The Battle Beyond Seattle, part I
Source Louis Proyect
Date 00/01/04/21:28

The Battle Beyond Seattle, part I, by George Windau

[George Windau ( is a Left labor analyst and member of
the U.A.W.]

Tools for Analysis

In the summer of 1863, a small town in southern Pennsylvania became the
focus for a fierce battle between two determined armies in a great civil
war. The town itself had no military or political significance. In fact,
even though the region that the town was located in, was nominally part of
the 'Union' north, it would be fair to point out that perhaps a majority of
the population was sympathetic to the 'Confederate' south. Thus, a small
town with no strategic significance (compared to places like Vicksburg or
New Orleans) containing a population with contradictory allegiances, became
the focus of a great military struggle. While some amateur history buffs
may speculate on the immediate consequences of a 'Confederate' victory at
this Battle of Gettysburg, the underlying material fact remains that the
Confederacy was not physically capable of enduring a long and punishing
war. On the other hand, the Union was well equipped economically for such a
long and grinding war. With this knowledge it might be fair to speculate
that a Confederate victory at Gettysburg, in 1863, might have merely
separated the process of one American Civil War into two (or three)
separate civil wars with ultimately the same effect. That identical
historical effect would have been the irreversible destruction of the
'Confederacy' and a reimposition of the so-called 'Union.'

The purpose of this short historical excursion is not to speculate on the
possible variations of American history from a comfortable 'hundred-year
perspective', but rather to pick up the same analytical tools to look at
another interesting battle from a 'less-than-comfortable' proximity. The
so-called 'Battle in Seattle', the street brawl and media circus focused on
the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in 1999 is our modern
counterpart for the Battle of Gettysburg. The rallying cries for tens of
thousands of labor, student and single-issue protestors from the extremes
of the Far Left and Far Right were against the WTO while the mantra of the
respectable establishment news media was in favor of so-called 'Free
Trade'. Yet, just as in the great Battle of Gettysburg, where tens of
thousands committed themselves based upon allegiances to 'Preserve the
Union' or 'Defend States' Rights', the unspoken issue had not yet boiled to
the surface. In the great American Civil War, 'slavery' or 'the abolition
of slavery' was the unspoken issue with perhaps only one soldier in a
thousand fighting and dying with the idea that he was either defending or
resisting the institution of slavery. So too, in Seattle in 1999, few of
the protestors or policemen in Seattle could unequivocally articulate why
they were either 'gassing' or 'being gassed' over a loosely affiliated
organization of 135 nations founded less than five years before this great
'Battle in Seattle' took place. While 'slavery' was the latent unfinished
American business of the Civil War, the issues that boil and churn beneath
the surface of the 'Battle in Seattle' go back ten, twenty or even thirty
years into recent US history just as the issue of slavery had been an
irritant long before the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter.

The Mobilization of Labor

Is it significant that almost 70 thousand people marched in Seattle against
some aspect of the policies formulated by the WTO? No! You see, 70 thousand
people, or any number of people even larger than 70 thousand are not
significant in and of themselves unless it can be demonstrated that this
set number of people are merely the 'tip of the iceberg'. Thus, a large
demonstration of itself is not significant unless it indicates a drastic
change or shift in public opinion on the part of a major segment of the
populace (who did not march or could not march in Seattle). In this case,
the significant segment of the population was 'Organized Labor'. For it was
organized labor that formed the great 'tip of the iceberg' which made this
'Battle in Seattle' significant. It is my contention that the unspoken
grievances of American Labor are the counterpart to the unspoken issue of
'the abolition of slavery' in the great Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. While
the puny distractions of a handful of rowdy anarchists were elevated by the
media in an attempt to tar this 'tip of the iceberg' in Seattle, the fact
remains that this iceberg won't melt no matter how many coats of tar that
the media paints it with. It won't go away because the underlying issues
won't go away. The news media can elevate juvenile street fighters all they
want in an effort to alienate the public from this movement, but they
cannot stop the 'shift' or 'change' in public opinion by their
'demonization' tactics.

Perhaps the news media spin-doctors have already realized this to some
extent but they do not realize the scale and mass of the iceberg that sits
below the surface of the American political scene. Yet, there are many
astute observers who do appreciate the scale and mass of this 'shift' in
public opinion and working class opinion.

The union bureaucracy are those who are closest to this 'shift' in the
mind-set of American Labor and it is the formal union leadership that is in
the unenviable position of being caught between the proverbial 'Devil' and
the 'Deep Blue Sea.' The basis of the discontent among the rank and file
union membership is not contingent upon some sophisticated political
analysis but rather upon the empirical realization that their corporations
will not only demand 'give-backs' during the worst of economic times but
also in the best of economic times. The general effort to crush the
American/Canadian wage rates in the 1980's is now aggravated by the
tendency to increase the length of the work week combined with a tendency
to eliminate jobs and overload those who still have jobs with the work of
their laid off co-workers.

Thus, the 'Devil' in this parable is Capitalism, which is even more
unyielding in boom times than it was in the bad times of the 1970's and
1980's. The 'Deep Blue Sea' in this parable is the mobilization of labor
which can and will take place in either a mode of its own dynamic or in the
mode of a 'directed' or 'misdirected' expression. In the 1980's it was
sufficient for the union leadership to make appeals to racist jingoism and
'direct' their suffering membership to demolish Japanese Toyotas in the
annual Labor Day Parade! But now that false target has lost its
effectiveness as a punching bag for angry workers. The new false target
that has been chosen for the exhaustion of the workers energy of discontent
is the WTO, a relatively new and certainly unstable consortium of trading
partners, most of whom are caught in a system of unequal exchange and an
unfavorable balance of economic power. Yet there is a danger even in the
choice of this false target for in effect, the upper layers of the union
bureaucracy now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of marching
with New Leftists instead of being the irregular shock troops against the
Leftists, as was the fashion in the days of the super-patriotic 'hard hat'
riots of the early 1970's. The Orwellian 'New-Speak' of the union
bureaucracy must be tempered by the realization that the workers can
clearly see that things won't improve for them in either good times or bad.
Furthermore, workers can see that Labor alliances with the Democratic Party
have not reduced the flight of jobs and capital to the underdeveloped low
wage-rate nations, but rather have accelerated that process with a version
of Super-NAFTA formulated by the Clinton administration which went far
beyond even the wildest imaginations of the original framers of the NAFTA
concept. When it makes no sense to rekindle Japan-bashing, when it makes no
sense to instruct workers to 'vote Democratic' so that the Democrats can
pave the way for US jobs to slide down to Mexico, what else can the union
bureaucrats do? The WTO is a safe target. It does not alienate the union
leaders from their masters in the Democratic Party and any credibility
blows struck against the WTO will harm the weakest nations in the dynamics
of unequal exchange more so than the strongest nations in this
relationship. The false target headquarters does not exclusively fly the
Stars and Stripes and thus does not inspire a rethinking among the workers
about the nature of government complicity in their suffering. The false
target itself is a weak and fledgling organization which cannot defend
itself or justify itself. Only the tactics, the mobilization of workers
into the streets (of Seattle or elsewhere) is a minor concession to the
pressure of the Deep Blue Sea. Thus the union leadership can dissipate the
energy of discontent among the workers without seriously challenging the
anger of the Devil of capitalism. Instead of hitting the true enemies of
the workers where it would hurt the most, such as an effective series of
strikes or general strikes, the union bureaucrats hit the Devil where it
hurts him the least.

While the academic eggheads in the Newest Left (which is the latest
American expression of 'rump moralistic leftist politics') congratulate
themselves on welding together a tight coalition in Seattle, the fact is
that their participation or instigation is incidental, not essential, to
the nature of the real processes that are unfolding. While they view
themselves as hard hitting street soldiers who have finally persuaded the
labor movement to join them, the fact is that these Newest Leftists have
only a temporary symbiotic role to play with this latest ploy by the union
bureaucracy. The Newest Leftists cannot claim to have a shadow constituency
behind every street soldier they pour into the streets. The Newest Leftists
hold no cards to their chest. In each action they choose, all their cards
are placed on the table, or on the street, so to speak.

The Newest Left has no memory of getting beaten to a bloody pulp by flag
waving 'hard hats' in an ostensibly peaceful non-violent demonstration.
Those with no memory of this will naturally assume that a temporary
alliance is a permanent commitment by labor for whatever one-issue
fanaticism they promote. It is a dangerous illusion to assume that there
now exists any form of stable alliance between the Newest Left and the
Labor Bureaucracy simply because they ate the same clouds of tear gas in
Seattle. Two years from now the same worker you linked arms with in Seattle
may have your head in a scissors lock in San Francisco, ready to customize
your face and leave you for the police to scrape off of the streets.

The Collapse of the Political Center

The constant prayer of thanksgiving from Seattle was that 'nobody got
killed' which is, of course, a fortunate thing. Yet, something did indeed
die in Seattle, although the corpse of this 'something' has not yet begun
to smell. The casualty of Seattle was the death of an illusion. That
mainstream illusion was that everything that Capitalism and the new Global
Economy does, will eventually be good for everybody, not just the wealthy
somebodies. That illusion died, but the news media pundits are still in
denial about this untimely death and as of yet, are still carrying the
corpse of this illusion around with them. After Seattle, after seventy
thousand people marched, the illusion was a trampled, mangled mess and can
no longer be effectively passed off as a taken-for-granted assumption to be
peddled to the masses. Seventy thousand people, American people at any
rate, do not march into the streets when everything is just fine. It just
doesn't happen like that and to have union bureaucrats mumbling
quasi-malcontent sound bytes, well that doesn't happen when everything is
just fine either. So, while the illusion died in Seattle, they still have
not hired a new illusion to take the old one's place. No, we still hear Al
Gore praising NAFTA. We still hear Wall Street experts speaking about the
'Boom without End', we still hear that America is a 'workers paradise' with
jobs begging for people to fill them. This old illusion has not begun to
give off a putrid smell yet, or at least the ruling rich of America have
not noticed the smell yet, but it is only a matter of time. The consequence
of this state of denial by the ruling rich, is that their political hired
hands in both the Democratic and Republican Party, are beginning to look
comically irrelevant to the masses of working people. They don't seem to be
tuned in to the fact that everything is not 'just fine' anymore. This rapid
devolution of mainstream political parties into political irrelevancy is
known as "the collapse of the political center". The Battle in Seattle is a
wonderful example of the mainstream political center in American politics
being caught off guard and left totally out of the picture. We can expect
so much more of this type of thing in the future, not just because the
ruling rich and their hired political hands are so attached to their
political and economic fairy tales, but rather because they live in a
desperate fear of the political/economic truth. The truth, the relevant
truth is ultimately subversive and those mainstream parties that cannot
find a suitable orientation to this rapidly unfolding 'truth' will be seen
as irrelevant and impotent.

The collapse of the political center begins when mainstream political
parties cannot cloak themselves in a mantle of 'political-me-too-ism'.
Although President Clinton sincerely tried to hedge his bets by stating
that he could understand and sympathize with the sentiments of the Seattle
demonstrators, the fact remains that he could not publicly state that he
'felt their pain' because the political line of both parties is that 'there
is no pain' to feel in this magnificent Global Economy. Thus we did not see
even minor figures in either the Democrat or Republican parties linking
arms and marching with the demonstrators in Seattle. We did not see any
chairs reserved for these 'me-too' politicians simply because there was no
political place for 'me-too' chairs on the speakers platform in Seattle.
No, indeed, only the evolving Far Left and Far Right remained relevant. For
it was only the Far Right and Far Left who previously articulated the
levels of suffering and discontent that would be caused by this Global
Economy. Let us be precise in saying that the buzz words 'Global Economy'
is analogous to the insubstantial battle cries of the American Civil War
for 'Preserving the Union' or for 'Defending States' Rights.' The buzz
words have no meaning in and of themselves, they only have a thread of a
meaning when we look below the surface to see that the institution of
slavery was the real issue bubbling to the surface with each unfolding
battle, as young Christian white men fought bitterly to decide the fate of
enslaved black men and women.

Thus, the modern counterpart to the rallying cries of the Civil War are
these buzzwords known as 'The Global Economy'. The real issues bubbling to
the surface underneath this modern day face-off over the so-called Global
Economy are the issues of jobs and wages. The mainstream ideologues find
their advocates among the educated elite in their schools of Economics.
These ivy-league cheerleaders for Capitalism, such as Professor Paul
Krugman of MIT, write extensively about the long-term benefits of 'cheap
labor'. (In Praise of Cheap Labor, Slate magazine 1997).

On the other hand, Labor's union bureaucrats mouth simplistic phrases about
a 'race to the bottom' with respect to wages, hours and employment levels
in the US and Canada. The disillusioned working classes of America and
Canada, with decent paying jobs, now realize that they have no 'job
security' and the myth of their status as middle class members of society
is in jeopardy. They are ready to listen to those who are talking about
these issues of jobs, the export of jobs and the erosion of wages. Thus,
populist and anticommunist ideologues of the Far Right, such as Pat
Buchanan, find attentive listeners among the crowned princes of the
Teamsters Union when they speak of a day of reckoning. Thus we see the
temporary alliance of fat cat bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO with anarchists in
ski masks from the Far Left.

What is the response of the political center as they speak through their
ivy-league economists such as Paul Krugman? "They're all kooks" is the
pseudo-articulate response of these super-educated cheerleaders of
capitalism. Krugman says (Enemies of the WTO, Slate magazine, November
1999) that the motley assembly of WTO critics in Seattle is nothing more
than the moral equivalent of the 'nut militias' of the Far Right when they
rail against the United Nations. That is too bad for Krugman and
Capitalism, because it will be the political center (for which Krugman is
an esteemed spokesperson) that will steadily be seen as irrelevant, not the
'nut militias' or the 'mangy anarchists'. The fixed and dedicated political
line of the center is that there is no problem to be concerned with, while
only the Far Right and the Far Left will address the problems and fears of
the working classes in the US and Canada. Be patient, the Krugmanites
insist, it will all turn out for the best for everyone. Somehow the
'relative slavery' of exotic low wages will produce some sort of general
prosperity for all. "Patient" is the operative word in the Krugmanite
declaration. If we reduced this required political patience to a purely
economic issue, perhaps Krugman might have a different take on the subject.
If a certain consumer found that he or she was not getting his/her
hamburgers fast enough at a certain fast-food restaurant, Professor Krugman
would be the first to advise the consumer to switch his/her patronage to
another faster fast-food restaurant. The same dynamics apply in the realm
of political allegiance. Workers will switch their political patronage to
those who are addressing the issue of jobs, wages and the length of the
workweek. It just so happens that the political center is not moving fast
enough, or rather cannot move fast enough to maintain their credibility
with the working classes of the US and Canada.

While we must agree with Krugman that the WTO is a false target, we must,
in any case, further point out that a pretty good shot was taken at this
false target which indicates that the clash of forces was the significant
aspect of the Battle in Seattle, not the location or the character of the
battle cries against the WTO. Just as the town of Gettysburg had no
political, military or strategic significance in and of itself, so too the
focus on the WTO had no significance in and of itself. Gettysburg just
happened to be the place where two armies clashed unconsciously over the
question of slavery. So too, Seattle and the WTO just happened to be the
place where two political forces clashed unconsciously over the issue of
the flight of capital and the reimposition of the 'relative slavery' of
exotic low wages in the under-developed world and the elimination of good
paying jobs in the developed industrial world. The fact that the ruling
rich and their cheerleaders will continue to deny that there is any type of
problem, the fact that Krugman and his school of thought are not only
identified with but consciously maintain a perspective that praises 'cheap
labor' will extend and intensify the collapse of the political center. This
will leave only the Far Right and the Far Left to contend for the
allegiance of the working classes in the US and Canada. In short, those
(please pay attention Professor Krugman!) who freely use the term 'kook'
today are destined to become the 'irrelevant clowns' of tomorrow. Those who
understand 'fast food' in the realm of economics must begin to study 'fast
politics' in the context of this new Global Economy.

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