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'New' and 'Left' Are Not Oxymoronic
Published on Thursday, April 20, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
'New' and 'Left' Are Not Oxymoronic
by Alexander Cockburn
 
Some of the demonstrators in Washington, D.C., last weekend have been grumbling about press coverage, suggesting that they had "failed" in their efforts to close the World Bank talks down. I tell them that their indignation is misplaced, and they are missing the full extent of their triumph, namely that they have managed to place their issues squarely on the national and, indeed, global political agenda.

A decade ago, even five years ago, officials of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were florid with righteous self-satisfaction at the good works their institutions were performing around the world. Listen now to these same officials apologizing for sins of the past and nervously contending that they are re-engineering themselves as forces for good.

It's the same on the sweatshop issue. Hardly a month goes by without a firm like Nike claiming that it is trying to be responsive to the charges of critics about its pay scales and labor practices in the Third World.

What we've seen in Seattle at the end of last year and now, less dramatically, in Washington is the flowering of a new radical movement in America, rambunctious, anarchic, internationalist, well-informed and in some ways more imaginative and supple than kindred radical eruptions in earlier decades.

Take a look at some of the threads in this new activist, populist movement. Start with the Ruckus Society, one of whose founders was Mike Roselle, a man whose political lineage started with Abbie Hoffman's Yippies, continued with progressive politics and then ripened in Earth First!, which he co-founded with Dave Foreman. Roselle has long argued that large-scale, nonviolent civil disobedience could shut down a city and take over the theme shows organized by world capital, such as the WTO conference in Seattle. The Yippies understood street theater and so do the Ruckusites and the anarchists. They also understand fun, something the old Left looked at with grave suspicion.

Add to this brew of militant environmentalism and sense of street theater the concerns of the anti-globalization crowd for economic justice. In 30 minutes worth of speeches in the Ellipse in Washington last Sunday, one could hear speakers talk about sweatshops, cancellation of Third World debt, the menace of biotechnology, unequal exchange in world trade, labor organizing at the global level.

One issue flows into another, as the Berkeley-based International Rivers Network discovered years ago. As the IRN battled dams around the world, it found that dams mostly had one thing in common: financial backing from the World Bank. So the IRN founded the enormously effective "50 Years Is Enough" campaign against the bank.

In the same way, defenders of forests around the world found themselves looking at the World Bank's forest-destroying agricultural programs and the IMF's Third World "structural adjustment" programs.

As with all new radical movements, some of the bloodlines go back a long way, to movements of Third World solidarity that started in the 1960s. The anti-NAFTA battles of the early 1990s gave birth to organizations such as the Naderite Citizens Trade Campaign that were highly visible both in Seattle and Washington.

There's a new student activism too, markedly different from the gender and identity concerns of the early 1990s. Across the United States, campuses are being organized by Students United Against Sweatshops, bringing in speakers from Global Exchange; the garment workers' union; and Jeff Ballinger's Press for Change.

What's different about this new movement? It's anti-corporate, but in a manner far more specific than older railings about "international capital." We live in the age of the brand name, and so we see well-informed campaigns against specific companies like Nike, the Gap, Monsanto. The movement is well-informed and internationalist, a tribute to the powers of the Internet. It's antagonistic to both the Republican and Democratic parties. This summer will see big demonstrations at both party conventions, in Philadelphia as well as Los Angeles.

Perry Anderson, editor of New Left Review, declares with gloomy relish in that journal that "the only starting point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat." Yet as I read these dour lines, news comes over the radio of a tree-sit in a section of the Headwaters redwood forest in Humboldt County. A young woman called Firebird, at time of this writing, is tree-sitting 40 feet up in the air. She's fixed up a rope with a noose around her neck and the other end tied to a gate on the ground. If the loggers or their allies launch an attack, Firebird is in imminent danger of being hanged.

Firebird represents the will and, let's face it, the optimism of the new radical movement. Hurrah for her and for others like her who battled the WTO to a standstill in Seattle last fall and who reprised in Washington last weekend. Hurrah for optimism!

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Alexander Cockburn Writes for the Nation and Other Publications

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

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