Global Policy Forum

Where Did All the Protesters Go?


By Mike Bygrave

July 14, 2002

A year ago at the Siege of Genoa, a quarter of a million protesters surrounded the annual meeting of G8 political leaders and many fought running battles with the Italian police. It was the peak of the anti-globalisation movement. Anti-globalisation seemed unstoppable, as the defining agenda of the new century and 'the most sweeping rebellion since the Sixties'. Where is it now? What changed after 11 September? Now the movement has all but vanished from the bulletins and the headlines, has it been dumped in the dustbin of history along with other failed slogans such as Solidarity with the Striking Miners or All Power to the Soviets? Was its brief stretch in the spotlight - two years from surfacing in Seattle to its apotheosis at Genoa - simply a passing fad, and its youthful, mainly middle-class army of protesters yesterday's children?

Or is it all the fault of the media? Have we turned our backs on a still-vibrant radical movement and a key issue in the modern world - distracted by the World Trade Centre attacks and wars on terror? Globalisation is still with us, after all. From the state of Africa to world food supplies, trade disputes to asylum-seekers, privatisation to the environment, globalisation roars ahead. But what's happened to the anti-globalisers?

In his tiny Oxford terraced house, writer-activist George Monbiot, a vigorous, eager man, speaks with the fluency of the university lecturer he used to be. He was surprisingly cheerful about the state of the movement: 'To the extent we had an effective dynamic before 11 September, we've had one since. That hasn't changed. What's changed is that we're less visible in the media and we've been caused to think about both our tactics and strategy. The big set-piece protests were very effective at drawing attention to the issues but they're not a good way to precipitate change.'

'Look,' Monbiot went on. 'It's like the Peasants' Revolt. The peasants revolt, they meet the king, the king promises them the earth and they all go home. Whereupon their leaders are hanged and nothing happens. If we follow that model, we're doomed, so you could say that 11 September, by putting a roadblock in the way of that model, did us a favour.'

There was a moment in our conversation when both of us fumbled for words and fell into a brief, awkward silence. The same moment recurred with everyone I interviewed and it was over what name to use in talking about anti-globalisers. 'Anti-Globalisation Movement' turns out to be a name invented by journalists that has stuck. All the activists reject it, not least because it offers ammunition to opponents ('How can you be against globalisation? Are you against air travel? The internet? Cheap international phone calls?'). But no one can agree on a replacement. Suggestions include the 'Civil Society Movement', the 'Global Justice Movement', the 'Anti-Capitalist Movement', the 'Citizens Movement for World Democracy' or simply 'the Alternative Movement'.

Mirroring the confusion over the name is the confusion many feel about the nature of the protest itself. What is the central core linking its assortment of fashionable causes? Amsterdam-based activist Susan George calls the Global Justice Movement (I'm going to take the plunge and choose a better name than anti-globalisation) 'a movement of popular education directed towards action'. Education about what? Well, globalisation for a start. Globalisation in its classic sense means the historical process by which the world moves ever closer together. That process began in the sixteenth century with the voyages of discovery and has gone on accelerating ever since. Some scholars argue that in its most recent phase, say since the early Seventies, globalisation has moved so fast and on such a scale that its quantitative leap has produced a qualitatively different world, one world at last, be it a global village or a global empire. Whether or not you agree with their analysis, it is meaningless to oppose globalisation in this sense, as it would be meaningless to oppose such great historical trends as the development of the nation state or the rise of science.

The activists do not reject the underlying process: they attack the current form that process takes. As the American Centre for Economic and Policy Research puts it, these forms 'are not an inevitable outcome of technological change in communications, transportation and other industries'; but due to 'deliberate decisions by policymakers', which have 'shaped the process of globalisation in a certain way'.

The way is economic globalisation led by multinational corporations chanting their mantra of free trade, freedom of investment and free movement of capital. All those 'frees' should make you suspicious, say the protesters. Someone has to pay. While the corporations present themselves as heralds of a gleaming global future for all, with a Nike sweatshirt on every back, a Starbucks moccha frappuccino in every hand and a Nissan Sentra in every garage, to the movement they are a modern Mongol horde, Genghis Khans in Armani suits, ravaging the world in general, and the Third World in particular, in pursuit of power and profit.

'I think the great majority of people who have joined this movement started off with a vague sense that something was wrong and not necessarily being able to put their finger on what it was,' Monbiot said. 'Having a sense that power was being removed from their hands, then gradually becoming more informed, often in very specific areas because what you find in our community of activism is some people who are very concerned about farming, those who are very interested in the environment, or labour standards, or privatisation of public services, or Third World debt. These interests tie together and the place they all meet is this issue of corporate power.'

To Susan George, the aim of contemporary capitalism is 'all power to big business', a 'pure nineteenth-century agenda, an attempt to turn the clock back a hundred years'. 'When I'm asked why people join our group,' she told a recent forum at the London School of Economics, 'I say it's because of a feeling that, "the bastards have gone too far".'

The statistics involved in globalisation are staggering. World trade rose 50 per cent over the past six years and is now worth over $17 billion a day. The volume of air freight flown out of the UK doubled over the past 10 years and is forecast to double again by 2010. One third of world trade is goods moved between different parts of the same corporations. Of the 100 largest economic entities in the world 51 are corporations.

In 1979, 90 per cent of international transactions were trade and 10 per cent were in capital flow: today the position is the opposite, with $1.5 trillion traded every day in the foreign exchange markets.

Meanwhile, non-oil primary commodity prices (the basic foods and raw materials produced by the Third World) fell 50 per cent in real terms over the past 20 years.

The total external debt of developing countries rose from $90bn in 1970 to almost $2,000bn in 1998; 2.8bn of the world's 6bn people live on less than $2 a day; 1.2 bn on less than $1 a day.

Between 30-35,000 children under five die every day of preventable diseases. The gap between the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent of the world's population has doubled over the past 40 years, with the assets of the world's top three billiona ires exceeding the GNP of all the 48 least developed countries (population: 600 million).

The interaction of corporate globalisation with the majority of the world's people (those in the Third World) is mediated by three international institutions: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation. The IMF and the World Bank are dominated by the US; the WTO by the US and the rest of the G8 countries, mainly Europe plus Japan. In the Eighties, these organisations began to pursue the three 'freedoms' - of trade, investment and capital flow, though not the fourth freedom that goes with them, namely the free movement of labour, or migration. This programme is known as the 'Washington consensus' or neo-liberalism in its international form. As a result, say the critics, when the disadvantages of globalisation started to become visible in the Nineties, the first place they appeared was in the poor countries in the Third World, forced to follow the policies of the IMF, the Bank and the WTO.

In 1994, the WTO massively expanded its influence with the Uruguay round of trade negotiations, transforming the organisation, in Naomi Klein's phrase, 'from an international chamber of commerce into a quasi-world government'. In 1999, Trade Ministers met in Seattle intending to launch a new negotiating round. Instead, they were met by the mass protest that launched the Global Justice Movement on the world stage. The coalition includes a strong element from the Third World or 'the South' as it is now known (since the Second World consisting of middle-income countries, mainly the old Socialist bloc, has all but disappeared, slid back down the poverty ladder). The plight of the South is the movement's moral heart and the focus of much of its campaigning energy.

Tony Juniper is director-designate of Friends of the Earth UK. Before the Global Justice Movement came into being, the environmentalists were the best-known and most broadly popular among its elements. Juniper explains the evolution in their thinking. 'For the past 10 years we've been locating ourselves more in the bigger economic debate and less in the "save the whales" type debate. Talking about rainforests led us into talking about Third World debt. Talking about climate change led us to talk about transnational corporations. The more you talk about these things, the more you realise the subject isn't the environment any more, it's the economy and the pressures on countries to do things that undercut any efforts they make to deal with environmental issues. By the time we got to Seattle, we were all campaigning on the same basic trend that was undermining everybody's efforts to achieve any progressive goals. That trend is the free market and privileges for big corporations and rich people at the expense of everything else.' The presence of the big environmental groups and other mainstream NGOs (non-governmental organisations), such as Oxfam or Christian Aid, in the ranks of the activists is what makes it impossible for Western governments and business leaders to dismiss the movement as a bunch of disaffected youth and window-smashing anarchists. Witness Tony Blair's put-down of the anti-globalisers as a 'travelling circus' of anarchists and a recent EU attempt to equate the protesters with terrorists. To the Western elite, globalisation is good for you. To the anti-globalisers, it's the villain of the piece, a sort of collective Dr No. Is there any way to judge between these two positions? One way is to look at a slightly different question - is global inequality increasing? Or has globalisation's advance over the past 20 years decreased global inequality as its supporters suggest?

Small armies of economists study these questions. In pursuit of the answers, I attended a lecture by Professor Robert Wade at the London School of Economics. He began with the usual depressing figures: 80 per cent of world income goes to the top 20 per cent of people while 60 per cent of the world's population have to make do with 6 per cent of the income. Then he moved on to 'the thunder and lightning of current debate': whether the situation has been getting better or worse over the past 20 years. His answer was twofold: we don't know for sure; but the balance of the evidence is, it's getting worse and inequality is increasing.

It turns out the statistics relied on by the pro-globalisers, led by the World Bank, are suspect. There are different methods for determining global poverty and inequality and the answers you get depend on the techniques you use. The World Bank, Wade implied, may have chosen the one that supports its own neo-liberal agenda. 'The Bank is a very political institution,' he said.

Wade dealt equally briskly with the other part of the problem, moving on from poverty and inequality to whether economic globalisation is the best way to address them. The issue here is when, and on what terms, poor countries should open their markets. The World Bank's current poster boys are India and China, supposed to prove that globalising countries, ie those with liberal trade regimes, have grown richer while the non-globalisers have fallen behind. But 'the causal sequence in India and China was the opposite [of the one the Bank claims],' Wade said. 'These countries started growing fast before they liberalised. And they still have highly protective trade regimes, just as Taiwan and South Korea did before them. Trade liberalisation is not the motor of growth.'

Most activists would go further than Wade. They claim 'free trade' and Third World debt are scams. Advertised as being the outcome of natural and benign economic laws that will eventually lift everyone out of poverty, they're actually tools of a system devised by the North to keep the southern countries in their place, as honeypots from which the rich countries buy raw materials and assembly-line labour on the cheap and to which they can sell manufactured goods, subsidised agricultural products and high-interest loans and privatising packages for huge profits. Trade agreements force the South to open its markets, dismantling tariffs and eliminating domestic subsidies. But the rich countries massively subsidise their own agriculture and maintain tariff barriers to things such as textiles. Any country threatening to resist gets a tug on its leash. The leash is Third World debt and the refusal by the North to 'forgive' it. Debt is the device to keep the poor in line.

One developing country after another has toppled under the impact of rampant speculation and/or the IMF's 'structural adjustment policies' (slash public spending, cut and privatise services, service your debt): Mexico in 1994-95; South-East Asia in 1997-98; Russia in 1998-99. Argentina, the recipient of no less than nine IMF 'stabilisations', is the latest, and Brazil teeters on the brink. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so the space between crises shortens. Far from being a permanent model of economic efficiency, guided by Adam Smith's invisible hand, the world economic order is seen by activists as a form of political blackmail.

Listening to Wade, I was listening to a moderate, mainstream voice, far from the wilder shores of anti-globalisation. The IMF itself has confessed that 'in recent decades nearly one-fifth of the world population has regressed - arguably one of the greatest economic failures of the twentieth century'. World Bank economist Branco Milanovic recently pondered 'how long such inequalities [of income] may persist in the face of ever closer contacts... ultimately the rich may have to live in gated enclaves while the poor roam the world outside those few enclaves'.

This theme was part of the liberal response to 11 September - the connection between poverty and terrorism and the need to address the two together. But there was also a conservative response, led by the US, whose Trade Representative Robert Zoellick spoke of 'wiping out the stain of Seattle' and of free trade as 'promoting the values that lie at the heart of this protracted struggle', meaning the war on terror. The conservative agenda was: more neo-liberalism, more corporate globalisation, more 'structural adjustment'. This was the approach that prevailed with the Financial Times commenting 'no one has done more recently to favour the cause of trade liberalisation than Osama bin Laden'. The Global Justice Movement came under attack from both sides, condemned as (in the words of James Harding, a sympathetic FT reporter) 'the last gasp of the Old Left, a bunch of protectionists, a Wizard of Oz type movement with no substance, nothing behind the curtain'.

In fact, the Global Justice Movement has too many policies, often worked out by the various pressure groups and NGOs. What everyone I spoke to in the movement did agree on was that the era of big street protests was over. Until an estimated 250,000-plus protesters turned up in Barcelona in March for the EU summit. As many as rallied at Genoa last year, only this time the (peaceful) protest was almost totally ignored by the media. Within the movement, last year's debate about demos - what should be done about the violence associated with them? - has moved on to a debate about what 'positive alternatives' to the status quo should be put forward. Many realise that a lot of individual policies don't make up for the lack of one overriding idea.

Naomi Klein, author of the bestseller No Logo , is a movement star (it's been said the movement does not have leaders; it has celebrities instead, most of them women). In a recent article on her website, she writes of how for more than a year before 11 September, 'the largely symbolic activism outside summits and against individual corporations [had already been] challenged within movement circles... a new mood of impatience was already taking hold, an insistence on putting forward social and economic alternatives that address the roots of injustice as well as its symptoms ... our task, never more pressing, is to point out that there are more than two worlds available, to expose all the invisible worlds between the economic fundamentalism of "McWorld" and the religious fundamentalism of "Jihad".'

If the dark side of globalisation first showed itself in the condition of the South, by the late Nineties there were splinters of discontent in the rich North. GM crops; private jails; political favours for campaign contributors; planning laws eviscerated by big developers; privatisations of public services; economic migrants qua asylum-seekers; multinational corporations opening and closing factories, creating and destroying thousands of jobs. The global protesters had chanted 'The World Is Not For Sale'. Now it was the turn of people in Europe and America to feel as if their home towns, and everyone in them, was For Sale.

While no one argues that economic globalisation is the direct cause of all these phenomena, globalisation provides a way to understand them, a structure that links them one to another and to the plight of the Third World, and traces their roots in overweening corporate power. Seen in this context, the sudden eruption of the Global Justice Movement in 1999, becomes explicable. After all, the same thing has happened before, in the Sixties (and also in the early Nineties).

But the Global Justice Movement differs from the Sixties in two crucial respects. One is that it is a genuinely global affair, involving the South as well as the North. The other is that it is 're-inventing the Sixties' the other way around. The Sixties began with the hippies, a social movement seeking an alternative lifestyle, then fell apart when it turned political after 1968 into Womens Lib, Gay Lib, and a thousand mutually hostile factions. The Global Justice Movement started as a political movement, with people from a great diversity of political backgrounds. 'Some are anarchists, some are Greens, some Christian, some old-fashioned liberals and some, like myself, don't know what we are and are still trying to find out,' says Monbiot. The challenge they face is to stay united while elaborating their own alternative.

If the movement resembles the Sixties, is the war on terrorism their Vietnam? Some would say so. One result of 11 September has been for groups among the activists to form an anti-war movement. The leaders in this endeavour are the radicals. So far I have described the Global Justice Movement from its more moderate end, but it has a radical end too, as anyone who followed Seattle and Genoa well knows (though it is worth noting, as the Green Party's Chris Keen told me, 'the irony is that the only way we can get any media coverage is by being violent, which is sickening but true'). The movement takes its place in the broader history of the Left. Ever since the rise of conservative governments in the Seventies and Eighties, followed by the collapse of communism, the Left has been in disarray. Endless discussions went on about how, and on what basis, it could be revived. Suddenly, along came anti-globalisation, performing the impossible trick of uniting everybody. So is 'Global Justice' the socialism that dare not speak its name?

Globalise Resistance, the British-based, formidably efficient organisers of conferences and demonstrations, was created by members of the Socialist Workers Party. In Europe, Susan George's ATTAC, which campaigns for the Tobin Tax, a small levy on international financial transactions, can sound like the Old Left or pragmatic policy wonks, depending on the day. Veteran rebels such as Tony Benn and Noam Chomsky have given their blessings to the protesters.

The central tension in the movement reproduces the traditional tension in left politics between reformists and revolutionaries - are we looking to reform and regulate capitalism or to overthrow and replace it? Nevertheless, supporters are right to claim the movement is something new. The absence of leaders or hierarchical organisation; the emphasis on networks, modelled on the internet; the interest in participatory democracy rather than state socialism; even the willingness to experiment may not be new ideas per se but together, they make a genuinely new package.

Guy Taylor is a member of Globalise Resistance and therefore on the more radical wing of the movement. 'Many in the movement aren't consciously anti-capitalist,' he admits, 'but I take the view this movement is making demands on the system that the system can't deliver. Therefore they'll de facto become anti-capitalist in the end.' Taylor sees what he prefers to call the 'Anti-Capitalist Movement's future as allied with the trade unions, since 'if you plug our movement and the labour movement together, you've got political dynamite.'

My own informant among the real radicals requested anonymity, so we communicated by exchanging emails, in which he declined to answer questions but forwarded me selected texts that represented his position. The texts dismiss all attempts 'to give a "human face" to capitalism by regulating it at the global level... although [such attempts] present themselves as "pragmatic" or "result-oriented" they have not made any difference at all in the destructive nature of policies that are designed to satisfy the needs of global capital'. Instead, the texts recommend building autonomous and decentralised anti-capitalist networks' to create 'spaces' that are not capitalist. Stripped of jargon, this is a recipe for turning the movement itself, with its rolling mobilisations and communal values, into the basis of a new society. Tony Blair's 'travelling circus' will come to town, put down roots and put up the Big Top on the bypass next to Tesco's and B&Q.

If that seems an unlikely scenario, it's no more unlikely than what is actually happening on the other side - among the globalists, the capitalists, or more simply, the Americans. Following the Clinton formula of 'trade, not aid' abroad (it was the Clinton regime that first slashed US foreign aid budgets to the bone) and the Republican programme of tax cuts and welfare reduction at home, America seems to have developed a system in which governments exist principally to promote and reward business.

People show their moral worth by working hard and getting rich and countries show it via their economic growth. Those who fail, do so because they are lazy or immoral. Rather than being a problem, economic inequality is the essential motor of the whole system. Welfare/aid, let alone redistribution of wealth, are wrong because they interfere with this ethical and quasi-natural order, rewarding defective individuals or, on the international scale, defective societies, as in sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, the success stories form the global elite among individuals and the global superpower among countries (ie the US), having proved their right to rule.

This New American Order erects economic neo-liberalism and into a moral and political philosophy via a kind of revived Social Darwinism. It's the market as God-image, which claims to bring about the end of history and of politics, thus establishing itself as the final framework for human affairs. Between the 'no politics' espoused by people such as Frances Fukuyama ( The End of History ) and Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist and globalisation cheerleader, who argues that economic growth will abolish the need for political disputes, and my informant's 'total politics', lie two fundamentally opposed visions of the future.

As one activist said, 'we're constantly winning the argument and losing the battle'. Over the past 12 months, the movement has lost most of its public profile. Barry Coates of the World Development Movement says: 'Obviously, it's much harder to attack the US and they deserve to be attacked on a lot of their positions. And it's harder to get people out on the streets when there's a perceived solidarity with government on a larger aim.' Harding of the Financial Times questions whether the movement can continue as a global force without the American radicals, now silenced by 11 September. Meanwhile, Western political and business leaders move their meetings to ever-more remote and heavily fortified places, out of reach of protesters. The latest WTO talks took place in Qatar, an impregnable oil statelet, with a US warship sitting in the harbour and the Qatar government restricting visas. While last year's G8 meeting was in Genoa, last month's was in Kananaskis, a dot in the Canadian wilderness.

According to Monbiot, none of this matters because the struggle over corporate-led globalisation has come home. People can see it in their own towns. They can feel its effects for themselves. The state of public services such as the Tube, the NHS, the railways; privatisation; companies ending 'final salary' pension schemes while pensions for directors and chief executives soar; the crisis in farming, with small farmers being forced off the land; manufacturers such as Raleigh, Dyson and Royal Doulton (which makes those quintessentially British china figurines), shutting factories in the UK and moving production to the Third World. All these developments are related to economic globalisation - or, to call the same thing by a different name, to triumphant laissez-faire capitalism on the march.

Then there's the General Agreement on Trade in Services, now being negotiated in Geneva, which will open up public services to the multinationals to run; any attempt to keep them out could count as 'unnecessary barriers' to trade and be illegal. As David Hartridge, ex-director of the Services Division at the WTO, has said, 'Gats will speed up the process of [economic] liberalisation and make it irreversible'.

To the Global Justice Movement, Gats shows how calls for free trade and investment, economic growth and universal consumption hide a different agenda: to advance corporate power while rolling back the state and democracy. President Bush, playing fast and loose with his 'free trade' policy, slapping import duties on steel and hugely increasing subsidies to US agribusiness, while offering the Third World the sop of limited, conditional increases in the derisory US aid budget, only reveals the bankruptcy of 'globalisation as usual'.

Instead of pushing ahead with Gats and its sibling acronyms, say the activists, capitalism needs to reform itself, as it has done before, for example with the US New Deal and the creation of European welfare states. Many of those reforms were as pragmatic as the movement's ideas are today. Big business fought them as bitterly then as now. Others in the movement argue capitalism is beyond reform. The radicals have a strong voice and a good argument. Historically, change has happened only in the aftermath of a major crisis. Is economic globalisation destined to end in global crisis? Argentina has gone. Japan is looking very rocky, as are Brazil and the rest of Latin America. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has been written off. The stock markets are sinking. Islamic fundamentalism won't vanish any time soon. There are fears of a wider war. Hold on to your hats, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.