Politics Bites Back on Streets of Seattle

For years, the author and columnist Richard Reeves has been writing that the great change in America and indeed throughout the world since 1980 is the triumph of economics over politics. Power no longer is centered in the corridors of democracy, but in the suites of global corporations. With the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan two decades ago, Britain and America began instructing the world that the great global market, where all that is important in life is commodified, was all that really mattered. A sense of community, of society? Mrs. Thatcher told us that there was no such thing as society.

There can be little quibbling with Mr. Reeves’ observation. Indeed, one of the reasons why American politics seems so dreadfully irrelevant is because electoral campaigns during a time of peace and prosperity can’t compete with the joys of personal finance. As spectator sports go, tracking your 401(k) seems a great deal more important than reading the details of Al Gore’s latest pronouncement or watching George W. Bush submit himself to Tim Russert’s questions.

But the global consensus that has been 20 years in the making and seemed poised to become the new century’s founding narrative may not, after all, be as universally accepted as we all were led to believe. Of all the unlikely scenarios, the National Guard was called out to patrol Seattle, a city made for the new global order, to protect the World Trade Organization’s negotiators from the forces of resurrected politics.

It turns out that there are some people out there who believe that trade devoid of principle, of politics, is unacceptable. Labor union leaders and environmentalists took to the streets to insist that trade must be linked to other issues, like worker exploitation and ecological damage. And, using the old-fashioned politics of mass protest, they managed to turn trade talks, that staple of the financial pages, into front-page news.

The advocates of unrestrained commerce insist that trade agreements should pay no attention to such irrelevancies as working conditions in a given nation or its record on industrial pollution. “What does exploitation have to do with trade?” they ask.

For some time, those who have been exploited or who fear the consequences of exploitation have had no answer to the soulless free trader who would reshape the world not for the common good but to maximize profit. In Seattle, however, those who provide the goods and services to be traded in a conscience-free marketplace finally found their voice.

Mr. Reeves himself doesn’t think the protests will amount to much. “I’m looking at Roll Call [a Capitol Hill newspaper], which reports that Anne Bingaman, who used to be the head of the [Justice Department's] Antitrust Division, is lobbying for a firm called Global Crossing, based in Bermuda, and was paid $2.5 million in the last six months,” he said. “How can government compete with stuff like that? Without a war or some other calamity, there is no doubt that politics will continue to be a subdivision of money, in part because of the way it is being financed.”

Mr. Reeves pointed out, rightly, that the Seattle demonstrations will be discounted in part because of the violence of those loonies who hijacked the protests for their various causes. Like, for example, the chorus line of knee-jerkers who used the trade summit to rant about the great injustices perpetrated against convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal.

Still, the demonstration served to make a point. The men and women who would control the new economy can and will be held to account by those whose lives, livelihoods, health and well-being are in the hands of the unelected masters of the economic universe. The century that is about to expire saw the rise of a consensus, at least in the developed West, that even the sacred marketplace had obligations, and that government could and should act as a monitor and a leveling agent. As Ric Burns reminded us in his epic television history of New York, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire inspired government to take an active role on behalf of ordinary people otherwise at the mercy of an unregulated market.

For years, the tale of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire served as a parable about the progress we have made as a society. Now, however, the revisionism inspired by the triumph of late-century laissez-faire capitalism would have us believe that things weren’t so bad in that infamous sweatshop, that the young women who worked, and died, there were free to work somewhere else if they thought they were being ill used. Ah, if only the doors hadn’t been locked! Perhaps they could have taken advantage of garment free-agency.

It appears that it will take that sort of calamity to remind us of the human cost of unregulated commerce.