Workers' Liberty #63


The battle after Seattle

The success of the demonstration in Seattle in November- December 1999 in shutting down the World Trade Organisation Conference inspired many. But a strategy of just trying again and again to repeat that feat - calling one demonstration after another to 'shut down' the IMF, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, and maybe the Democratic and Republican Party Conventions - has severe limitations.

To irritate the fat cats by demonstrations outside their meetings may make a useful gesture, but it will not overthrow them or even stop them meeting. The slogans 'end this' and 'shut down that' contain no clear idea of what we're fighting for. And the 'shut it down' strategy is likely to lead the movement into a cycle of ever-more-violent confrontations with ever-better-prepared police. That is likely to narrow our base of support, rather than reaching out to workers currently hesitant and uninvolved. It promises no gain that would compensate for that loss.

The US trade union movement, the AFL-CIO, has launched a Campaign for Global Fairness, advocating 'a new internationalism' based around four points: 'We must first undertake a program of broad-based education with our members and our leaders, then extend it to our allies and to the general public.

'Second, we must make workers' rights and human rights a mainstay of our trade and investment agreements...

'Third, we must undertake major new efforts to build international solidarity with our brothers and sisters in emerging nations as well as in developed nations... We must escalate our support for their struggles to build strong unions...

'Finally, we must launch aggressive new initiatives to hold multinational corporations accountable... demanding that [they] disclose the location of their affiliates, joint venture partners and contractors internationally...' The AFL-CIO also insists: 'We must free up indebted nations.'

It explains: 'For the past 30 years, corporations have been waging war against working families, using the emerging global economy as a club to free themselves from regulation and responsibilities to their employees and communities, drive down working standards worldwide and ship American jobs overseas. They marched under the banner of free trade, but their agenda was much broader - bank and currency deregulation, privatisation of public services, dismantling of social supports and the freedom to organise here at home. They used crushing debt burdens to force Third World countries into a competition for exports that became a race to the bottom...

'Today, the global economy is enriching corporate profiteers, wealthy families and dictators, but it isn't working for working families... If the global system continues to generate growing inequality, environmental destruction and a race to the bottom for working people - then it will trigger an increasingly volatile reaction from workers, farmers, human rights activists and environmentalists.'

There is much to be criticised here. The AFL-CIO leaders do not understand that growing inequality, environmental destruction and a race to the bottom come from the very nature of capital and its exploitation of wage labour, not just from unfortunate policies of the last 30 years. They do not understand that the vast accumulations of financial and industrial capital which dominate the world today can be dealt with only by an international federation of workers' republics. Their posture is that of people lobbying the powers-that-be to throw well-calculated sops and thus avert a 'volatile reaction' from workers, rather than of people rousing and mobilising those workers to act with maximum independence and strength.

Many of the AFL-CIO demands are vague. They do not spell out ideas for workers' control over the operations of the multinationals. All the limitations are summed in the fact that while criticising 'the global system', the AFL-CIO leaders are also going flat-out to support the Democrat Al Gore for President. As Vice-President Gore has helped to push through the capitalist 'broader agenda' which, as the AFL-CIO rightly says, has gone hand in hand with free trade, and as President he will certainly continue to do the same.

Yet the new AFL-CIO line is a great, and very welcome, shift from the old AFL-CIO stance of 'Buy American' and intense suspicion (or downright sabotage) of independent and militant trade-union movements elsewhere in the world on the grounds that they might be tinged with 'communism'. All its elements orient in the right direction - if, sometimes, not very far in that direction - and provide many points of leverage for socialists active in the trade union movement.

The 'New Voices' team now leading the AFL-CIO is broadly social-democratic, rather than having the narrower business-unionist orientation typical of AFL-CIO leaders for many decades back. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, an un-militant ginger group inside the Democratic Party.

Partly the leadership is reflecting some new moods in the US working class, shown in some fine recent struggles. As important, probably more important, is the AFL-CIO leaders' own recognition that their old policy had hit a dead-end, and they must find a new one or see their movement (and with it, their offices and their salaries) collapse under them.

With US capital increasingly organising its production on a global scale, and the US government increasingly unresponsive to union lobbying, they must find new alliances with unions in other countries. They must make the unions a sufficiently visible active force to recruit new members. And they must recruit energetic new cadres for the trade-union machine from rebellious and socially-minded youth. The AFL-CIO has been doing that on a large scale with its 'Union Summer' initiatives, and continues to do so.

Socialists in the trade unions can build on those impulses, supplementing the AFL-CIO initiatives with specific policies: solidarity with particular workers' struggles, workers' control (rights to information and veto) over the operations of the big corporations, an international minimum wage, international charters for trade union and social-welfare rights.

In some other countries, like Britain, the trade union leaders, duller or simply more demoralised than in the USA, have failed to come up with any better answer to the new challenges of globalised capitalism than more and more abject attempts to sell themselves to the employers as 'responsible' policemen of the workforce. Elsewhere, as in Australia, there are signs of a new approach parallelling the AFL-CIO's, with all its problems but with some of its possibilities, too. In all cases, however, the ideas of a new internationalism, of global solidarity, of international workers' charters of rights, and of demanding the multinational corporations 'open their books', can be valuable guides for action.

What about the young activists, from environmentalist and other groups, who provided so much of the radical surge and spark in Seattle? Some of them are already seeking jobs as union organisers. This orientation to the unions is very welcome. But in the first place this cannot be a policy for the whole movement. In the second place, individual ex-radicals will come under strong pressure to assimilate them into the bureaucracy. That will certainly happen if no powerful radical rank and file movement provides a counterweight. It will happen to many even if there is such a counterweight.

Socialists must strive to offer the street-activist movement perspectives broader and more immediate than the hope that they can make progress as individuals by finding niches in the trade union movement and burrowing away there.

In the movement, there is some talk of turning to a 'local' focus, and there is a strand which says 'local good, global bad', 'small good, big bad'. In fact genuinely localised economic life - a return to the village communities of pre-capitalist societies - would stultify and impoverish. To get 'outside' capitalist globalisation by 'going local' is also unworkable. To make our resistance localised and atomised, when the enemy, global capital, is co-ordinated and mobile across the world, is to damage the struggle. We need global solidarity against global capital.

There is, however, a core of sense in the idea of going local. We cannot mobilise effectively against global capital just by standing in its foothills and hurling curses at its distant summits - WTO, IMF, World Bank and so on. We have to find ways of mobilising our workmates and neighbours, starting from their immediate circumstances, for a battle across the whole terrain. We have to find footholds.

Maybe the best immediate foothold can be found in struggles against particular transnational corporations. If we take our cue from the struggles of workers in the hearts of the beasts - and at any particular time, several of the giant transnational corporations will be facing workers' struggles somewhere or other in their operations, or in their networks of suppliers and sub-contractors - then there is immense scope to amplify and build on those struggles by diverse actions across the world. If a group of workers in RTZ or Ford is on strike, then lobbies, pickets, leafletting and so on can send ripples right round the world, and help win real victories.

That campaigns be geared to specific workers' struggles is essential if they are not to drift into 'ethical shopping', or sidetracked into efforts like the current friends-of-'socialist'-Cuba drive to get people to boycott Bacardi rum in favour of Havana Club rum (produced in Cuba by workers with no more, in fact probably fewer, rights to independent trade union organisation than those producing Bacardi). Unity and co-ordination between different campaigns is also essential. We need labour and community alliances for global solidarity.

In fact, we should aim for an organised international labour and community alliance for global solidarity. This would be something like an idea launched by the South African Marxist Neville Alexander - a recomposition of the independent and militant strands of the workers' movement worldwide on a roughly similar basis to the 'First International' of the 1860s.

Among the street activists there is much 'soft anarchism', a wish to steer clear of 'parties' and 'leaders'. But in the same way as dispersed local action is inadequate against an enemy, global capital, which operates both locally and globally, so also an 'anti-political' stance is inadequate in a struggle which, like it or not, proceeds on both economic and political fronts. The more new activists can be drawn into efforts like the new Labor Party in the USA or the Socialist Alliances in Britain, around papers like Action for Solidarity, or into organisations like the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the stronger our fight will be.

Political party organisation is, in fact, essential if the movement is to become more democratic and define clearer positive goals. At present most participants are limited to turning up at particular places and dates, announced by we-don't-know-whom. We demonstrate on calls to 'shut down' this or 'end' that, proposed by we-don't-know-whom. Our involvement in debating any positive aims is limited to ad hoc talk in the course of the demonstrations, with no possibility of formulating definite decisions. So long as all that remains the case, the movement remains, despite all the 'soft-anarchist' talk, very 'top-down'. In fact, the historical record is that anarchist organisations, wherever they get beyond the level of tiny discussion groups, are much more conspiratorial and elitist than Leninist organisations (meaning genuinely Leninist, not Stalinist or Stalinised-Trotskyist).

The activists need to organise ourselves so that we can systematically discuss aims and objectives, and decide priorities which govern our general direction while leaving room for dissident minorities to express their ideas and keep alternatives before our minds. We need to be sufficiently organised to pursue our general direction in a co-ordinated way on several fronts - through leaflets, pamphlets, papers, speeches, and individual conversation; through involvement with strikes and workplace struggles; and in elections and in political campaigns on issues like asylum and immigration laws, trade union law, publicly-financed health care and so on.

We need to be able to review our experiences on all those fronts, learn from them, and revise ourselves accordingly. We need to have people who specialise in the tasks of central co-ordination, but we also need them not to be 'invisible dictators'. They should be duly elected, identifiable, and thus open to criticism, censure or replacement when needed.

And when we have managed to develop all that, what will we have but a party? A revolutionary party. The immediate action we can take towards that end is to strengthen the best of the revolutionary groups that exist already, and to promote united efforts and genuine debate between them.

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