The future of the “anti-globalisation” movement post-September 11th

Debate between Mark Curtis and John Lloyd

The Ecologist, 22 February 2002

Dear Mark,

My argument is that 11 September has made the global movements of protest even less intellectually sustainable than they were before. I am not arguing that 11 September was an event which completely transformed the movements’ landscape. They had very large organisational, intellectual, even moral, problems before it. But the consequences of the attack have made these more visible.

The global movements of protest are exceptionally diverse. One sort are the big and relatively well-established NGOs like Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontières: they generally protest against specific events or actions or states of affairs. They seek peace and security in which to do humanitarian work: they often cannot count on it, thus put pressure on governments to ensure it. They also, in the course of their work and experience, have evolved views on aid, development and wars: in close alliance with the media, they have been able to make these views generally recognised and admired.

On the other side, organisations like Reclaim the Streets and Ya Basta! protest against global capitalism: they see in it an inhuman and degrading system which pushes the poor ever deeper into poverty. All efforts to soften it or regulate it are doomed to failure, and are generally the work of hypocrites.

Between these exist most of the global movements. They tend to shift emphasis from one side to the other as the occasion demands. They will, at times, seek reforms in particular instances: at others they will join with those who oppose global capitalism, especially in their critique of world trade, or investment. Lack of clarity on ultimate purpose is an important element here – since they can benefit both from the wave of militancy which fuelled the global movements, and yet remain within the influential and sometimes profitable ambit of dialogue with corporations and government.

The humanitarian bona fides and courage of the first kind of movements hardly need restating. There are hard questions to be asked about how aid is distributed, how development is furthered, how far the NGOs impede UN and state aid, as well as each other. But these are questions within a general consensus that aid and development are good and necessary.

It is the practice and theory of the others which is the issue here. There is a view – Ralph Dahrendorf, consistently liberal, has recently stated it – that in the absence of a global people or global democracy, these movements are the closest thing we have to an opposition. While their violence when it occurs should not be condoned, they should be seen largely in that light.

I agree with that. Not only do the movements have the right to protest, publish and disseminate their protest, but they must do so in the interests of debate and of enlightenment. Demonstrations have achieved purposes which are likely to be benign – as that organised in 1998 in Birmingham which highlighted the cause of debt reduction, and which seems to have assisted and may have deepened the movement towards it.
But the tendency of the movements towards both nihilism, and a view of global development as a mixture of American imperialism and corporate greed, made them vulnerable to a shift of opinion from indifference of the majority to an at least potentially hostile questioning of the bases of their opinions.

That shift has occurred. The consequence of 11 September – and not just, perhaps even not mainly, in the US – is for those on the centre left and right, liberals and social democrats, to question more harshly those whom they may hitherto have seen as merely over-enthusiastic.

The first question – which has been a mainly American one – has been: how far do these who are active in the global movements see 11 September as a result of the US ‘asking for it’ – is relatively easily solved. Judging by the websites, some did. These sentiments were also voiced in journals of the left, as the London Review of Books,The New Statesman, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Nation (US) and by some contributors to and staff writers for the Guardian. Outside of Europe, this feeling was much more widespread, and relatively popular: the rejoicing of Palestinians on the West Bank, featured in the news, was far from the limit of it.

But it was not general. Many of the movements expressed horror; some cancelled demonstrations and marches – though these have since re-grouped, round opposition to the war in Afghanistan. The harder and longer-term questions are these:

  • How far is globalisation co-terminus with American power and influence, generally called US imperialism?
  • Is the US monolithic on its approach to globalisation, to the Middle East, to the ways in which development should be funded, to the programmes of the UN and the international financial institutions?
  • Do the proposals of the centre left – for a strengthening and democratising of global institutions and the creation of new instruments of global justice – constitute a meaningful set of reforms?
  • Are they the same as the views of the right on global justice and equity or is a distinction to be made between them?
  • Why do developing countries demand freer trade, more investment and greater activity by the international financial institutions? Why do they often oppose higher labour and environmental standards?
  • And crucially: How far do the global movements, or any group of them or any individual movement, have a view of an alternative system of global trade and economy from the present one (NB: an alternative system, not a series of reforms).

Some sort of account of these questions is necessary for a dialogue which is not that of the deaf.

John Lloyd

Dear John,You provide no cogent arguments for your assertion that the anti-corporate movement is a finished force, and simply ask a lot of questions. Let me explain why this movement is far from a finished force.

The most noticeable feature of the ‘post-11 September world’ is how much it resembles the pre-11 September world. The power of global corporations remains unchecked. At November’s meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Qatar, OECD countries forced four new issues into the WTO’s negotiating remit which are likely to increase corporate power. This was in the face of opposition from almost all developing countries. The US continues to veto multilateral initiatives such as the biological weapons convention and intends to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Meanwhile, 2.8 billion people across the world continue to live below the poverty line.

The prospects for developing the movement for greater global justice, often wrongly painted as ‘anti-globalisation’, are one of the few things that have changed. They are if anything stronger – precisely because so little has changed after 11 September. The part of the movement that seems – fortunately – to have been dealt a blow by 11 September is the violent element, which anyway represented a miniscule proportion of public protesters. Recently, in excess of 8,000 peaceful protesters joined the Trade Justice Movement parade in central London, a brand new branch of the movement recently set up by UK-based development and environmental NGOs. Not exactly a sign that the protest movement is dead.

There are at least three reasons why the global movement is growing and will continue to grow.

First, the power of corporations compared to people and governments is still increasing and received a significant boost in Qatar. The four new issues added to the WTO’s remit – especially investment, government procurement and competition policy – are intended to open up national economies even further to the reach of overwhelmingly rich country-based transnational corporations (TNCs). These new issues have little to do with trade: they are more about extending the control of TNCs over countries’ domestic policy-making.

Second, in the UK and other OECD countries, there is every reason to believe that people’s sense of disempowerment is either unchanged, or is perhaps increasing. This is partly the result of what appears to be governments’ willing capitulation to the demands of transnational capital and the fact that politicians of all mainstream persuasions increasingly offer people no alternative policies. Protest through the political system is increasingly seen as ineffective.

Third, in many developing countries there is a burgeoning of civil society activism. Protests against corporate globalisation have taken place from Ghana to Bolivia, and groups from developing countries have become much more active on the global stage. The prospects for global coalitions have never been better.

I think that the events precipitated by the appalling tragedy of 11 September have revealed to many people the inequities and power imbalances that exist in our world, providing an even clearer reason for developing this global movement. The extent of poverty and marginalisation of ordinary people in countries such as Afghanistan, but also throughout Africa and in many parts of Asia and Latin America is staggering. Much public debate has correctly noted that these levels of poverty and inequality ultimately contribute to greater insecurity and threaten western prosperity. I also believe that most people want not only sustained action against terrorism. They also want their governments to act in more moral ways, tackling the root causes of poverty and taming the power of corporations.

Many sections of the political class are pushing the view that the global protest movement has dissipated following 11 September for the obvious reason that it represents a serious challenge to their power. No doubt they hope that the more they write about it failing the more this will become a reality. These people probably didn’t attend the World Social Forum conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January, which brought together hundreds of civil society groups from many dozens of countries. These human rights, environment, development, women’s, peace and other groups often do not have an identical agenda. But they are united in challenging the current unjust global order and in putting forward positive alternatives based on a different set of values, such as human rights, justice and equity. Those who are afraid of events like Porto Alegre are right to be afraid; the values of this movement are also the values of people the world over, and they are alternatives to the current corporate greed that our elites are so keen to promote.

There are serious challenges facing this movement. Its strength and its weakness are that it is disparate. It champions diversity and recognises that there is no single alternative economic or political model that can replace the current dominant paradigm (call it corporatisation). But this often makes it easier for its enemies to criticise.

I find it revealing that many ‘progressives’ are pronouncing the death of this global protest movement. Where do they believe that needed change is to come from if not from this diverse, internationalist, value-based and people-focused movement? We are indeed faced with a choice: whether to acquiesce in the face of increasing corporatisation of our social, economic and political life – the choice offered by the political classes – or whether to help shape alternatives both nationally and globally to reassert the primacy of human values.

Mark Curtis

Dear Mark,To begin with an answer to your last question – where is needed change to come from if not from the global movements? I don’t believe it will come mainly from these: indeed, it would be wrong if it did. It must come from the governments and people of the developing and developed worlds. Your assertion earlier that people are now withdrawing from the political process because of ‘governments’ willing capitulation to the demands of transnational capital’ is the now classic rationale for the global movements: that they must be given legitimacy and mandate because governments have lost them. But on that analysis, we are in a world where the loudest voices achieve the most change. We need, to be sure, to find better ways of reflecting peoples’ demands and desires: the voice of authoritarian states is a continuing problem. But an assertion that the shifting memberships of the global movements have a larger mandate than the voices of the hundreds of millions who do vote in democratic elections, especially of those who have only recently received the right, is a curious definition of empowerment.

Your selection of the elements to which developing countries objected at the Qatar meeting of the World Trade Organisation was, as ever, one sided. The larger movement in that meeting from the side of the developing states was not to restrain trade and investment, but to increase it. India and other states are now more and more able to pose the sharp question to the developed states, particularly to the EU: why are you keeping out our goods when you proclaim free trade? Secondly, the view that the poorest states need not just more trade but more managed trade so that they can catch up, at least somewhat, is now gaining ground. But it needs to be negotiated with the developed countries which will lose jobs because of free trade: and because their governments have to get elected, that means time.

The new trade round might fail – but it will fail most of all if the developed states refuse to follow through on their own protestations of favouring open markets. The global movements, by contrast, continue to plough the furrow of restraining trade. They also remain wedded to a view of trade negotiations and to the initiatives of the international financial institutions, as generally catastrophic. They do not appear to see the world as a forum for negotiation and compromise in which winning and losing is an inevitable part of the process. It is not that they are violent: I can see, as most can, that those who wish to cause violence in demonstrations are a minority. It is that the mindset is authoritarian. The chief tool of this mindset is a kind of catch-all anti-Americanism – as in the meaningless conjunction you make of the US’ present – and relative – unilateralism with the 2.8 billion people who live under the poverty line in the world. US unilateralism is, I believe, a real danger: but the openness of US borders to immigrants, the extension of the US free trade area to Mexico and other Latin American states, and the large support the US has given to developing states have also to be part of the equation.
That is something of what I meant when I said that the global movements are increasingly walling themselves into intellectually unsustainable positions – emphasised, though not created, by 11 September, because it showed the extreme of authoritarian mindsets which had taken the step on to the ground of terror. I repeat that their demonstrations are a common right, and a good in that they put more elements into the debate on globalisation.

But the insistence on primacy before representative governments; their obsessive anti-Americanism; their inability or at least unwillingness to engage in or contemplate the compromises which mark all democratic politics weigh upon them and, unless remedied, will contribute to their decay.

John Lloyd

Dear John,You now seem to be saying not that the global protest movement is finished; just that you don’t like what it stands for. I find your assertion that the movement’s ‘mindset is authoritarian’ quite bizarre. Rather, diversity is the watchword – people should be able to develop their own solutions and development paths appropriate to their local and national circumstances.

The real current authoritarianism lies with global political and business elites who insist on all countries adopting the same, ‘one-size-fits-all’ economic policies. These are mainly about securing ‘equal access’ to developing countries’ economies for transnational capital and exports, irrespective of the implications for local economies and peoples’ rights. The straitjacket of this dominant ideology is severely limiting the development options of poor countries. At the same time, trade and development ministers from governments like the UK have the audacity to claim they are trying to make trade work for the poor. Multilateral financial institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank enforce these policies, highlighting how far fundamental changes in ‘global governance’ need to go to champion people’s rights nationally.

The United States is the major power behind these policies, and I was surprised to see your reference to a ‘catch-all anti-Americanism’ as the ‘chief tool of this mindset’ – the standard device used by apologists for US power. You refer to the ‘large support the US has given to developing states’; but the biggest recipients of US ‘aid’ are its allies in the Middle East (mainly Israel and Egypt) whose ‘security assistance’ is double the amount of US aid to sub-Saharan Africa. A massive 70 per cent of US ‘aid’ is a subsidy to US corporations – tied to buying US goods and services. The trickle of US aid that might actually benefit the poor is overwhelmed by a whole range of US arms, economic and foreign policies that aim at making the world safe for US corporations.

I am not saying, as you suggest, that the global movements have a larger mandate than the voices of the hundreds of millions of people who vote in democratic elections. It is precisely the latter who are increasing the size of the former. As more and more people become disillusioned with the mainstream political process, they turn to alternatives. This means that many democratic governments have increasingly shakier mandates,
as in the UK.

My view is that the global protest movement will significantly grow in the coming years, involving wider sectors of society. The key is whether it can pose a significant enough challenge to the formal political processes to help transform them. There is no more urgent task than this since current political processes have become little more than rubber stamps for empowering transnational corporations over people. This reveals the extent to which our societies are, at root, more oligarchical than democratic.

Many people’s acquiescence in this has been secured largely by rising prosperity; but at the same time there is rising public concern about education and health services and job insecurity, even among the prosperous. This is not even to mention the huge growth in the underclass and the numbers of people who have little or no stake in the current system. We are in a situation where people will, I believe, increasingly demand that our societies are run by a fundamentally different set of values, reinforced by the sense that, globally, we are all in the same boat.

Mark Curtis

Dear Mark,Space is short, so we have to put our disagreements in telegraph form. I will do so finally.

The point is not that global corporations, international financial institutions and governments work ceaselessly and selflessly for the interests of all. It is that there is no large alternative available.

In particular, there is no alternative available to democratic government, apart from various kinds of authoritarian ones. Thus your assertion that democratic governments have increasingly shaky mandates and your desire to increase the strength of the forces which would further shake them is, to say the least, irresponsible. Representation has to be strengthened and deepened: but not attacked. The ‘mainstream political process’ is the representation of people. If you have another way of doing it than the present one – in all its many varieties – it is your responsibility to say so, and seek support for it.

At the same time, the ‘current system’ – market economics – also has no systemic alternative. It is capable of endless improvement and correction, including by NGOs like your own. But to appeal vaguely to another one without even beginning to describe what it might be is to deceive those who follow you. To say, as you do, that the current ‘political processes have become little more than rubber stamps for empowering transnational corporations over people’ is a statement so devoid of meaning or context that it is difficult even to argue with it. It would mean that no actions of governments, no initiatives by the international financial institutions, no transformation of authoritarian states into proto-democratic ones, no agreements or projects at the level of the European Union, no constitutional change within countries (as the devolution of parliamentary authority in our own), no bringing of peace where there was war, no encouragement to youth, or culture, or voluntary activity – in short, nothing which governments singly or in concert do is worth mentioning, before the overwhelming fact that they rubber stamp corporate decisions.

It does not begin to describe the real world.

John Lloyd

Dear John,
My starting point is the need for radical change. I don’t think you accept this and neither do mainstream political parties, who are really defenders of traditional privilege.The global movement is growing because it knows two big things along with ordinary people. First, mainstream political processes do not represent people in a truly democratic way and need to be re-democratised to prioritise people’s real concerns. I think you are wrong to say ‘the mainstream political process is the representation of people’. This should be the case but isn’t. It may be what elites believe but not what people know. This explains why people hold MPs in contempt and why people often do not vote.

Although the UK’s political system has democratic elements, it is more an oligarchy than a democracy, whether we consider the power of the ruling party to do more or less as it pleases, the power of the prime minister, or of ministers to withhold information virtually at will. Only with extreme difficulty can people really influence decision-making or even hold government properly to account.

Second, people increasingly know that big business is too powerful. This is visible not only in high streets and ‘fat cat’ salaries but in the WTO and elsewhere. We need legally-binding regulation of private businesses so they are compelled to abide by standards of behaviour outlined in UN declarations. We should press rich country governments to stop imposing the economic ‘liberalisation’ model on the rest of the world. Civil society groups, communities and in fact whole countries are in reality pursuing alternatives, often very successfully, that we can find if we choose to look.

Mark Curtis