The New Anti-Capitalism
Friday, August 4 2000, 5:09 PM
Last Saturday, I listened to the radio as I prepared breakfast. "London police prepare for May Day's anti-capitalism demonstrations," the BBC announced as its lead story that morning. "Thousands of demonstrators are planning to stop all business downtown to protest against capitalism," exclaimed the hostess of News Hour. I put down my coffee and stared at the radio in disbelief. "What did she say?" I asked myself, a look of bewilderment spreading across my face. "Anti-capitalism? I must be dreaming!"
Being the longstanding Marxist that I am, I couldn't help but grin with self-satisfaction. These words tasted like candy in a mouth whose only memorable political sensation is the taste of bitterness. Just to hear that term being rendered so neutrally on a public news program felt like the biggest victory in the world. Even if nothing ever came of it, I thought, just uttering the phrase would be enough of a virus to get at least a few people thinking.
Nonetheless, this isn't the first time I've felt surprised these last few months. Beginning with the demonstrations that rocked the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last November, and hearing everyone talk about the evils of globalization and even monopolization in the mass media, there appears to be some kind of change afoot. And I don't just mean to refer to the thousands of people whom all of the sudden appeared a second time in under a year at the IMF meeting in Washington DC last April. Nor do I necessarily mean the May Day Anti-Capitalism protestors who brought London to a standstill last week either, or the endless interviews on National Public Radio with the likes of Canadian author Naomi Klein, patron saint of the anti-brand name movement.
What I'm referring to is an overall change in the way people seem to be speaking about capitalism. They're starting to criticize it and it appears to be on everyone's increasingly liberalized lips, from mainstream news commentators applauding the potential breakup of Microsoft to the signs that young anti-sweatshop activists hold up in front of Gap and Old Navy stores. If this is really true and not just a figment of my starry-eyed imagination, it raises several extremely profound questions that are very tough to answer without sounding like a self-congratulatory revolutionary cheerleader at a Communist Party meeting of fellow higher beings. Are we witnessing a resurgence of leftist politics? Why now rather than when we elected Ronald Reagan president, fought the Persian Gulf War, watched President Clinton eviscerate federal welfare programs and continued a massive, decade long war of attrition against Iraq with no foreseeable end in sight?
The answer is simple. The Cold War is ten years behind us. Enough time has passed under the bridge to allow radical politics to reemerge in a manner that remains consistent with one of the old left's principle fetishes: The horror that remains capitalism. Regardless of the precise political orientation of the new progressive movements that flexed their muscles on the streets of Seattle, London, and Washington DC, consciousness of the destructive nature of capitalism seems to be the common denominator that rocks the bottom radical line, Black, Red, or Green. Or, simply oppositional, i.e. generically anti-corporate in a punk rock kind of way.
The new critique of capitalism takes many forms, from unions calling for an end to further outsourcing of American jobs to environmentalist and third world activists criticizing the way development programs designed to spur industrialization in the southern hemisphere destroy local ecosystems and keep impovershed nations permanently in debt. While these may be very stereotypically breast beating complaints for progressives to make, the tenor with which they are currently being expressed, and the degree to which they criticize fundamental facets of free market economics is totally unprecedented, even by 1960s neo-academic standards. The underlying concern remains a very old fashioned progressive depreciation (for lack of a better term,) of greed, and the manner in which fundamental concepts like corporate profits takes precedence over peoples basic needs.
Another way to understand what's anti-capitalist about the new protest movement is to summarize the primary objects of its scorn: The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organization for Cooperation and Development, and the World Trade Organization. All of these organizations have an extremely pejorative stigma attached to them because they represent a surreptitious kind of planetary executive which transcends the declining authority of the nation-state to make its own laws and insure the rights and the safety of its own citizens.
In the state's place stand these institutions, subordinating civil rights, laws and the environment to the ever-expanding needs of the free market and the pocketbooks of rich individuals and international conglomerates, many of whose annual earnings exceed the gross national products of many second and third world countries. In short, such financial organizations have assumed the previous role of the state. In doing so, they've further contributed to the erosion of democratic political institutions, already battered in North America and the European Union by nearly twenty years of continuous scaling back of government spending on welfare, education, health and the environment.
It would be a mistake to argue, as some public commentators and even leftists have recently done, that the new anti-capitalism in the United States and Great Britain is a product of the affluence that's graced both nations under the neo-liberal economic stewardship of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. People don't take to the streets with such ferocity when they're well fed and over-employed, or when their moral consciousness and sense of citizenship has been enlarged by global communications infrastructures like CNN and AOL. North Americans and Europeans are finally criticizing capitalism again because they sense some kind of radical discrepancy between the decreasing quality of their lives and how the government and the media tells them they're supposed to be living. Can you blame them?
At a certain point, overwhelming poverty and an increasingly lack of access to upward mobility in a world with so much money and so many freedoms becomes too hard to ignore, regardless of how frequently you've been told that every opportunity for self-advancement in the service industry is naturally yours. People have good reasons to feel disenchanted and lied to. Despite the massive profits being generated by the "new" economy, in America the discrepancy between rich and poor is now greater than it was during the 1920s, when interest rates were at a similar all time low, and unemployment was extremely high. Even though commodity and gas prices have reached record levels, there's been no significant increase in wages for Americans in almost thirty years. Meanwhile, the homeless continue to proliferate, the police get more violent, anti-crime legislation becomes even more medieval, and minorities consistently get pushed out of urban areas into new suburban slums.
While one could cite numerous other examples of disenfranchisement in the United States, insufficient employment opportunities and wages that lack purchasing power to buy into the new economy ought to be enough evidence to explain why Americans are becoming ambivalent about capitalism. Why? Because these are uncontestable physical realities that we all have to personally confront in our everyday lives, regardless of how much time we spend watching television, attend worship services or surf the Internet. That's what's so precious about the new anti-capitalism. Despite the ever-increasing demands for conformity and obedience that we are bombarded by on every side, people are still able to withstand the pressures of ideology, discrimination and disappointment strongly enough to feel like they're getting a raw deal from a society where survival of the richest is the only thing that's always assured.
Joel Schalit has been a member of the Bad Subjects collective since 1994. In his not so spare time, he also edits Punk Planet Magazine, plays his computer in the Elders of Zion, and writes dissertations.