Reviews > Culture

The radicals are back

Culture | "The Battle in Seattle" was not about trade, but about left-wing revival

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1999," Dec. 18, 1999

Ever since the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, the left wing has been in a state of decline. The Soviet Union fell apart; the world discovered the wonders of the free market; and deregulation and the scaling back of the welfare state have been the order of the day. But the debacle in Seattle-one of the largest protest demonstrations in U.S. history-wasn't just retro-nostalgia for the '60s. It signals that the left is back, with new tactics for the new millennium.

The issue is not the World Trade Organization. Though free trade tends to be the tide that floats all boats, many conservatives, from Pat Buchanan to many Christian activists, oppose the WTO, as smacking too much of globalism and one-world government.

But the conservative critics of the WTO do not seem to have been invited to the party. "The Battle in Seattle" was carefully organized by a leftist coalition, rallying troops from around the world via the Internet and coordinating parallel demonstrations in London. Besides labor unions and Third World farmers-who at least have a stake in the trade debate-the feminists and homosexual organizations were out in force (is there a gay position on free trade?), and the anarchists were there in their black ski masks (what kind of anarchist would be against free trade?).

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It certainly was not conservatives who smashed windows, trashed businesses, and caused some $2 million of property damage. While there may be conservatives who believe in tariffs, there aren't many who believe in destroying other people's property and breaking down the social order.

The rhetoric of the day was not a ringing call for national sovereignty and economic nationalism, as one might expect for true critics of the WTO. Rather, it was aimed at the evils of corporations, businesses, and capitalism in general. Most of the protesters would, in fact, like a world government. Their problem with the WTO is that it doesn't have enough power to regulate the member nations. They want labor and environmental regulations imposed on the whole world.

But, again, the Seattle protests were hardly about the WTO, as such, but about the resurrection of the radical left. To be sure, the movement had a setback with the fall of Soviet communism. The Marxists in academia, though, wrote articles about how the comrades should not lose heart. Russian socialism was an embarrassment, with its gulags and its ineptness. Now, they were saying, Marxism can emerge in a truer, more idealistic, and purer form.

Like the baby boomers' Marxism, the new post-Soviet left courts connections with the labor movement. The '60s radicals talked about the revolution of the proletariat, but it was precisely working-class Americans, in their hard hats and steel-toed boots, who most despised the hippies and the yippies, to the point of breaking up their protests with their fists. The neo-Marxists are hoping to exploit labor's fear of losing jobs through competition with low-paid Third World workers, as a way of allying with the proletariat (despite all of their stock options).

But the shock troops of the new post-Soviet left are the radical environmentalists, gay activists, and the new tribe of self-professed anarchists. These are the pioneers of the new protest tactics, which are part domestic terrorism and part performance art. The Green environmental activists, who drive metal spikes into trees to break loggers' equipment; the animal-rights activists, who throw blood on women who wear furs and smash research labs to liberate the rats; the Act-Up homosexual activists with their

kiss-ins and disruptions of church services: These groups employ the sort of tactics we may see with greater frequency.

As for the anarchists, they are mainly young people who have grown up on heavy metal and the dark side of the Internet, who have learned to have no ideology except for an uncritical contempt for any kind of authority, moral codes, and social restrictions.

Seattle has left thousands of protest veterans, proud of their rubber-bullet wounds, with war stories of being tear-gassed, filled with the exhilaration that comes from solidarity with the workers of the world, not to mention the rush from breaking windows and trashing a Starbucks. Their self-righteousness is absolute, and now it is both indignant and flushed with victory.

"The Battle in Seattle" may be a milestone in the resurrection of American radicalism. Watch for more of this sort of thing in the presidential election. This new left would like to make next year's Democratic and Republican conventions like the 1968 Democratic convention in Mayor Daley's Chicago. If the left wing becomes cool again, we may be in for another long century.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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