Globalisation’s Children Strike Back

Anti-globalization activism may seem like a single opponent to organizations like the WTO and World Bank that bear the brunt of its attacks; but in reality, the movement lacks a general consensus beyond the slogan: “Another world is possible.” This other world is at least partially defined in the list of concerns, grievances, or failures members of the movement find in globalization. Anti-globalization may have captured the imaginations of many would-be activists nostalgic for the passionate demonstrations of the 60s, but it is job insecurity, unbridled executive pay, and mass redundancies that inflame this imagination. Many within the movement believe their concerns have mass appeal; that seems true enough with so many different “wish lists. - YaleGlobal

Globalisation’s Children Strike Back

As the IMF, World Bank and the WTO brace for huge protests against free market capitalism, James Harding uncovers the workings of the anti-globalisation movement. Part One: the mosquitoes begin to swarm
James Harding
Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Just on the outskirts of respectable Washington DC, across town from the steel and glass headquarters of the World Bank, there is a clapperboard two-storey house.

On the ground floor, a neighbourhood lawyer offers "divorce specials", personal injury suits and "walk-in deals for car wrecks". Up the flimsy wooden staircase to the side of the building, Soren Ambrose is trying to dismantle the world's financial architecture.

Ambrose, a chubby 38-year-old with sandy hair and a scruffy blonde beard, does not look like much of a threat to the world order. He wears creased olive-green khakis with a red, black and turquoise shirt of African cloth, which in another part of Washington might be used as ethnic cushion covers. The second-hand computer on his desk is surrounded by newspaper clippings, a pile of old campaign leaflets and a scattering of print-outs off the internet.

The only son of a suburban Chicago couple - his father is a management consultant and his mother is a retired librarian - Ambrose came late to activism. He flirted with protest at junior high school in the late 1970s, but in 1981 swapped politics for partying: "I went to college and took drugs and drank," he laughs.

When Ambrose was working on a doctorate in African literature, he went for a fortnight to Nigeria: "I met writers at the university there who did not have enough money to buy their own books. They were not so interested in language. They were interested in economics."

Ken Saro-Wiwa, the playright leading what was to become a global fight against Shell's oil operations in his native Ogoni land, was his host. Ambrose abandoned his dissertation half-written.

He returned to the US and took up full-time campaigning. Initially with the Nicaragua Network, he was soon involved with 50 Years is Enough, a coalition put together by a handful of development economists, ex-aid workers, former missionaries and environmentalists seeking to combat the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

From half a dozen groups five years ago, it now draws support from more than 200 member organisations.

Next week, from the converted bedrooms which serve as offices, Ambrose and the 50 Years director who also happens to be his wife, Njoki Njoroge Njehu, will put together the final plans for what is shaping up to be the sequel to Seattle: a protest by tens of thousands of people against the World Bank and the IMF in Washington on the weekend of September 29-30.

"I was only in Nigeria for two weeks," says Ambrose, with an infectious chuckle, "but it turned into this big thing."

Soren Ambrose is what most people would call an anti-globalisation activist. To some world leaders, people like him are part of a movement that can no longer be ignored. Lionel Jospin, the French prime minister manoeuvring to become president, reached out to anti-globalisation activists by offering support for the so-called Tobin tax. Gerhard Schroder, the German chancellor, has since said he too is interested in the nearly 30-year-old idea of putting a levy on foreign exchange transactions to pass on to the world's poor. For the bosses of giant companies who have had to come to terms with life under constant attack, such as Phil Knight of Nike and Lord Browne of BP, the campaigners are forcing fundamental changes to corporate life.

To others, Ambrose is the new enemy. He is put in the bracket of what Peter Sutherland, the former European Commissioner, calls "foolish protesters". He is one of those campaigners against further free trade who President George W. Bush says threatens to wreck global prosperity. He participates in the kinds of demonstrations overrun by riotous thugs that British prime minister Tony Blair says are an attack on democracy.

Either way, people in business and politics are right to take the likes of Ambrose seriously. He is one of tens of thousands of committed activists at the nexus of a global political movement embracing tens of millions of people.

Just over a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the "End of History" promised by Francis Fukuyama, who argued free market liberalism had triumphed forever, there is a growing sense that global capitalism is once again fighting to win the argument.

In the last 18 months, a million people have taken to the streets in what has become a rolling mobilisation. In 1999, just 25 turned up to protest at the World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Washington. Last year, it was 30,000. At the end of this month, activists are predicting more than 50,000.

Taken together, the string of protests since Seattle in 1999, which have torn through Washington, Melbourne, Prague, Seoul, Nice, Barcelona, Washington DC, Quebec City, Gothenburg and Genoa, have cost more than Dollars 250m in security precautions, damage and lost business. Hundreds have been injured, several shot and one young man has been killed.

Campaigners for debt relief for the world's poorest countries last year put together the largest petition in history, gathering 24m names - more than the number of people who signed the condolence books for Princess Diana worldwide.

Voter turnout may be plummetting in Europe and the US, but political activism is enjoying a resurgence not seen since the Vietnam War. At Attac, the Tobin tax advocates who have 30,000 paid-up followers across Europe, the intellectual campaigners say "the demonstrations make one think very much of the days of May 1968 in Paris".

Tom Hayden, the ideologue of the American left who was one of the Chicago Seven accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, says: "There is a spirit which I have not seen since 1960. People are emerging from invisibility after many years."

Protests now threaten to halt the global momentum of open markets and free capital, stopping the World Trade Organisation's effort to launch a new trade round for the second time in Doha, Qatar, in November. The world's most powerful politicians are in retreat, withdrawing to remote spots such as Kananaskis in the Canadian Rockies for the next Group of Eight summit.

The irony, of course, is that anti-globalisation activism is gathering momentum just as global capitalism looks prone to a bout of cyclical weakness. Anti-globalisation has been a backlash against a surging world economy. A recession could change the nature of activism, fuelling counter-capitalist feeling among some while making others more defensive about the companies which put food on the family table.

"The big risk," according to Anne Krueger, deputy managing director of the IMF, is that "a slackening or slowdown in the rate of economic growth could lead to a sufficient downturn in economic activity to trigger a backlash among those who are now silent, but not necessarily supportive, of globalisation. Protectionism, in the guise of anti- globalisation, could return and reverse liberalisation and "the long period of successful economic growth that the world has enjoyed".

Over the past two months, the FT has been compiling a report on the anti-globalisation movement, drawing on interviews from inside campaign groups across Europe and the US. By spending time with protest organisers, counter-capitalist intellectuals, tree-sitters and labour leaders from across the movement, the FT set out to answer the questions: Who are they? What do they want? How are they funded? Where is it all going?

It turns out to be a formidable movement. Or, to be precise, a movement of movements. Anti-globalisation activism is diverse and inchoate, without a unified agenda or a traditional leadership.

It is, however, well co-ordinated. It is well-informed. It is increasingly well-funded. And, perhaps most alarming for elected politicians and corporate leaders, a growing number of people think it has mainstream values and a mass appeal.

It is not, as Mr Blair has described the protesters, a "travelling circus of anarchists", although, to be sure, there are clowns, arsonists and Molotov-cocktail throwing thugs within the movement. Nor is it just society's green fringe of unwashed hippies and Luddite reactionaries, although there are plenty of vegan spiritualists, unreconstructed communists, regressive utopians and smoked-out dreamers. And, while there is plenty of fuzzy thinking and fast-and-loose abuse of economic statistics, there is also a critique backed by respected economists, businesspeople and politicians.

Nor is it strictly speaking "anti-globalisation". The vast majority of activists are pro-globalisation, indeed products of it. The movement was welded together by the internet. Mass mobilisations, in Europe in particular, have been made possible by mobile phones. The unprecedented pitch of public feeling in the North for people in the South has coincided with cheap air fares between the two.

Instead, this is counter-capitalism. The new wave of political activism has coalesced around the simple idea that capitalism has gone too far. It is as much a mood as a movement, something counter-cultural. It is driven by the suspicion that companies, forced by the stock markets to strive for ever greater profits, are pillaging the environment, destroying lives and failing to enrich the poor as they promised. And it is fuelled by the fear that democracy has become powerless to stop them, as politicians are thought to be in the pockets of companies and international political institutions are slaves to a corporate agenda.

A survey this summer in Le Monde, the French newspaper, showed 56 per cent of people in France thought multinational corporations had been the beneficiaries of globalisation. Just 1 per cent thought consumers and citizens had benefited.

Such surveys have given the movement the sense that it is astride a mass mood. Elsewhere, there has been evidence that it has sympathisers within the corridors of power.

It goes further than just the politicians who back the Tobin tax. Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the IMF published a comprehensive critique of the Bretton Woods institutions, and Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard professor who has also been a fierce critic of the Fund, have reinforced the activists' sense of their own credibility.

As one Bank official puts it: "There is a feeling that the shouts on the streets are echoed by murmurs inside the institutions."

Activism has been drawing people from the ranks of business, too. Craig Cohon, who today counts himself as part of the movement alongside No Logo author Naomi Klein, was one of the top marketing executives for Coca-Cola in Europe until last year. He went to Davos, the annual gathering of CEOs in Switzerland, and decided to quit his job. He has started working on Global Legacy, an effort to raise Dollars 100m to fight urban poverty around the world.

Some in the developing countries of the South say that what is happening in the industrial North is misguided. Anti-globalisation activists claim to speak for the poor in developing countries, but do not understand the issues. Worse still, a few even suggest anti-globalisation activism is the means by which the First World can pursue a protectionist agenda, denying the Third World the benefits of economic growth.

Jerry Mander, an advertising executive-turned-anti-globalisation activist, however, argues that thanks to the "struggles in the South" the shortcomings of corporate-led globalisation are now evident to everyone.

He reads out a quote: "'The rising tide of the global economy will create many economic winners, but it will not lift all boats. (It will) span conflicts at home and abroad...(Its) evolution will be rocky, marked by chronic financial volatility and a widening economic divide. (Those) left behind will face deepening economic stagnation, political instability and cultural alienation. They will foster political, ethnic, ideological and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it.' And," he says, "that's not me talking, that is the CIA."

This queasiness about capitalism, activists say, has been fed from many directions. There is a sense of growing inequality, stoked by mass redundancies, widespread job insecurity and the disgust at soaring executive pay. There is discomfort over the commercialisation of public space, reinforced by the idea that Starbucks, McDonald's and The Gap have overrun every high street in the industrialised world.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that the gradual but seismic upheaval in the world economy of the last 20 years has generated mass anxiety. Foreign direct investment flows averaged Dollars 115.4bn a year between in the late 1980s. By 1999 they had reached Dollars 865.5bn. The European single market, the North American Free Trade Association and the Uruguay Round have created supranational authorities that override national and local governments.

To some extent, the response is emotional, even spiritual. Bruce Rich, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense in the US, suggests there is an ennui of affluence: "The kids who grow up with everything say 'There must be more to life than this.' In the 50s, you had the silent generation and then in the 60s you had great activism. In the 80s you had the me generation and then in the 90s the start of this movement."

The campaigners have what they call many "asks". Most of them are negative. A cutback in carbon dioxide emissions. The abolition of Third World debt. The end of World Bank support to fossil fuel and mining projects. The withdrawal of Unocal from Burma. No more exploitation of Florida tomato farmers by fast-food chain Taco Bell. A stop to Occidental's oil projects in the U'wa region of Colombia. The list goes on.

So far, the efforts to put together a positive programme for change have been fraught and unconvincing. In their efforts to come up with a bumper-sticker ideology, the activists have rallied around the slogan: "Another world is possible". As yet, though, they have struggled to come up with a vision of what that other world would look like.

Instead, they have been brought together most singularly by the WTO. To many, the WTO has promoted trade, spread prosperity, extended consumer choice. As a result, trade liberalisation has been a stalking horse for democracy in countries where closed markets were the counterparts to closed governments.

But the activists see the WTO as the corporate world's tool to turn more high streets into homogenous shopping malls, to engineer the privatisation of more public services, to annul environmental protection laws in the name of free trade and to open more countries to the whimsical forces of Wall Street.

"With the WTO, they have handed us a huge target. They were seen to be meddling everywhere. They were trying to create a world for corporations. It has helped us unify. We were individual mosquitoes, which have become a swarm," says Kevin Danaher, a slimmer version of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who runs Global Exchange.

Outside Danaher's office on the corner of 16th Street and Mission, where San Francisco's crack addicts and homeless folks mill around, a truck delivers beer to the local grocery store. A panhandler begs for change outside McDonald's. The world does not look as though it is quite ready to rise up in revolution.

Like the coursing rivers the movement itself so loves, the counter-capitalist current cannot easily be pinned down. It does not have one voice, or one message. It keeps changing, morphing from one campaign to the next. It is wide in its tactics and ambitions, violent and revolutionary on the edges, peaceful and reformist in the main. It rushes in often contradictory directions, anti-corporate and entrepreneurial, anarchist and nostalgic, technophobic and futuristic, revolutionary and conservative all at the same time.

And it does not have one source. Many tributaries have swollen counter-capitalism: the anti-apartheid movement, the campaigns against US intervention in central America, environmentalism, the emergence of protest movements in the Third World, famine relief in Africa, the Asian financial crisis, human rights protection, Acid House raves in Europe, road rallies organised by Reclaim the Streets and hip-hop music in the US.

For Soren Ambrose, his journey began in the Niger Delta with Ken Saro-Wiwa. In the early 1990s, Saro-Wiwa said the operations of Shell in Ogoniland had left people dead and huge stretches of land destroyed. His concerns were to define a new kind of activism in Europe and the US: a protest which is about "them, not us", which is focused on corporations and economic principles, not war and civil rights. And he touched lives which have since carried his concerns into campaigns against companies and institutions that were unscathed by protest five years ago.

It was a meeting with Saro-Wiwa in the early 1990s that inspired Steve Kretzman to set up Project Underground, the Berkeley-based group which has become a permanent irritant to mining companies. John Sellers' meeting with Saro-Wiwa when he visited Greenpeace at the same time has helped impassion his leadership of the Ruckus Society, the group which next week hosts a training camp at Middleburg, Virginia, to prepare for mass civil disobedience in Washington this month.

The message of Saro-Wiwa remains the inspiration behind Platform, which works from a tiny office on the Thames and seeks to turn public attitudes against BP and Shell. And it was Saro-Wiwa who prompted Soren Ambrose to quit a life of academia for activism.

When the Nigerian authorities hanged Saro-Wiwa in Port Harcourt on November 10 1995, they created the first martyr of the counter-capitalist movement.

© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2002