Seattle and the sixties...
Source Dave Anderson
Date 00/04/30/00:00

Barbara Epstein, who teaches in the history of consciousness department at
the University of California, Santa Cruz has an insightful article in
Dissent (Spring 2000) entitled "Not Your Parents' Protest."

She says, "...It is tempting for those of us old enough to remember (the
sixties) to see in the Seattle mobilization, and whatever may follow it,
an opportunity to replay the movements of the sixties. In fact there are
major differences between the two, and many of those differences are to
the advantage of the new movement.

"The most important difference is that movements of the sixties,
especially the anti-war movement, were directed against the state; the
Seattle mobilization was directed against the global corporations. In the
sixties, the civil rights movement blamed the U.S. government for the
discrepancy between democratic rhetoric and the denial of the rights of
citizens to blacks. The movement demanded that the state ensure equal
rights. Many left activists of the sixties understood that the state was
intertwined with the corporations; in 1966 Carl Oglesby, then president of
the Students for a Democratic Society, described the system that the
movement opposed as 'corporate liberalism,' and pointed out that liberals
in power were pursuing policies designed to protect the interests of
corporations. Radical intellectuals traced corporate influences on
government policy. But it was the liberals who were the focus of the
movement's attack.

"The enmity of sixties radicalism to the liberal state had some
unfortunate side effects. Though at first Oglesby and others carefully
distinguished between the liberal rhetoric used by the state to manipulate
popular consent and the authentic liberal values of reformers, as the war
in Vietnam expanded and anger at the government rose, these distinctions
tended to slip away. Antiwar activists began to use 'liberal' as a term
of abuse and to measure their own radicalism by how far they had moved
from their own recently liberal politics. The movement's tendency to cast
radicalism and liberalism as polar opposites made alliances between
radicals and liberals difficult. But despite these problems, the
movement's view of the liberal state as the enemy made sense. The war in
Vietnam was being conducted by liberals in power who defended it with
their own cold war rhetoric. One of the contributions of the movements of
the sixties was to expose the hollowness of cold war liberalism.

"...In the sixties, especially as anger about the war intensified,
differences between radicals and liberals tended to be hostile and
divisive, with each side digging in their heels. The differences in
Seattle over what should be done with the WTO and global corporations were
friendly and fluid. Many of the people whom I talked with, from labor,
mainstream environmental movements, and the direct action movement, agreed
that no one has the answer to the question of how the global economy
should be reorganized, and discussion of these issues must continue. Kevin
Danaher of Global Exchange, a left-leaning human rights organization in
San Francisco, argues that the movement must drive a wedge between the
state and the corporations, and put pressure on the state to defend
democracy against corporate power. This approach was exemplified in
Seattle, where President Clinton felt compelled to move from statements
expressing vague support for the protesters to a call for a code of labor
rights and sanctions against nations that violated them. Clinton's aides
quickly denied that he meant what he had said, but his waffling added to
the legitimacy, and no doubt the influence, of the protest.

"The second major difference between the mobilization in Seattle and the
movements of the sixties, especially the antiwar movement, is that the
former involved a coalition between progressive groups, including young
radicals, and labor, while labor was for the most part absent from the
movements of the sixties, and supported the war in Vietnam, creating the
deepest rift with its progressive sometime allies in U.S. history. There
has not been a labor-left alliance in the United States since the
thirties, when communists and socialists played a major role in organizing
the Congress of Industrial Organizations and leftists, liberals, and trade
unionists joined forces in demanding greater rights for poor and working
people. Together they put sufficient pressure on the government to shift
the New Deal to the left. The left/liberal/labor alliance of the thirties
created a national political culture in which there was room to promote
egalitarian values. The movements of the sixties had something of the
same effect despite rifts with labor and liberals, because their critiques
of the war, and of racism and sexism, struck responsive chords, especially
among youth. But since the end of the war in Vietnam the divisions between
progressive groups and labor, and for that matter among progressive
groups, have weakened the left and allowed the right to dominate public
discourse. The mobilization in Seattle holds out the hope, for the first
time in decades, of a broad and potentially powerful coalition for a more
egalitarian social order.

"In Seattle, relations among trade unionists, environmentalists, and
direct actionists seem to have been governed by a spirit of respect and
mutual support that I do not remember from the sixties.

"The tactics of the radical and the more mainstream groups were
complementary. The impact of the mobilization resulted from the
combination of two kinds of nonviolent protest: the blockade by the direct
actionists, which delayed the beginning of the ministerial conference and
brought media attention, and the labor march, which demonstrated the
breadth of opposition to the WTO and lent the tactics of the young
radicals legitimacy....

"...There is one difference between the Seattle mobilization and the
movements of the sixties, especially the antiwar movement, that weighs
against the prospects of a new mass movement. The war in Vietnam forced
itself on the attention of the American people. Young people in particular
could not ignore it. The growth of corporate power has not yet created the
sort of crisis that thrusts whole sectors of the population into
collective action in the way that the war did. Over the last few decades
the division between the rich and everyone else has widened, and most
people have found themselves working longer hours, in many cases at less
secure jobs. But the large amounts of money that some people earn have led
many to fasten their hopes on upward mobility and construct lives oriented
toward consumption. Many of those who took part in direct action in
Seattle are part of a youth subculture that opposes corporate power, and
capitalism generally, because it has created a society in which virtually
everything has become a commodity. These young people want community, and
they want meaningful lives in the context of an egalitarian society. There
is no guarantee that these views will spread, but the fact that there is a
youth culture that holds such values is one of the most encouraging
lessons of the Seattle mobilization.

"The Vietnam War brought together a range of progressive movements
previously concerned with separate issues. Among others, it brought
together northern white students and black activists, many of them
veterans of the civil rights movement, around a shared opposition to the
war. Today's progressive movements may not come together as easily. The
trade unions brought the most racial diversity to the WTO protest. The
ILWU (International Longshore Workers Union) is one of the nation's most
racially diverse unions, due both to the number of African Americans and
others who joined in the years after World War II and to a left leadership
that has emphasized the importance of radical history. And there was
substantial participation by public sector unions such as the Service
Employees and private sector unions such as the Hotel and Restaurant
Workers, both of which are quite diverse. But the union participation in
the Seattle mobilization was largely white, and the environmental and
direct action groups were even whiter. The environmental movement, once
virtually all white, now has an environmental justice wing that is
composed predominately of people of color. But the groups concerned with
trade and international issues are overwhelmingly white, as is the direct
action movement. There were young people of color among the blockaders,
but on the whole they tend not to be drawn to this movement. The
subculture associated with direct action encourages aloofness from
corporate culture, if not dropping out. They (young people of color) are
rarely enthusiastic about forgoing whatever opportunities they may have.
Young people of color also may have doubts about consensus politics in the
context of a majority white movement.

"If the Seattle mobilization was behind the movements of the sixties in
respect to racial diversity, it was ahead of those movements in age
diversity. The movements of the sixties were almost exclusively movements
of young people in their teens, twenties, or at most early thirties. The
Seattle mobilization drew protesters from high school students through
seniors, with the largest numbers in their teens through middle age. With
the exception of a small number of young people given disproportionate
attention by the media, these groups were united not only by their
opposition to WTO and their anger at corporate power but also by their
commitment to nonviolence. Each of the movements in the anti-WTO coalition
included people of a range of ages, but the fact that most of the
blockaders were young, and the larger numbers of middle-aged people among
the labor and mainstream environmental organizations, meant that the
mobilization was not only a coalition of organizations but an alliance of
generations. If an anticorporate movement emerges from Seattle, it seems
likely that young people will be at its forefront but that it will include
people of all ages."

I have a small disagreement with Epstein. She says that labor "was for the
most part absent from the movements of the sixties, and supported the war
in Vietnam." Historian Peter Levy in his book on the labor and 1960s New
Left notes that the more progressive unions helped give birth and support
to the student New Left and were supportive of the civil rights movement.
Tensions developed over the Vietnam war, the counterculture and the black
power movement. There were always hardcore leftwing union people involved
in the insurgencies of the sixties but anti-war activism by fairly
influential labor leaders and mainstream union people developed in the
late sixties. There was also a militant anti-war movement among soldiers
(this was quite dangerous) and veterans. Almost all of these folks were
working class.

Dave Anderson
(an old fart who definitely doesn't want to re-live the sixties)...

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