The Life – or Death – of the Anti-Globalization Movement

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 2004)

The anti-globalization movement that erupted onto the scene in Seattle 1999 frightened elites and inspired activists around the world to fight the system in a utopian, anti-authoritarian way. However, this movement has occupied a much less significant place on the public stage since the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001. Is it over?

We asked Marina Sitrin (IAS grant recipient) and Chuck Morse (IAS board member) for their thoughts on this question.

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Chuck Morse’s Response: Revolutionary movements come and go. The classical anarchist movement, the black liberation movement, the ecology movement, and others pushed against the boundaries of the social order and then—when faced with challenges they could not confront—collapsed into history.

The anti-globalization movement has also come and gone. It leapt to world attention during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization and died with the February 2002 mobilizations against the World Economic Forum in New York City. Although struggles against capitalist globalization are ongoing, this particular movement is in need of an obituary.

Signs of its demise are everywhere. The movement is no longer capable of stirring fear among the ruling class or even generating significant media attention (despite the fact that the protests continue). Activist efforts to shape the movement have also diminished dramatically: books and documentaries on the movement now appear much less frequently than before, strategy summits are far less common, strategic innovations (like Indymedia) have ceased to emerge, and once vibrant internal debates have largely dried up.

These things indicate more than a temporary lull in activity: the anti-globalization movement is dead.

It died because it faltered when faced with a key opportunity to deepen its attack on the capitalist system. It bungled a historical moment and, as a result, lost its momentum as well as its significance for the public at large. Although activists may take up some of the movement’s motifs in the future, these activists as well as the political context will be entirely different.

The anti-globalization movement was unique in three ways. First, its opposition to global capital was premised on a deeply moral critique of the reduction of people and nature to salable objects, and in this sense, it challenged the very premises of the market economy. Second, its emphasis on participatory direct action ensured that the movement was truly democratic and not divided between a cadre of professional organizers and a herd of passive followers. Finally, its focus on tactics but not politics allowed people with diverse and often contradictory convictions to work together and find some common ground.

The movement threw itself headlong into a conflict with the architects of the global economy, and the confrontation that ensued was enormously educational. The summit protests illustrated the deep contrast between the cruel, profit-driven world of the global capitalists and “another world” premised on the joyous affirmation of life. Everything—even the style with which each side presented its case—seemed to emphasize the divide. The violence that erupted at protest after protest was also very instructive: the police made our point about the barbarism of capital by savagely repressing dissidents, and the sight of city streets in flames punctuated the irreconcilable conflict between the two visions of the world in play.

The anti-globalization movement thus polarized the debate about the future of the world system and, by virtue of its success, confronted a question on which its fate would hang: if global capitalism must be abandoned, what is the alternative? What groups and institutions should structure economic activity? Nation-states? Associations of nation-states? Communities? Social movements?

The world waited for an answer, and unfortunately one was never produced. Although various proposals and schemes floated around activist circles, a reconstructive vision was neither seriously debated nor advanced. There were vigorous discussions of tactical issues (like the role of violence at protests) and moral issues (like the impact of privilege on activists), but the fundamental political questions remained unaddressed.

The movement not only failed to confront these questions but also developed a political culture that undermined attempts to do so. The constant affirmation of diversity, plurality, and openness—which are undoubtedly virtues, but vacuous outside a political context—discouraged people from seriously reflecting on the movement’s goals. Indeed, during its terminal stages, the movement seemed flooded with professors, grad students, and journalists who gravely warned us not to present an affirmative, coherent alternative.

Admittedly, the deferral of political questions had advantages. It allowed people to come together whose aims seemed deeply conflicted—lobbyists and anarchists, turtles and teamsters, Communists and Christians, etc.—and unexpectedly rich dialogues often resulted. Many discovered that they had more in common with one another than they previously supposed, and this helped the old boundaries of the Left relax a bit.
But political questions cannot be avoided for long, especially by a movement that has captured the world’s attention. Indeed, people became increasingly impatient with the movement’s inability to define what it was for, as evidenced by the countless journalists who wrote countless articles trying to penetrate the movement’s aims. But the movement did not procure an answer, and more often than not, rejected the very legitimacy of the question.

And then September 11th blew the movement off the stage. Although it reentered the debate in February 2002 in New York—valiantly asserting that opposition to globalization will not be silenced by terror—the movement lacked an anchor and thus could not regain its momentum amid the storms of war that began to sweep the world at the time.

It is tempting to argue that the anti-globalization movement lives on in the Zapatistas, the Argentine uprising of 2001, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, and other ongoing struggles in the “global south.” Although these movements and the one that emerged in Seattle should be understood as parts of a broader, worldwide opposition to global capital, they are not continuous. The Mexican, Brazilian, and Argentine movements do not define themselves as participants in the anti-globalization movement and, more substantively, they do not focus primarily on the institutions of the world economy but rather on domestic political authorities and their national polices. North American activists need to be attentive to these differences.

In a sense the movement—or at least the form in which we knew it—was destined to die. This is not because utopian aspirations are doomed to failure (they are not) or because struggles against capitalist globalization have ended (of course they haven’t). It is because revolutionary social movements aim to transform the circumstances from which they emerge and thus must always abandon old forms of struggle in order to adapt to new conditions (conditions that they have, in part, created). In a way, the most successful revolutionary movement will be one that renders the need for revolutionary struggle obsolete altogether.

What is more alarming than the death of the movement is the failure to reflect deeply on our inability to advance a coherent alternative when presented with the opportunity to do so. The anti-globalization movement did push beyond the boundaries of the present and helped us imagine “another world,” but its emancipatory aims were unrealized. We must embrace the chasm between our aspirations and our circumstances—between the “is” and the “ought”—and use it as an environment in which to forge an even more vigorous challenge to the world we have inherited.

From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory (spring, 2004)