A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
Did the attacks of 9/11 end the movement against corporate globalization?
A number of reflections written for the ten-year anniversary of the attacks have raised this question. And I think it presents some interesting challenges for those of us who think about social movements.
In an essay at Truthout journalist Dan Denvir, a friend and colleague, calls the global justice movement a “political casualty” of the War on Terror. Likewise, in the magazine’s ten-year-anniversary symposium on 9/11, fellow Dissent contributor Bhaskar Sunkara notes, “The attacks on September 11 had an unforeseen consequence for the Left. The ‘anti-globalization’ movement abruptly entered public consciousness after the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle and disappeared just as quickly.”
In their respective essays, Dan and Bhaskar consider the global justice movement as something that effectively existed for less than two years, and then had, in Dan’s words, a “quick and sudden end.” I think there is a kernel of truth to this idea—there is some reason to look at the period between November 1999 and September 2001 as a unique time. Yet this periodization, I would argue, also has some significant limitations. It skews how we think about the legacy and the impact of the movement—as well as its potential for revival.
Let’s start with how that period was indeed a special one—particularly for activists within the United States. As Bhaskar writes, “for a moment, radical politics appeared pregnant with possibility.” Dan elaborates:
“A rapid-fire series of mass demonstrations forced secretive financial institutions, corporations (and political parties) to make their case to the American people for the first time in a very long time, and there was a sense of incredible optimism and power. Older activists were amazed to see people back in the streets and I felt like it was an incredible time to be a young activist. We expected major social change and so did everyone else.”
I think both writers are correct that anyone involved in global justice activism at the time felt that it was an exciting and exceptional moment. Importantly, it was the time in which the fickle mainstream media in the United States and Europe paid attention to the protests against corporate globalization as a new and significant force. This attention helped the different groups mobilizing for protests think of themselves as part of a single, collective effort. And it helped create the momentum needed for any mass movement to grow. After 9/11, the mainstream media sent its spotlight elsewhere, and global justice advocates would have to struggle to draw attention to their campaigns.
Dan’s piece is, in large part, a personal reflection about being radicalized as a student activist during this time. And his experience points to another way in which the period immediately prior to 9/11 was distinctive. Young people coming to left politics in the late 1990s and very early 2000s—particularly on campuses in the United States—were likely to be exposed to critiques of neoliberalism, to campaigns targeting multinational corporations as dominant actors on the world stage, and to challenges to the Democratic Party’s acceptance of a new “free trade” orthodoxy. After 9/11, student activists were more likely to be radicalized around a different set of issues—war, torture, and the elimination of civil liberties—and were likely to direct their anger at Bush administration neoconservatives. The dominant tone changed from possibility to despair. As Dan writes:
“[T]he anti-globalization was not just a movement against. It was a statement that, as the World Social Forum puts it, Another World Is Possible. The movements that followed were defensive maneuvers against a Bush administration that was truly more dangerous than anything we could have envisioned.”
Bhaskar adds, “A common sentiment among those who took part in the [anti-globalization] movement is that of a historical moment cut short.”
In a variety of respects, the beginning of the “War on Terror” created real changes for activists, and I think that noting these is valid. Yet while there were some unique qualities of the period between N30 and 9/11, trying to contain the global justice movement entirely within this timeframe involves replicating some of the mainstream media’s bad habits. Since social movements neither appear as instantaneously nor disappear as abruptly as news reports would regularly seem to suggest, it’s worth taking the longer view.
Those who joined in protests against corporate globalization around the turn of the millennium frequently invoked the slogan, “It didn’t start in Seattle.” Although the November 1999 actions against the World Trade Organization meetings in the Pacific Northwest seemed to the mainstream media to come out of nowhere, protest participants identified with a lineage of activism that had been brewing for years and that was very internationalist in nature. Antecedents included mobilizations against NAFTA and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico, the rise in the 1990s of anti-sweatshop activism and culture jamming, and numerous protests in the global South against privatization and corporate exploitation. Bhaskar nods to this when he notes, “While the fight for Seattle’s streets caught the media by surprise, it was the result of months of planning and organizing, and underpinned by broader historical shifts.”
Just as there are important reasons to point out that “It did not start in Seattle,” I think there’s value in the argument that “It did not end on 9/11.”
I have written before about the important impact of global justice mobilizations on the trade and development debate. Here I would just add a few notes about timeframe that run contrary to the “ended on 9/11” storyline.
The World Social Forum, which is considered a key institution of the global justice movement, was only in its infancy in 2001. The first global forum, held in January of that year, drew around 12,000 people. In contrast, the first post-9/11 forum back in Porto Alegre, which took place in late January and early February of 2002, drew many times more—somewhere around 60,000 attendees. By the mid-2000s, several incarnations of the World Social Forum brought in as many as 150,000 participants. Such crowds were significantly larger than the one that amassed at the Seattle protests (estimates for which range between about 30,000 and 90,000 people). Although U.S. groups were not dominant at the social forums, they were decently represented.
While focus in the United States did shift to anti-war activism during this time (and away from globalization-focused campaigns), there were efforts to link critiques of corporate power with an analysis of U.S. militarism. Highlighting the connections between movements, the call for a February 15, 2003 global day of action against war in Iraq originated at the November 2002 European Social Forum.
Following 9/11, some meetings of multilateral bodies were relocated to remote or repressive locales (such as Doha) to preclude protests. Nevertheless, activist gatherings continued to form outside G8 and WTO meetings, with notable dissident contingents confronting the latter organization in Cancun in 2003 and in Hong Kong in 2005.
Within the United States, significant protests gathered in Miami around negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)—a protest in many ways comparable to the pre-9/11 protests at the IMF and World Bank on A16, although not nearly as well covered in the press. (Indicative of the ongoing radicalism at the gatherings, I had the pleasure of watching a major U.S. union leader in Miami publicly denounce the city’s security deployment as a “police state“—something you don’t see every day in labor circles.)
The FTAA subsequently collapsed altogether, a major movement victory. Dan notes that this was “thanks in large part to Latin America’s leftward swing.” I agree, and I would contend that this swing was not wholly unconnected to global justice constituencies. (Furthermore, I would disagree with Bhaskar if he suggests that the example of Lula da Silva’s left-leaning government in Brazil necessarily delegitimizes the arguments made by critics of corporate globalization.)
Looking at a single issue central to the anti-corporate globalization movement, we can see debt relief—the demand that countries in the global South should have their international debts eliminated—follow a promising trajectory in the wake of 9/11. The debt relief movement gained momentum through July 2005, when it scored a breakthrough win with an international agreement signed at the Gleneagles, Scotland meeting of the G8. For the occasion, as many as 250,000 protesters (many times the number present in Seattle) marched in favor of eliminating unjust debts.
Now, looking at this activity, one could argue that the global justice movement continued internationally after 9/11 but ceased to exist within the United States. My response there would be that we need to look more carefully at the groups that made up mass mobilizations such as N30 or A16. The global justice movement has long been described as a “movement of movements.” One of the exciting aspects of the gatherings outside WTO or World Bank or FTAA meetings was the ability of a common enemy to bring together a broad range of constituencies—labor, environmentalists, indigenous rights groups, family farmers, anarchists, pro-immigrant advocates, faith-based groups.
The extent to which all of these groups were united into one seamless movement was probably overhyped by hopeful activists in the post-Seattle moment, radicals who might have imagined that long-standing ideological divisions could be overcome and differences in organizational cultures bridged. On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to assume that all cooperation between the diverse constituencies ended promptly upon the launch of the “War on Terror.” Labor, for one, remained far more internationalist in its stances on trade than it had been in the early 1990s and before, and its connection to immigrant rights groups were very relevant when that movement exploded into public view in 2006. Something like “slow food” was a very rare idea in 1999, but movements around food issues have only grown since then, and they continue to make fruitful links with indigenous rights activists and anti-corporate campaigners.
Institutions are important. During their heyday, the global justice activists were criticized for merely hopping from summit to summit, not building local structures. In his essay, Bhaskar rightly criticizes Seattle-era excitement over ad hoc spokes-councils and movement spaces that emerged seemingly spontaneously and left “virtually no trace behind.”
But there’s a certain “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quality to some of these arguments. During the time activists were able to capture media attention with mass summit actions, their movement was considered viable. When the summit stalking died down, it was taken as evidence of the movement’s demise. Those who took on the difficult task of creating lasting activist vehicles—take, for example, anti-sweatshop organizers’ development of the Worker Rights Consortium, an impressive and largely post-9/11 institution—got little credit for their efforts.
The constituent groups of the global justice movement did not disappear. Nor did they lose their ability to come together as a creative, unified, and internationally minded force to challenge corporate power and oligarchic privilege. The landscape of American politics and the state of the global economy have changed plenty in the past ten years. They have changed in ways that do not always favor such unity. But the great potential, and great need for it, remain.