The problem with anti-capitalist demonstrations

David Welch david.welch at
Mon Dec 6 06:07:42 MST 1999

[An LM/RCP commentary]

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

For all of their talk about protecting the world's poor, many of the fin
de siècle 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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