What happened to the anti-globalisation movement?

Amid the general surfeit of apocalyptic language being used about the solvency crunch, climate change, oil prices and various other dark sides of globalisation’s force, there’s one constituency from whom we haven’t heard.  Where’s the anti-globalisation movement?  Shouldn’t they all be out in the street with drums and whistles, cheerfully dancing the told-you-so in a conga line stretching down the street, smashing the odd McDonald’s window as they go? 

Take, for instance, this helpful chronology of the anti-globalisation movement produced by two German researchers.  They highlight 1982 as the first year in which a major protest was held simultaneously in the same city as a G7 summit – 20,000 peace activists demonstrated against Reagan’s presence (and the terrorist group Action Directe – remember them? – attacked the Paris rep of the World Bank and the IMF).  From there, the noisy and colourful history unfolds just as we saw it, until 2001 and – there ends the history, with the death of a protestor at the Genoa G8 after he was shot by a police officer.

At the time, everyone was stunned.  I remember attending a climate change summit just a week or two after the G8, where there was a general sense of disbelief and rage among the activist networks at the conference.  The mood was that a corner had been turned; things wouldn’t be the same from here on; it might all be about to get much more dark. 

Which, of course, it did, though not in the way that anyone was expecting: obviously, any attempt to figure out what happened to the anti-globalisation movement has to start at 9/11. So here, for what it’s worth, are five starters for ten off the top of my head about what happened thereafter.  Corrections, arguments, howls of protest very welcome…

1. Economic globalisation was immediately dislodged from its top spot on the ‘hot list’ of global issues.  Throughout the 1990s, a lot of people in industrialised countries felt a creeping sense of worry and insecurity about globalisation.  But after 9/11, there was something much more vivid to worry about – with governments painted in a totally different light (front line against terrorism rather than purveyors of policies to help multinational corporations).

2. Protests at summits immediately became much more difficult.  The regular schedule of G8, IMF and other summits provided the anti-globalisation movement with much of its lifeblood.  But after 9/11, the exclusion zones around summits got much bigger, the protestors were far more at arm’s length, and there was less scope for generating high profile media coverage.

3. The movement became part of the Stop the War coalition – and then the war went ahead anyway.  I remember going to one of the early London meetings of the Stop the War Coalition, and noticing (with both frustration and admiration) how deftly Globalise Resistance and the Socialist Worker Party had taken control of the co-ordination committee – and how excited they were at the potential to reach out to a far wider constituency.  But the fact that the ensuing protests against the war were so massive, so diverse and broad-rooted, and so completely ineffectual, left many with a profound sense of hopelessness and apathy about what activism could achieve.

4.  The movement’s lack of solutions started to count against it.  In its earlier days, the global resistance movement’s relativist philosophy worked strongly in its favour.  Anyone with a grudge against liberal economics, patriarchy, the scientific establishment or liberal democracy could join in; all that was needed was some kind of critique of Enlightenment universalism.  But as time went on, the movement started to suffer from its lack of big ideas for solutions.  When there was discussion at all of what should be started (as opposed to stopped – like dams, IMF conditionality, nuclear power, GMOs or whatever), the solutions were either fuzzy (global justice now!) or parochial.  Serious proposals for global frameworks for sustainability and justice that might have seemed like no-brainers for the movement, like contraction and convergence, were never endorsed.

5. Protests became harder to organise because of repressive anti-terrorist legislation.  As observed here before, even the former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard has said he has “a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a police state”.  As Chris Atkins’ film Taking Liberties chronicles (here’s the trailer), anti-terrorist legislation in the UK, as in other countries, has been used extensively by police to counter protest activity much more broadly than just at summit meetings. 

So where does the movement stand now? 

Some people, of course, might argue that 2005’s Make Poverty History coalition represented a continuation or evolution of the movement.  I wouldn’t buy the argument.  The anti-globalisation movement was fundamentally a bottom-up exercise – even if organisations like the Socialist Worker Party itched to organise it.  MPH, on the other hand, was the opposite.  It was organised by a tiny handful of large NGOs, who from the outset worked closely with government.  That political strategy made a lot of sense – but it also made MPH something entirely different from the global resistance movement.

Others would argue that the movement has gone virtual, either into the blogosphere (c.f. excitement about the role of the ‘netroots’ in Howard Dean’s presidential campaign last time), or into virtual campaignign networks like Avaaz.  Here too, I have my doubts.  As I’ve written here before, I’m a huge fan of Avaaz – but again, it’s hard to make a case for it being a direct inheritor of the anti-globalisation movement.  It’s too well-organised, too solutions focused to be classed as such.

A third group might argue that the global resistance movement is alive and well, perhaps pointing to last summer’s Heathrow climate camp as proof.  This is probably the most credible answer – after all, some of the leading lights of the old movement, like the Wombles (remember them?), were there.  But if that is the nearest we get to an answer, then the next question is – is that it?  The anti-globalisation movement reduced to just a couple of thousand people at Heathrow?

But here’s the thing: we do need a global justice movement today.  

I don’t mean a movement that reproduces all the worst traits of the old anti-globalisation movement, like its susceptibility to hijack by violent nutters, its chronic inability to agree on solutions, its “global bad! local good!” simplifications.  But we do need to resurrect the movement’s insistence that nothing can be achieved without grassroots participation being built in from the outset; its daring willingness to imagine different futures; and its sense of fun and theatre in politics.

I have precisely zero confidence that a political system that consists of voting every four or five years and then leaving it to technocrats in between has the capacity to solve the challenges that will come at us over the next few years. 

Conversely, it’s abundantly clear that vibrant political participation at local level will be one of the best forms of resilience a community can have in the face of the kind of unpredictable shocks likely to emerge in the same period. 

What still needs to be figured out, though, is how activist citizens can aggregate their influence to affect global outcomes for actually solving issues like climate change.  Equity and fairness – on a very grand scale – will be at the heart of all of these discussions.  Who’s going to argue for it?