Where Now for the Anti-Globalisation Movement?

By Robert Connolly Socialist View Spring 2001

THE BATTLE of Seattle was a turning point in many ways. 18 months ago many people had never even heard of the WTO, or the IMF or World Bank for that matter. Seattle changed all that. It sent a powerful message to billions around the world, a message of resistance and a challenge to the idea that capitalism is all powerful. We analyse the "anti-capitalist" movement and ask the question "where now?"

This year the WTO will meet in Qatar. This small state in the Middle East is one of the most repressive in the region. In Qatar the government does not allow political demonstrations, severely limits freedom of assembly and has never had a parliamentary election. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why the 4,000 delegates of the WTO are scurrying out of harm's way; They are desperate to avoid any repeat of the mass protests of Seattle 1999.

New period

The wave of anti-globalisation protests has to be seen in the context of other important developments over the last period. For example, mass movements led to the overthrow of the dictator Milosevic in Serbia. In the Philippines, mass movements shook the regime to its core. Joseph Estrada was toppled in a situation that was potentially very dangerous for the capitalist class in that country; The revolt in the Philippines were less dominated by workers than in the movement in Serbia but it was very significant because of the effect it will have on millions of workers in other pacts of South East Asia.

In Latin America the uprisings in Ecuador and Bolivia have shown the deep popular anger that has been building up over the last decade at the effects of neo-liberal policies. In Venezuela the populist policies of Hugo Chavez have acted as an annoyance to the ruling class and a spur to the developing radicalisation of sections of the population. Many of these movements resound with echoes of the era of Che Guevara. But if Che Guevara was alive today he would see a different South America than in his time. Firstly, the working class now makes up the majority across the continent. And secondly, the inequality and exploitation of the people of South America has never been more acute. Future explosive movements in South America are inevitable.

In Europe, we witnessed the fuel protests last September. They were impressive because of the sheer scale and the militancy of the protesters. Thousands across Europe blocked motorways, oil refineries etc. Already this year, in France, large trade union protests resulted in violent clashes between striking firefighters and the hated CRS riot police. Across Europe there is now growing anger among working class people on a variety of issues. The issue of the environment (global warming) and food safety are examples.

On top of all this, it's now clear for anyone with eyes to see that the down- turn in the US economy is real and recession is likely. At this stage economic growth is almost at zero and bourgeois commentators are no longer discussing if there will be a downturn or not. The discussion centres on how hard or how soft the "landing" will be. Since the Asian crisis of 1997, the American economy has been the only impressive growth region for capitalism internationally Now that phase is over and a new one is beginning. The working class of the advanced capitalist countries has experienced a "joyless boom" of increased exploitation. Already 120,000 manufacturing workers in the US were laid off in January alone. After the last ten years, however, even the softest of landings will feel like a slump for workers. The effects of a US recession in the rest of the world will be very serious generally and catastrophic in many areas.

"Anti-capitalism" in context

These processes mean that Marxists must reassess what is meant by "anti-capitalist consciousness". The demonstrations across the world against certain institutions like the IME the WTO, World Bank and G7 etc. are only one side of the story; These are a reflection of deeper shifts in the attitudes of sections of society to the inequalities of the world economic system. The types of protests and mass movements seen in South America over the last period would easily put the Battle of Seattle (the largest anti-globalisation protest) in the shade.

It would therefore be a serious mistake for Marxists to see the anti-globalisation movement outside of the context of the emerging struggles worldwide. Socialists must have a balanced approach. There are two mistakes that could be made in analysing the anti-globalisation protests. The first mistake is to exaggerate the significance of the movement and to talk up its "anti-capitalist" features. In reality, it would be more accurate to talk of an anti-globalisation and anti-corporate movement. Anti-capitalist means challenging the whole market system but anti-corporate and anti-globalisation consciousness is a reaction to features of contemporary capitalism. People are angry about the global institutions like the IMF and corporate institutions like the multi-nationals but many don't extend this critique to the entire capitalist system.


From our point of view, globalisation is a phase of capitalist development with its roots in the crisis which brought the long post Second World War boom to an end in the mid-1970s. It has particular features including extreme mobility of capital on a world scale; the dominant role of finance capital; and a partial erosion of the nation state. These features are reversible as will be seen in the next period when national governments try to reassert their control over their economies to protect against the ravages of a world economic crisis. But despite the particular features of globalisation, the essential nature of capitalism as a boom/bust system based on the ceaseless search for profit remains unchanged. The level of global inequality has certainly reached unprecedented heights in the last decade but it would be wrong to conclude that globalisation is an "aberration" and that through a bit of reform we can return to the mythical "good old days" before Thatcher and Reagan. If anything, capitalism is showing a return to the worst features of its long 20th century decline, a process temporarily interrupted by the boom of the 50s and 60s. The other danger in analysing the movement is to be dismissive and not to see the immensely positive development of young activists and protesters who are being radicalised and are being watched by and having an influence on millions of youth internationally. A developing critical attitude to capital- ism is the first step on the road to searching for an alternative to the system.

This movement has to be analysed in its development over the last period. It is a genuinely global phenomenon. Even though it has been mainly based in the advanced capitalist countries, it is not exclusively so. Since 1985, for example, there have been over 100 demonstrations in the Southern hemisphere alone against the IMF/World Bank. There has been a process of fraternisation between campaigns, movements, organisations and individuals around the world. Activities and campaigns against the effects of global capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries and in the ex-colonial world communicate with each other. The internet has played a role in the last couple of years in facilitating activists in planning campaigns and protests.

Of course, despite the global nature of the movement, the focus has generally been the US. The development of youth consciousness has been an important factor. Middle class and working class youth in the US are generally more critical of the status quo than in the recent past and a minority have developed an anti-corporate consciousness. It should also be pointed out though that others besides youth, including trade unionists, have become involved in the movement at some points, especially in Seattle.

The components of the movement

The dynamic of the anti-globalisation movement, so far, has been the bringing together of three distinctive types of activists and protesters. The first group is the relatively experienced activists who have been involved on a wide range of issues such as the environment, workers rights (anti sweat-shops), third world debt/development, civil liberties (anti-censorship etc.), human rights, etc. This group has moved away from the single issue consciousness of the 1990s and embraced the idea of a diverse yet united movement. Naomi Levin, a leading light in INPEG, an organisation at the centre of the build up to S26 in Prague last year, comment- ed on this: "They say we lack focus - you'd better believe it - we're everywhere - no more single issue politics." Most of these activists have come together out of a common medium -the internet - and a shared background and shared animosity to organisational structures like political parties.

The second group mainly consists of newly radicalised youth, particularly in the US. They are extremely open to different ideas about how to get rid of the inequalities they see around the world. Many see the sinister way in which big business attempts to bombard young people with its all pervasive presence. "We do not have Coca-Cola for blood and Microsoft for brains" as one young protester put it. Ralph Nader's 2.7 million votes in the US presidential election was partially made up of votes from young people who have made a step forward from apathy to genuine interest in radical politics.

The third group is leftwing political organisations and groups. Generally speaking, political organisations have been the followers rather than the leaders in the anti-globalisation protests. Some left wing groups have conceded to much of the attitudes of the activists and the radical/liberal baggage that goes with it. The Socialist Workers Party; for example, have consistently argued that the most important feature of the anti-globalisation movement is the coming together of so many different forces and have bent over backwards to present themselves as organically linked to the "anti-capitalist movement". Of course, much has been made by the media of the role of anarchist groups and the tactic of direct action. It can be difficult to generalise because different types of anarchists have been involved in different ways and because sections of the media have often labelled non-violent direct action groups such as Reclaim the Streets as "violent anarchists".

Porto Allegre Efforts are underway to co-opt parts of the movement into the liberal mainstream by advocates of a more "inclusive" and "compassionate" globalisation. The real and constantly shifting centre of gravity of the movement is an uneasy alliance between groups and individuals who preach this pale reformism on the one hand and on the other side more left wing activists. The World Social Forum in Porto Allegre in Brazil in January was revealing in this respect. It was organised as an alternative to the Word Economic Forum meeting that was taking place in Davos. The WEF is a yearly "think tank" type gathering which involves government representatives, corporate executives and various bourgeois "experts".

The forum in Brazil was attended by over 12,000 people from all over the world. The theme was "another world is possible". Highpoints included a 15,000 strong demonstration on the first day. During the forum the movement of landless peasants (MST) from Brazil organised a protest and destroyed a GM soya plantation owned by the Monsanto multi-national. Activists from the MST burned the crops and a US flag. During the forum there was a live television debate through a satellite hook-up between delegates from the WEF in Davos (including George Soros, the well-known financier who also likes to pose as a bit of a critic of globalisation) and the delegates in Porto Allegre. The WEF representatives were put on the defensive by the debate. The Financial Times, when referring to Soros, said: "Such uncomfortable experiences seem temporarily to have scrambled his ability to deliver pithy soundbites".

The Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) had an influence on the debates in Porto Allegre about the future direction of the anti-globalisation movement. There has been an explosion, a veritable "biblical plague" of NGOs over the last number of years. They now number in the millions. Their ideas of how to tinker with the system have a powerful influence which should not be underestimated. Many have taken up the IMF and the World Bank's offers of "dialogue".

Other large organisations in the movement are also agitating for particular reforms. The Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC) is a French based anti-globalisation organisation which has taken up the old reformist slogan of a "Tobin Tax". This would be a tax on the profits made by financial speculation that would supposedly finance a more equal distribution of wealth. This is a good example of how some of the ideas that emerge from debates inside the anti-globalisation movement have the distinct appearance of old wine in new bottles. But not all the debates in Porto Allegre were so utopian. In the forum's Youth Camp debates took place (in less plush surroundings) about how to fight global capitalism. The Youth Camp was politically chaotic but there was much less tolerance of the liberal bourgeois ideas that emerged in the main forum and most were eager for action rather than words.

Where to now?

Many activists and influential figures like Naomi Klein emphasise the new features of the anti-globalisation movement. Klein in her book NoLogo says, "What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralised, interlinked pathways of the internet - the internet came to life". She refers to the movement as having "no central leadership or command structure, it is multi-headed, impossible to decapitate". An example of what this means in practise occurred at the demo in Washington last April. A section of the protesters blocked off all the streets to the IMF meeting but were too late to stop the delegates going in. Two options remained, they could stay and prevent the IMF delegates from leaving or go back to the official march. Kevin Danaher from Global Exchange (one of the main organising groups) addressed the crowd saying, "Each intersection has autonomy. If the intersection wants to stay locked down, that's cool. If you don't, that's cool too." The outcome was inevitable confusion.

[A review of Klein's book is available here.] At this stage what predominates politically in the movement are different types of radical liberalism and anarchism to a lesser degree. Some think effectively that the system and its institutions like the IMF and the World Bank can be improved or changed while others say the system must be abolished. We obviously agree with the latter perspective. But ironically; the main organised trends in the movement, from the most moderate to the most "extreme", share a crucial common assumption, namely that the working class, especially in the "advanced" countries, is no longer a decisive force in the fight to change society These are ideas that Marxists have to combat.

However, the real significance of this movement is that it is a necessary stage in the development of anti-capitalist consciousness. But the process of changing consciousness will not inevitably develop of its own volition. The Committee for a Workers International to which the Socialist Party in Ireland and Socialist Youth are affiliated has intervened in the key protests from Seattle and Washington to Prague and Nice. We aim to win the best activists and youth to a revolutionary working class perspective.

Numerous future demonstrations and actions are being planned. On 21 April in Quebec City the Summit of the Americas will take place to discuss the FTAA, a new extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which has been a charter for big business. The IMF/World Bank will meet in Washington again on 30 April. A wide range of large protests will mark May Day. The other major protests will be at the EU summit Gothenburg in June; the G8 meeting in Genoa on 20 July; and a protest in Brussels later in the year.

A working class perspective

The anti-globalisation movement can continue on its own steam for some time to come, but not forever. The real question is how the more generalised class struggles in the next period will be influenced by the anti-globalisation movement and how the class struggles will be a factor in influencing the direction of the movement.

The Battle of Seattle had significant working class representation but many other protests didn't. Anti-capitalist consciousness is not an abstract issue. The attitudes that will develop among millions of workers and youth under the hammer blows of the bigger struggles that are yet to come will show its real meaning. This is particularly the case with youth.

It is task of Marxists, at this stage in the development of anti-corporate and anti-globalisation sentiments, to intervene to win the best fighters to a working class anti-capitalist perspective. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, the weaknesses of the dominant radical liberal ideas in the movement will be fully exposed and it will be possible to win far larger numbers to our banner. It is worth recalling what happened to the international movement of radicalised youth in the 1960s. In its early stages there were many different and often very confused ideas that competed under the broad heading of the "new left". As with many of the groups active today; there was a widespread view that the working class, especially in the West, was not the key force in the fight to change society.

Then came the events in France in 1968 when the workers shut the country down for a month and socialist revolution was on the agenda. This was followed a year later by equally convulsive events in Italy: For the best sections of the youth movement these developments answered many questions about how capitalism could be defeated in practice.

In the next period, the working class will again stamp its authority on events. The joyless boom is over and the capitalists won't waste much time in making a slump even more joyless. They have little choice - that's the way the market system works. Millions of workers and youth will come to see that the only alternative is socialism.

For other articles from Socialist Voice visit the Paper files
or for the articles on the anti-globalisation struggle the sitemap.

To see more about what the Socialist Party stands for visit our main site