Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo

December 6, 1999


The Battle of Seattle has provoked a storm of outrage in elite business and political circles, a chorus of sneers and imprecations not heard since that last great outbreak of political and social turmoil known today as The Sixties. (Actually, the mid-sixties and early seventies: but, never mind.) Back then, the source of the elite's outrage was a spontaneous and massive movement to end an odious war: the elites' response was derision on the op ed pages of the nation's newspapers, bipartisan solidarity against the antiwar rebels, and massive police repression. Today, our outraged elites are railing against a protest, similarly unauthorized, against an emerging global trade cartel known as the World Trade Organization. The op Ed pages are filled with the fulminations of both the liberal-left and the ostensibly "free market" right against the "rioters," united in their outrage that ordinary people dare to have an opinion on the benefits of the WTO one way or the other.


The complete cluelessness of the chattering classes on this subject is exemplified by Andrew Sullivan, writing in the London Times, who starts off his sneering piece homing right in on what is, for him, the central issue of our times. Sullivan quotes one of the protesters, Mike Crudes, trade unionist, as saying:

"Look, don't get me wrong. I think those guys who marched around dressed up like turtles are probably fairies. But as long as they're against the same thing as me, I got no problem. I think this shows how bad the World Trade Organization is, that so many different people can protest together."


Well! How, uh, crude, huffs the openly gay former editor of the New Republic, who has written extensively in favor of gay rights, including a decent book, Virtually Normal, and strikes quite a figure as a gay Catholic expatriate Brit who is often mistaken for a conservative. The horrified Sullivan haughtily opines that "his was not the only epiphany to be found on the mocha-strewn pavements of the northwest capital": the leftists at the Nation magazine, he relates in a similarly stricken and astonished tone, "rhapsodized" over the protesters, praising them as a "phantasmagorical mix of tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators [who] stood against the WTO." For them, Sullivan can hardly contain his contempt:

"Phantasmagorical gets it just about right. Fat old union bosses and multi-pierced grunge kids who last saw shampoo in 1992 joined hands with right-wing militia groups from the Rocky Mountains and frizzy-haired professors who still keep their Vietnam posters in the sideboard."


This weirdly apolitical critique might be called the Vanity Fair school of social commentary. Never mind all this nonsense about such side issues as globalization and national sovereignty: Andrew Sullivan sees the world through the lens of an aesthete focused on the important issues, like fashion and physical attractiveness. Who cares what those "union bosses" – who are, after all, "old" and "fat" – have to say about anything? Not to mention those frightfully homophobic right-wing "militia groups," who don't seem to realize that olive green combat fatigues are out, out, out this year. And as for all those scruffy tweedy middle-aged "professors" among the protesters – everyone knows that anyone with "frizzy hair" simply cannot be taken seriously.


But what drew 50,000-plus demonstrators into the streets in what was clearly an attempt to shut down the WTO? According to Sullivan,

"Anyone who knows Seattle will not have been over-surprised. The northwest isn't home to only Boeing and Microsoft; it also has more than its fair share of 1960s leftovers. The smell in the streets might have been tear gas last week, but usually it's a mix of dope and coffee. For months, dogged lefties in basements across the country had been e-mailing their way to a mass demonstration in this center of grunge protest. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and they should not be denied their brief moment of joy."


Sullivan "knows" much less about Seattle than he would have us believe. To begin with, to describe the streets as "mocha-strewn" is stretching it just a bit. Anyone who has actually been there would know that the constant rain is more than enough to wash away any mocha buildup on the pavement.


Secondly, Sullivan's crude caricature of the protesters as Sixties "leftovers" is not based on any fact – another danger in commenting from a distance while relying on second- and third-hand information. Although the national mainstream (i.e. print) media is spinning the Seattle rebellion as the second childhood of Sixties leftovers, on the scene reports from Seattle media indicate that thousands of local high school and college students participated in the protests. This is, once again, a movement of the young that is being excoriated by the pundits and pounded by the police. That old fogies – left, right, and center – are on the other side of the barricades is not exactly a surprising development, but rather what seems to be a law of social development. As in the Vietnam protests, the liberal left and the respectable right have issued what amounts to a joint declaration of their disdain for rebellious youth – and, in the process, missed the social and political significance of yet another turning point in American history.


The hallmark of the Vanity Fair school of journalism, a glossy complacency that manages to trivialize (and misperceive) everything, is here displayed in Sullivan's slick dismissal of the protests as a transitory "moment of joy" – as if nothing can or ever will change the cultural and political status quo. Furthermore, this analysis of the protests as a leftist conspiracy hatched over the Internet – a "story" the British tabloids are currently running with – contradicts his own observation about the ideological diversity of the anti-WTO movement. What about all those "right-wing militia" types – were they mobilized by "dogged lefties in basements"? Sullivan would have it that Pat Buchanan packed his bags and headed for Seattle just as soon as he got that email from the Rainforest Action Network – but don't you believe it.


Sullivan may, perhaps, be forgiven if he misperceives the Seattle rebellion as a victory for what he calls "America's latte left." In his native Britain, the only protest movements are on the left: there are no Tory revolutionaries. Unable to imagine the mass appeal of right-wing populism, which has no real equivalent in his native country, he reflexively labels the Seattle events as a conspiracy of the far left. This is, by the way, a favorite tactic within the Blairite Labor Party in purging all resistance to the Prime Minister and his Third Way.


But this import won't sell on the American side of the Atlantic for the simple reason that the ideological divide between left and right is, here, much less well-defined. The left-right dichotomy originated in Europe and reflected the struggle between feudalism and rising capitalism, between the aristocracy and landless peasants, and is not all that applicable to the American character and political landscape. Yet Sullivan labors mightily to bend the American reality to his European model. Aside from the Nation, Sullivan goes on to cite Ralph Nader – certainly one of the most idiosyncratic political figures since Jerry Brown – as typical of the leftist character of the anti-WTO crusade. Yet the other day on Crossfire, as I related in my last column, it was Nader scolding the dim Mary Matalin on a question that has long concerned many American conservatives: preserving America's national sovereignty: "Why Mary," he chuckled, "I'm surprised at you that you would be willing to give up American sovereignty so easily." In the politics of the new millennium, left and right meet and merge and switch places – but it won't be the first time politics switched polarities.


Being a "liberal" used to mean opposing state power: the great classical liberals of the 19th and early 20th centuries were considered men of the left because they were the great defenders of individual rights and laissez-faire. Conservatives were absolutist defenders of the centralized state and the divine right of kings. Political categories and terminology are in constant flux, and during a period of crisis – war, or some other great struggle – often change into their opposites. The Battle of Seattle is not the first indication that we are approaching such times, nor will it be the last.


Sullivan labels Nader a "socialist," but all the real socialists are in the Democratic Party. Nader is running for President as the official candidate of the Green Party, hardly a Marxist cabal, and his presence on the ballot in more than a few states could mean bad news for Al Gore – perhaps another reason why Sullivan sounds so peevish. As further evidence that this is all a Trotskyite plot, Sullivan cites trade union leader Gerald Entee, who "told the cheering throngs in Seattle. 'We have to name the system that tolerates sweatshops and child labor and that system is corporate capitalism.'"


But what, exactly, is corporate capitalism? ? Isn't all capitalism "corporate"? Naturally, no practitioner of the Vanity Fair school of journalism would ever stoop to defining his terms; and, besides, why bother with all those tiresome details? They don't call economics "the dismal science" for nothing! But when it comes to matters that require more than having a good fashion sense, such as economic and political analysis, Sullivan is really in over his head:

"The notion that people, as consumers, have anything to gain from corporate capitalism was apparently lost on the protesters. As was the notion that the poor, huddled masses of the developing world might have something to gain from freer, less regulated trade. In Seattle were gathered not only the stylistic contradictions of the counter-cultural, but also the political contradictions."


Whatever "stylistic contradictions" the Seattle protesters may be guilty of – such as "frizzy hair" or dandruff – it is the contradictions in Sullivan's own argument that were shown up in very short order. Sullivan's thesis was exploded the day after it was published, when "the poor, huddled masses of the developing world" rejected the WTO's attempt to impose labor regulations on their nascent industries. The international extension of the Third Way into the Third World was nixed, at least for now, and this is what really annoys Sullivan and the other enthusiasts of "corporate capitalism," from Washington to London. For "corporate capitalism" is known to economists and political theorists as state capitalism, or corporatism – that is, an economy no less centrally-planned than the classic Marxist model, in which the planners are corporate executives and financiers acting through and in coordination with the instrument of government. "Corporate capitalism," in short, has nothing to do with the free market, just as the WTO was not an effort to usher in an era of free trade.


What Sullivan and his fellow economic illiterates fail to understand is that a truly free trade policy pursued by the US would not require a 15,000-page treaty – only a unilateral declaration by the US government that we were immediately dropping all tariff barriers to entry on our markets. This would take up considerably less than a single page – even alongside an ultimatum that would cut off all foreign aid to countries that did not reciprocate. But the "free traders" of Sullivan's ilk are not advocating this: instead, we are asked to give up our sovereignty to secret "trade tribunals" and a shadowy transnational bureaucracy.


The Seattle protests will come to nothing, avers Sullivan: "As protest politics, Seattle was a spectacular success. But like the foam on a mocha, it is likely to evaporate sooner rather than later into the city's mist" because there is (and can be) no real vehicle for anti-globalism.

"The deeper irony, of course, is that the only mass party that has any claim to the anti-corporate, protectionist, isolationist bandwagon is the Reform party, and that is now being fought over by Pat Buchanan, the former Republican, and Donald Trump, the multimillionaire. Neither of them has very solid left-wing credentials. Moreover, all four big party candidates – George W Bush, Al Gore, McCain and Bill Bradley – support free trade and the WTO."


Now there is a sure mark of the Vanity Fair school of social criticism – taking the alleged presidential campaign of "The Donald" seriously. Or, for that matter, taking Donald Trump seriously about anything outside of real estate, gambling casinos, and dames. Just as Sullivan misperceives the Seattle rebellion as an effusion of the left, so he underestimates the mass appeal of Buchanan. Blind to a populism where the only credentials are the ability to tap into popular sentiment – and get a place on the ballot – he cannot see how the Buchanan campaign is effectively erasing the ill-drawn and often fuzzy lines between left and right in America.


As collections of acronyms – WTO, NATO, EU, etc., ad nauseum – usurp the traditional functions of the nation-state, the battlelines are being drawn in the struggles that will dominate the new millennium. While the centralizers and global planners seek to impose their political and economic hegemony on the post-cold war world, they are meeting opposition from the left and the right. But it won't be long before the various components of the anti-globalist revolt, having a common enemy, will forge a common analysis of what is wrong with the new order – and how to right it. For the outlines of that new order are coming into focus with alarming rapidity, and elements of both the left and the right have major problems with it.


What seems to be emerging from the mists of the post-cold war world is an evolving de facto world government, with NATO as the military arm, the UN Security Council as the nascent executive branch, the evolving World Court along with the various War Crimes Tribunals as the judiciary, and the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO regulating and dominating the world economy. From Kosovo to Seattle the emerging world state is reaching its tentacles into every aspect of life on this earth, from trade and the environment to the use of military force – but the monster got slapped in Seattle. Every patriot is cheering.


Let the chattering classes, of which Sullivan is the epitome, titter and carp from the sidelines; let them critique the dress, hairstyles, and fashion sense of the anti-globalist rebels. The rest of us have more serious subjects to discuss. The British Euroskeptics, the European opponents of NATO and the EU, the rising populist movements in Switzerland and Austria, the growing Pan-Slavic reaction to Western incursions into the Balkans and the Caucasus – all these rising movements are part of a worldwide reaction to the newly-aggressive and emboldened corporate and political elites and their vision of a completely statized and globalized corporate capitalism. They include every sort of opposition to the global monoculture and its evolving political superstructure, including a growing nationalist and "isolationist" sentiment in this country. To this list we can now add the Seattle protesters.

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