What the demonstrators are fighting for
In the USA today, according to USA Today, the holiday shopping season opened with a 6.4 percent jump in sales from last year. The Labor Department reported that personal income rose at the fastest pace in more than five years last month. Donald Trump vowed to spend $100 million of his own money if he ran for president (“very few other people can do that,” he pointed out cheerfully). The Exxon-Mobil merger is set to win government approval. The NASDAQ is up 57 percent so far this year. Amazon.com set a single day sales volume record last week. And Continental Airlines is upgrading it first class menu to include “hot shrimp and cheese on a rustic roll.”
Photo: Lisa Hymas.
You can forgive the powers that be for wondering why on earth the cold, rainy streets of Seattle are thronged with people protesting the ministerial summit of the World Trade Organization — people with buttons reading “No Patents on Life,” people dressed as sea turtles, people carrying signs demanding “Abolish Interest Rates.” If it’s the economy, stupid, why would anyone be complaining? Where on earth did these people come from, these people who seem unimpressed by the one unarguable achievement of the Clinton administration, its seven solid years of economic expansion? And the answer to that question is an interesting one: They came from out of thin air, really.
Four years ago, Sierra Club Books published an anthology of essays edited by Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy, and For a Turn Toward the Local. The writers and activists whose work dominated that volume dominate this movement still: Vandana Shiva, the Indian treehugger; Richard Grossman, David Morris, Herman Daly, Wolfgang Sachs, David Korten, Satish Kumar, a dozen more. Their essays, and the mounting swirl of activism that accompanied them, have built a movement pretty much from nowhere — a movement less of the actively oppressed than of the analytical.
If you can track it down, find a copy of the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto cobbled together by Tom Hayden and a few others at a Michigan meeting that marked the dawn of the New Left in the early 1960s. When we think of the ’60s, we think of the great protests over civil rights and Vietnam, but student radicalism, and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in particular, really started with an analysis of the stifling “multiversity,” with the realization that the prosperous children of the Eisenhower administration were being trained for a life of conformity with no higher goals or sweeter aspirations. And if you read Hayden et al, then you’ll have some sense of where the anti-globalization movement comes from, for it’s not so different.
It’s Helena Norberg-Hodge, watching the advance of Westernization in the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh: “surprisingly, perhaps, modernization is leading to a loss of individuality … [before], as part of a close-knit community, people felt secure enough to be themselves.” It’s Mander, describing the introduction of television to Inuit villages in the Northwest territories: “Now the children want all kinds of new cars; yet most of the communities have no roads; TV makes it seem like the young people are all that’s important, and the old have nothing to say.” It’s Wendell Berry, the great Kentucky essayist and farmer, mourning the loss of American rural communities: “as we now begin to see, you cannot have a post-agricultural world that is not also postdemocratic, postreligious, and postnatural — in other words it will be post-human, contrary to the best we have meant by humanity.”
Photo: Lisa Hymas.
There was plenty of hard argument in The Case Against the Global Economy, too. It tended to be environmental; to point out that our demands were increasingly exceeding the ability of the planet to produce resources and remove waste. But it was an equally comprehensive argument, one that allowed for no small compromises and minor reforms. In the words of Wolfgang Sachs, the task was not to increase efficiency or pass more stringent regulations; it was to “design cultural and political limits to development” before growth overwhelmed the planet.
Most of these people are in Seattle this week, and the protests reflect some of their thinking. But — as with the New Left — many others have jumped aboard, clouding the message. The labor movement in particular has begun to arrive in some force: men and women in windbreakers with the Steelworkers logo, or the Autoworkers, or the Longshoremen. But these weren’t Wobblies, the labor revolutionaries who made the Northwest their headquarters in the early days of the century. These were solidly middle-class trade unionists, whose banners read “Unfair Trade Destroys American Jobs.” Which is a particularly sensible slogan, and one that Al Gore is doubtless worried about — but one you can bargain with. It’s not the Port Huron Statement.
Standing next to a group of steelworkers, I saw a young woman with a t-shirt that said: “Buy Less, Work Less, Stop the WTO.” She was shouting especially loud as the march wound past the Levi’s Superstore, past Planet Hollywood. Like the writers in that Sierra Club book, she had a deeply different idea — one that has less to do with the USA today, but one that might be more threatening in the longest run.
Courtesy of World Trade Observer.
If those two strands came together at all, it was during a late afternoon protest outside a downtown McDonald’s. French farmer José Bové, who had used his tractor to dismantle a Gallic Golden Arches, stood on top of a bus with an Indian farmer and an American. They spoke briefly about the destruction of local agriculture — about the destruction of a way of life. And then they broke bread, and passed samples of French Roquefort through the crowd that crammed the intersection.
It’s true that there was a band on one edge of the crowd assembled under a Vegan Resistance banner, who looked aghast at the thought of cheese. And it’s true that some organizer jumped up next to the farmers to demand the incredible concession that Starbucks start stocking “fair trade coffee.” But it’s also true that the farmers carried the day. People were nearly giddy with the good taste, and the good feeling; with the idea, embodied by those three farmers, that there really was something more to life.