The New Radicals

Tom Hayden, California state senator, ex-husband of Jane Fonda, cofounder of Students for a Democratic Society, author of the first draft of the Port Huron statement in 1961 and defendant 30 years ago in the Chicago Seven trial, was marching down a street in Seattle, and sounding mighty pleased with things. "It's been a very significant week," he barked into his mobile phone, the sounds of chanting protesters and honking horns in the background. "But I don't know how significant yet."

Nor does anyone else; which hasn't stopped some from offering their opinion. "There's never been an event in American history that has brought together so many disparate groups," said consumer activist Ralph Nader (yup; he was in Seattle, too). Disparate isn't the word; those on the streets included steelworkers, animal-rights activists, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Pat Buchanan, French makers of Roquefort cheese, anarchists, fans of a Free Tibet, students against sweatshopped sweatshirts, grandmas and a fine turnout of local folk, too. When they had all gone home, America started to wonder what had brought them together, and what, if anything, Seattle meant for the future. A rebirth of '60s-style activism? A week's vacation for twentysomething beneficiaries of the long economic boom, with too much time and money on their hands? Or something entirely new?

In a sense, the World Trade Organization was the perfect target for the activists, because so many groups have a beef with what they see as its impact. For a start, it's headquartered far away, nobody knows who runs it and it is easily endowed with all the suspicious characteristics of bugaboos like the Trilateral Commission. "That's the beauty of the WTO," says Stan Schultz, professor of American history at the University of Wisconsin. "It's the perfect foil for a nation that watches 'The X-Files' every week." John Callender, who was in Seattle with the Milarepa Fund, which supports a free Tibet, couldn't agree more. "The WTO is not just about trade. It's about health and safety, the environment, human rights, labor rights."

There's something in the air; a new mood of radical activism of a kind and--perhaps--scale not seen for years. To be sure, there have always been those who raged against the machine, long before the favorite rock band of those on the streets in Seattle was ever heard from. In the history of American protest, the '70s and '80s are not lost decades, a long ellipsis between (say) the Weather Underground and Earth First! The movement to disinvest in South Africa, ACT UP and all the other AIDS/ HIV awareness groups--none of them depended on either the Port Huron generation or the body-pierced one. But there does seem to be a common sense of alienation among a surprising number of Americans. Dan Seligman, head of The Sierra Club's trade office, defines the new mood as a feeling of "loss of control" in a world of rapid change and turbocharged global capitalism. "The things people believe in are less secure. Their communities are more fragile. They're more isolated, and it all adds up to a growing sense of insecurity and powerlessness despite the improving economy. And people are beginning to connect that to corporate power, media control, and politics stacked against them."

Two intertwined factors give radicalism '90s style a particular energy. The first is the Internet. The Net has made itself felt in trade politics before; it was used effectively in 1998 to mobilize a worldwide campaign against the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which would have made it easier for multinational companies to buy assets far from home. But the e-generation really came into its own in Seattle. Web sites galore spread the word, told people where to show up and solicited bed and board from sympathetic locals. Hayden, from the corduroy-suit generation, was impressed with the possibilities of the new technology: "I never imagined recording videotape of police brutality and putting it on the Web to broadcast around the world."

"Around the world" is another reason the radicalism in the '90s is different from anything that's gone before it. The civil-rights and anti-Vietnam movements, says activist Paul Hawken, cofounder of upscale gardening company Smith & Hawken, were "peculiarly American." The protests in Seattle, he argues, were truly international, and he's right, in two distinct ways. First, people came from all over the world, and even if they didn't ever show up on Pike Street, they could follow the action in real time thanks to the Net. Second, many of the domestic American protesters were on the streets to advance causes far from home--the protection of the rain forests, sweatshop laborers in Indonesia, monarch butterflies in Mexico, the right of Europeans to reject genetically modified food. Artor Hodgson, owner of the Hungry Head bookstore in Eugene, Ore. (the town in which most of the violent anarchists in Seattle are thought to have their base--some of them in an "Ewok Village" built high in a cluster of Douglas firs outside town), lists some local heroes. They include John Zerzan, an anarchist close to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; but also "that French farmer who drove his tractor through McDonald's and the kids in London who shoved burning police cars into the subway."

There's a wonderful irony here. The theorists of free trade argue (with much reason) that the free flow of goods and commerce knit nations together in a true internationalism. But the radicals in Seattle would argue (also with reason) that they are just as international as Coca-Cola or Monsanto. Hitherto, it's been easy to insist that anyone opposed to "trade" was by definition a protectionist, happy to hide behind the walls of the nation-state. That simple equation no longer holds good; one of the most important lessons of Seattle is that there are now two visions of globalization on offer, one led by commerce, one by social activism.

Sure, there were plenty in Seattle whose opposition to free trade was of the "traditional" kind. By far the largest group on the streets were not dressed as sea turtles but members of labor unions, convinced that the rules of the WTO--and its willingness to admit countries like China, with extremely low wages--threaten their livelihoods. Yet even here, the protests had a '90s twist. This time the hard hats were prepared to make common cause with the tree-huggers. Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian, sees that as a significant change in the climate of protest. In the past, he says, "labor has been cautious, even hostile to environmentalism because it interferes with jobs--loggers can't cut down as many trees. Here you had steelworkers and Sierra Club members marching together." The Sierra Club's Seligman agrees. Seattle, he says, showed a "new kind of bonding" between labor and greens. "There's a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that I've never seen before. Seattle is different from Chicago '68 because the students and the workers were on the same side of the fence this time."

Make that some students and some workers. The drama of Seattle may obscure as much as it illuminates. There may indeed be a new, and newly inclusive, sense of activism in the land. But don't get carried away: there is not yet any convincing evidence that a mass movement of protest is sweeping America, certainly not one with the sort of political consequences seen in the 1960s.

Everyone knows one reason why. Activism 30 years ago was fueled, in part, by opposition to the Vietnam war. "The issues today don't have the direct impact of being sent overseas to fight a war," says Tom Weisskopf, a left-leaning economics professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Nothing beats that for galvanizing people." Even on trade issues, narrowly defined, there is little sense that actions on the streets have translated into the stuff of high politics. If they had done so, the Clinton administration would not have dared to conclude its recent trade agreement paving the way for China's accession to the WTO.

On campuses, even student activists concede that, in these booming economic times, they sometimes have trouble making their case. "There's a large contingent of my generation that is very focused on career and financial success," says Sarah Lipton-Lubet, a sophomore at Northwestern University and a fourth-generation liberal activist. In Ann Arbor last week, only a handful of students showed up at a rally against the WTO (one dressed as a sea turtle, natch). Nor did all unionists feel they belonged in Seattle, even in spirit. It was the older union members who marched against the WTO, thinks Sean McAlinden, a labor economist at the University of Michigan and former member of the United Auto Workers. The younger guys, he says, are "clothed in their Wal-Mart clothes and feel like they're in a strong industry." They're right to think so; the UAW just signed generous four-year contracts with the Detroit Big Three, who are on a pace to show record profits and sales this year.

And however well they all got on this week, the brotherly bonding of the Seattle coalition will fracture: hey, we're talking about the left here. John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, whom many credit with a new spirit of openness, recognizes that it's not always easy to reconcile the interest of labor and greens: "The rope that I walk," he says, "is a thin one." Older activists, surveying the broken glass and tear gas, know that nothing tears a broad movement apart so fast as a violent fringe. "Thirty years ago we didn't know how to keep the crazies in check," says Paul Soglin, a '60s activist who became mayor of Madison, Wis. "The question is: Will history repeat itself?"

Perhaps it will, in bad ways and good. One thing that seems to be lacking today is a mission statement, a credo, that gives the movement, such as it is, some focus. If asked, Hayden, Soglin and the rest of the '60s crowd could surely help. "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort... looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit." Port Huron, 1961; but not a bad text for Seattle, 1999.

The New Radicals | News