The November 30, 1999 (N30) Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) signalled a turning point in the domination of neoliberal policies over the aspirations of the world’s peoples. The militant mass takeover of that city’s streets by students, unionists, movement activists and even a few small business owners was a huge success. The protest showed the power of disciplined mass demonstrations, and exposed how vicious capitalist forces can be when they are provoked. And, despite the denials of the mainstream media, it was successful in so demoralising an already divided WTO that the meeting broke up in bitter disarray. Round 1 to our side!
In Melbourne, the now famous September 11-13 (S11) blockade of the World Economic Forum (WEF) was also successful in drowning out the deliberations of the self-appointed global management committee of capitalism. It, too, exposed the brutality of the forces of State suppression, and the despicable defence of police thuggery by Victorian ALP Premier Steve Bracks had the added benefit of once again showing up his party as dedicated to preserving the oppressive global economic system.
International struggle. In cities around the world, mass takeovers of streets, buildings, even trains, are challenging the political and economic leaders of the imperialist countries. Whether it’s European truck drivers blockading ports and oil refineries, Russian miners camping on railway tracks, broad-based coalitions against Finance Capital talkfests or union occupations of disputed workplaces, the message for big business is clear: ordinary people have had it with economic rationalism and decades of decline in living standards. Not only that, but millions have rediscovered the fact that, short of open fascism, the capitalist State finds it very difficult to govern if the governed suspend their consent.
The planetary web of corporate cross-ownership and financial chicanery, funded by super-exploitation and corporate welfare, is as rickety and vulnerable as any of the rust buckets that regularly founder on European coastlines. Any storm could be its last — provided that the storm has sufficient force and strikes in the right place. Capitalism in its late phase is fundamentally weak — and the weakness is an inescapable consequence of the so-called “logic” of the markets.
“First Abolish the Customer.” The title of a book opposing economic rationalism by the eclectic Australian author Bob Ellis, this phrase is an excellent description of the basic flaw in neoliberal economics. Since the mid ’60s, the world economy has suffered from a massive imbalance between goods produced and goods which can be sold at a profit — a crisis of overproduction. Neoliberal theorists declared that the way to maintain profitability was to attack production costs — that is to say, labour costs. Or to put it another way, to attack the buying power of most consumers. Hundreds of millions of workers in the developed countries now work for reduced real wages or are chronically under- or unemployed. Two billion of the world’s population live on the very edge of survival. Recently, the Korean manufacturing conglomerate, Daewoo, went under because there are far more cars on the global market than people able to buy cars. Banks which propped up the bankrupt corporation in past years have blown hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, and thousands of workers across the world are now out of a job. Meaning fewer customers for other companies.
There is a big lesson to be learned from the recent “Tech Wreck” of so-called “new economy” stocks on financial markets. Most “dot coms” proved to be worth zip! Why? Because profits are not created either by manipulating pixels on computer screens or manipulating share contracts on the futures exchange. The economy is driven by real people applying actual physical and intellectual labour to real materials which are then sold for a real surplus to actual consumers. Cutting jobs means cutting profits. But with a finite market bursting with commodities, the only way to maintain profits is to cut costs, ie consumers, ie — profits! More than a few champions of rampant capitalism — such as currency speculator George Soros — have looked into that whirlpool, and become very, very afraid. There are no lifeboats on SS Global Capitalism. If the boat sinks, we all go down into the abyss of barbarism.
Crisis, Opportunity and Leadership. In one sense only, neoliberalism has been a success story. It has reorganised the world in a way that makes it much easier for oppressed peoples to organise across national boundaries. The standardisation of national economies under the globalised model creates a common, easily identified target for workers and the poor in otherwise diverse communities. Information and knowledge can be now shared directly between ordinary people without the intervention of a third party. Short of a near total shutdown of the world phone system, this new organising tool is outside capitalist control. So, in the midst of a great crisis of capitalist confidence and control, oppressed peoples have a new means of cross-border organising, and the coalescing of mass outrage against a system which requires our misery for its survival. One element, though, is lacking — a unified, committed leadership with a program.
The slogan “shut down the WEF (or WTO etc)” does not go to the root cause of global misery. Capitalism, though crisis-racked, will still operate if its leaders have to meet in secret. In fact they’d probably prefer to scheme in private.
If the strength of the global anti-capitalist movement is its willingness to defy State repression, its weakness is the lack of a clear platform and strategy beyond shouting down neoliberal conferences. The blockade tactic is a very good one for building worker and community support — the so-called “peaceful protest” at East Swanson Dock during the MUA dispute is clear evidence of this. But the tactic tends to be used in a reactive sense — the WTO calls a meeting in city X and then a blockade is called to last the duration of the meeting, before moving on to the next city. What is needed is a more aggressive stance: building mass actions to move toward a broader goal — building a worldwide movement aimed at overthrowing, rather than merely opposing, the institutions of global capitalism.
As Leninists, we in the Freedom Socialist Party believe that this ultimately means building a global leadership organisation based on the working class in all its diversity. More immediately, though, there is a need to at least strike together, because political unity is forged in struggle. There are encouraging signs that this may occur for the first time early next year.
Global Mutiny Day. Organising groups in many of the world’s large cities are planning to build a coordinated, global action on M1 — May Day 2001. If this truly cosmopolitan demonstration is even partly successful, it could provide the impetus for a more direct, conscious assault on the global ruling class. Once again the blockade is the preferred tactic, but work is also being done to involve the union movement in a mass strike on the day. Given the disgraceful abstentionism by the leaders of most unions during the S11 protest, it is hard to predict how successful any May Day strike might be in Melbourne.
The M1 blockade is aimed at the Australian Stock Exchange Building in Collins Street — a symbolic target in keeping with the focus on the global finance system. But blocking access to the Exchange is really only an irritant, and a minor one at that, because computer-based trading requires little more than a fast modem and a laptop. A better target would be the main Telstra phone exchange building at the other end of the city, coupled with a strike of workers at this key communications hub. A shutdown there would hit corporate Australia hard, particularly if there was a similar action at the vital Sydney city exchange. The M1 Alliance should reach out to the hard-pressed owner-drivers and suggest a truck blockade of ports and refineries for the day. This would be an excellent example of the working class taking the lead in a struggle by small businesspeople against monopoly interests, and would head off attempts by the Right to recruit the truckers to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.
The prospect of a global working class action on the traditional workers’ holiday is an exciting one. If the action achieves its full potential, when the histories are written May Day 2001 may be remembered as the day the revolution began. The expanding movement against capitalist globalisation is forging important new alliances. This movement provides a perfect opportunity for the fractured international Left to work together to provide leadership in the global struggle for the liberation of everybody. Workers of the world — unite!