The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Friday, September 27, 2002
READING RIOTS: Writing on the Volokh Conspiracy website, Todd Zywicki
asks, "So who are these so-called anarchists anyway?" He's referring to the black-clad wing of the anti-IMF protests in Washington this weekend, where the topic of dissent is expected to include global trade as well as the International Monetary Fund. "One thing I'm pretty sure of is that to be an anarchist means to allow consensual interactions among grown adults, such as free trade, freedom of contract, and free movement of capital and people," Zywicki writes. "Yet from what I can tell, these anarchists want to limit free trade for a variety of reasons, such as environmental protection."

On one level, it's a valid question: I've encountered quite a few self-declared anarchists who don't seem to have a problem with big government, and still others with arguments -- intellectually coherent arguments, but not necessarily anarchist ones -- for sticking with certain statist restrictions in the short haul. On another level, Zywicki is making assumptions about the marchers that won't necessarily withstand close scrutiny. Their targets have not always been consistent or obvious, and it can be difficult to discern just what the demonstrators are supposed to be demonstrating. In lit-crit terms, the protests are a contested text, with each leftist single-issue group and Leninist fringe party and capitalist countermarcher trying to put a different gloss on the unwieldy proceedings. Are they against all global trade; or for a more intense regulation of that trade; or for a more just variety of globalization built from the bottom up; or maybe just for freeing Mumia? It depends on which marcher you ask.

If you do manage to tease out a larger message, it won't necessarily have much to do with trade. Consider the targets the marchers have chosen, and consider the implicit symbolism. They are not standing along the Mexican border, striker-style, throwing rocks at trucks as they enter the U.S. Instead, they choose to demonstrate when government leaders gather behind closed doors to make decisions affecting millions of people.

To some extent, this may reflect a rhetorical strategy: The public will grow more angry at the thought of unaccountable authority than at the thought of cheaper goods. But even if that explains big labor's decision to demonstrate against the WTO back in 1999, it doesn't explain why the bulk of the protesters have shown up then and since. They obviously think the summits themselves are a compelling target. (Sometimes they end up hurting people who don't have anything to do with that target, of course, but that's a separate issue.)

That raises another question: Why target the summits? Once more, the answer you get depends on the person you ask. There are two complaints being levied against the gatherings, by two mutually exclusive (but nonetheless overlapping) groups of people. One faction objects to the very idea of the meetings. The other objects to the fact that it was not invited.

Needless to say, the anarchists belong to the first group.

If the summits themselves are a central part of the demonstrations, then the summiteers and their protectors are also influencing our interpretations of the marches. With each new unconstitutional security measure -- or with the wild behavior last year of the police in Genoa, where the American Constitution is moot -- the summits end up fulfilling the role allotted them by the protestors. The protest narrative becomes even less about actual trade, and even more about actual authority.

Libertarians of the free-market kind have been caught in a bind: taking one side (roughly speaking) on what they take to be the topic of the marches, and taking the other side (roughly speaking) when the talk turns to what actually happened in the street. Pro-trade, but pro-civil liberties as well. They thus come off as confused, and they often feel confused, too. Those who have avoided this confusion have generally done so by turning a blind eye either to the repression or (less often) to the illiberal opinions and behavior of many demonstrators.

But since the meaning of the marches is up for grabs, there's no reason not to sweep in with an interpretive framework of your own. This would entail recognizing unaccountable authority as the protests' symbolic target, siding (in principle) with those who oppose such authority, and offering the libertarian vision of choice and trade as the alternative. (It's not that big a leap. Malcolm Ball wrote a brilliant piece for the London Review of Books last year that argued, among other things, that the protesters are in some ways truer to "neoliberal" ideals than the neoliberal establishment they're rebelling against.)

"Choice and trade" sounds vague, so I'll offer a more concrete example. The root problem with sweatshop labor is an absence of choices -- not just for those who are actually coerced into working under such conditions (a larger number than you'd guess from the commentary that issues from free-market think-tanks), but for those who are working there because it is the least bad option for improving their lives. When slippery employers exploit undocumented immigrants by, say, withholding their paychecks, the left understands intuitively that shutting down the workplace (or, worse yet, sending the workers home) won't help the illegals. That would constrain their options, when what they need is for their options to be expanded. The same is true for people laboring under even worse conditions abroad: They need, among other things, the ability to take their labor to a less oppressive workplace, and that's not going to happen if you advance policies whose chief effect is to keep workplaces away.

It also isn't going to happen if the authorities assassinate union organizers, seize peasant land, make it almost impossible for a poor family to start an enterprise of its own, or turn a blind eye to physical coercion by employers. You can make a good case that such repressive behavior thrives in the environment fostered by those alphabet soup agencies that meet in Seattle, Genoa, and Washington -- or, at the very least, that they've been rather ineffectual when it comes to making things better. That might help explain why even a Zywicki-approved anarchist would want to march against them.

posted by Jesse 3:22 PM
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