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The Court Jesters of Global Capitalism By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 07, 2002


THE RITUAL of protest at the just finished World Economic Forum in New York ended not with a bang, but a feeble whimper. The only excitement came when a few score animal-rights activists were arrested. It is significant that the most passionate of all those activists fretting over global injustice and oppression turned out to be the ones worried about dogs.
The whole staged farce reveals the hollowness at the core of these protests. If nothing else, the respect for PR the protesters showed should have tipped us off. After all, what kind of authentic "anarchists" would worry about the bad press that might follow if they took on the NYPD, the media's heroes du jour? A golden opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to their anti-establishment values was sacrificed to a Madison-Avenue concern with image over substance.

A more serious sign of the political emptiness of these "activists" are the causes they claim to champion. Lofty goals like "global justice and economic equality" are so vague and unworkable as to be meaningless. Why not champion immortality? Their feel-good bumper-sticker political principles --"Money for jobs, not war"-- are just as emotionally gratifying, and just as unworkable. They offer nothing of practical use for those truly concerned about improving the material existence of their fellow man.

In fact the real world shows that increasing the Westernization of economies and governments is the key to creating freedom and prosperity in the developing world. But these kids have been weaned on anti-Western, noble-savage multiculturalism, and so cannot recognize the obvious: those countries suffering the most are those still mired in the tribalism and superstition that affluent Westerners idealize from a safe distance.

The childish grandiosity of these demands, however, does have a dark side. These protesters represent the last fading embers of the utopian fires that immolated millions the last century, when armed with similarly unrealistic visions of the perfect world, cohorts of youthful communist or fascist idealists marched out to construct paradise, and created instead deserts filled with corpses.

The World Trade Organization and World Economic Forum protesters exhibit the same starry-eyed idealism, the same self-righteousness, the same blindness to facts on the ground, the same unfounded assurance of moral superiority that in the past has excused not just vandalism, but violence and ultimately murder. With fascism gone and communism a toothless poltergeist haunting the university, these days the protesters' closest spiritual brethren can be found among the Islamic radicals, who issue anti-Western and anti-capitalist manifestoes similar in tone and content to those of the protesters.

There is, however, an important difference between the WEF protesters and fanatics like the Nazis or al Qaeda. The latter kill and give their own lives for their utopian vision; the former risk at most a crack on the head and a token arrest they can then take back to the dorm or coffee-house and brandish as a badge of authenticity.

And this takes us to the real significance of the protest phenomenon: it is the expression not of politics but of lifestyle. Like their clothes and their music, the political principles are status symbols, fashion-signs showing sophistication and superiority. In this fashion game political ideals are also commodities, the equivalent of designer labels: Chomsky confers status just as Gucci does.

In short, for the most part these protesters are bourgeois children indulging the old-fashioned bourgeois pastime of asserting via consumer choices that they are not bourgeois. The organizers of the World Economic Forum shrewdly realized this fact, and invited some of the protest organizations' leaders to participate on panels, which of course they did. The WEF also added to their lineup a pretentious pop-fop like U2's Bono, whose band went on to perform at the Super Bowl during half-time in between Pepsi commercials. You don't get any more co-opted than that.

These "protestors," then, are not "dissidents" offering a viable political alternative, but rather a product of the very capitalism they denounce, implicated in the consumerism that reduces politics to taste, principle to lifestyle. With their puppets and bizarre costumes, they are capitalism's court jesters, snarling and nipping the hand that feeds them as they wait for a morsel to drop from the corporate or government table at which some day most of them will sit, following the path of their sixties ancestors. Rather than a threat to global capitalism, they represent its remarkable power.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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