Anti-Globalization and its Discontents

Hundreds of feet in the air, four climbers from the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society hang a giant banner off of a construction crane on the eve of the mass street protests against the WTO, Seattle, 1999. Photo by Dang Ngo/Rainforest Action Network.

This article originally appeared in the March-April, 2001 edition of Canadian Dimension.

Something is going on out there. Whenever it seems like the movement against corporate globalization which burst into public consciousness at Seattle might have already run its course, another successful protest or gathering takes place – as if to prove that rumours of the movement’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The latest examples are the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and the parallel protests in Switzerland against the World Economic Forum in Davos. Similarly, and closer to home, there has been an overwhelming response to those organizing protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) at the April meeting of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.

For the first time in many years, there is a broad and dynamic international movement of protest and reflection – mobilizing, among others, the young and disenfranchised, workers and farmers, social movements and non-governmental organizations in all regions of the world and in unison. Any part of the Left not excited by what is happening is either overburdened by the memory of its own past or has made its peace with the neo-liberal order.

Yet we mustn’t miss the forest for the trees. As exciting and encouraging as this revival of revolt has been, there has been no real slowing of the neo-liberal steamroller that has trampled the Left, trade unions and social movements over the past two decades. As for the domestic political situation, both the campaigns and results of the recent elections in Canada and the United States are confirmation of the depressingly narrow limits within which mainstream political life and debate continue to take place. While the growing number of anti-globalization activists may be reaching a broader and more receptive audience – especially on and around the campuses – public opinion and political practice have shifted only marginally in the 15 months since Seattle.

On one level, Seattle was certainly a turning point for the Left –and indeed for the exploited and oppressed the world over. It catapulted the battle against the multilateral institutions and globalization into the public spotlight, and made an impression on the citadels of power themselves.

On another level, however, it is still too early to say whether Seattle was a turning point or not. For one thing, the collapse in abject confusion of the WTO’s “Millennium Round” was due as much to conflicts between the Ministerial delegations as it was to the mass protest on the streets of Seattle or public opinion around the world.

The ruling classes, North and South, still very much retain the initiative, and it remains to be seen whether they will be able to overcome their differences and forge ahead with their agenda. There has certainly been no ebb in their efforts. What they haven’t been able to achieve in a new all-encompassing WTO round, they are securing – through so many bilateral agreements and secretive negotiations – on-side agreements such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) – which threatens wholesale privatization of the ownership and delivery of our public services.

For another, the movement itself is now entering a new phase. Many realize that it is no longer sufficient merely to chase the big neo-liberal meetings around the planet. The Porto Alegre gathering was a big step forward in the laying down of a common international strategic and organizational framework. But it is not clear how successful we will be in meeting the challenges of this new phase in the movement’s development.

The Socialist Left are Latecomers to the Movement

What does the socialist Left have to say about (and to) the new movement at this critical juncture? For one thing, we have to be lucid about the nature of the movement and honest about what our role has been thus far.

Before Seattle, particularly in Canada, the USA and the rest of the English-speaking West, our small and ageing forces were largely absent from anti-globalization initiatives. Campaigns around the draft Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAT), the 50th anniversary of the IMF-World Bank combine, the Jubilee 2000 initiative for debt relief, and the educational work and direct actions against genetically modified organisms were carried out by a new coalition of forces ranging from environmentalists to trade-union staffers to faith-based groups and those concerned with the erosion of the democratic sovereignty of our national (and federal) political institutions. This new coalition of forces paved the way for Seattle and for the subsequent entry into the fray of a wider and often more youthful and combative range of forces.

The organized socialist Left are latecomers to many of these debates and struggles around globalization. In Canada, during the corporate offensive of the 1980s and 90s, most socialist activists were caught up in defensive and often fragmented batdes against job losses and government cutbacks. It is in part thanks to these socialists that the trade-union movement here has fared rather better than its American counterpart – and why it could launch a movement on the scale of the Ontario Days of Action in the mid-1990s in response to a new round of right-wing attacks.

Nonetheless, following the historic losing battle against the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the late 1980s, the socialist Left largely retreated from the broader fight against the neo-liberal free-trade agenda, leaving the field to organizations such as the Council of Canadians. We now have a lot of catching up to do.

We have to see the new movement for what it is, analyze it on its own terms and recognize its diversity. Neat labels are more often than not unhelpful in this regard. For example, though comforting to the socialist Left, the “anti-capitalist” tag has been used so loosely as to be almost meaningless. The label was originally the product of an overconfident neo-liberal mainstream media, for whom calling protesters “anti-capitalist” was the easiest way to tar the movement as marginal and irrelevant. But now that it cannot be dismissed so easily, and efforts are underway to co-opt parts of the movement into the neo-liberal fold, protesters are described as advocates of a more “inclusive” and “compassionate” globalization. In fact, the real (and constantly shifting) centre of gravity of the movement has always laid somewhere in between these two diametrically-opposed poles.

It might also help to take a long view of what is happening. After all, the tasks of rebuilding and rethinking before the Left are enormous. This is the first major international movement since the regressive transformation of international economic and political life in the 1980s and 90s. It is also the first major international movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall – an event which created disarray and demoralization as the Left grappled with the terrible failures of the major post-capitalist experiences of the 20th century.

This long period of defeat and disarray helps explain the diversity of responses on the socialist Left to the new movement. On the one hand, one finds skepticism or even hostility among those ill-at-ease with the wide range of forces involved at and since Seattle, and with the issues they address. On the other, there is a kind of boundless optimism. Surely there is a symmetrical error here.

The new movement cannot in one fell swoop solve all the Left’s accumulated problems. The anti-FTAA fight does not provide a ready-made line of defense against the new round of attacks on trade-union organizing, for example. Nor does it, in and of itself, help us respond to the deteriorating relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada, or to Canada’s support for the growing US-led militarization of the hemisphere through Plan Colombia and Star Wars II.

But at the same time, the new movement is not by any stretch of the imagination some kind of obstacle en route to the “true path” of socialist renewal.

Fears of Cooptation

Before Seattle, parts of the socialist Left could be chastised for condemning capitalism and imperialism in the abstract while absenting themselves from the struggles against the institutions fashioned to serve these ends. Now, though, perhaps the anti-globalization movement has bent the stick too far in the opposite direction. Its exclusive focus on the IMFJWBIWTO suggests that these agencies exist independently of the imperialist world order.

Yet even in ruling-class circles there are ongoing discussions about reforming the “international financial architecture”, which could lead to a transformation of the IMF and the World Bank. It is not inconceivable that the WTO will adopt one of the main demands of its Northern NGO critics and most Western trade unions, which is to include social and environmental clauses in its protocols. The greater openness among FTAA sponsors to talk of such “social clauses” is revealing in this respect, and is in line with the partial re-orientation advocated by Clinton right in the midst of the Seattle melee. Would such clauses be advantageous to the peoples of the South? Would greater transparency and accountability of these institutions remove the conditions which daily reproduce inequality and injustice in all of our societies?

There is a wider confusion in the deployment of that most vacuous of concepts and yet most loaded of words, “globalization”. It has become an article of faith in gatherings of the movement to declaim that “we are not opposed to globalization only to capitalist globalization” and hence the popularity of slogans such as “globalize resistance” and “globalization from below”. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process which is presently unfolding.

In many respects the anti-globalizers have imbibed much of the rhetoric and ideology of globalizers: that transnational institutions are pre-eminent in the present world order, that states have been eclipsed, that imperial power has been fractured by corporate power and global civil society.

Globalization is assumed to be a neutral process and conceded to be irresistible. This is mistaken. What passes as globalization is actually the latest phase in the re-ordering of relations between capital and labour, and between the “centre” and “periphery” of the world economy. None of this is natural or inevitable, as The Economist magazine admitted in a now-famous editorial published on the eve of the Seattle protests.

In globalization’s wake come the intensification of work among those in stable employment, insecurity in work elsewhere, the despoliation of the natural environment with the aim of maximizing profits, the privatization of public wealth and the socialization of corporate loss. Globalization is more than the revolution in technology and communications we hear so much about, and which in any case was not carried out for our benefit. Globalization cannot be wrestled away from its creators and in the process humanized for those it presently terrorizes.

Internationalists, Not Globalists

We must be internationalists, not globalists. Where globalization creates monocultures in economies, internationalists favour diversity. Where globalization concentrates power in unelected and unaccountable institutions, internationalists favour equal and fraternal relations between nations and the devolution of power to the regional, municipal, community and workplace level. Where globalization homogenizes popular culture into a pastiche of MTV and Hollywood, internationalists reject the Coca-Colonization of world culture. Where globalization insists on conformity and uniformity in political and economic life, internationalists affirm that solidarity across borders respects national difference and autonomy in devising strategies for social change.

The challenge for some components of the movement is to recognize the limits of its present demand to be seated at the negotiating table of the rich and powerful to play a role in the restructuring of their institutions. Some of these forces have actually made their peace with the new neo-liberal world order and merely seek to carve out a more comfortable niche within it.

The challenge for the movement as a whole is to deepen its critique of “actually existing capitalism” and to begin generating alternatives to it. This means clarifying the links between globalization and injustice at the workplace and in the community; and between globalization and the rise in political authoritarianism, militarism and global environmental decay. These alternatives must emerge not only on the streets and in our assemblies but also in the fight for the political representation of our movement and its allies in the democratic bodies of our societies.

Into the medium term, a key measuring stick of the strength and political intelligence of the movement will be its ability to make real breakthroughs into the “mainstream” political process – to which the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens still turn when seeking political outlets to express their anger and aspirations. The Nader campaign in the United States and the successful “participatory budget” experiments of the Workers Party (PT) in southern Brazil are two different examples of how to make inroads in this field while remaining loyal and accountable to the new international mass movement. On a much smaller scale and closer to home, the Rebuilding the Left/Structured Movement Against Capitalism (SMAC) initiative in English-speaking Canada seeks to bridge the gap between grassroots activism and broader political representation, through the building of a pluralist anti-capitalist political current involved in the struggles of workers and the oppressed.

Nothing is certain as to the fate and fortunes of this nascent movement. It is clear, however, that unless the socialist Left throws itself wholeheartedly into its activities and debates, and acts in a constructive and non-sectarian way, it will not receive a hearing during this or probably any future wave of radicalization.

Ahead of us all is the unmet challenge – the construction of a new International of Hope, which fires the imagination and mobilizes the energies of millions of people in the struggle against capitalist barbarism and for socialism.

Raghu Krishnan was a long-time member of the CD editorial collective.

B. Skanthakumar participated in the S-11 mobilizations against the World Economic Forum’s Asia-Pacific summit in Melbourne, Australia. He completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.

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