Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement

This first appeared in the November 2001 issue of The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books (Vol. 1, No. 1) .

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Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement
Naming the Enemy: Anti-Corporate Movements Confront Globalization
by Amory Starr Zed Books, 2001

Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity
by Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith South End Press, 2000

~ Review by Chuck Morse

Finally, after years of disintegration and defeat on the Left, a new movement has erupted upon the political landscape. It is not organized around a single issue, identity based, or somehow “implicitly” radical. On the contrary, this movement directly attacks global capital’s economic and political infrastructure with a radically democratic politics and a strategy of confrontation. It is bold, anti-authoritarian, and truly global.

And also quite effective. This movement has already introduced a radical critique into the debate on the global economy and demonstrated the capacity to physically shut down meetings of trade ministers. It seems possible that this movement will continue to grow, deepen its radicalism, and revolutionize the world according to the radically democratic principles it embraces.

The emergence of the anti-globalization movement has produced a feeling of near euphoria among anarchists. Not only are our commitments to direct action and decentralization shared broadly in the movement as a whole, but we are also enjoying a political legitimacy that has eluded us for decades. We can now articulate our anti-statist, Utopian message to activists around the world and we are no longer dismissed as terrorists or cranks. In many respects it seems like we should just mobilize, mobilize, and mobilize.

Unfortunately this would be a grave mistake. The movement’s anti-authoritarian, revolutionary character is currently under attack by a informal network of reformists, who want nothing more than to see this movement accommodate itself to the basic structures of the present world. They are not waging a direct assault upon revolutionaries in the movement: they recognize that this would alienate them from the movement’s base. Instead, they are fighting us indirectly, in the realm of ideas. In particular, they hope to define the movement in a way that renders its most expansive, Utopian potentials literally unthinkable.

As important as it is to mobilize, anarchists will have to respond to this challenge on the theoretical terrain: we cannot afford to lose the battle of ideas. Above all, we must link the anti-globalization movement to a broader revolutionary project in a way that is coherent, concrete, and irrefutable. However, as a defensive measure, we should expose the reformist’s attempt to sever this link and reveal their designs to the movement as a whole. The reformers will respond by declaring their good faith or complaining about our divisiveness, but we should not be swayed by such pre-political subterfuge: on the contrary, we should be merciless with those who would hinder the realization of the anti-globalization movement’s most radical possibilities. Popular revolutionary movements have been betrayed countless times before: we should not let this happen again.

Naming the Enemy and Globalization from Below are exemplary documents of the reformist wing of the anti-globalization movement. They are more reflective and sophisticated than the majority of books on the movement and focus on the deeper questions upon which its identity hangs. These two works celebrate the movement’s radicalism emphatically, but in terms that make the revolutionary transformation of the social order inconceivable.

In Globalization from Below, Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith (BCS) argue that the economic, political, and cultural interconnectedness signified by globalization is irreversible and possibly a good thing: this interconnection, they assert, could potentially serve the interests of people and the earth, not just the elites. Although the rich and powerful have shaped globalization in their interest thus far (BCS call this “globalization from above”), there is a counter-movement that seeks to reshape our interconnected world in the interests of people and the planet (which BCS call “globalization from below”). They believe that the movement for “globalization from below” is disparate but growing, and their book is meant to provide a framework for uniting it into a common, grassroots struggle. They want to build a world structured by “human values other than greed and

domination,” one “less dominated by the culture and values of global capital, even if it is still constrained by them,” and believe their book provides a realistic strategy for doing so.(1) They believe that the movement for “globalization from below” can transform the world by leading people to withdraw their consent from dominant social relationships, which will prevent the reproduction of the social order, and thus create a situation in which the movement can impose different, more just norms upon society as a whole. BCS try to concretize these norms with a detailed program for reducing poverty, limiting environmental destruction, and enhancing democratic control over the economy. They believe their program embodies values “already shared by many in this movement and that [it] is implicit in much of what the movement actually does.”(2) Their attractive and short book (122 pages) is clearly conceived, written without jargon, and can be read for its programmatic suggestions as well as deeper speculations into the nature of social movements.

Amory Starr’s Naming the Enemy is a comparative analysis of the ways activists in the anti-globalization movement criticize global capital and the types of alternatives they envision. She offers a panoramic view of the movement structured around three responses to global capital: restraining it, democratizing it, or building local alternatives to it. In her first category, which she calls “contestation and reform,” she examines movements that want to restrain global capital through state regulation. Here she treats movements against structural adjustment, peace and human rights groups, movements for land reform, the explicitly anti-corporate movement, and cyber-punk. Her second category is “globalization from below,” or movements that want to democratize globalization by making governments and corporations accountable to
people instead of elites. Here she looks at the environmental and labor movements, socialist movements, anti-free trade movements, and the Zapatistas. Her final category is “delinking,” in which she treats movements that want to separate from global capital and build locally based alternatives to it, such as the anarchist movement, movements for sustainable development, the small businesses movement, sovereignty movements, and religious nationalist movements. Naming the Enemy is international in scope, although based on English language sources exclusively, and tries to engage an academic and activist audience. While the book is sometimes suffocated by absurdly academic jargon,(3) she provides a sweeping, ground-level view of the movement through studies of manifestos, campaigns, and virtually any resource in which anti-globalization activists articulate how they “understand their enemy and envision rebuilding the world.”(4)

Both BCS and Starr embrace the anti-globalization movement and clearly hope their books will contribute to its growth and self-understanding. BCS advance a program and framework for uniting the movement into a broad struggle against “globalization from above” whereas Starr offers a comprehensive analysis of the goals (and opponents) identified by movement activists. It is tempting to regard these works as statements from sympathetic participants in a diverse, growing movement, and I suspect that Starr and BCS hope we will.

But those of us who believe that “another world is possible” need to approach these books with very specific concerns. We should ask: do they link the anti-globalization movement to a broader revolutionary project or do they at least provide insights that could help us establish such a link?

Naturally the answer to this question depends on the meaning of the word “revolution,” which has been subject to considerable and ongoing debate. The Left has normally used the term to designate not only a sweeping change in political, economic, and cultural relationships, but also the moment when one historical epoch gives birth to a totally new landscape of historical experience through a process of contradiction, collapse, and renewal. It is in this sense that the Left has always had a Utopian dimension.

The idea of revolution is barely a concern for Starr or BCS and, to the extent that it is, they seem to restrict it to the transformation of political institutions (instead of society as a whole). BCS mention the idea of revolution in passing and, even then, only to state that it depends on “solving problems by means of state power.”(5) Starr does not discuss the idea at all, although she suggests a theory of revolution in a treatment of reformist movements. For her, reform means “mobilizing existing formal democratic channels of protest, seeking national legislation, mounting judicial challenges, mobilizing international agencies, boycotting and protesting.”6 Thus, presumably, revolutionary movements are not oriented toward the existing political structures but rather fight for new ones. This suggests that Starr, like BCS, thinks of revolution only in terms of the transformation of political institutions (and her distinction between movements that engage existing political institutions and those that fight for new ones is not substantive: movements are not revolutionary merely because they fight for something new).

But do they provide insights that could help us link the anti- globalization movement to a larger revolutionary project?

Many anarcho-syndicalists and communists link the anti-globalization movement to revolution by affirming the analysis of capitalism advanced by late 19th and early 20th century socialists. According to this view, capitalism’s central and fatal contradiction is the class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Specifically, capitalism creates an industrial proletariat that must, in turn, fight for its interests as a class. Ultimately the proletariat becomes so numerous and impoverished that it will not only fight for immediate benefits but also against the social order that has produced it as a class: the class struggle then unfolds into revolution and capitalism as a whole is destroyed. Although communists and anarcho-syndicalists recognize that the anti- globalization movement is not a revolutionary working class movement, they believe it will become one when the movement grasps the real nature of economic inequality: in this sense the movement is a  first, but partial step toward a broader revolutionary struggle. Ultimately groups that explicitly embraced a revolutionary socialist perspective, such as the Russian Bolsheviks or the Spanish anarchists, will have to provide the model for the movement as a whole. (This is why communists and anarcho-syndicalists are so focused on political lessons derived from pre-WWII events such as the Russian Revolution and Spanish Civil War.)

We will not find support for this idea in Naming the Enemy or Globalization from Below. Neither believe that capitalism is subject to fatal contradictions (class, or otherwise) nor that it should be transcended as a social form. In fact, BCS seek not only to retain but also to improve the capitalist mode of production: for example, they argue that their economic program will “expand employment and markets and generate a virtuous cycle of economic growth.”(7) Starr eliminates the question altogether by defining the anti-globalization movement as anti-corporate instead of anti-capitalist.(8) Accordingly, the category of class is not important for BCS or Starr’s analysis of the anti-globalization movement and neither attempt to relate the interests of the working class to the fate of the movement as a whole (Starr explicitly argues that labor struggles based on class interest do not challenge the corporate form(9)). For them, anarcho-syndicalists and communists are mistaken to draw a link between the anti-globalization movement and the older revolutionary socialist movements.

But clearly there are other ways to conceive of revolution than as a consequence of class contradictions: for example, it is possible to imagine revolution in a democratic populist sense, in which people draw upon shared values (as opposed to class interests) to overthrow elites. This vision of revolution is not premised upon the exacerbation of class conflict, but rather the emergence of a democratic sentiment that rejects exclusive, non-participatory social institutions. BCS and Starr offer some support for understanding the anti-globalization movement in these terms. BCS explicitly define the movement as a people’s movement designed to “restrain global capital”(10) and Starr implies the same thing by focusing on the ideals, not class positions, of activists within the movement. However, Starr and BCS fail to articulate this democratic perspective in a way that could make a
revolutionary transformation of the social order comprehensible.

BCS want to place global capitalism under the control of democratic political institutions at the local, national, and international levels (they call this a “multi-level alternative”). However, their program for democratizing the economy is not complemented by a program for democratizing political power (in fact, campaign finance reform is the only explicitly political demand they advance). This is because they do not advocate (or even mention) direct democracy: on the contrary, they believe in representative democracy and are thus largely content with the political structures it presupposes. For example, they are oblivious to the inherently anti-democratic nature of the nation-state and institutions based upon it (such as the UN), not to mention the political apparatuses they imply, such as politicians, political parties, and advocacy groups. So, despite their democratic rhetoric and enthusiasm for extra-parliamentary social movements, their vision preserves the political structure of the world as it presently exists.

BCS’s theoretical premises also make it impossible to conceive of a significant historical leap. For BCS, the social order is shaped by a balance between the powerful and the powerless (not necessarily classes). They write that the power of any society “is based on the active cooperation of some people and the consent and/or acquiescence of others. It is the activity of people—going to work, paying taxes, buying products, obeying government officials, staying off private property—that continually re-creates the power of the powerful.”(11) This is why social movements can transform these social relationships when they lead people to withdraw their consent from the dominant arrangements: people stop acquiescing and thus prevent the reproduction of the social order, enabling the movement to impose its own norms on society as a whole (for example, think of the civil rights movement). This vision of social change seems laudable, given its emphasis on the power of the oppressed in the reproduction and transformation of societies, but it has two fundamental problems. First, BCS do not explain why a people may develop norms that contradict the status quo, and thus cannot explain why they would want to withdraw their consent from the prevailing social relationships in the first place. Second, their assertion that society is always defined by a truce between the powerful and the powerless could characterize any social formation, from the birth of society to the end of history, and thus lacks any historical content. However, if we wish to retain this trans-historical principle, then we must conclude that social movements can only strike a new balance of disempowerment at the very best. There is no transcendence, no realm of freedom, in this vision.

While Starr does not advance a democratic revolutionary perspective, her work is more amenable to such a stance than BCS’s. She treats movements that explicitly assert a democratic vision against the existing power structure and suggests that this orientation is both coherent and legitimate (she tries to defend anarchist as weU as other decentralist tendencies against their academic and social democratic critics).(12) Also, the fact that she studies how actors in the anti-globalization movement conceive of their opponents and want to rebuild the world suggests that Starr regards our ideals and commitments as the most important factors in political action, not the “objective development of class contradictions.” This value-based approach is a precept of any revolutionary democratic politics.

Although she tries to support anti-statist movements that are fighting global capital, her efforts are theoretically and empirically unsound. Instead of treating these movements as instances of a democratic, anti-statist tradition she defines them merely as localist movements that
want to “delink” (or separate) from the global economy. This makes little sense: there are virtually no localists in the anti-globalization movement, but rather decentralist movements that regard the community (not the state) as the locus of political life and want to reconstruct the world around a new relationship between communities.(13) These movements are not localist—they do not simply want to retreat into their own enclaves—but rather communitarian movements fighting for the decentralization of political power. But also, on a theoretical level, her definition severs these movements from a broader democratic legacy, and thus obscures a tradition that connects (for example) Zapatista municipal radicalism to Proudhon’s federalism. She even mentions the Proudhonian federalist tradition, but fails to theorize its presence in these decentralist movements. Thus, her defense of the most radical wing in the anti-globalization movement presupposes a sharp misreading of its politics. Even worse, her conception of localism-as-radicalism leads her to defend religious nationalists and their efforts to impose parochial, blood-based restraints on the world economy: for example, she mentions radical Islamic nationalists and the U.S.’s racist Christian Patriot movement. While these groups may share an emphasis on the locality with decentralist tendencies in the anti-globalization movement, religious nationalists are regressive to the extreme, whereas decentralists are confederal and cosmopolitan in the best sense of the terms. Starr’s effort to soften this divide is less than compelling.

But even if Starr related her analysis to a democratic tradition, there is a problem in the very constitution of Naming the Enemy. She does not study movements on the basis of their “size, scope, practices or chances for success,”(14) but only on the basis of their ideals. This tends to broaden her picture of the anti-globalization movement, given that the most exciting developments in the movement are not always the largest, most influential, or most likely to succeed. However, some criteria must be applied to determine whose intentions are relevant: after all, countless groups declare their opposition to the consequences of global capitalism, from the Cuban Communist Party to the Catholic Church. But of course one cannot study a movement solely on the basis of its declarations any more than one can study a person on the basis of his or her self-description. Starr knows this, but refuses to spell out the criteria she uses to select movements for consideration. It is clear that she embraces some form of left-wing, democratic populism (á la Z Magazine) but theorizing these commitments would put her in opposition to the radical skepticism and liberal resignation prevailing in academia at the moment.

That Starr and BCS welcome the emergence of a democratic, direct action-based movement against global capital is an indication of the success of the anti-authoritarian tradition. Years ago they might have called for a small “c” communism or some form of Green Party-like electoralism but, instead, they praise this anti-authoritarian movement for its democratic sentiments, commitment to protest, and oppositional stance. They want to speak the language of the growing movement against global capitalism.

Yet they would lure us into a trap: they are not revolutionaries, their books do not provide terms through which we can link this movement to a broader revolutionary project, and their basic theoretical commitments are fundamentally antagonist to the goal of revolutionary
transformation. BCS’s Globalization from Below is comprehensible because it affirms the basic structure of the present world—that is, capitalism and the nation-state—and is thus written with the clarity and repose of those who have already won. They descend into platitudes when they try to relate their ideas to a project of radical social transformation precisely because they do not want such a transformation. Starr becomes incomprehensible, dipping into jargon and an absurd defense of religious nationalism, because she wants to reject the present but is unwilling to embrace the terms that would make such a refusal coherent.

Neither BCS nor Starr should be regarded as deceitful or malicious and, besides, their motives are of little significance. What must be recognized is that they are on different sides of the debate over the anti-globalization movement than those of us who genuinely believe that a new world is possible. They celebrate the movement, but the terms of their analyses are hostile to its best, most visionary dimensions.

Our capacity to push the anti-globalization movement from opposition to revolution will be destroyed if we accept the premises of their books, either passively or otherwise. Even if demonstrations and militant conflicts with the police were to continue, we cannot fight for a revolution that we cannot conceive.

I think anarchists have been correct to greet the anti-globalization movement with enthusiasm: I believe that extraordinary potentials are at hand. However, to realize these potentials, we must confront those who would erase them from the historical agenda. This will allow us to preserve the idea that new, emancipated landscapes of historical experience are available to us and to set about creating them.


1. Brecher, Costello, and Smith, Globalization from Below, p. 122 2. Ibid., p. xi.

3. The level of jargon is suffocating and sometimes nonsensical. For example, she mentions “potentially agentic forms of subjectivity” (p. 32). The invention of the word agentic is strange enough, but the phrase is also redundant: anything that possesses agency—the capacity to act— possesses subjectivity.

4. Starr, Naming the Enemy, p. x.

5. Brecher, Costello, and Smith, Globalization from Below, p. 24.

6. Starr, Naming the Enemy, p. 45.

7. Brecher, Costello, and Smith, Globalization from Below, p. 69.

8. This is quite weak: for Starr “corporate” refers not to a legally constituted
corporation but something that functions according to “corporate principles.” Starr,
Naming the Enemy, p xiv.

9. Ibid, p. 93.

10. Brecher, Costello, and Smith, Globalization from Below, p. 17.

11 Brecher, Costello, and Smith, Globalization from Below, p. 21.

12. For example, she states that anarchism is “the oldest and richest Western tradition” of local radicalism. Starr, Naming the Enemy, p. 226.

13. One can find a few localists, such as flippant academics like Jerry Mander, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

14. Ibid, p. n.