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Cheering the May Day Radicals

5 minute read

Ah, May Day. Pagan fertility rights as comely lads and lasses dance around poles; memories of Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg and the house-trained variety of Marxists; red flags and the Internationale; official start of the allergy season in New York (“Sneeze for solidarity!”); and worldwide excuse for a thousand demonstrations — our topic for the week.

Despite the happy coincidence of a date, there is perhaps something a bit forced about throwing all the May Day demos into the same catch-all net. Trade unionists in Zimbabwe don’t obviously have much in common with prisoners’ relatives in Turkey or cat-loving, dope-smoking cyclists in London. But then May Day has always had its local peculiarities; like, for example, the fact that in the U.S. it’s not marked at all. That said, “Think global, demo local,” seems to have been a common watchword of last week’s marches. Certainly in Germany, Switzerland, Britain and Australia, local demonstrators explicitly took aim at the supposed iniquities of global capitalism. So May Day 2001 joins Seattle, Melbourne, Prague, Nice, Davos and Quebec city as a marker in a broad movement opposed to globalization. (Incidentally, why has Oz become a hotbed of such demos?)

Ever since the first of these modern protests took place, at a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, something of an iron-clad take on the demonstrators has developed among the media élite. It goes like this: though it’s nice to see young people engaged with some of the great issues of the day, their politics are misconceived and their economics at kindergarten level. World trade — the motor of globalization — is not a dastardly plot against the interests of the poor. On the contrary, trade and a willingness to engage in the global economy is the single best way that nations can escape the chains of poverty; most countries suffer from too little globalization, not too much. Rich-world demonstrators may not know it, but they are essentially selfish, determined to protect their own jobs against competition from those elsewhere who, by making sneakers (or computers or toys) for wages at which Germans (or Swiss or Sydneysiders) would turn up their nose, actually improve life-chances in the developing world. The demonstrators are hence well-meaning but misguided.

All of this may, broadly, be correct. Still, whenever the conventional wisdom solidifies as rapidly as it has on the anti-globalization movement, my natural inclination is to think there’s something wrong with it. Two things, to be precise.

First — forgive me for spoiling the party — not all of those who demonstrate against global capitalism are well-meaning. Not all of them are college students determined never to wear a sweatshirt stitched by child labor or greens who like dressing up as turtles. There are some darker agendas out there. I was in Prague last September for the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. For most of a day, the atmosphere among the crowds outside the conference hall was like a carnival, complete with balloons and bubble-blowers. But in the late afternoon, a determined fringe of anarchists turned violent, attacking police, trashing stores downtown. We were very lucky that nobody was seriously injured. Like it or not, ever since Seattle, “nice” nongovernmental organizations have been used as a cover by those who are looking for no more than a good rumble. In my experience, most leaders of ngos are in denial about this; they have done far, far too little to disassociate themselves from the actions of a violent fringe.

But if some demonstrators against globalization aren’t the sort you would want at your May Day cocktail party, neither are all misguided. You can believe that globalization is broadly beneficial to the great mass of humankind (as I do) and still cheer some of those who take to the streets to argue noisily for a more just economic order. In fact, we would be lost without them.

A case in point: it is now widely accepted that the very poorest nations of the world labor under crippling burdens of debt, much of it contracted by corrupt governments in the past. Hence the consensus that debt relief is a crucial element of economic reform. But this happy vision did not emerge, like Venus from a scallop shell, because bankers in the private and public sectors decided out of the goodness of their bleeding hearts that debt relief made sense. It happened because a broad coalition led by sandal-wearing, hymn-singing European churchgoers banded together in Jubilee 2000 to argue the case. In much the same vein, the can of tuna that I am about to turn into lunch has a little label reading “Dolphin Safe.” It didn’t get there by accident, but because environmentalists pressured food companies. Result: if you don’t care a smoked haddock for the well-being of dolphins, you can buy whatever tuna you like; if you think that they’re our cousins in the oceans (some people do), you can alter your shopping habits accordingly.

The lesson: like all the really interesting things in life, globalization is a matter of nuance. There is no black and white here, just the usual myriad shades of gray. You may not have wanted to join the throngs singing in the streets on May Day, but there’s no harm in knowing all the words.

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