The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 61 (Summer 2000).
"We would have won if they hadn’t cheated."
So wrote one anarchist journalist, commenting on the D.C. police actions to harass and intimidate the demonstrators against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund who flocked to Washington in mid-April.
Indeed, the cops did not play by gentlemanly rules, although they were less violent than in Seattle. About a square mile of the U.S. capital city were sealed off, helicopters droned overhead and thousands of riot-geared cops were posted throughout downtown D.C. The crackdown was designed to prevent a repetition of last fall’s “battle in Seattle,” where some 50,000 student, labor and environmentalist demonstrators forced the World Trade Organization to cancel its opening day session and contributed to the collapse of the talks.
Washington drew perhaps 15,000 people, and in the course of the week’s events, over 1300—about one-tenth of the participants!—were arrested. The cops violated civil liberties at will and detained hundreds for no legal reason. But that’s their job: to maintain capitalist order, law or not. The widespread idea that the cops “cheated” to prevent a “legitimate” expression of public opinion betrays a high level of middle-class naivety about political repression in the United States, above all the daily attacks carried out against people of color.
About 10,000 showed up at the main permitted rally on April 16, with another few thousand taking part in the “direct action” attempts to disrupt the bankers’ meetings. The next day’s events were also supposed to feature a major rally and march, but they fizzled out under the combination of confused planning, rain and repression.
In our judgment the result was not a success, especially when compared to Seattle. As we wrote in our bulletin distributed at several of the week’s events:
[The IMF and World Bank] are the most powerful financial institutions on earth. … the bloodsuckers who feed off mass misery and ravage the environment must be stopped, their stranglehold on the world economy ended. Seattle was a victory, and we hope Washington will be too; however, these anti-globalization actions are not the answer to the imperialist horrors infesting the world.
The failure of the Washington protests, however, was not primarily the fault of the cops. The organizations leading the protests pushed agendas that have absolutely no hope of destroying imperialism or even restricting its crimes. For in reality, the strongest blows against IMF/World Bank policies have been mass upheavals by the working class around the world.
In Indonesia mass strikes, street battles and student protests brought down the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, in a struggle that erupted against the regime’s enforcement of IMF dictates. General strikes in Korea and Zimbabwe in recent years were likewise aimed at IMF-backed austerity programs. The ouster early this year of the president of Ecuador by an unprecedented mobilization of indigenous peasants was in protest against U.S.-imposed neo-liberal policies. In April, a powerful general strike shook Bolivia, against an IMF-ordered takeover of a state-owned water company by U.S. and British capitalists. A few weeks later there was a general strike by South African unionists against austerity program pushed by the imperialist bankers.
Mass action by working people is the only way to end the crimes of imperialist capitalism. It is also the only way to get rid of imperialism and super-exploitation forever—through proletarian socialist revolution.
But even on their own terms, the D.C. leaders failed to deal a serious blow to the IMF & Co. Unlike in Seattle, the “direct action” protesters were kept physically separate from the great majority of demonstrators on April 16. That way their sit-downs and confrontations with the cops took place in comparative isolation, not supported by the voices and bodies of their fellow demonstrators. And many of the “anarchists,” religious groups and others who sat down in the streets arranged to be peacefully and cooperatively arrested, as if the cops were collaborators in some publicity stunt.
The big-time labor leaders, who had tried with only partial success in Seattle to keep their troops away from the student and environmental actions, made sure in Washington that there was no contact: they held their rally four days earlier, and with a reactionary program in the service of imperialism. With national elections approaching, the last thing the bureaucrats want is a mass mobilization that could offer an alternative to their strategy of collaborating with the imperialist Democratic Party and the workers’ supposed friend, Al Gore.
Some of the organizations that sponsored the April events want the IMF and World Bank to reform. They demand that the financiers cancel the enormous debts owed to them, cease imposing their “structural adjustment” programs that deepen poverty and inequality, and compensate the peoples and governments harmed by their policies.
Others say that the evils the IMF promotes are the very reason for its existence and therefore it must be abolished—not repaired so that it can do its work with a better cover. Their goal was to shut down the April IMF/World Bank meetings to awaken the public to their crimes—and ultimately to shut down the institutions themselves.
This is the “fix it or nix it” debate that runs through the “anti-globalization” movement. One position is more militant than the other—but both in the end are reformist, since even the “abolitionists” ignore the true nature of the IMF and World Bank. These institutions are the agents of the imperialist powers, the United States above all, which need them or similar institutions to carry out the inescapable profit-gouging demands of big capital. Forcing concessions from them requires a working-class struggle that recognizes them as part of a deadly class enemy.
The dispute among the protest leaders nevertheless ensured that the April 16 rally was politically pathetic. The anti-capitalist sentiment prominent in Seattle was largely absent, except in the slogans of the far left. The most prominent slogan was “Spank the Bank"—as if the World Bank were a naughty child to be taught a lesson, not an imperialist predator to be destroyed. In general, the “Fix It or Nix It” debate meant that there were no unifying slogans except the most nebulous, e.g., “More World, Less Bank.” The main banner on the podium read “Organize to Demand Justice for All.” No wonder pro-imperialist Democratic Party politicians had no trouble addressing what should have been an anti-imperialist rally.
The real problem is not “globalization"—the spread of production across national borders and the diminution of the powers of national governments. The evil is imperialism, the capitalism of our time: the domination of the global economy by a narrow elite of nations ruled by an even narrower class of top capitalists. The IMF/World Bank are their servants.
Imperialism signifies capitalism in its epoch of decay. The neo-liberal policies that are pushed as inevitable consequences of globalization—privatization, “free trade,” imperialist takeovers—derive from imperialism’s weakness, not strength. Declining profit rates followed the post-World War II boom, and today’s prosperity in the U.S. is both grossly unequal and faces a world in which economic crises have run rampant.
Imperialism is not just bankers and bureaucrats sitting in posh offices in world capitals. The real enforcers of their power are the armed forces of the capitalist rulers whose truncheons and guns serve to crush working-class people everywhere. The IMF is the NATO planes that blasted Serbia a year ago, the Indonesian militias that devastated East Timor for a quarter-century, the continuing bombing and genocidal strangulation of the Iraqi population by the U.S. and its U.N. allies—even the “People’s Liberation Army” of “Communist” China, as we will see.
Because capitalism enforces its demands with bullets and blood, the only way to stop it is with real, not just symbolic power—the mass struggles of the international working class. Tragically, the mass eruptions from Indonesia to Ecuador fell short of proletarian revolution, the only real solution. The great majority of working people are not yet conscious of the full role of imperialism. They don’t yet see how to break the grip of the nationalist leaderships that falsely claim to be anti-imperialist. To confront and defeat the counterrevolutionary armies, a revolutionary army is needed. That means building a general staff today, the nucleus of the workers’ revolutionary party worldwide that can win the leadership of the mass upsurges tomorrow.
Of course, in the eyes of the reformist leaders, revolution is a pipedream. What is needed now, we were told, is practical accomplishments. But the anti-globalization proposals themselves prove that it is reformism that is utopian.
In the same crackpot reformist spirit of relying on the good will of the imperialists, the organization Jubilee 2000/USA declared: “Governments of the wealthiest nations, including the U.S. … should require that the debt be canceled in a way that benefits ordinary people and without conditions that lead to more poverty and environmental destruction.” Yes, and pigs should fly.
The IMF and World Bank do have policies for canceling the debts of the poorest countries, but these are shams. They amount to “canceling” debts that have already proved to be unpayable while maintaining exorbitant terms on the remainder. They are schemes to fool the working masses into collaborating in their own subjugation.
Some of the reformist organizations more clearly reflect needs of sectors of the business world. Global Exchange, for example, describes itself as “part of the Fair Trade Federation, an association of producers, wholesalers, and retailers, that is launching a major consumer education campaign in the U.S.” This outfit relies on deals with capitalist retailers to safeguard the rights of super-exploited workers abroad—not on the struggles of the workers themselves.
Bourgeois morality is not far from bourgeois law and order. Global Exchange’s leader in Seattle, Medea Benjamin, was roundly censured for her “peacekeeping” (a term properly analogous to what imperialist troops do around the world): she defended Niketown against anarchist protesters aiming to break a few windows, even suggesting that the cops should have arrested insufficiently peaceful protesters!
A few days before the April 16 rally, Global Exchange issued a statement entitled “Starbucks Gives In” announcing that it had signed a deal to stop picketing Starbucks coffee shops. In return for which Starbucks undertook to offer its customers, by the end of the year, “Fair Trade” coffee in addition to its customary corporate brews. Some victory. Now you can go into your local Starbucks, unpicketed, and order a spanking new half-and-half—half super-exploited, half regular exploited. Enjoy.
Despite the “peacekeepers,” many demonstrators hoped to physically shut down the IMF and World Bank meetings. Aside from the fact that the ruling class and their cops were unlikely to be caught unprepared a second time, even preventing a meeting or two is in itself no answer. What was missing is a clear perspective about how to deal a lasting defeat to the institutions of capital.
The most radical of the official and semi-official plans came from the “Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc,” formed around several groupings styling themselves anarchist and “anti-authoritarian.” The bloc opposed the reformists’ nationalism and protectionism. But in its initial statement (March 7) it counterposed only the “individual’s right to act autonomously however they see fit,” including “aggressive self-defense or property destruction.” An updated version spoke of autonomous “groups” rather than individuals, but the significance is the same. This attempt to defy authority ignored the reality that the massive action necessary, including self-defense against police attacks, needs organization and leadership, not autonomy. We have no interest in defending capitalist order, but it is fruitless to focus on blocking traffic or facing down cops for one or two days in downtown D.C. while Nike et al are destroying lives every day, everywhere. With tens of thousands expected in Washington, revolutionaries should have been challenging and exposing the reactionary plans of the reformists, not concentrating on actions that kept them apart from the mass of protesters.
The bloc’s call for April 16 concluded this way:
We envision an active and creative contingent of revolutionaries marching under black, red & black, and green & black flags, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian banners, and a hail of revolutionary drumbeats. We are mobilizing marching bands, radical cheerleaders, and planning a whole assortment of highly organized creative mayhem!
Really, comrades: cheerleaders, drummers and bands are a sideshow. Mischief is no substitute for a strategy that helps mobilize masses to overthrow their oppressors. It is the mass detachments of the working class that must be built.
Evidently some in the Anti-Capitalist Bloc leaned in this direction, for their updated statement (April 11) asserted: “Instead of a call for ’fair trade’ or ’reform’ of the global economy, we call for the international working class and oppressed communities to organize for revolutionary change of the global economy.” However, the “final” bloc statement (April 14) watered this down considerably, calling for revolutionary change from “workers and communities” only.
The official leaders of the working class, the AFL-CIO labor bureaucrats, nominally supported the protests but did little to build them. Even their own rally on April 12 was attended mainly by bureaucrats and older workers. This was part of a lobbying effort to urge Congress not to approve China’s membership in the WTO. In this the bureaucrats claim to be speaking for the interests of both Chinese and U.S. workers because of China’s “unfair labor practices,” and they are supported by Global Exchange, the Sierra Club and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen group.
In reality the anti-China campaign relies on protectionist and nationalist, not internationalist, motives. Pat Buchanan, addressing a separate Teamster rally, pulled out his usual chauvinist rhetoric: “If I was in the White House and the Communist Chinese came to my office, I’d tell them, stop threatening my country, stop persecuting the Christians, or you will have sold your last pair of chopsticks. “
The AFL-CIO tops led by John Sweeney wouldn’t have a known racist like Buchanan at their rally, since they need to present a leftish face to win intellectual and student support for union organizing. But they produced their own jingoism, mainly through the speech of Steelworkers’ president George Becker. He attacked the Congressional bill normalizing trade relations with China as a betrayal: “It goes against everything we stand for as a nation.” because China is “a rogue nation” and “a godless society” that persecutes Christianity. Getting more bellicose, he went on: “This is the same Communist China I’ve lived with all my life.” He recalled that thousands of Americans had died fighting China in the Korean war, and observed that the U.S. military has China surrounded. As for the U.S., “We’re the greatest nation on earth, a beacon of liberty."
Blaming foreigners for capitalism’s evils is a sure way to divide the working class and lead it to defeat. With their Buchanan-like rhetoric, the union bureaucrats, along with the China-bashing liberals, are opening the door to reactionary demagogy, racist hysteria—and future imperialist wars.
It is also blatantly hypocritical. U.S. unions are quick to condemn miserable labor conditions abroad—in selected countries. But organizing begins at home: why not wage an all-out fight for the needs of hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S. who work in sweatshops at sub-minimum wages under hazardous conditions and abusive bosses? There are also hundreds of thousands of prison inmates compelled to work for pennies an hour producing a growing variety of goods and services. Ignored by the AFL-CIO leaders, tens of thousands of workfare participants nationally work under slave-labor conditions for welfare checks well below the minimum wage.
The labor tops give no more real support to the Chinese workers than they do to the most oppressed workers at home. Chinese workers don’t need anti-China rhetoric from American workers; they need concrete opposition to imperialism and its alliance with China’s exploitative ruling class.
One group in Washington, the Campaign for Labor Rights, gave the protectionist campaign a radical cover by claiming that “China’s entry into the WTO would weaken the hand of workers around the world (including workers in China) and strengthen the hand of corporations.” And indeed it might. But accommodating to the campaign of a wing of U.S. capitalists and their labor collaborators to demonize China really means aiding an imperialist effort to impose even tougher trade conditions. That weakens China’s workers far more.
We in the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) are under no illusion that China’s Stalinist regime is in any way “socialist"; genuine socialism means that state power has been taken by the working class. China’s economic system is statified capitalism; its rulers enforce a particularly vicious super-exploitation—for their own benefit and for that of the imperialists, many of them American, who invest in China.
No wonder Chinese workers have protested in massive numbers against Beijing’s expanding privatization of state-owned companies, which wipes out housing and other benefits linked to state jobs. Just this February, 20,000 miners who were fired from their jobs in China’s industrial northeast blocked roads, smashed windows, burned cars and fought with armed police for days—a protest that ended only when the People’s Liberation Army was brought in.
According to the London Financial Times (April 3):
Instances of industrial unrest have been increasing in recent years as the government of Zhu Rongji, China’s hard-driving premier, attempts to accelerate the restructuring of inefficient state-owned enterprises. All across the northeast of the country there are regular reports of demonstrations by retired workers, unable to draw their pensions, and the jobless, protesting at the lack of welfare.
In brief, just what the IMF ordered. As Polish workers facing a Stalinist regime did in the 1980’s, Chinese workers are defending their gains embodied in nationalized property against the anti-worker state trying to impose even harsher bourgeois rule. It is the Chinese workers who are the allies of workers everywhere—not the U.S. politicians and capitalists whom the AFL-CIO is pressing to punish China. The U.S.-chauvinist program spearheaded by the “Sweeney-Greenie” alliance aids the criminal bourgeois campaign to racially divide the international working-class struggle.
Imperialism is in deep crisis and the world economy is being torn apart. For a moment, U.S. capitalism has benefitted, maintaining a fragile prosperity mostly for its topmost layers. The uneven boom has kept the middle class and labor aristocracy from being wiped out and has provided a basis for reformist illusions. It also allows the anarchist mirage of middle-class individualist solutions to entrance youth who want to fight the system.
There are obvious clues to the class outlook of the protest leaders. Even though domestic oppression is not the IMF’s direct province, IMF policies abroad are a central reason why millions of workers in Africa, Latin America, Asia and East Europe flee their immiserated homelands to seek work in the West. It is revealing but not surprising that the slogans of protest leaders against the evils of “globalization” did not include demands to defend the rights and free movement of immigrant workers.
The character of the April actions was also illustrated by their class and racial composition—in a city with a vast population of Black and immigrant workers. Millions of exploited and oppressed workers in the U.S. are furious at miserable wages and jobs, racism, national chauvinism and police brutality. Yet they do not see protests like these as part their struggle.
Why should they follow labor leaders who have favored endless givebacks to the bosses and undermined militant struggles and strikes? Why should they look to middle-class do-gooders who patronize them as victims, not fighters, and ignore their concerns? Why listen to leaders who embrace the Democratic Party as an answer, when fewer and fewer workers vote in each election, seeing nothing to choose between the capitalist parties? Patronizing “outreach” efforts to workers of color bore little fruit, and revealed the class gulf between protest organizers and those they were “reaching out” to. In the coming working-class struggles against U.S. capitalism, workers of color, because of their super- oppressed and exploited position in society, will be in the leadership, rather than passive outsiders subject to “outreach” efforts.
As an organization of workers in the United States, the LRP believes that the tens of thousands of young student and worker activists who have joined movements against global exploitation want to fight for a genuinely better world. Genuine revolutionaries have to see the world from the point of view of the international working class. Workers in many countries have been on the march, in massive general strikes and anti-government actions. Shutting down the production of profits is what makes imperialism tremble. The U.S. will not be immune to the spreading upsurges of the exploited and oppressed. American workers too will learn to use their power in the factories and streets to bring the bosses to their knees.