, particularly after it became known that powerful forces at the top had pushed for heavy repression when the police lost control on the first day, and that U.S. Army intelligence units disguised as demonstrators had been all over the place with concealed lapel cameras and all the new paraphernalia of the technotronic, “New Paradigm” surveillance state.

In twenty-four hours, Seattle ripped away the “one note” unanimity of the tolerated “public discussion” of international economic issues of the past twenty years or more. Millions of people who never heard of the World Trade Organization learned what it was, and what it does, more thoroughly than through decades of peaceful opposition and think-tank chatter.

Even strongly protectionist American workers were thrown together in the streets with activists, including worker activists, from 100 countries, and had to confront the human face of the producers of “foreign imports” in a way that had never previously occurred on such a scale, not to mention in such an open situation (as opposed to tedious international trade union conferences of bureaucratic delegations).

Teamsters, bare-breasted Amazon lesbian warriors and tree-huggers were thrown together, and talked, on an unprecedented (for the U.S.) scale. The Seattle events gave a concrete target to opponents of the seemingly abstract forces that have made serious action on the appropriate level so difficult for so long.

In accounts I heard from people who had been there, and in material I was able to gather, there was a genuine whiff of the spontaneous awakening, in the heat of confrontation, to the power of capital and the state that has not been seen in the United States since the sixties, a genuine demonstration by masses in motion of the truth of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, to wit that classical materialism “does not understand sensuous activity as objective.”

The great majority of demonstrators in Seattle, particularly in the direct action contingents, had not been born or were children when the sixties ended, and had never experienced their own power in the streets in this way, anywhere.

Trite as it may sound to the small numbers of sixties activists who still consider themselves revolutionaries, and who are jaded from having been through it all before, a first clubbing, a first tear-gassing, seeing the police go berserk against people detained in a holding cell, a first concrete experience of what bourgeois “rights” really mean when the state tears them up in a confrontational setting, is an irreversible crossing of a threshold, an irreplaceable experience of collective power and of the role of those whose job is to repress it.

People who go through this, whatever the consciousness or intentions that brought them to Seattle, can never be the same.

The brief, ephemeral opening of the sense that “nothing will ever be the same” experienced by some in Seattle and in the wake of Seattle will close again quickly (just as the opening, such as it was, of the LA riots, or that of the December 1995 strike wave in France, closed quickly) without a strategy for a real internationalism, an internationalism in which criticisms of slave labor in China or child labor in India are joined, for example, to a practical critique of the mushroom-like proliferation of sweatshops and prison labor in the United States.

A perspective encompassing the most oppressed layers of the working class and its allies is always a safeguard against the parochialism, including militant parochialism, which sets the stage for a “reformist” reshuffling of the capitalist deck, as occurred in the 1930s and 1940s.

Ever since “1973” closed the era of meaningful “wildcat” direct action on the shop floor of one factory, the workers’ movement in the United States and many other countries has been groping toward a new concrete terrain on which to fight something beside endless losing local battles against plant closings and downsizing, or outright reactionary battles demanding in effect that the layoffs happen “somewhere else.”

In their greatly heightened global mobility, the capitalists stole a march on the world working class that more than twenty-five years of losing and defensive struggles has not yet overcome. If Seattle is in fact to be a positive turning point, at which history did in fact finally turn, it can only be on the path to solidifying and greatly expanding this terrain.

ATC 88, September-October 2000