The Washington Post Column

The New Radical Chic

They’re here! They’re angry! And they’re naked! Yes, I’m afraid it’s true — if you happen to be in Cancun, Mexico: The first anti-globalization protesters already have arrived in the place where the world’s negotiators are to gather tomorrow for a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Not a word has been exchanged yet about machine tool tariffs or wheat grass subsidies, but some two dozen activists have already stripped off their clothes and spelled out the words “NO WTO” (first in Spanish, then in English) with their bodies in the sand. Their protest, said one, represented “the symbolic reclaiming of our beaches, using the only weapons we have left, our bodies.”

That’s one explanation. Here’s another: It was fun. For the anti-global-capitalism movement has always been partly about a particularly fashionable sort of fun — fun involving ripped clothes, Third World music and cool venues. Stage a WTO meeting in Seattle, home of Starbucks and grunge, and thousands of demonstrators show up. Hold one in Frankfurt and no one will come. Cancun clearly belongs in the cool category, with its nice white beaches, perfect for symbolic reclamation. As William Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”

But a movement organized around fashion dies quickly when fashion changes, and while reading the reports of the dozen-odd protesters squirming about in the Mexican sand, I began to wonder whether it has already happened. Compare the squalid sand protest, for example, with another scene: Last spring a 21-year-old French student named Sabine Herold stood up in front of 2,000 people and called on them to “take back the streets” from the strikers then blocking the Paris traffic. Herold instantly became a counterculture heroine, hailed as the new Joan of Arc, admired for her daring and her chic. And she is not alone: Further north, a 30-year-old Swede with long blond hair has recently conquered Europe with a book called “In Defense of Global Capitalism,” just published here by the Cato Institute. Johan Norberg, a former anarchist who believes in a world without borders, makes the case that free trade is good for the developing world, good for freedom, good for social progress, even if the dull old Marxists refuse to see it.

It can be no accident that not one but two glamorous young pro-capitalists have emerged in Europe over the past year. In part, they may be another belated product of Sept. 11. Attendance at anti-globalization demonstrations dropped almost immediately after that date — as if the game of political violence had suddenly become deeply unfunny. Recession has hurt the movement too: An economic downturn is bad for anti-globalist groups, which are dependent on the capitalist system not only for the computers they use to organize their protests and for the deregulated airlines they use to get there but for the funds, from individuals, corporations and even governments, that they live on.

Yet the shift in fashion also reflects a shifting intellectual consensus. Listen hard to Third World activists these days — Oxfam, say, or the Jubilee Network — and it is not anti-globalization rhetoric you hear but anti-trade-barrier rhetoric. In the run-up to Cancun, at least a half-dozen people have told me that the average European cow receives $2.50 in daily agricultural subsidies, more money than at least 3 billion of the world’s humans have to live on. These agricultural subsidies are, without question, one of the least-discussed, farthest-reaching of international scandals: Every year, the rich world spends many billions more on subsidies and agricultural tariffs than it does on aid to the countries that these subsidies and agricultural tariffs help impoverish. Despite its traditional help-the-poor rhetoric, even Sweden, Norberg points out, makes sugar from sugar beets instead of importing sugar at a fifth of the price from the sugar cane-producing South.

Although there will be anti-globalizers in Cancun, the cutting edge has shifted — and not a moment too soon. In a perverse way, the movement has in recent years provided a cushion for those politicians — European, American, Japanese and developing world alike — who drag their feet about opening markets. Maybe now, if the young, the hip and the free-thinking start pushing the other way, the ministers in their suits will be forced to listen too.