Where Now for the Anti-Globalizers?
What will happen to the growing global resistance movement
in the wake of September 11th?
OpenDemocracy, October 2001
Before the US terror attacks, the burgeoning movement
against corporate globalisation was on the verge of
changing the world. Or so it looked to those of us involved.
Consistently underplayed in the Western media, sneered
at by politicians and opinion formers, it has been variously
dismissed. Some see it as a bunch of rabid anarchists
smashing windows for a laugh. Others as middle-class
do-gooders denying the poor the benefits of trade. Others
still as NGOs buoying up their bank accounts by twisting
the facts about the realities of globalisation.
It is none of these things. It is, in fact, the biggest
social movement in decades; a truly global, if at times
frail, unity of peoples, experiences and world views
bound together by an awareness that the corporate infiltration
of every area of life is a process of exclusion, homogenisation,
environmental destruction and, for many, death.
It is now clear that the path to our Brave New World
will be much longer than it seemed. The world we are
waking up to will be characterised by repression, hardened
minds and an acceleration of the very process that conjured
this movement into existence in the first place: corporate-driven
Who destroyed those American buildings, and lives?
Certainly none of us. Yet you don't get much more anti-capitalist
than destroying the World Trade Centre. It would be
dangerous to pretend that it won't somehow affect attitudes
towards a movement in which anti-capitalism, however
ill-defined, is a strong thread.
So where will this movement go, now that the Western
world is embarking on a war with no enemy? During the
last week, it has become clear to me how exceptionally
powerful we are. I have been in Bolivia, attending a
conference of Peoples' Global Action (PGA), a network
of grassroots activists from five continents committed
to opposing the further expansion of neo-liberalism.
If ever there were proof that there really is a global
movement, this is it.
Over two hundred delegates attended the meeting: activists
from Bangladesh, Maoris from New Zealand, ecologists
from Russia, anti-privatisation campaigners from South
Africa, tribespeople from Papua New Guinea, coca farmers
from Bolivia, human rights activists from Chile and
many more. The list is a long, remarkable and insistent
piece of evidence pointing towards the real story behind
this movement: that its energy comes from the Global
South, the developing world where global capitalism's
sharp blade falls, far beyond the horizons of its beneficiaries
in the West.
The forces ranged against us
Theirs are the stories that explain the rage against
the machine currently flooding across the world. That
rage is the reason why this movement is not going away.
Where is it going instead? Two forces are at work in
the wake of the Manhattan murders which will make it
much harder for our voice to be heard.
One is the repression of dissent. For example, it took
less than a week after the bombings for George Bush
to announce that NGOs, could be front groups for terrorism.
Governments in the West are already discussing measures
which may come to prove Benjamin Franklin's maxim: those
who are willing to forfeit liberty for security will
have neither. Meanwhile, here in Bolivia, activists
have been searched by the US Drug Enforcement Agency,
detained by Interpol and threatened with deportation
for daring to attend the PGA conference, while the local
governor has announced to the press that we are a gathering
These are the first shots being fired in a war not
against terrorism, but against dissent. Can we expect
to see terrorism used as Joe McCarthy used communism
- a catch-all term to round up all and any who oppose
the interests of the powerful, and particularly the
interests of the US? It seems a real possibility. And
since this movement has demonstrated, at Seattle, Prague,
Genoa and all over the developing world, that it has
the power to disturb the rulers and connect with the
people, it will surely be one of the first targets in
the witch-finders' sights.
The second force at work is one which, far from silencing
the movement, will likely increase both its determination
and its numbers. You can see it in the pages of the
Western, and particularly the US, press over the last
few weeks. The driving forces behind the expansion of
corporate globalisation have decreed that what the world
now needs is more of it.
The argument goes like this: global trade is an engine
not only of material improvement for the people, but
of freedom itself. The US attacks appear to have come,
we are told, from countries with both closed markets
and undemocratic political systems. The best way, then,
to combat terrorism in the future is to break open further
markets; to expand the Western free trade model, and
thus the Western concept of democracy, into every country
on Earth even faster than is already happening.
This is breathtaking talk. A global movement against
exactly this process has crystallised and grown at astonishing
speed in just a few years, driven by the majority of
the world's people, who are excluded from the dubious
gifts of the market when they are not actively destroyed
by them. The idea that more of the same, and faster,
will lead to peace rather than an even bigger, and potentially
far more violent, backlash demonstrates just how out
of touch the world's political and economic leaders
have become with the real results of their policies
on the ground.
The US corporate global counter-offensive
Perhaps the best example of this comes from an article
published in the Washington Post on 20 September, written
by Robert B. Zoellick, the US's senior trade representative.
America's might and light, he writes, emanate from our
political, military and economic vitality. Our counter-offensive
must advance US leadership across all these fronts.
Zoellick explains himself. Because private enterprise
and open markets spur liberty around the world, US leadership
is vital in promoting the international economic and
trading system. He gives specific examples of how this
is to be done: complete the US free trade pact with
Jordan, and move on, by implication, to the rest of
the Arab world. Do the same to the putative US-Vietnamese
trade pact. Aggressively head up a new trade round when
the World Trade Organisation meets in November. Push
for Russia's accession to the WTO. Promote more trade
in Indonesia to emphasize our support for the success
of democracy there. The list goes on.
This glib association of trade with freedom is not
new, but it would have many of the delegates at the
PGA conference spitting with rage as they compare the
realities of America's vicious pursuit of its economic
interests with Zoellick's lofty rhetoric. The fact is
that US-driven corporate globalisation has been the
biggest engine of repression, death and destruction
in the last five decades. That is why this movement
was born; it is symbiotic with the expansion of trade,
which leads not to more peace and democracy but to more
of the unrest that comes when people fight back against
what is, in effect, imperialism.
Uncle Sam's free market stick gets bigger
Examine some of Zoellick's words. Take that sentence
about how private enterprise spurs liberty around the
world. The people of Cochabamba, the Bolivian city in
which the PGA met, could tell you exactly how private
enterprise has spurred their liberty. Last year, under
pressure from the World Bank, the city's water system
was sold to an American company. Within a month, bills
jumped by up to three hundred per cent. The resulting
city-wide riots led to the first reversal of such a
privatisation anywhere in the world, but it was not
without costs. The US, having first spurred the Cochabambans'
liberty by pricing the water they drank beyond their
reach, contributed further when a seventeen year-old
protester was shot dead by a sharpshooter trained at
the School of the Americas.
There are plenty of them in Latin America. Half way
through the conference, the Colombian delegation learned
that one of their number back home had been murdered
by US-backed paramilitaries. In Mexico, where I was
last month, Zapatista rebels who rose up in 1994 against
the death sentence imposed on them by NAFTA are hemmed
in by army and paramilitary groups. These groups have
been trained by the CIA in the kind of low-intensity
warfare the Americans specialised in when they were
busy spurring liberty in Nicaragua, El Salvador and
Bolivian coca farmers here have told us how the US
war on drugs is a war on their traditional livelihoods,
in which thousands of innocents have already died in
the interests of consolidating America's economic grip
on this continent; a grip to be tightened further by
the coming Free Trade Area of the Americas, if vast
planned protests in more than fifteen countries don't
derail it first.
Meanwhile, South African poet and veteran anti-apartheid
campaigner Dennis Brutus told me how private enterprise
has been promoting freedom in South Africa. The new
World Bank-designed economic programme, which calls
for the privatisation of everything that isn't nailed
down, is sparking a revolt in the townships amongst
the very impoverished black people the ANC was supposed
to liberate. You have to understand, says Brutus, that
many of the people who now run the government in South
Africa were trained at Harvard Business School and the
In virtually every country in the developing world,
the expansion of trade and open markets has meant rich
pickings for Western and often American companies, accompanied
by mass increases in landlessness, poverty, market exclusion,
disease and environmental degradation. If this is what
we are supposed to want more of, it's not hard to see
why people are rising up almost everywhere you care
Promoting positive change now
We live in dangerous times. Bush's new war, and accompanying
aggressive expansion of trade, will beat many more such
people even harder with Uncle Sam's Big Free Market
Stick. But it won't work: there are too many, who are
left outside the loop, more every week, and many more
who never want to be in it. The question now is whether
the world's political and economic elites are going
to take heed and make changes, or whether they will
have one or more revolution on their hands. This is
not overstating the case.
As for the movement itself, it has its own questions
to answer. It is difficult to see, for example, how
big street protests around major summits, with their
inevitable accompanying violence, will be tolerated
any longer by newly-vigilant states. Genoa saw over
ninety people hospitalised and one dead. Next time -
if there is a next time - it could be a lot worse.
But the big street fights are only the tip of this
movement. The real work comes at a much lower level.
Two tasks face us now. Firstly, making links at a grassroots
level with others who share our concerns - as PGA, for
example, is already doing. We need to reach out to a
wider public, who, if the opinion polls are to be believed,
also know there is something wrong, but may not yet
know what can be done about it.
The other task is to promote and develop real, workable
solutions for reinventing democracy and economics. This
is not as daunting as it sounds; much of the work is
already in progress. The question now is whether we
can make the world listen in time to prevent an explosion
of fury that could make what happened on 11 September
look like just the beginning.