For all of the establishment-bashing going on these days, here’s something the establishment won’t tell you about this weekend’s anti-IMF protesters: They smell. I mean, they actually smell bad. They have an odor that is unpleasant. Imagine being stuck in an elevator with a bunch of bike messengers and you’ll get the picture.
Now, this may not be the most salient fact about the anti-Capitalists, but it was the most obvious first impression for any correspondent attending the rallies. Of course, you can be somewhat forgiving about this olfactory offense insofar as showers and clean sheets were not major line items in their budgets — and it was a pretty hot April Sunday. Nevertheless, first impressions matter and I saw nothing that dissuaded me from concluding that used-record shops, video stores, and crystal-worshipping dens across the United States must have been closed so their staffs could trek to DC.
Judging the horde with my nose may seem unfair, except it’s so clear that they are led by theirs. As with most protests, the enthusiasm was far from intellectual. The word “F**k” was not in short supply. One woman had written “F**k Greed” in black electrical tape on her T-shirt. Another young man held up a sign reading, “F**k Your Investor Confidence.” Underneath perhaps my favorite declaration — chalk-written graffiti in the pavement, reading “Girlcott the Gap!” — were the words “F**k Sweatshops.” Clearly, some people had spent much of the previous night at the communal grease-board brainstorming the best translations for the acronym “IMF.” There was, of course, “Immoral Motherf**ker” and “It’s More Fascism.”
It’s very difficult to take most of these people seriously, I confess. After all, somebody who holds up a sign reading “Boo Money!” is not exactly interested in the finer points of a debate. He is essentially yelling, stop the world, I want to get off. Indeed that is what is so very pitiable about most of these people.
These Very Serious Young People (and some fossilized old people) seem overwhelmed by a mix of nostalgia and paranoia, which many on the right have learned is a crippling combination. Of course, nostalgia is common to all ideologies (even among libertarians and their unkempt cousins, the anarchists). But conservative nostalgia is almost always geared at recreating communities of the past. Therefore nostalgia is helpful for the right in that it reminds us what should be conserved. Left-nostalgia, however, is invariably aimed at recreating movements, not communities, of the past. This makes Left-nostalgia particularly pathetic, since all successful progressive movements are forward-looking. Conserving in a progressive movement is like trying to tie your shoelaces while running downhill.
Yet, the people protesting the IMF — with their slogans of “Fifty Years is Enough!” and “End Capitalism Now” – are not forward-looking at all. Many of the protesters were whining about events that took place twenty or thirty years ago: “massacres” in El Salvador, environmental disasters in India, various Reagan polices. How can an avant garde become a popular movement if many of its chief complaints are dim memories for Americans who have a hard time recalling who ran against Bill Clinton in 1996? Indeed, I saw one older protester wearing a union windbreaker and a “Boot Newt” cap. It didn’t seem to bother him that Newt had been booted some time ago.
The reason history repeats itself as farce is that repetition in social movements is real playacting or mimicry — which is always silly. This conclusion is inescapable when you see, as I did, brigades of women in Victorian red dresses and hairy armpits, reading from the Communist Manifesto.
If Left-wing nostalgia is distinct from Right-wing nostalgia, the two groups can at least find common ground in their paranoia (witness Pat Buchanan’s embrace of those who would like to call a halt to, well, just about everything). Paranoia is essentially the irrational fear that human agencies outside your control have more influence over your destiny than you do. In this light, the protests simultaneously make complete sense and are completely ridiculous.
Globalization carries much to be wary of. It destabilizes some long standing arrangements and institutions — never something that a true conservative should accept without some skepticism. But, at the same time, the forces that are dissolving some old, bulky constructs are liberating individuals in ways unprecedented in human history. Never before have individual, average, human beings had the access to the tools for their own betterment that they do today. Education and technology have democratized opportunity, not eclipsed it. The traditional cultures being “destroyed” by globalization are being modernized. Of course there is something tragic in losing touch with the past, but suffering and poverty are not romantic conditions. These progressives for “change” really want stasis. They want poor people to stay poor because they are projecting their own denial on those who cannot defend themselves from it.
Democratic Capitalism has its flaws but one of them is not that it traps people into permanent categories. It frees them from arbitrarily imposed poverty — moral, political, and material. The instructions for personal success are not hidden. If you are willing to work hard, honor contracts in all their forms, and improve yourself, than your race, ethnicity, and religion are incidental.
Individual success is never guaranteed — because such “guarantees” are really so much ballast, dragging everyone down — but there is no proven economic law that says we cannot all live like millionaires. Indeed, in an objective sense, the American lower middle class already lives better than the richest people in the world did, little more than a century ago. The closest thing we have to a global passport is the American Express card — accepted worldwide. When you yell “End Capitalism” or “Boo Money,” you really mean that you want to discard the only reliable and moral system for creating new technology, new medicine, new avenues for individual and social improvement. When was the last time you heard about a Cuban breakthrough drug? How often do we see millions of Americans trying to emigrate to Liberia or El Salvador so they can better express their individuality?
This is the real irony of these protests. These Very Serious Young People, who espouse a hatred of all that is modern, themselves reap the fruits of the very system they despise. Everywhere I went I could see dedicated Luddites and opponents of the global economy filming and photographing each other with products named Sony, Konica, and Fuji. They spoke on cell phones by Nokia and drank coffee made from beans grown in Colombia. They organized over an Internet that is the central nervous system of the new global economy they oppose and they were able to take time off from their lives because they live in the richest, freest nation in the world. One bearded fellow wore the sign “Hackers for Peace.” My point exactly, I think.
The system we have now is the product of the most radical revolution in human history. If these grungy nomads want to deface it out of their own boredom and denial, shame on them, not us. That’s why my favorite sign hung from the wall of a George Washington University fraternity. Above one sign which read “GW Delts: American Capitalists and DAMN proud” hung another sign. “Your freedom of speech did not come without costs. Thank a Veteran.”