Seattle’s Leninists

How do late 20th century anti-globalization protesters resemble early 20th century Leninists?

November 27, 2000

How do late 20th century anti-globalization protesters resemble early 20th century Leninists?

The anti-globalization movement is a rich person’s pastime. The NGOs that demonstrated in Seattle last year and in Prague this fall are based almost exclusively in North America and Western Europe. The union workers who protest against free trade earn wages that are at least 10 times higher than in the developing world. And the French farmers who vandalize McDonald’s franchises are perhaps the wealthiest group of agricultural workers anywhere on earth.

The same self-righteousness was a trademark of Vladimir Lenin and his comrades in the Bolshevik party. They never doubted that they were the exclusive vanguard of the proletariat and alone possessed the scientific knowledge how to make workers and peasants happy. But when it came to the ballot box — for instance, in 1918, the only multiparty election in the 70-year history of Communist rule in Russia-workers overwhelmingly voted for other parties.

No problem, said the Communists. There was after all an easy explanation. Workers were too poorly educated to know what they really wanted. Or worse, they were paid off by the bourgeoisie to betray their class interests.

Protesters against globalization are in a similar situation. A variety of otherwise incompatible and even mutually hostile forces have gathered under the anti-globalization banner.

In Seattle and in Prague, anarchists marched shoulder to shoulder with conservative trade unionists. Groups purporting to protect the interests of the poor countries found allies among isolationists, nationalists, and opponents of immigration. Defenders of human rights in China joined hands with protectionist vested interests in rich countries.

Only the poor themselves have been conspicuous by their absence. Of course, being poor they have neither the money nor the free time to travel to Seattle or Prague. Nor is an illiterate peasant girl working in a sweatshop in Shanghai or a maquilladora worker on the US-Mexican border likely to have a strong opinion about the ongoing process of integration in the global economy.

However, while the attitude of the poor and the uneducated toward globalization may be difficult to gauge, it doesn’t mean that the anti-globalization pressure groups in the West have the right to speak with such authority on behalf of the world’s downtrodden.

Even opponents of globalization admit that it has helped improve the living standards everywhere in the world, not just in rich countries. Throughout Southeast Asia, Latin America and, more recently, Central Europe, there is sufficient data showing growth in average incomes in countries that have become part of the global economy.

On the other hand, there is damning evidence of a decline in the living standards in parts of the world that have stayed isolated, namely most of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the former Soviet Union.

But, wonder the self-appointed advocates of the poor, has globalization brought happiness to the parts of the world where it improved the living standards? Are individuals necessarily happier exchanging a farm for an industrial slum, a 12-hour workday and a subsistence wage?

This question has no definitive answer. However, it should at least be pointed out that, since the start of economic reforms in China, some 300 million peasants — the population of the United States and Canada combined — have voluntarily left the countryside to work on industrial plants and in the private economy of China’s eastern coastline.

The same process is underway all over the world, from Brazil to Poland, as the population abandons traditional agricultural activities and joins the increasingly globalized industrial economy. In their own small way, they too cast a vote for globalization. This does not mean that the world’s poor unquestioningly embrace globalization. But it is a clear indication that their self-appointed representatives in the first world should be more cautious about who they claim to represent.