LOYAL OPPOSITION: Movement with No Name

Are the global capitalists nervous? After the protests in Washington against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- which included the arrests of 1,300 people, mostly of student-age and many pierced -- the opinion elite of the corporate world heaved a sigh and told comrades to get accustomed to such ruckus. "The protesters," Business Week reported, "have tapped into growing fears that U.S. policies benefit big corporations instead of average citizens -- of America or any other country." The Wall Street Journal declared that "three images ... are becoming a staple of international economic meetings: protesters, gas masks and pepper spray." Here was recognition that the free traders and powerbrokers who run the world's economy -- whether they be within the suites of transnational corporations, the meeting rooms of the World Trade Organization or the offices of multilateral lending and currency institutions -- do not wield as free a hand as once they did.

Something resembling a movement against the excesses of globalization has arisen. It is not quite an organized and thoroughly coherent force working toward agreed-upon, specific and overarching aims. At this stage, it is more of a surge, one with assorted components -- some more strategic or focused than others -- that do not all share the same targets, means and ends. It stretches beyond the thousands of grunge-protesters who, on the streets of Washington, championed a variety-pack of issues: animal rights, Free Tibet, environmental justice, anarchy and solidarity with low-wage workers of the Third World. In Seattle last year, labor unions, environmentalists and fair trade activists joined together to decry the World Trade Organization and its trade-over-all bias and anti-democratic operations. At the same time, the Direct Action Network waged civil disobedience to block the WTO meeting. (America-First, right-wing nationalists, including Pat Buchanan, also showed to blast the body for impinging on American sovereignty.) The Jubilee 2000 campaign, supported by church groups, has made progress in calling for the cancellation of debt owed by impoverished developing nations, many of which are forced to spend more on interest payments than on education and health care. Students on dozens of campuses have boycotted clothing stitched together in foreign sweatshops. (Days ago, Nike's billionaire chairman Phil Knight cancelled a $30 million gift to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, because the school entered a student-backed overseas factory monitoring group instead of a monitoring outfit supported by Nike and the apparel industry.) When Global Exchange zeroed in on Starbucks for selling coffee obtained from middlemen who pay the Third World growers little -- call it, sweatshop coffee -- the caffeine-delivery chain agreed to peddle fair-trade coffee beans, which are marketed by cooperatives. The java you buy at Starbucks will still be brewed with sweatshop beans. But Starbucks' quick move to counter this campaign was more proof activists demanding global justice can inconvenience corporations.

The Clinton Administration's bill to grant China permanent normal trading status is the current front for many anti-globalists. The Seattle coalition -- the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, various human rights outfits -- is wrestling the corporate lobby, not in the streets, but in the hallways of Congress. (Once again these advocates have been joined by conservatives, who are outraged by religious persecution, communist tyranny and forced abortion in China and Beijing's saber-rattling against Taiwan.) The World Bank protest was the outside game, the battle over the China legislation is the inside game. The K Street corporate gang may have been irritated by the World Bank demonstration. After all, the action disrupted traffic in Washington for days. But this band is not directly threatened by altie students waving signs proclaiming, "Less Bank, More World." (Who in middle America knows what that means?) China is what the business lobby wants. Corporate America dreams of access to a large and cheap labor force devoid of rights and to a burgeoning consumer class. Imagine a billion Chinese with cell phones.

The clash over the Chinese trade bill is also crucial because the globalist squad hasn't scored a victory in years. They won the tussles in Congress over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the GATT trade accord in 1994. Then they faltered. They failed to expand NAFTA to Chile and beyond, they could not win legislation to grant the president "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements, and they were embarrassed in Seattle. "These guy need a win really badly," says Mike Dolan, field director of the Citizens Trade Campaign and a key organizer of the so-called Battle in Seattle and the effort against the China bill.

The House vote on China, now scheduled for the end of May, is expected to be close. About one third of the Republican members are considered nays. The action is mostly within the Democratic caucus. And the legislation is presenting a good case study of how the Democratic Party handles the political pressures provoked by globalization. Labor unions -- Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's most ardent supporters -- and environmentalists (another source of Democratic votes) are urging Democrats to reject Clinton's bill. Business groups and corporate contributors to the party are pushing from the other side.

In a recent press conference, Clinton proclaimed the China measure "is a 100-to-nothing deal for America when it comes to the economic consequences." That was an insult to those Democrats who assert that trade cannot be kept separate from labor rights, human rights, and environmental standards. (Even Gore said that had it been up to him, he would have incorporated labor and environmental standards into the trade agreement with China -- but, in typical trying-to-have-it-both-ways fashion, he says he still endorses this legislation.) Representative Richard Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, who opposes the bill, argues this debate concerns more than profit statements: "I believe that sustainable development and worker rights must be at the core of our trade policy." Life is not just about money, he remarked: "Modern-day heroes of democracy, people like Wei Jingsheng of China, Lech Walesa of Poland, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma remind us that aspirations of freedom and liberty are more noble and lasting than commerce." There's not much the straightlaced Gephardt has in common with the Lesbian Avengers, who at the World Bank protest displayed anti-globalization slogans on their bare breasts. But, in a way, each are declaring that transnational corporate imperatives do not rule.

After the China face-off, the anti-globalization forces have other spots where they might pitch camp. Within direct action circles, there's talk about events this summer in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the sites of, respectively, the Republican and Democratic conventions. But there's no consensus on what the themes will be. Campaign finance reform? The war on drugs? The prison-industrial complex? Police brutality? The living wage? Not all reside within a globalization framework. Several less confrontational public interest groups are considering mounting "shadow conventions" that would highlight these or other matters of contention, possibly including fair trade.

Canadian activists are hoping to disrupt the 16th World Petroleum Congress in Calgary in June. The World Bank and IMF will meet in Prague in September, and European activists have called for veterans of Seattle and the World Bank protests to help concoct an action there. "I've heard that the Czech army is prepared to put 30,000 troops around the World Bank and the IMF meetings," says Dolan. Global justice advocates in Australia zapped out e-mails pleading for assistance in shutting down a World Economic Forum gathering there. Dolan's Citizens Trade Campaign and other public interest groups will continue to dog the WTO. (At a recent Washington gathering of corporate free-traders, the participants mulled over suggestions for keeping future WTO meetings out of the United States -- far from protesters.) Dolan's group is also crafting a network of African-American clergy called Ministers Against Global Injustice. "Up to now, we in the anti-globalization field have been melanin-challenged," he says.

Does all this fit together? Somehow, perhaps. But not as a movement with an office you can contact. It's doubtful organized labor -- which this month deployed its foot soldiers to press Congress on the China bill, rather than bolster the anti-World Bank actions -- will sign on to any kick-ass protest at the Democratic convention that could discomfit Gore, whom the AFL-CIO is backing. The civil disobedience crowd itself isn't always on the same page. The Direct Action Network activists at Seattle were a different group -- more issue-savvy and experienced -- than the students who descended on Washington. But both sets of street protesters emerge largely from a culture of resistance, in which the tactics of confrontation overwhelm the messages they serve. They do not comprise a traditional political movement, which usually has a well-defined, singular goal (end the war, freeze nuclear weapons, abolish segregation). "I don't think that anti-globalization is the basis of a movement," says Hilary McQuie, a member of DAN. "Whatever this thing is, it must be grounded in particular campaigns. Sometimes we all come together and sometimes we don't. But with these protests, we expect to bring attention to different issues and give a boost to those people planning long-term strategies."

Still, the anti-globalization impulse -- in its different manifestations -- has produced results. The Clinton Administration is pressing for a version of debt cancellation. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers told World Bank and IMF officials they had to make their institutions more democratic and accountable to the public, and these agencies issued statements promising such. (That's no revolution, but it's noteworthy when obscure global financial institutions feel compelled to toss a bone to rag-tag opponents.) Business lobbyists these days do not automatically get their way with trade bills, and they are fighting for dear life on the China legislation. Corporatists and free-traders are sweating product boycotts, demonstrations and further shifts in public opinion.

All that is not bad for a movement that's not a movement.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close