The lessons of Seattle


Table of content

Diversity or homologation?


We shall not refer here to the specific events that took place in Seattle, which are already well known to our readers and about which we willingly suggest that anyone seeking further information can consult material written by others.
Our aim is to explore the more profound significance of the "Seattle movement", which goes far beyond the immediate situation. We are interested in discussing the future perspectives of a movement that was neither born nor fulfilled today, but is destined to develop and become more precisely directed. Seattle is an important link in a single and dynamic chain that needs to be further extended.
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The first food for thought is the unanimity of the Left which, with the exception of some isolated cases, not only greeted Seattle as something positive, but also as something of its own: such widespread agreement inevitably means that this "something" needs to be analysed very carefully.

We declare ourselves enthusiastic supporters of Seattle, but does this mean that we have something in common with Bertinotti and Il Manifesto, or with Cossutta and the four debauched "greens" bearing pro-Seattle banners outside the Italian parliament in which they are waiting to be given a seat?

No, something is definitely wrong – and it is not difficult to explain what. This apparently unitary fervour hides many conflicting ways of interpreting the lesson of Seattle; and behind this contrast lies the objective fact that the Seattle movement does not have a single defined direction that can be accepted or rejected, but was (and could not be otherwise) a useful step for initiating a struggle whose outcome depends on how (and whether) it is joined. Like all beginnings, it was not a movement that automatically opens the way to the communist solution, but indicates a path that could lead to its success or failure.

One thousand or only one "difference": the difference between capitalism and communism?

What did we actually see in Seattle? A "variegated movement" and a "set of differences" brought together in a "multi-colour" protest against the specific effects of globalised imperialist capitalism (we are not ashamed of thinking and speaking in such terms): there were industrial workers, protectors of turtles and whales, agricultural workers from the first to the third world, homosexuals, protectors of human races destined to anything but voluntary extinction, and those interested in protecting seeds likewise in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth, etc. etc. Something of everything… but what did it mean?

Upon hearing the words "the effects of capitalism", a great many people were quick to pinch their delicate little noses, and simply put on the hat of Seattle because it is "fashionable" and "trendy". Yes, it may also be a question of the consequences of capitalism but not the capitalist system as a whole; it is a question of a specific "form" of capitalism that "politics" can change because, even though they are not exactly proletarian, saving a few more turtles will mean that our own green environment here can also be better protected… The "form" of capitalism hauled up for trial in Seattle was of course that of the USA! We are Europeans over here… and that’s the way we want to stay! We have Jospin and Bertinotti and, as if that were not enough, we also have Martinazzoli and Aznar; which is why we are careful not to throw the baby (capitalism) away with the bath water (the "American system"). This is the essence of the well-flavoured drivel offered by most of the people over here who raised the banner of Seattle. And the institutional left is no exception: if we could afford it, we would put together an entire anthology of its variegated… but strangely concordant thought.

It is obvious that no such mystification would have been possible if it had not been for the fact that Seattle also reflected what we are not afraid of admitting may also be the majority reformist school of thought. What is important is that that the Seattle movement did not limit itself to "reasoning" but actually took to the streets, and there found a little further food for thought concerning the class nature of the "unpleasant effects" of capitalism.

From the beginning to the end, very few said: "Destroy capitalism", and very many limited themselves to repeating what we have heard so many times before: "What do we represent in relation to the human race? Everything. How much we do we count today? Nothing. What do we want now? Something". And you know how it finished the last time…

There is a theoretical lesson that needs to be drawn and repeated from the experience of Seattle: whenever the objective conditions exist, any new social system always first comes into the light in the form of a struggle against certain specific effects of the previously dominant regime. Consciousness arises when these individual effects are seen as an inextricable whole, which leads to an awareness of their initial and essential cause. This happens because the accumulation of social contradictions and antagonisms is an objective fact that sets fire to the prairies and demands an immediate response: things cannot be allowed to continue as they are and man has no intention of living as before. It is as simple as that.

We are obviously not speaking here about Marxist science or the party, but about the movement and the masses who must never be seen as a simple accessory, a sort of lighter that only serves to spark off the bright ideas of some people (OK, these are marginal polemics with marginal people, but it keeps us in training…)

At this point, the fact that the movement includes "many spirits" and many "differences" takes on a different meaning than in the past: unlike the nonsense pulped out by our own "alternative" Soloni, there was not only co-presence but also potential unification. There are many of us (regardless of our own separate initial reasons) need to stand together against a single and concentrated enemy, and put ourselves on the same wavelength by concentrating and centralising our efforts in order to confront the unitary set of questions facing us. We offer the example of the dialectic passages of the largely convincing piece by James O’ Connor (La Rivista del Mmanifesto, March 2000). Limiting the discourse to the United States, the movement needs to be seen "as a more or less temporary or long-lasting coalition" of different spirits, some of whom "think" in terms of redefining wealth (the environmentalists), some of redistributing it (the "red economists"), and some of redefining and redistributing it "putting together the problems of equality and sustainability in a project that transcends trade unionism and environmentalism" (in a word: socialism); now still at its beginnings, "the anti-WTO movement is still ideological and divided". It may even pay internally for its divisions, but its logic lies in going forward and decidedly adopting positions that are centralised and unequivocal. Why? "One answer is that there is no alternative: if you want someone to listen to you, you have to take the side of one or other of the contenders": capitalism or socialism. His words contain an apparent paradox: we have only seen a beginning but this is to be considered good because it puts together reformers and revolutionaries, socialists and anarchists, smallholders and small entrepreneurs, local populist, students". The important thing is that everybody at Seattle "spoke little and did a great deal".

We agree with him: it is essential that the unsustainability of capitalism brings together the various elements of suffering humanity, and it is above all essential that these elements act – not in order to avoid speaking (i.e. clarifying the coordinates of the struggle to come), but in order to ensure that that the necessary political and organisational clarification is soundly based on its material foundations. Capitalism produces an infinite diversity of exploitative and alienating phenomena involving humanity and nature, but it also simultaneously provokes the need for a rebellion against all of this that is capable of unifying the different terminals in a single movement and project.

Our own "left-wingers", including the "extremists" who graduated in Marxism from the CEPU, overturn this fundamental lesson by taking "diversity" as an absolute criterion, a fact of nature from the beginning to the end of history: instead of Rousseau’s pre-social "noble savage" at odds with an anti-natural society (but that was at least a specific and concrete society!), we now have thousands or millions of "different" and "autonomous" savages. This criterion has even been extended to nature by means, for example, of the abstract exaltation of the thousands of varieties of seeds against manipulations on the part of Man, totally obscuring the fact that it is not the hand of Man himself that introduces unnatural and evil manipulations, but the dynamics of profit-based capitalism: social man cannot be separated from the continuous "manipulation" of nature and himself, and nature itself is permanently undergoing a process of self-manipulation and transformation (at least if we have understood correctly the Dialectics of Nature written by a certain Engels).

Ghosts or flesh and bone?

What we would like to insist on here is that the anti-WTO action not only objectively posed the underlying question of the antagonism between socialism and capitalism, but also subjectively demonstrated it in a way that has not been seen for decades in the USA. It may be unpleasant news for those of our "refounders" who are on the brink of declaring proletarian antagonism dead and buried in favour of the consumers/pushers of the social centres, who are so "diverse" in terms of sexual tastes, etc., etc., but Seattle was a powerful demonstration of the presence of the proletariat. And – in our opinion – the proletariat is the only element of society that is capable of condensing within itself the condition of mankind as a whole, and then centralising and resolving it.

Too little has been said about this presence (in an attempt to dilute and eliminate it), but, to repeat the words of Rosa Luxemburg, it is there and demands to be heard: it is through its mouth that the social revolution can declare: I have been, am and will be.

Once again, we have no intention of deceiving ourselves or our readers. The extraordinary entry of workers into the field (American workers living in the heart of imperialism, let it be remembered – the same workers who are ignored by those who reject the "American model" and jump on the bandwagon of the "counter-model" of European eggheads in an attempt to isolate them and set them against us) does not mean that our party solution is already nicely packaged and just waiting to be opened. But it does mean that the great proletarian Leviathan is beginning to awake from its long hibernation, is once again ready to make itself heard and be recognised for what it is, and is starting a process of fraternisation internally and in relation to all of the other oppressed strata of society. In some cases, as in the IWW document calling the Seattle gathering, there was also something more than the mere sparks of a revolutionary class consciousness and a correct understanding of united front tactics aimed at broadening, defining and centralising the movement of today and of the future.

This document unequivocally states that "the capitalist system, based on the exploitation of people, society and the environment for the benefit of a few" is the "prime cause of today’s social and ecological problems", and that it is necessary to build "a strong, resolute and creative grass-roots movement against the economic and political institutions of capitalism". It also says: "As we become aware that no question is isolated, be it workers’ exploitation, the economic ruin of farmworkers, "development" programmes that dislocate indigenous populations or destroy our environment, so we also become aware that we must act together and unify our struggles" against capitalism.

This is a perfect reply to the supporters of the "diversity" we mentioned above!

But in addition to these advanced positions, we must not forget the presence of the workers belonging to the ALF-CIO, which reflects a general recovery of trade unionism (although it is still limited to 18% or perhaps even less of all wage labourers). The recovery of the trade union movement (including this union) bears witness to a renewed sense of conflict in the USA which, by its very nature, will lead to an activation of the base that is not only capable of producing numbers, but also of controlling the tendencies of a leadership fossilised by an initial phase of stabilisation followed by years of backwardness. The unthinking may well contest the words of the leader of the ALF-CIO (who spoke of the need for "renewed internationalism" and economic support for trade union organisations in "competing" countries such as Mexico) by saying: "We know the interests represented by such leaders very well; it is simply a case of "protectionism" in favour of the organised workers in the USA". Our own opinion of these leaders is not any better. However, as Trotsky said, this type of objection is typical of sectarians who are incapable of seeing the masses underlying the thin layer of union bureaucracy and confuse the first with the second. We see the fact that the leaders of the ALF-CIO speak of internationalism as baing a result of subjective and objective pressures coming from below. And even if the financing of the formation of trade unions in Mexico is a means of avoiding "unfair competition" between American workers and the masses of an underpaid and semi-enslaved workforce, we go beyond such intentions, welcome the fact that this a way of reducing the competition within our class, and look forward to seeing the consequences. There is no way in which proletarians who support each other, fight together, and find themselves side by side in the streets can be reduced to mere agents of capitalist "protectionism". If only one of our own unions would encourage the direct organisation of our immigrant proletariat by providing structures and financing! That would be a real step towards a noble form of "protectionism": the protection of the class, and its immediate and historical interests in the future. Shame on anyone who has dared to debase not only and not so much certain American trade union leaders, but also the country’s working masses returning to the field!

Violence or non-violence?

In the mournful words of some of the exponents of the European "left", the joyous demonstration of Seattle was "disturbed" only because of the intervention of a few dozen anarchists.

But the truth is that the certainly more substantial and organised members of the so-called Black Bloc (who we would hesitate to define as anarchists) engaged in direct actions against the visual symbols of capitalist power in loco by devastating and "expropriating" whatever they could. Reprehensible violence? Let us look into it for a moment.

First of all, who were they against? In their own words: "the offices of the multinationals in the centre of Seattle", Fidelity Investment (involved in the destruction of the U’wa tribe in Colombia in order to be able to pillage its land without opposition), various banks ("key financial institutions in the expansion of global repression"), hyper-exploitative companies such as Old Navy, Banana Republic and GAP, Nike and Levi’s ("whose extremely high-priced products are manufactured under conditions of semi-slavery in the South of the world in exchange for miserable wages"), Mac Donald’s (a producer of "junk food" and a destroyer of tropical forests), Starbucks, Warner and Planet Hollywood.

Who would not want to see these organisations destroyed? If only they were!

Diversity or homologation?

The March issue of Le Monde Diplomatique contains an article on the new national-populist right-wing movements in Europe that reveals their common background of ethno-diversity. But what is the difference between this defence of ethno-diversity and that postulated by the Bertinotti’s of this world as a means of "overcoming" outdated Marxism? None. You can say that "We are talking about ‘shared’ diversity" but, aside from the fact that the right is also learning (and how!) to speak in terms of "solidarity", the promise of the left is nothing more than window dressing if it is entirely based on the concept of "diversity", which is nothing less than a negation of the Marxist concept of a social community. "If I am interested in my different lifestyle, my different culture (natural, unhistorical?), and even my unrenounceable individuality, why should I do more than necessary for the people who live outside the boundaries of my property? It is of course possible that, under particular circumstances, I may find it in my interests to join "others" in defending my interest against a common enemy, but nothing more". Whether it comes from the left or right, this defence of "diversity" is fundamentally a question of bourgeois self-defence: i.e. the more or less tempered defence that any homo homini lupus establishes with other individuals in order to defend his proprietary and conflictual individualism. However frequently the word "diversity" is formally combined with those of "solidarity" or "community", it remains a reactionary defence: an eternalisation of the current antagonistic division of human kind into "irreversibly different" and unequal classes, races and nations, particularly when it comes to the case of the dominant position of the West, which lies at the summit of the entire and merciless pyramid of capitalist "differences". It is therefore the negation of any possibility of arriving at social individuals (something very different from bourgeois individuals), whose real individuality is enriched by the fact that it is extended towards the social community in which they are born. It is a negation of the dissolution of social classes, and the fusion of races and countries, which is the only means by which (within the context of communism) humanity as a whole can benefit from the inexhaustible wealth offered by the contributions of people who are today mortified and disfigured by a capitalism whose total indifference to human needs has reduced them to the level of goods. In brief, it is the defence of an increasingly homologous market society that has become the "only thought" of capital and its practices: and this is diversity?!

As you can see, the lesson to be drawn from Seattle is that, in order to create a unified programme of struggle and intent, a movement beginning from different and specific situations (because capitalism itself has determined that this is the only possible starting point for the fight against it) must inevitably shake itself free of any concepts of "diversity".

Secondly, what else was the claimed violence of the Black Bloc against these institutions but a defensive response, the real usefulness of which can be subsequently dissected? Where is the real violence? And isn’t there also the "other" violence perpetrated by the police, the State and the system in order to defend the real delinquents? Or do you think that, in the absence of the "provocation" of the Black Bloc, the forces of order would have quietly stepped aside in order to allow a peaceful exchange of "ideas", possibly taking note of the rejection of capitalist logic on the part of "public opinion"?

In this regard, it is worth recording the exemplary clarity of a comment made by Mumia Abu Jamal, which will inevitably sound offensively schematic to the delicate ears of the "peaceful" opponents of the WTO: "A lot can be said about the mistreated anarchists who shook the centre of the city by attacking the splendid buildings of the Capitol. The press was quick to call them "delinquents" or "hooligans" involved in "violence", but what their reports obviously did not mention was that they attacked property, not other beings. In the meantime, the State, in the person of its police, attacked people… I wonder which is the most serious form of violence?".

And the members of the Black Bloc were perfectly right when, speaking about the "non-violent activists" who intervened against them in order to protect the "truly peaceful spirit" of the demonstration by calling for police aid, they said that this was an example of the "racism of privileged activists who can afford to ignore the violence perpetrated against nature and the majority of the members of society in the name of the right to private property".

It is true that a lot could be said about these anarchists, but we refuse to say anything against them that sounds like a warning from the existing capitalist order. The principles inspiring these comrades are the same as our own. It is only after and if we have firmly established this point that we can discuss questions of tactics and strategy. Mindful of centuries of struggles against anarchism, we do not agree with the perspective of an exemplary struggle conducted by "conscious and determined" groups prejudicially detached from the "bovine" masses, and reply to similar initiatives using the example given by the IWW: we consider ourselves the vanguard of the movement, the only element that has been able to identify the terms of the problem and the consequent battle. However, it is precisely for this reason that we do not see ourselves as detached from the backward masses but intend to establish a dialogue that will draw them towards our positions on the only possible clarifying ground of a common struggle in which material recognition is given to the fact that the fight has already begun. This is the correct position and supersedes the petit-bourgeois assumptions underlying "individual action" (which may be as determined as you like, but it is not this that counts). However, we do not start by condemning anti-capitalist principles, but on the basis of a full and consequent assumption of responsibility for them; our total condemnation is reserved for the "pacifism" of the servants of the system.

The future of the movement will not be less violent, but one of more organised conflict against capitalist violence, a violence that forms a "natural" part of its very being and is expressed by its institutionalised forces of order.

Rather than a peaceful exchange of ideas, it is this power struggle that lies on the horizon. This is an objective fact in relation to which everyone will have to decide which side of the barricade they intend to defend; it is no longer possible to ignore that the barricade has been built and that the shooting has already begun (particularly on the part of those who wave the flag of peace simply to deceive their enemies and deliver them unarmed to the firing squad).

This comes out very clearly in the words of a student at Seattle, whose eyes were opened to the existence of these two sides of the battlefield and, particularly, to the presence of a proletariat that had perhaps previously been seen as something separate from himself, but which he now sees as indicating the only possible pathway: "I think that these students [i.e. those on the road to radicalisation] could have become social democrats ten years ago in the United States, but this option no longer exists. You can now only be for or against the system, there is a real polarisation".

He could not have expressed himself better and, believe us, he is not an OCI member and we certainly did not invent him…