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Seatle Five Years On

It is almost five years since unprecedented public protest and a demonstration of some 100,000 people disrupted the meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle. Today, the protest is mainly remembered for the violent exchanges between a minority of protesters and the Seattle police and National Guard that provided the media with exactly the sensational spectacle it was seeking. For a day or so at the end of November 1999 images of the more violent aspects of the protest were flashed across our television screens while the newspapers carried vivid descriptions of the mayhem caused by this major public demonstration. With only minor exceptions the event was resoundingly condemned by the media as irresponsible, while the underlying issues were dismissed without further consideration. Within a day or so the media circus had moved on to find its sensationalism elsewhere and the demonstration was quietly forgotten.
The main purpose of the demonstration was to highlight ‘unfairness’ in WTO rules, perceived as defending the domination of the industrialised countries over the undeveloped countries. The protesters represented a broad spectrum of opinion however; ranging from human rights and pro-democracy groups to environmental, religious and labour activists each having their own agenda and motives for demonstrating. Some decried the inhuman conditions imposed on undeveloped countries by ‘structural adjustment packages’, others the composition of the WTO with its unelected officials. Certain groups condemned the savage exploitation of child labour while others opposed the dumping of toxic waste in undeveloped countries. Other sections opposed ‘free trade’ although interestingly it was claimed the majority of protesters were in favour of international trade but critical of the ‘unfairness’ of the current model of ‘free trade’; believing that free trade is beneficial to all if only it can be made ‘fair’. Existing trade agreements, they argued, were seriously skewed because only the ‘developed’ nations have benefited while poverty and social inequality have grown rapidly in developing countries.
With perhaps the exception of the ‘anti-capitalist’ group, who supposedly advocated the abolition of the capitalist system altogether – but failed to specify what should replace it and how this change should come about – the protesters seem to have been united by a single common belief. They all broadly believed that international trade could be reformed to work in the interests of ordinary working people and with ‘fairer’ trade and a little less exploitation of the undeveloped countries and their people, the world could live in harmony.

Cause and effect

The Seattle demonstration was bound to fail in exactly the same way as anti-war protests fail to achieve an end to war. It is a question of cause and effect; we can demonstrate against all kinds of things that we consider ‘unfair’ but unless we recognise and tackle their cause the problem will only remain.
We cannot hope to understand world events unless we view these from a class, rather than national, perspective. We live in a world where the dominant world economic system is capitalism, a system that has organised all people into two opposing classes with conflicting interests. The owning or capitalist class lives on profits by virtue of its ownership of the means of producing and distribution wealth. It is their class interest to depress wages and benefits to increase profits. The working class everywhere has nothing and therefore is forced to sell its labour power for a wage or salary in order to live. But the source of all wealth is the product of labour applied to nature, and the very people who produce this wealth are denied access to it by laws and ultimately the state. Government’s function is to protect the capitalist class and its legal ‘right’ to accumulate the wealth created by ordinary working people. The two classes thus have opposing and conflicting interests.
The central imperative of capitalism is to expand and to seek new ways of extracting more profit from ordinary working people by seeking out raw material and markets and imposing itself on the people of other countries; transforming indigenous self-supporting people into wage and salary workers. People everywhere are compelled to join the ranks of the world’s working class to face the same class struggles as their fellow workers in the industrialised countries. We share a common interest.
It cannot be denied that capitalism has entered a particularly pernicious phase in its development – euphemistically called ‘globalisation’ – in undeveloped countries as large corporations viciously compete globally to secure markets and relentlessly exploit labour in countries where they reputedly earn 75 percent of their profits. But exploitation is not just confined to undeveloped countries. Working people everywhere are on the defensive against the class whose imperative is to maximise its profits and perpetuate their mastery over all working people. There can be little doubt that the wages and salaries of the majority of people in industrialised countries have stagnated or declined, working hours and job insecurity have increased and conditions of life have deteriorated. The correlation between economic growth and improving social welfare has been cut as corporations seek to introduce ‘Third World’ standards into the established industrialised countries. We share a common interest.
The Seattle protesters did not share this view of the world. The real enemy is class society engendering the domination of ordinary working people by the class who live by making profits. Countries don’t dominate or exploit other countries; the capitalist class who own the companies and corporations assisted by their respective governments exploit the working class everywhere, regardless of their geographical location. Working people don’t benefit from the ruthless exploitation of undeveloped countries; companies and corporations benefit by maximising their profits for their shareholders. Ordinary workers don’t import or export commodities; companies and corporations owned by the capitalist class export commodities in order to release the profit generated for them by the world’s working class. Ordinary workers don’t make trade rules; governments working to further the interests of companies and corporations draft these rules. Ordinary workers don’t invest in other countries or claim ‘free trade’ is an impetus for global prosperity; companies and corporations invest in order to generate ‘super-profits’ and it is they as a class who prosper, not ordinary working people. Ordinary working people don’t live on profits; instead, they struggle on a wage or salary. We have a conflict of interests.

Workers don’t benefit

When the Seattle protesters demanded less corporate investment and exploitation of undeveloped countries they were intimating that the indigenous population would be better placed if left to its own devices. This is a delusion; less interference from ‘foreign’ capital would simply allow the indigenous capitalist class or even the state to take over the exploitation of the indigenous working people. The same is true of struggles against colonialism, demands for national liberation, independence and the right of national self-determination. These movements are no more than the struggles of an indigenous capitalist class, striving to gain the right to exploit ordinary workers in their own country. Worker support for such movements is based on the misapprehension that it is somehow less painful to be exploited by someone born in the same country than by a foreign corporation. Workers have no country, just a place where we struggle to live, work for a wage or salary and make profits for the owning class. We have a common interest; we are all wage slaves.
The demands of the Seattle demonstrators were misguided. Demonstrators can at best hope to alleviate a problem, but the respite is only temporary. The world cannot be made ‘fair’ by rewriting trade rules, electing WTO officials or even abolishing the WTO altogether. The WTO together with the IMF and the World Bank and all the other institutions exist only to serve the needs of the companies and corporations owned by the world’s capitalist class in their pursuit of profit. Their abolition would not alter the underlying conflict of interests between ordinary working people and their capitalist masters.
It is only with the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialist society that worker servitude everywhere will end. This is achievable not by demonstrating for reforms to institutions of capitalist society but by a majority of the world’s workers understanding the need for socialism and working together to capture political power to abolish capitalism and build a socialist society.
Socialism is a classless society based on common ownership of the means of producing and distributing wealth, where production will be used to overcome needs, not to create profit. It will be a society without money and free from conflicting class interests, democratically controlled by ordinary people for and in the interest of all people everywhere. This is our common interest.