By Mick Duncan
One of the most impressive political phenomena of the last few years has been the protest movement around groups such as Reclaim the Streets, which has been called the “new anti-capitalism”.
Actions like the J18 City of London Protest Against Capitalism (or “riot”), and the street parties organised by RTS, show imagination and a will to change the world. The make up of these protests is predominantly young. So many young people starting to question the way the world is run and doing something active about it can only be a good thing.
The roots of the new anti-capitalism
The origin of this movement can be traced to the illegal rave and free party groups that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Politicised by the campaign against the Poll Tax and by often extremely heavy-handed police attacks on “illegal” parties (i.e. ones that didn’t make huge profits for councils and promoters), a pool of activists was created that would feed the road protests that were about to start.
Reclaim the Streets is the most well-known of the new anti-capitalist organisations, or “dis-organisation”, as it calls itself, in the UK. It was originally set up in 1991 as a road protest group in London, organising protests like disrupting the 1993 Motor Show at Earls Court, and dumping a wrecked car on Park Lane. It proclaimed to be “for walking, cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and against cars, roads and the system that pushes them”.
RTS immersed themselves in the campaign to stop the M11 link in east London. By virtue of being in an urban environment, as opposed to the Twyford Down protests, for example, that preceded it, this campaign forced the participants to think about broader social issues.
In 1994, the Tory government introduced the Criminal Justice Bill, an exceptionally repressive piece of legislation aimed directly against ravers, road protesters, trade unionists and anyone organising demonstrations or civil disobedience. A number of organisations turned themselves towards campaigning against the CJB. This included road protesters, party organisers like Luton’s Exodus, groups like Justice? in Brighton who publish the activists’ newsletter Schnews, pressure groups like Liberty and Charter 88, and the far left. Unwittingly, the government had brought together the disparate forces that would organise events like the huge March for Social Justice in support of the Liverpool Dockers and the June 18 protest against capitalism in the City of London. In 1995, RTS was relaunched.
The Liverpool dockers’ strike was hugely important in shifting the ideology of many of the people involved in campaigns like RTS. As these groups found a common cause with the dockers and with tube workers, some started to move towards a class perspective; capitalism itself, much more than the car, started to become the target of their anger. As an RTS leaflet puts it: “Our streets are as full of capitalism as of cars and the pollution of capitalism is much more insidious.”
The political development of Reclaim the Streets
RTS is a disparate organisation. One of its attractive characteristics is that it is genuinely protective of democracy, and aims to ensure the views of different strands within the movement are given equal weight.
Alongside making common cause with the organised working class movement, RTS publish an article on their website called The Social Ideology of the Motorcar by André Gorz, theorist of the “disappearing working class”, which fetishises the car to a phenomenal degree. The car is ascribed almost super-human powers to oppress. To Gorz, cars are “‘like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority”. Tell that to a minicab driver! For sure the car is hardly the liberating miracle it is portrayed in adverts; but it is no more a “luxury good” than a minicab driver is a member of the “very rich minority”. The article goes on to quote Ivan Illich offering the solution “People will break the chains of overpowering transportation when they come once again to love as their own territory their own particular beat, and to dread getting too far away from it”.
What a bloody awful view of the future! One of the positive aspects of capitalism is that it has expanded people’s horizons and aspirations. The problem is not that people now want to travel, to sample and learn about cultures or places other than their own; rather it is that capitalism cannot realise this dream for the majority. We are all “free” to climb the Himalayas or visit the temples of the Incas, but most people can’t afford to.
The answer is not to drag people back to a time when the limits of our expectations were the boundaries of the town or village we grew up in, but to reduce the amount of work we have to do, increase the wealth of the majority and socialise transport to make it affordable, both to people and to the environment.
Not all of Gorz’s article is without worth, but it illustrates the point that there are a huge spread of views and opinions within the “new anti-capitalism”. This should be no surprise: after all, there is a huge spread of views within “socialism” — some revolutionary, some progressive, some reformist, some dreadfully reactionary. The same is true here. We have to learn to discriminate, to work out which views offer a coherent way forward, or a solution to a problem, and which do not.
The international spread of RTS
Over the last few years RTS groups have appeared across the world, from Australia to Switzerland, to Canada and the USA, to the Czech Republic. These groups have been inspired by the British group. Many of the pictures of their street parties and protests look like they could easily have been taken in the UK. The politics seems very similar too and some of the phrases they use are straight from British leaflets and websites. Again, there is a real mix of political opinions and even a large number who don’t care about politics. As an Australian comrade put it to me: “A lot of people come along simply to party. They come along because there are good DJs and it’s trendy”.
This is not an experience unique to Australia; it is clearly evident in Britain, and indeed, much of RTS’ ability to mobilise on such an impressive scale is down to it being fashionable and attractive. And there is nothing wrong in itself with protest being fun!
The New York RTS makes a call specifically to all “labor [trade union] and environmental activists”. Their first action, in Summer 1998, was against “[New York Mayor] Giuliani’s ‘quality of life’ campaign against the working poor, the unemployed, immigrants, gays and minorities” — a directly political campaign. The big demonstrations outside the World Trade Organisation Conference in Seattle in 1999 saw a huge coming together of environmentalists and trade unionists.
Sydney RTS, according to their website, place a big emphasis on transport, but see a large part of the answer in expansion of public transport. They conclude: “Won’t the streets be better without cars? Not if all that replaces them are aisles of pedestrianised consumption or shopping ‘villages’ safely protected from the elements.”
To be against the car for its own sake is inane — claiming one piece of the jigsaw as if it’s the whole thing. “The struggle for car-free space,” they say, “must not be separated from the struggle against global capitalism.”
It is hard to say whether these views represent a difference of ideology from the British groups. It may be that, because these international groups emerged later than the British original, they have adopted an ideology much more similar to that associated with RTS and others in recent years, as opposed to in the early, road protest days. It may also reflect trends in political opinion and activism in their own countries. Or, more simply, it may just be that they reflect one aspect of the variations in political opinion in those groups that we also see here; there may be no real difference at all.
The Marxist left and the new anti-capitalism
The shift from an exclusive focus on road-building programmes towards workers’ struggles like that of the Liverpool dockers, and on issues such as the privatisation of the London Underground, has led the left to pay more attention to groups like RTS. It is not uncommon to see left paper-sellers on their protests now. This is not to say that there is suddenly no hostility towards the left or that everyone is itching to become Marxists. There is still some hostility and mistrust between both groups.
It is important to try to understand where that hostility came from and to what extent the left deserved it. A feeling that the left parachuted in at the end of the CJB campaign, flooded the demos with their own placards, set up their own anti-CJB campaign and claimed demos as their own had, understandably, pissed a lot of people off. But the stereotype of the Socialist Workers’ Party is not true of all the left. Sure, some of the far left made huge mistakes, but we are not to be judged “just as much our enemies as the state”, as some leaflets circulated at these events have claimed the SWP to be.
The left has often taken one of two approaches to new protest movements that they haven’t seen before. One is to treat them with caution and suspicion and to dismiss participants as “middle class dilettantes that will all get good jobs in a couple of years”. (It is worth remembering that this is a charge often made against members of the far left.) The second response is to forget everything we have learned about the centrality of class or the importance of ideas and see the “new anti-capitalist movement”, like students in the 1960’s, or even guerrilla groups like the Shining Path in Peru, as a short-cut alternative to working class struggle, and attribute to them an importance, and a role, they cannot meaningfully have in the struggle for socialism.
Neither approach is very useful. Thousands of youth becoming newly politicised and active to one degree or another do not add up to a new revolutionary force that can replace the working class; but it is hugely welcome. The task of the organised, Marxist left is honestly and sincerely to get involved in these campaigns, but also to attempt to offer our politics and view of the world.
The libertarian tradition of the RTS, and others, means that a wide spectrum of people can find common cause and work together. This is vital if the left is to develop into a force capable of influencing sufficient numbers to change the world. But it is not all that needs to be done.
Politics is vital
It is difficult enough to fix a car engine without first developing some knowledge of motor mechanics: you need to buy and read a manual, talk to a mechanic, or get a friend to help, for instance. No-one would say that a knowledge of mechanics isn’t needed to fix an engine, simply wanting a better engine will do! Changing the world is a much more complicated endeavour, and yet many people do say, in effect: “Sod all the debating and reading what Marx or Trotsky said, we all want to change the world and that will do”!
Unfortunately, it won’t. That’s why we organise the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty: to train a group of militants in the theory, history and practice of class struggle so we are better equipped to change the world once and for all.
Politics without activity is as empty as activity without politics.
What happened in Seattle?
By Traven, a Seattle-based Teamster union organiser
The “Battle of Seattle” is the beginning of something greater yet to come. The demonstrations, rallies and blockades of 29 November-3 December 1999 could be a turning point in the development of a labour movement with the political will and organisational capacity to pursue independent class politics. Some 50,000 participants directly experienced, and millions more saw, the power of mass mobilisation.
This was certainly the largest union-based protest in generations. While the AFL-CIO’s (main union federation) rally and march of some 40,000 on the 30th was intended by most of the labour leadership to be a controlled and respectable affair to pressure the Clinton administration to give labour a seat at the WTO table — and while it was organised to minimise contact with the 10,000-plus social movement activists who were successfully shutting down the WTO conference that day — this mass mobilisation took on a more far-reaching dynamic.
Even US labour’s official rhetoric marked a major step forward from its former policies of support for “free trade”, that is, reducing barriers to US exports by “our” corporations, combined with protectionist policies and “Buy American” campaigns. The new AFL-CIO has moved a long way from the Cold War practice of Kirkland/Meany, when more union staff worked on joint AFL-CIO/ State Department/CIA international affairs efforts, whose work included undermining independent or radical labour movements in other countries, than on all other US union business combined.
The movement in Seattle was overwhelmingly internationalist. Echoes of the demagogic, nationalist and right-wing populist Pat Buchanan were few. On the 29th, the labour movement joined with the Jubilee 2000 movement to demand cancellation of the Third World debt. Most of the myriad meetings featured speakers from all over the world. The 30 November labour rally included people from 144 countries. Al Lannon (former president of ILWU Local 6 and a labour educator) commented, “The speeches themselves were way different than in the not-so-distant past. The ICFTU (international union organisation) representative talked about working class internationalism and the president of AFSCME named the enemy ,corporate capitalism, and declared, ,We will fight them in Congress, we will fight them in the courts, and we will fight them in the streets. And we will stop them. We will prevail’.” (This from one of the most craven supporters of Al Gore!)
All of this makes building alliances easier, both within the US and across borders. Before the “Battle of Seattle”, the corporate media defined the issue as free trade versus protectionism and warned the public that the issues were impossibly complex: protectionism, globalisation, export trade, balance of trade, intellectual property rights... that we should leave the decision making to the experts in the WTO, IMF, World Bank... The demonstrators successfully reframed the issue as rules protecting corporations versus rules protecting people and the environment. Would we allow the WTO, the symbol of a whole economic order, to continue to force working people in all parts of the world to compete in a “race to the bottom”?
Debate within labour
Only one month before 30 November, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had signed a letter, along with business leaders, endorsing Clinton’s trade agenda for the WTO, because it favoured a WTO study group on labour standards.
This stance was publicly criticised by the presidents of the auto, steel and Teamsters unions, and, internally, by the Seattle area labour leadership.
This followed on and paralleled the differences which arose at the AFL-CIO’s September national convention over the Sweeney majority’s early endorsement of Al Gore. Organisers feared that the AFL-CIO might be scaling back the labour mobilisation for 30 November to avoid a political confrontation that would embarrass the Democrats. Some key unions made no meaningful attempt to educate or mobilise against the WTO, undoubtedly because they feared that any union action around trade issues would undermine their cynical attempts to make Gore appear to be a palatable candidate.
While the AFL-CIO’s official line was open to co-option by the Democrats, Clinton’s promise to support a WTO “working group” to study the question of enforceable labour standards was not taken seriously by union members, or anyone else outside of Washington. People were mobilised on a basis that placed no faith in the reformability of the WTO.
In the Seattle area, real efforts towards union education and mobilisation had begun as early as February. Attempts were being made to build strategic alliances between labour, environmental, religious, and community-based organisations. Verlene Wilder, Union Cities organiser for the King County Labor Council (KCLC), who co-ordinated the educational work, noted: “One of the best things that has happened out of this is we have new rank-and-file activists who were not involved with their union, but they are now. The WTO mobilised them… We have activists in every single local who say, ‘We want to be involved.”
Following the police riots, undoubtedly unleashed by the Secret Service’s demand for “order” after the WTO conference was prevented from meeting on the 30th, those elements of the labour movement that had mobilised most seriously for the 30th: the Steelworkers, Teamsters Local 174, and the West Coast longshoremen (ILWU), along with the KCLC, came to dominate the ongoing anti-WTO labour mobilisation.
The ILWU had (after some vacillation) shut down all the ports along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to San Diego on the 30th. The Steelworkers had been developing an alliance with radical environmentalists “for sustainable jobs and the environment” begun in the course of their strike at Kaiser Steel, owned by the environmental outlaw — MAXXAM. Teamsters Local 174 is Teamsters for a Democratic Union’s (TDU) flagship local. It had mobilised a disproportionate share of the rank-and-file Teamsters on the 30th, and played a key role in committing the area labour movement to mobilise alongside the social movement activists in the face of the repression following the blockade of the WTO conference on the 30th. One of the most popular slogans became “Teamsters and Turtles United At Last”. The traditionally conservative Building Trades unions had shut down all the construction sites in downtown Seattle on the 30th, and continued to demonstrate alongside the rebel youth throughout the week.
After the police attacked social movement activists and trade unionists following a Steelworkers’ rally on 1 December, arresting hundreds, the KCLC began to mobilise against the repression, and reached out to the activist community and religious groups. This led to a disciplined, militant march on the 3rd, a work day, of over 5,000 in defiance of the city’s “no protest zone”. It projected a clear “no WTO” message, linking the WTO to the violation of democratic rights, and demanded the immediate release of the over 500 jailed activists. As hundreds maintained a 24 hour vigil outside the jail, ILWU activists began organising for another shut down of West Coast ports to win the prisoners’ release. Of course, there were many bureaucratic labour officials who argued that the “respectable” unions had made their point on the 30th, that we must keep our distance from the rowdy direct action types. This time, however, in Seattle the majority of the institutional labour movement responded that “we belonged in the streets”, alongside the activists, to stop the WTO, to defend democratic rights, and to build a broad social movement for justice.
The relationships of trust forged in the streets continue in Seattle, for example, in conferences co-sponsored by the King County Labor Council, the Direct Action Network, and other activist groups. Ron Judd, Executive Secretary of the KCLC, said: “I think our challenge now is how do we take the tremendous victory we had in Seattle and build on that. Seattle has got to be more than a cornerstone. We’ve got to build the structure now. And its got to be international in scope.”
The Battle of Seattle stands as one of the most inspirational and hopeful class struggle events in the US for several generations. In contrast to the youth radicalisation of the 1960s and early 1970s, when most union leaders either opposed or abstained from the anti-war, anti-racial/national oppression and feminist struggles, in Seattle important elements of the labour movement stood with the activists. The tremendous significance of this powerful new alliance was grasped by the environmentalists and anti-corporate youth. They understood that labour played an essential role in bringing numbers and credibility to the protests, that would otherwise have been marginalised, and more viciously repressed. A re-energised labour movement, with all of its contradictions and weaknesses, is cautiously seeking alliances and political support as it struggles on the hostile terrain of neo-liberal America in this period of restructuring and capitalist globalisation.
A new generation of rebels, and older militants as well, have internalised the understanding that a mass social movement, with organised labour at its core, has tremendous social power. With this realisation comes a new found optimism and energy.