THE GREAT demonstration in Seattle will make its reverberations felt for years to come. One of its more minor side effects was that on Wednesday last week, much to my surprise, I found myself in the Newsnight studio defending the protesters against the World Trade Organisation from European commissioner Leon Brittan's criticisms.
Brittan-who is, let me assure you, as charming in person as he has always seemed when viewed from the other side of the television screen-offered one main argument against the protest. This was that, since the WTO is composed of elected governments, the demonstrators were behaving undemocratically. This is, when you think about it, a remarkable argument. After all, one of the basic democratic freedoms is the right to protest. For people like Brittan, apparently, it is undemocratic actually to exercise that right.
But the WTO-and more generally the drive worldwide in favour of policies favouring free market capitalism-raises much more profound issues about democracy. International trade negotiations are subject to massive lobbying by the Western multinationals-a process made perfectly visible last week in Seattle, where the WTO meeting was sponsored by various corporations.
Only the most perfunctory efforts were taken to make the charade seem inclusive. In a preliminary session non-governmental organisations were given three minutes each to express their views on global trade, with no general discussion or mechanism for allowing these views to affect the actual negotiations.
The WTO is indeed an appropriate symbol for how politics is conducted in the liberal democracies of the West. More and more, access to power depends on wealth and corporate backing. This is particularly clear when it comes to US presidential elections. Elizabeth Dole, a former cabinet secretary and the wife of a presidential candidate, has had to drop out of the race for the Republican nomination because she cannot raise the $15 million she needed in order to compete.
Politics is a rich man's game-and not only in the US. Would anyone have paid a moment's attention to that ass Jeffrey Archer if he was not seriously rich? Tony Blair and his New Labour cronies are great admirers of the US political system. They want to replace Labour's funds from the trade unions with donations from corporate backers. Where political competition narrows down to the struggle between rival pro-capitalist parties, so too does the range of options placed before the voters.
It is clear that Tony Blair wants to take the politics out of politics. He would like there to be no more big ideological confrontations between right and left, merely minor technical arguments, like the fascinating dispute over the design of Wembley stadium that was the lead item on Newsnight when Brittan and I appeared. So if anyone wants to oppose the WTO, who do they look to? Certainly not the Labour Party.
When Clare Short was appointed Secretary of State for International Development, she presented herself as the champion of the world's poor. Yet she has now become the most strident apologist for the WTO. Back in the 1970s the economist Lord Bauer argued that the solution to global poverty was greater free trade. Then everyone dismissed him as a right wing nutter. Now his line is the official policy of the Labour government.
The consensus in favour of free market capitalism dominates official thinking throughout the Western world. Since opposition to it is now largely denied expression within the political system, certainly in the US and Britain, what alternative is there except to take to the streets?
Seattle proved to be a serious defeat for the official consensus. The demonstrations outside and the bungling arrogance with which the US administration behaved inside the WTO meeting emboldened Third World delegates to block proposals for a new round of trade talks.
New Labour apologists have been quick to mourn the collapse of the Seattle talks. Andrew Marr warned in last Sunday's Observer that the beneficiaries will not be the idealism and anti-capitalism of the Seattle protesters but right wing protectionists. Marr, along with other boosters of globalisation, presumes that the only alternative to unfettered capitalism is reaction and regression. This shows how the neo-liberal consensus has blinkered thinking.
What we are seeing develop out of events like the Seattle protests is a whole range of different conceptions of a new society. In the coming years these alternatives will be tested, in debate and in struggle, till the movements they inspire bring the great edifice of capitalism tumbling down.