The Anti-globalization Movement Changes Its Tune

The anti-globalization movement isn't really the anti-globalization movement any more. Some of its leading activists are beginning to describe their cause in terms that don't imply dismantling the whole network of linkages that now encircle the world in order to somehow return society to a local or regional scale. And some academics are now attempting to stake out a position on the left that promotes a different model of globalization.

It wasn't long after the anti-globalist movement surfaced that its critics began pointing out that it wasn't exactly un-globalist itself. A movement that crosses all national boundaries, that relies so heavily on electronic communications, that so effectively summons people to come from all over the world to march in the streets of whatever city might be hosting an economic conference was clearly a global one, however vigorously its rhetoric might condemn the evils of globalization.

So now, in recognition of this, some of the rhetoric is beginning to shift in the direction of standing against a certain kind of globalization. You find activists calling themselves "the true internationalists," and organizations talking about the "anti-corporate globalization movement," or the "global social justice movement."

For example, the statement of principles of the World Social Forum -- the counter-conference held in Brazil at the same time as the World Economic Forum in New York -- declared its commitment to "globalization in solidarity," and to "building a planetary society centered on the human person." One of its key paragraphs stated: "The World Social Forum is a world process. All the meetings that are held as part of this process have an international dimension." In fact one of the major criticisms of the conference was that it wasn't international enough, appeared to have an overrepresentation of left-wing Brazilians and only a window-dressing of participants from the rest of the world.

On the academic front, economists such as Dani Rodrick of Harvard -- author of "Has Globalization Gone Too Far? -- are now proposing policy alternatives that call for even more globalization -- but with a different emphasis. Speaking at the World Economic Forum meeting in New York, Rodrick proposed that the next free trade agreement ought to liberalize the rules so that workers from poor countries would be allowed to work for a limited time in rich countries, send home part of their pay and eventually return to apply their new-found skills in service of local economic development. Speaking on the same panel, Charles Sabel of Columbia University said: "I don't think there is any dispute anymore that economies need the discipline of connection to world markets. But it doesn't follow that nations have to sign up for every one of the free traders' rules."

These steps away from simplistic anti-globalism are still relatively small ones, drowned out by theatrical protests, bombastic rhetoric and media reports that thrive on conflict and confrontation. But they are important steps nonetheless, significant attempts to bring a new voice into the global dialogue. A movement that aspires to "build a planetary society" is going to have to move beyond the protest stance and become more practical and proactive than it has been so far. Until it does, it will be vulnerable to critiques such as the recent Foreign Affairs article by economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who sees a deep dissonance between "empathy for the misery of a distant elsewhere, and an inadequate intellectual grasp of what can be done to ameliorate that distress."

With some imaginative progress along those two fronts -- becoming much more explicitly globalist and at the same time more vigorously proactive -- the movement might evolve into a real alternative philosophy of how to achieve good governance and sustainable development in a fast-changing global civilization. Unless it does, the best we have as alternatives to the present neo-liberal thrust of globalization are protectionism and socialism -- which didn't do a whole lot to solve the problems of previous centuries, and are not likely to prove the salvation of this one.

Walt Truett Anderson (waltt@well.com) is a political scientist who writes widely on technology and global governance. He is the author of "All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization" (Westview Press, 2001).

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