Anti-capitalism: alive and well

Ten years ago, the global justice movement burst from the streets of Seattle onto the world's television screens. John Hilary examines the victories and challenges of the last decade

December 1, 2009
8 min read


John HilaryJohn Hilary is executive director of War on Want.

On 30 November 1999, around 100,000 trade unionists, environmentalists and anti-capitalist activists marched in protest against the first World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference in the US. As police attacked protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, US president Bill Clinton threatened to abandon the WTO summit altogether. The mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard.

The WTO had come into being just four years earlier, as the final act of the Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations. Its ambitions were clear from the outset. Former WTO director-general Renato Ruggiero spoke of the organisation’s mission as ‘writing the constitution of a single global economy’. Protesters knew that the Seattle demonstrations were more than just a coming together of individual struggles for environmental justice or workers’ rights. Seattle was an act of mass resistance to corporate globalisation itself.

Yet Seattle was more than just a spectacle of resistance. It was also a famous victory. The demonstrations succeeded in derailing the launch of a new round of trade negotiations designed to force open world markets for the benefit of transnational capital. Under pressure from demonstrators outside, and from furious African and Caribbean delegates within, the WTO talks collapsed in failure. The global justice movement had come of age.

Victories

Ten years on from Seattle, the movement can boast further victories. The WTO was eventually able to launch its new Doha Round of trade talks in 2001, amidst explicit threats to developing countries following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Yet those talks collapsed again just two years later at the WTO’s Cancún ministerial conference, as a result of intensive collaboration between global justice activists of North and South.

Better still, the WTO was forced to completely abandon its planned expansion into new issue areas such as foreign investment and government procurement, which would have subordinated even more sectors of our economies to the organisation’s global constitution.

The WTO has lurched from crisis to crisis ever since, with further collapses leading to long-term stagnation. Current attempts to revive the trade talks smack of desperation, while the alternative of abandoning them altogether would be a grave admission of failure. Yet many countries have already voted with their feet by turning to bilateral or regional trade negotiations in place of the multilateral WTO. The EU’s aggressive Global Europe strategy, launched in 2006, seeks to force through on a bilateral basis many of the same measures that were already rejected by developing countries in the multilateral talks.

The US has adopted a similar strategy, and its regional free trade initiatives have met with strong resistance. Coordinated opposition put an end to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which topped the Bush administration’s agenda at the start of the decade but was dead in the water by 2005.In its place, new economic initiatives in Latin America are now openly challenging the supremacy of the neoliberal Washington consensus. These include the Banco del Sur as a genuine development bank for the region, and the Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA) to replace the free trade agenda promoted by the US.

Global and diverse

So where is the global justice movement, now that capitalism’s latest crisis is upon us? While struggles still continue in all corners of the globe, the movement seems to have been marginalised in the debate over the future of the world economy. Does this mean it has served its purpose? Is the global justice movement dead?

The movement has certainly not disappeared. It has, however, lost the high profile it enjoyed ten years ago as the mainstream media has turned its attention to the ‘war on terror’ as its primary focus in international affairs. Demonstrations against the World Bank and IMF in Prague (2000) and against the G8 in Genoa (2001) were widely covered, but since 9/11 anti-globalisation protests have become yesterday’s news. Ongoing resistance in Latin America, Africa and Asia has received even less attention: how much coverage was given to this September’s demonstrations in New Delhi, when 50,000 farmers were arrested en masse as Indian social movements mobilised against the WTO?

Partly, too, the global justice movement has developed more targeted, less spectacular campaigns against the neoliberal agenda. Trade union federations from 11 major developing countries have joined forces to fight off WTO proposals on industrial trade that would wipe out their manufacturing sectors with massive loss of jobs. The international peasant movement La Via Campesina has sustained an intense campaign to remove agriculture from the WTO altogether, in view of the organisation’s devastating impact on farmers across the world. These and many other initiatives at the national level are further coordinated through the Our World is Not for Sale network, and have continued to frustrate the WTO’s ambitions long after the more spectacular protests have ended.

Far from disappearing, the global justice movement has broadened into a truly diverse movement. Trade unionists from North and South have joined with environmentalists, farmers’ groups, fishing communities, indigenous peoples, youth and other social movements against the common threat of corporate globalisation.

The thousands who took over the streets of Hong Kong in protest against the WTO’s 2005 conference were led by migrant workers and women’s rights groups from across Asia, protesting against the commodification of their labour under world trade rules. Such mobilisations are a tribute to the ceaseless organising and political education undertaken in favelas, villages, colleges and workplaces the world over. These actions form the basis of the global justice movement, and they remain as strong as ever.

This broadening and deepening of the movement has been facilitated by the development of social forums over the past decade. Since 2001, the World Social Forum and its regional offshoots have provided crucial spaces for many hundreds of thousands of activists to build networks for coordinated resistance. At the regional level, too, spaces such as the European Social Forum have facilitated the construction of networks linking up movements across countries and across themes. This painstaking activity takes place away from the gaze of the mainstream media, but is crucial for the movement’s long-term sustainability and growth.

Political power

Of course it would be wrong to suggest that we can rest on our laurels, as the global justice movement clearly faces new challenges today. While individual struggles have seen huge victories, the movement has failed to set the terms of the debate on the sort of new economic order we wish to come out of the current crisis. Despite the evident bankruptcy of global capitalism, world leaders have done their best to ignore calls for more radical change. Turning our individual struggles into political power at the global level remains elusive.

While the WTO has been unable to conclude the Doha Round of international trade negotiations, we have not been able to kill them off altogether. G20 leaders have now called for a conclusion to the talks in 2010, despite the acknowledged damage that this will cause poorer countries. This was precisely the result of the previous Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, which led to huge losses for the world’s least developed countries, and especially those of sub-Saharan Africa. It is also why the Doha Round was originally billed as a ‘development round’, with the supposed aim of undoing some of the harm caused by earlier agreements.

A genuine development round of trade talks would have removed the threats to public services and industrial policy that came in as a result of the Uruguay Round. It would also have ended the vast subsidies handed out to European and US agribusiness, which lead to the dumping of cheap produce on overseas markets and the destruction of millions of livelihoods in farming communities around the world. Yet the WTO quickly dismissed any hopes that it might deliver such a positive agenda. Instead, the organisation reverted to type with a new wave of trade liberalisation designed to force open agricultural, industrial and services markets for the benefit of multinational corporations alone.

The past ten years have confirmed that the WTO will never deliver a positive agenda for change. Suggestions that it can be reformed to meet the needs of a new world order fail to appreciate the deep-seated ideology and vested interests that drive the organisation. The Doha Round was its opportunity to prove that it could act in the interests of development and social justice, and it has failed dismally. Ultimately, as the Seattle protestors recognised, there can be no progressive future with the WTO.

This radical vision of a world without the WTO is the agenda that must inspire today’s global justice movement. We have spent enough time on individual campaigns around the specific parts of the globalisation agenda, neglecting the broader political analysis and imperative for change. Seattle offered a glimpse of the power that the movement can wield if it joins its disparate parts in a broad front against the common enemy. Ten years on, the movement is stronger and better connected than ever. It is time to take it to the next level.

John Hilary is executive director of War on Want


John HilaryJohn Hilary is executive director of War on Want.


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