Some of the demonstrators in Washington, D.C., last weekend have
been grumbling about press coverage, suggesting that they had "failed" in
their efforts to close the World Bank talks down. I tell them that their
indignation is misplaced, and they are missing the full extent of their
triumph, namely that they have managed to place their issues squarely on
the national and, indeed, global political agenda.
A decade ago, even five years ago, officials of the World Bank and
International Monetary Fund were florid with righteous self-satisfaction
at the good works their institutions were performing around the world.
Listen now to these same officials apologizing for sins of the past and
nervously contending that they are re-engineering themselves as forces
It's the same on the sweatshop issue. Hardly a month goes by without a
firm like Nike claiming that it is trying to be responsive to the charges
of critics about its pay scales and labor practices in the Third World.
What we've seen in Seattle at the end of last year and now, less
dramatically, in Washington is the flowering of a new radical movement in
America, rambunctious, anarchic, internationalist, well-informed and in
some ways more imaginative and supple than kindred radical eruptions in
Take a look at some of the threads in this new activist, populist
movement. Start with the Ruckus Society, one of whose founders was Mike
Roselle, a man whose political lineage started with Abbie Hoffman's
Yippies, continued with progressive politics and then ripened in Earth
First!, which he co-founded with Dave Foreman. Roselle has long argued
that large-scale, nonviolent civil disobedience could shut down a city
and take over the theme shows organized by world capital, such as the WTO
conference in Seattle. The Yippies understood street theater and so do
the Ruckusites and the anarchists. They also understand fun, something
the old Left looked at with grave suspicion.
Add to this brew of militant environmentalism and sense of street
theater the concerns of the anti-globalization crowd for economic
justice. In 30 minutes worth of speeches in the Ellipse in Washington
last Sunday, one could hear speakers talk about sweatshops, cancellation
of Third World debt, the menace of biotechnology, unequal exchange in
world trade, labor organizing at the global level.
One issue flows into another, as the Berkeley-based International
Rivers Network discovered years ago. As the IRN battled dams around the
world, it found that dams mostly had one thing in common: financial
backing from the World Bank. So the IRN founded the enormously effective
"50 Years Is Enough" campaign against the bank.
In the same way, defenders of forests around the world found
themselves looking at the World Bank's forest-destroying agricultural
programs and the IMF's Third World "structural adjustment" programs.
As with all new radical movements, some of the bloodlines go back a
long way, to movements of Third World solidarity that started in the
1960s. The anti-NAFTA battles of the early 1990s gave birth to
organizations such as the Naderite Citizens Trade Campaign that were
highly visible both in Seattle and Washington.
There's a new student activism too, markedly different from the gender
and identity concerns of the early 1990s. Across the United States,
campuses are being organized by Students United Against Sweatshops,
bringing in speakers from Global Exchange; the garment workers' union;
and Jeff Ballinger's Press for Change.
What's different about this new movement? It's anti-corporate, but in
a manner far more specific than older railings about "international
capital." We live in the age of the brand name, and so we see
well-informed campaigns against specific companies like Nike, the Gap,
Monsanto. The movement is well-informed and internationalist, a tribute
to the powers of the Internet. It's antagonistic to both the Republican
and Democratic parties. This summer will see big demonstrations at both
party conventions, in Philadelphia as well as Los Angeles.
Perry Anderson, editor of New Left Review, declares with gloomy relish
in that journal that "the only starting point for a realistic Left today
is a lucid registration of historical defeat." Yet as I read these dour
lines, news comes over the radio of a tree-sit in a section of the
Headwaters redwood forest in Humboldt County. A young woman called
Firebird, at time of this writing, is tree-sitting 40 feet up in the air.
She's fixed up a rope with a noose around her neck and the other end tied
to a gate on the ground. If the loggers or their allies launch an attack,
Firebird is in imminent danger of being hanged.
Firebird represents the will and, let's face it, the optimism of the
new radical movement. Hurrah for her and for others like her who battled
the WTO to a standstill in Seattle last fall and who reprised in
Washington last weekend. Hurrah for optimism!