To answer the question “Are ‘anti-globalization’ protests destined for irrelevance in a political landscape transformed by September 11?” we must ask, “Why were they relevant in the first place?”
Seattle, November, 1999. Police cloud the streets with tear gas. Protesters dressed as butterflies parade through the city on stilts. The secret service refuses to let Secretary of State Madeleine Albright leave her hotel room. And by the end of a week of protest, the trade talks at the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting collapse.
In the midst of this, WTO Director General Mike Moore insists on battling reality. Before assembled news reporters he denies the impact of the protests: “Negotiating groups are in full swing,” he declares. “This conference will be a success.”
Moore’s disregard was remarkable given the intensity of those demonstrations. But in a more general sense, it was not unusual. Being dismissed as ineffectual is a familiar part of activist life. Anti-union employers and boycotted shop-owners will steadfastly deny that organized dissent has any impact at all on their operations—right up until they finally give in to social movement demands. One perceptive description of the process of social change, likely adapted from Schopenhauer’s take on the history of great ideas, states: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. And then you win.” If this dynamic holds true, testimonials to the impotence of protests will begin somewhere in step two and continue onward to victory.
And so it is with activism surrounding globalization. At that very moment when ignoring resistance to economic neoliberalism ceased to be an option, Thomas Friedman famously branded demonstrators concerned with workers rights or environmental protections as “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix.” By now, with a fresh wave of condemnations coming in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., we can assume that the process is somewhat further along. More than two years after Friedman’s statement, the Clintonite Democratic Leadership Council held to form by pronouncing the global justice movement as “destined for irrelevance” in a realigned world.
Demonstrations as a whole have received mixed response in the “new age” that ostensibly began on September 11. True, conservative observers of “anti-globalization” activity now enthusiastically equate dissent and terrorism in their press appearances. And many journalists feel all too eager to concur: One organizer told me of being awakened by a phone call on the morning of 9/11; a Toronto reporter had tracked him down in a fervent attempt to connect the terrorist acts with the puppet-filled processions of the past years. He pressed the groggy activist, saying, “It was the World Trade Center, after all.”
But at the same time, protesters have received a strange sort of homage from their elite opponents. At their February, 2002, meeting in New York City, the members of the exclusive World Economic Forum devoted sessions to the problem of economic inequality and the need to provide poor countries with debt relief. Bill Gates himself, according to observer Doug Henwood, argued that “It’s a healthy thing there are demonstrators in the streets. We need a discussion about whether the rich world is giving back what it should in the developing world. I think there is a legitimate question whether we are.” Coming from people accustomed to spitting orders into cell phones, that’s about as conciliatory as it gets.
In order to make sense of the divergent reactions activists have renewed a process self-criticism. While at least temporarily toning down the use of more confrontational forms of protest in response to an altered political landscape, organizers have reconsidered familiar problems: how do we move beyond “summit hopping” in pursuit of unaccountable trade delegations? And how can we articulate a positive message to dispel the misleading description of protests as “anti-globalization”?
The turn to old questions is a good one. Because uncertainty about the future of global justice activism after September 11 has its roots in more persistent concerns: What do the mass mobilizations around trade meetings accomplish? How do activists understand the piecemeal appropriation of a progressive agenda by corporate rivals? And how do you measure a movement’s real achievements?
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Shifting the Debate
Step back again. On the eve of Seattle’s main day of action against the World Trade Organization, a different Michael Moore, the filmmaker and comedian, played MC to a crowd of thousands in the city’s Key Arena. “We’ve kept everybody here long enough,” he told the damp and exhausted activists at the end of the night. “We have to get up early tomorrow… and make our voices heard and,” he explained. “And, essentially, shut down the city of Seattle.”
At the time, this comment constituted an exercise in imagination and bravado. Direct Action Network organizer Chris Dixon writes, “those words seemed like an idle wish, an impossible dream. At best, we hoped to be a significant blip on the nightly news, and perhaps a noticeable inconvenience to trade delegates.” Only when the protests the next day succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation could “shutting down” the processes of corporate globalization begin its life as a literal ambition. It proved a short life. Increasingly sophisticated police responses limited the impact of subsequent direct action, and the dramatic view of what protests could accomplish quickly grew untenable.
Some protesters felt dejected, and some “free trade” advocates celebrated. The New York Times headline on a day following significant protests against the International Monetary Fund captured the odd mood: “I.M.F. Points to Big Accomplishment: It Met as Scheduled.” Clearly, “shut it down” was never satisfactory as a holistic or theoretical approach to understanding how mass actions further social change. However, those who thought that the protests ceased to affect deliberations about the global economy were wrong.
To gauge the impact of these mass mobilizations, it is important to consider two factors: First, the manner in which they shift the spectrum of debate around a set of issues, legitimating immediate calls for reform. And secondly, how they feed efforts to build organizations that can force greater transformations in the long term.
The rhetoric of Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum shows how significantly the landscape surrounding globalization issues has changed. Just a few years ago, elite debate centered around how quickly the rights of global speculators would be solidified, leaving discussion of world poverty to marginalized nay-sayers. But is the change limited to talk? Here, the attention given by business press to on-going demonstrations provides a useful insight into genuine insecurity felt by those in power. The Economist gave perhaps the most candid assessment in late September, 2000:
“[I]t would be a big mistake to dismiss this global militant tendency as nothing more than a public nuisance, with little potential to change things. It already has changed things—and not just the cocktail schedule for the upcoming meetings. Protests… succeeded in scuttling the OECD’s planned Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998; then came the greater victory in Seattle, where the hoped-for launch of global trade talks was aborted… This has dramatically increased the influence of mainstream NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Oxfam. Such groups have traditionally had some say (albeit less than they would have wished) in policymaking. Assaulted by unruly protesters, firms and governments are suddenly eager to do business with the respectable face of dissent.”
The article goes on to note how a San Francisco-based group, Global Exchange, convinced Starbucks to sell “fair trade” coffee beans. (The company, still in denial, “says it had been thinking about doing this anyway.”) This forms only one of many possible examples. Debt relief, the idea that wealthy countries and multinational banks should forgive the developing countries their obligation to make crushing loan payments, has become a mainstream and winning cause—as evidenced by the much-reported lobbying of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill by rock star Bono. Student anti-sweatshop protesters have won victories to institute “monitoring” of factories and have assisted workers organizing abroad. The World Bank pledges increasing amounts to literacy and health programs to generate needed PR boosts.
It is by no means necessarily to consider these changes as satisfactory or to struggle less fervently toward greater goals. Activists need not become loyalists to the Mocha Grande simply because Starbucks has become somewhat less offensive than before. Nor it is necessary to fall into the trap of praising “responsible” negotiators while condemning “unruly” dissidents. But failing to acknowledge these reforms as points which power would not otherwise have conceded would, by extension, overlook a rich history of hard-fought wins. New Deal social programs, Civil Rights legislation, and environmental protections were all based on compromises with the more thorough-going demands of social movements. And yet they represent some of the most significant gains of the past century.
To reconcile these with bolder visions of change, one must avoid seeing them as ends in themselves. In the case of debt relief, current progress has allowed activists to move toward more radical stances: advocating debt renunciation, in which poor countries deny the legitimacy of their loan obligations (often accumulated by corrupt regimes) and refuse to pay. Moreover, mass demonstrations produce a second key effect beyond assisting reformers: They bolster long-term organizing.
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Turning Protest into Power
Many activists and sympathizers have questioned whether large-scale mobilizations promote the most effect strategy for challenging corporate power. “Is this really what we want—” Canadian commentator Naomi Klein memorably asked, “a movement of meeting stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats like they’re the Grateful Dead?” Her comment, which has since been frequently cited out of context, did not intend to disparage those who have traveled to oppose various summits, but rather to highlight the importance of local campaigns for social justice—who focus the battle against exploitative employers, environmental racism, and undemocratic decision-making at the level where they immediately affect peoples’ lives.
This constructive challenge has a long history. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the leading organizations in the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, nearly collapsed early in its formation due to conflicts between two factions—one arguing for direct action and the other community organizing. Legendary activists like Bob Moses favored the slow work of winning over individuals in their communities as the foundation of real change. They were gradually convinced, however, that mass media-based efforts did indeed fortify, rather than detract from, their efforts. The outrage generated by images of police dogs and fire hoses turned against non-violent protesters expanded the base of willing movement funders, softened public officials, and dramatically increased interest in local meetings. One community organizer based in Chicago, commenting in amazement on how his on-going campaign had been strengthened, described it as “organizing in the moment of the whirlwind.” Moses himself proceeded to launch Freedom Summer—a historic 1964 campaign that mixed high-profile actions with grassroots organizing.
Modern-day critics of the “summit-hop” risk presuming too great a degree of mutual exclusivity between mass mobilizations and local campaigns. Mainstream observers who readily buy into the notion that protests are vaguely “organized through the internet” believe, like The Economist, that after major actions “the movement evaporates into cyberspace.”
In fact, it persists internationally through a large network of local groups resisting corporate globalization. They pursue targeted campaigns for decent working conditions and environmentally healthy neighborhoods, against industry deregulation and prison building, and around dozens of other issues. No doubt, organizers must reckon with many difficult issues in bridging the local-global divide. But like their predecessors of the Civil Rights era, many long-term activists encounter a terrain more favorable to organizing. Student coalitions and environmental groups find people returning from or inspired by high-profile events more willing to commit themselves to activist concerns. Large demonstrations can introduce local groups to the mass media, and often to each other. That the constituent organizations of a global justice movement—some of whom, like unions and environmentalists, have traditionally been antagonistic toward one another—might feel a common bond in their work, and even undertake joint campaigns, represents an exciting development in the country’s grassroots politics.
In politically difficult times, these groups sustain the capability for mass mobilization. Their organizing continues regardless of media indifference or a climate temporarily hostile to criticism of U.S. foreign policy, because they respond to concrete manifestations of the profit-driven race to the bottom. In doing so, they show how the same system that spreads poverty and injustice abroad poisons neighborhoods and creates economic insecurity at home. Together, the varied groups envision a new type of globalization that celebrates the democratic decision-making of local communities and asserts that corporate elites, ultimately, are the ones destined for irrelevance.
Photo credit: davidChief / Wikimedia Commons.