The bourgeoisie uses 'popular protest' to hide the class struggle

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The crisis of capitalism is making living conditions worse for virtually everyone, causing a great deal of anger among workers and other sections of the population. This growing discontent has been channelled into a number of protest demonstrations. In particular we have seen the ‘anti-capitalist’ demonstrations outside the World Economic Forum in Melbourne and the World Bank and IMF in Prague; the opposition protests against Milosevic in Serbia; and the blockades of oil refineries in Britain and various European countries.

These are the images of struggle presented to the working class for the 21st century. Socialist Worker, other Trotskyist organisations and some left wing Labour figures are particularly enthusiastic about the Prague anti-globalisation protests. But how do they measure up to the real needs of the class struggle in the coming period?

‘Anti-globalisation’: an ideology that serves national capitalism

The Melbourne and Prague protests, with their echo in cities around the world, claim to be internationalist and anti-capitalist. The rationale of these demonstrations is the myth of globalisation, which blames multinational companies and organisations such as the IMF for all the effects of the capitalist crisis today. The truth is that capitalism - which actually became a global system around a hundred years ago - is fundamentally based on competition between national units. The strongest economic powers, particularly the US, but also Japan and the most industrialised European states, are able to impose trade tariffs on imports and demand free trade for their exports, getting the best for themselves and pushing the worst effects of the crisis onto their weaker competitors. The IMF and WTO are among the forums in which this takes place, functioning either as tools of the most powerful capitalist states or as battle grounds for their rivalries.

To focus anger at the effects of capitalism onto the IMF, WTO and World Bank, or onto the multinational companies, inevitably means turning to the nation state for protection, in other words turning to the most important weapon of capitalist rule. For instance when Naomi Klein, author of ‘No Logo’ told the counter-summit in Prague "the directors of the IMF want governments to slash taxes, to privatise and to deregulate in the interests of the multinational corporations" (Socialist Worker 30 Sept) she was asking us to support national government and nationalised industry against foreign private capital. But all capitalist bosses, local or multinational, private or state, exploit the working class. And they all do so according to the conditions imposed by the world market.

Support for bourgeois democracy

Last November, the running battles with the police in Seattle were held up as the example of ‘anti-capitalist’ struggle. This time there has been much more concentration on the need for democracy.

The power of the multinationals and of the IMF and World Bank comes in for much criticism because these bodies are unelected. We even read denunciations of "corporate tyrannies" (Socialist Review October 2000).

The implication of this is that we should rely on our elected governments to protect us from these expressions of global capitalism. But government policy is based on the needs of national capital, not ‘public opinion’.

Democracy is also the main issue in the Serb opposition demonstrations for Milosevic to go, after Kostunica won the majority of votes in the election. After ten years of war and crisis the reasons for the discontent are obvious, but the situation of the working class in Serbia will not be determined by the removal of one man, but by the development of the world crisis and particularly of the imperialist conflicts in the Balkans.

In other words, whether in a ‘democracy’, like Britain, or an ‘authoritarian’ regime like Serbia, government policy cannot depend on ‘public opinion’ and the result of elections. In the sophisticated democracies the state has many means of manipulating public opinion through media, polls and focus groups in order not to leave the results of elections to chance. This is much more effective than Milosevic’s crude vote-rigging.

The issue of democracy is key to the integration of ‘anti-globalisation’ and ‘anti-capitalism’ into the service of the capitalist state. Tony Benn, is worried that "people who looked to the Labour and trade union movement for an alternative now find there is no alternative offered through the party system." He goes on to make globalisation an alibi for this: "The leaders of all parties have recognised that the power of international capital is so great that if you are going to be re-elected you have to come to terms with it." (Socialist Review October 2000). Anti-globalisation can revitalise the democratic mystification, for instance in the activities of Ralph Nader, a former consumer spokesman, in the current US elections, or the ‘Socialist Alliances’ of various leftist groups: "the protest movement must acquire an electoral dimension. That has begun to happen - with the Nader campaign in the US and Socialist Alliances in Britain" (Mike Marqusee of the London Socialist Alliance, Socialist Review October 2000).

The attempt to pull the working class into this campaign

The campaigns about globalisation and reviving democracy are also aimed at dissolving the working class into atomised citizens, divorced from their position as a class collectively exploited at the heart of production. This is where the working class is strongest, and where its struggles can never be eradicated. Even today, when the working class struggle is in an extremely difficult situation, the ruling class knows the imp ruling class knows the importance of developing campaigns that try to weaken that struggle.

It is making every effort to confuse the working class with campaigns about the various ‘popular protests’ going on, and where possible to associate workers to them.

The media thus portrayed the fuel blockades, really a protest by small bosses, as part of the tradition of British protest, mixing everything up from the peasants’ revolt to the miners’ strike (see p.3). Socialist Worker had already called on workers in Britain to follow the example set by the French fishermen.

Various leftist writers are portraying the struggle of the working class as some sort of appendage to the anti-globalisation protests, with Socialist Worker enthusing about support for the Prague demonstrations by a UNISON delegation and various local union branches. Workers’ Liberty explicitly wants campaigns "geared to specific workers’ struggles" and welcomes the American union federation, the AFL-CIO, jumping on the bandwagon (July 2000).

Yet despite all these attempts to tie the working class to these campaigns, ‘popular protests’ do not express the interests of the working class. They leave it on the side-lines, create confusion and decrease its confidence in itself and in its ability to struggle.

The working class can only become a real force when it stands up for its own independent interests, distinct from those of other classes. And this is the only way it can provide a perspective for all the social layers which are oppressed by capitalism, but which cannot wage an autonomous struggle against it.

Above all, the workers, who, as Marx said, have no country, can have no interest whatever in defending ‘our’ country’s national interests against a supposedly ‘supranational’ capitalism. On the contrary, the struggle against capitalism begins with the struggle against ‘our own’ bosses; it develops as a struggle for workers’ interests against the sacrifices demanded by the ‘national interest’; and it ends in the overthrow of the nation state and the creation of a world wide communist society.

WR, 30/9/00.

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