By Alex Distefano
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There's an earnestness to their affect that recalls the civil rights movement, or ACT UP in its prime. But despite that group's dedication to fighting AIDS worldwide, the wealthy white males who dominated ACT UP prevented any global analysis of the epidemic from setting their agenda. And Martin Luther King never lived to link his movement with the anti-war crusade, as he intended to. But in this age of multinational commerce, when governments go with the flow of capital, globalism seems like much less of a reach. It's the key to all sorts of oppression; the principle that allows these activists to imagine a politics that transcends race, culture, and especially identity.
Though you won't find anyone in the sea-turtle legion who thinks abortion should be a crime, or homosexuality grounds for discrimination, the new movement doesn't make a lot a noise about these "social issues." Most activists step gingerly around any criticism of identity politics, but some are willing to put their disdain into words. "I think identity politics has demoralized a lot of activists," says David Thurston, the anti-sweatshop organizer. Even as abortion rights slip away, he charges, feminists "have been too afraid of embarrassing Clinton to call for national demonstrations." As for the gay movement: "The debate has shifted from challenging homophobia to defining people's lifestyles and scandalizing those who don't share your values, which doesn't do much to build a movement."
This critique will sound familiar to gays and feminists who lived through years of dismissal by the left, on the grounds that they were a bourgeois distraction from class analysis. That line has been a progressive cover for bigotry since the days of Marx, and it remains to be seen whether the new movement will give a fresh face to the old indifference. But there's another possibility: integrating women and gays into the larger agenda of human rights. A full day of protest at the Democratic convention will be devoted to the principle that "an attack on one is an attack on all."
For this movement, it's all about context. Like poverty and pollution, sexism and homophobia should be seen as products of a system that exploits and divides people to maintain its dominance. "Ten years ago I might have been marching with NOW," says Juliette Beck. "But we see the root as unaccountable governance and overwhelming corporate influence. And we've seen the way the media have used the abortion issue to distract people from the global problems of our day."
You can take these words at face value or wait and see whether they represent a retreat. But one thing is clear: This new rhetoric has a real potential to unite groups that haven't been seen at the same rally in at least 20 years. It's poised to take advantage of a moment when the boom economy has produced a willingness to take risks. As in the '60s, a decade of expansion unprecedented in Americauntil nowthis prosperity has created an opening for a politics that collapses categories. "What's going on is a redefining of ideology from left/right to bottom/top," says Kevin Danaher. "I keep coming back to the same touchstone, which is: It's money rule versus people rule."
A very '60s sentiment. So why does it seem fresh again? You might speculate that power breeds resistance, and corporate triumphalism is as absolute a power as exists in the world today. The global economy provides a tangible model for analyzing oppression, even as the World Wide Web makes instant communication between cultures possible on a breathtaking scale. But when it comes to inspiring the young, cool counts. And in this age of hyper-reality, the act of confronting the system f2f seems thrillingly x-treme.
If this is a generation without a cause, the new activism fills that void. It offers something mere ambition cannot: the gratification of being part of something bigger than yourself. To twentysomethings who labor under the illusion that making a fortune is the only thing worth fighting for, now there's a choice. You can live in the Matrix or struggle to change the world. You can settle for an invented Internet identity or find yourself in an ideal that's also real. Down with the pony-tailed hegemony of the dotcom masters! Up with tangibility!
Still, for all its real-time vitality, THE movement hasn't made its mark on electoral politics. (Hey, it's only seven or two years old, depending on whether you date its formation from protests against NAFTA in '93 or the sweatshop campaigns of '98). But that may change with Ralph Nader's campaign. Nader's group, Public Citizen, played a major part in organizing the Seattle demonstrations, and every activist interviewed for this piece praised his positions. But as Michael Dolan, a longtime Nader associate who now works with the Citizens' Trade Campaign, puts it: "It's unclear whether these people vote. The students probably do, but the anarchists?" An even bigger uncertainty is whether Nader's association with the movement gains him the support of rank-and-file workers. "Ralph talks about how his campaign has been animated by the spirit of Seattle," Dolan says, "but the question is, does that incite moderates to reject their slavish devotion to the Democratic Party?"