Globalization From Below

Globalization From Below

International solidarity is the key to consolidating the legacy of Seattle.


In the year since the “Battle of Seattle,” international demonstrations from Washington, DC, to Okinawa and from Bangkok to Prague have confronted and sometimes halted meetings of the WTO, IMF, World Bank and other instruments of globalization. They have had successes that could not have been imagined just a year ago. They have reframed the debate on globalization, put its advocates on the defensive and forced change in the rhetoric if not the actions of world leaders and global institutions.

Such confrontations will no doubt continue to play an important role, but the limits to simply rallying for the next Seattle are becoming increasingly clear. Is this just a movement of “meeting-stalkers,” as Naomi Klein has put it [see “The Vision Thing,” July 10], or can it develop the grassroots power and broad social vision that might make real change? To answer that question, one must look beyond dramatic confrontations at international conferences, which are only a media-grabbing extension of a far broader movement that international law scholar Richard Falk has called “globalization from below.”

Globalization from below has emerged from diverse concerns and experiences. Environmentalists identified globalization as a source of acid rain and global warming and saw global corporations and the World Bank sponsoring the destruction of local environments around the world. Poor people’s movements in the Third World and their supporters around the globe saw neoliberalism, international financial capital and structural adjustment as key causes of global poverty. Advocates for small farmers in both the First and Third Worlds identified new trade agreements as a means to destroy family farming in the interest of agribusiness. Labor movements realized that international capital mobility was leading not to mutual benefit for workers but to competitive wage-cutting. Women’s movements identified workers exploited in the global sweatshop as predominantly women and structural adjustment as an attack on public programs that women particularly need. Consumer movements identified neoliberalism and new trade agreements as attacks on high national standards for food and product safety. College students became outraged that products bearing their schools’ logos were being made by children and women forced to work sixty or more hours per week for less than a living wage.

These disparate developments are all responses to what Falk has called “globalization from above,” an epochal change that involves far more than international organizations like the WTO, IMF and World Bank. It represents the globalization of production, markets and finance; the global restructuring of corporations and work; the development of new technologies like the Internet; a radically changed role for the state; the dominance of neoliberal ideology; large-scale tourism and poverty-induced immigration; worldwide media domination by the culture of corporate globalism; and a neo-imperialism that has concentrated control of poor countries in the hands of First World investors. At its heart lies the ability of capital to move freely around the world, resulting in the dynamic often referred to as the race to the bottom, a destructive competition in which workers, communities and entire countries are forced to gut social, labor and environmental protections to attract mobile capital. Despite the media’s focus on the flight of jobs from First to Third World countries, just as devastating is the competition among Third World countries desperately seeking jobs and investment at any cost.

Those affected by globalization from above have begun to converge, brought together by common interests, goals and a number of specific campaigns. This emerging movement–this network of networks–is the iceberg of which the street demonstrations form the most visible tip. It is the potential power of this confluence of forces and the still-larger forces that share its interests, not the threat of a few thousand demonstrators, that troubles the sleep of finance ministers and international bureaucrats.

Participants in the movement for globalization from below have varied agendas, but the movement’s unifying mission is to bring about sufficient democratic control over states, markets and corporations to insure a viable future for people and the planet. Beyond just saying no to the WTO, World Bank and IMF, achieving that goal requires that people organize themselves and force change at every level, from local to global, in both government and civil society. It requires that they define these struggles as responses to a common problem, as part of a common movement and as sharing common goals. It requires linking together in the manner of the Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s fable Gulliver’s Travels, who were able to capture Gulliver, many times their size, by tying him up with hundreds of threads.

While attention has been focused on big international demonstrations, in fact the movement for globalization from below has been acting and linking up in an enormous range of ways that may be less visible than meeting-stalking but that transcend its limitations.

Many actions are linking local concerns to globalization: During the September/October Prague demonstrations, coordinated protests were held in Denver, Indianapolis, Boston and dozens of other US cities. In Hartford, Connecticut, 300 unionized janitors and student activists held a joint protest “to make the connections between global corporate greed and the fight for a living wage by Hartford working people.” Twenty-five people were arrested for blocking downtown traffic in front of the global headquarters of United Technology Corporation, which recently fired unionized janitors and replaced them with lower paid, nonunion workers. UTC has also been accused by the Machinists union of shipping jobs abroad in violation of a union agreement.

Other recent actions have brought new groups into the movement, relating their concerns to the dynamics of the global economy. A coalition in Massachusetts, for example, drew attention to the effects of globalization on the contingent work force. At a recent march through downtown Boston, protesters demanded that temp agencies sign a Temp Worker Bill of Rights. A flier headlined “Join a Global Fight for Justice” explained, “Temp work is the face of globalization. But workers all over the world are fighting back for economic security.” It linked demands for city policies, state legislation and corporate responsibility to the domination of the industry by a few global giants.

Around the world, mass worker movements have contested globalization from above through resistance to privatization, social-services cuts and structural adjustment. May and June 2000 saw six general strikes against the effects of globalization and neoliberalism. In India 20 million workers and farmers paralyzed much of the country with a general strike “aimed against the surrender of the country’s economic sovereignty before the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund,” according to one leader. As many as 12 million Argentine workers struck against IMF-inspired austerity measures. In Nigeria a general strike protesting IMF-promoted fuel-price increases closed much of the country. In South Korea a partial general strike demanded a shorter workweek and labor-law protections for contingent workers to counter the impact of IMF restructuring plans. In South Africa 4 million workers struck to protest the loss of 500,000 jobs as a result of the government’s neoliberal austerity policies. A general strike in Uruguay protested high unemployment rates that workers blamed on IMF-inspired spending cuts. These actions indicate that resistance to globalization from above is at least as strong among Third World as among First World workers.

Some campaigns have targeted global corporations directly. The well-known campaign against Nike, for example, has forced the company to promise significant changes in its employment practices, though few have yet been realized. When a recent cross-country “Nike Truth Tour” organized by students protested the firing of a worker at a Nike subcontractor in Honduras, the employer was forced to rehire her.

Corporate campaign targets are now being expanded to include the crucial but often hidden players in globalization from above–private financial institutions. The Rainforest Action Network has launched a campaign against “the financiers of ecological destruction and human suffering,” focusing on Citigroup, the largest private financial institution in North America. It highlights Citigroup’s role as chief financial adviser in the Chad/Cameroon Oil and Pipeline Project in Africa, which will pollute pristine rainforest and disrupt indigenous forest communities; its role in financing redwood logging operations in California; its firing of unionized janitors; its financing of Monsanto and other genetic engineering companies; its role in predatory lending and denial of loans to African-Americans; and its profits from prison construction and privatization.

The campaign to restrict genetically modified organisms forced Monsanto and US negotiators earlier this year to accept the Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity, allowing GMOs to be regulated. Greenpeace called the protocol “a historic step toward protecting the environment and consumers from the dangers of genetic engineering.” Monsanto not only accepted the protocol, it announced a decision to withdraw from the business of selling sterile seeds and to participate in a dialogue with Greenpeace.

This example shows the multilevel strategies that globalization from below is using to parlay its power. While asserting authority superior to the WTO, the protocol also illustrates the crucial positive role that international institutions can play in limiting the depredations of global corporations and markets. And it empowered national governments to regulate GMOs and the corporations that purvey them. The campaign put pressure both on governments and directly on corporations like Monsanto, while other governments put pressure on the US government, a leading force against regulation of GMOs. It may well have been the pressure on Monsanto and its resultant change of heart that changed the position of the US government.

Globalization-from-below activists are also intervening in sophisticated ways in national politics. When South Africa tried to pass a law allowing it to ignore drug patents during health emergencies, the Clinton Administration lobbied hard against it and put South Africa on a watch list that is the first step toward trade sanctions. But then Philadelphia ACT UP began hounding presidential candidate Al Gore on the issue. According to the New York Times, “The banners saying that Mr. Gore was letting Africans die to please American pharmaceutical companies left his campaign chagrined. After media and campaign staff looked into the matter, the Administration did an about-face” and, while certainly not doing enough to make AIDS drugs available, accepted African governments’ circumvention of AIDS drug patents.

No doubt The Economist exaggerated when it wrote that the new wave of protest around globalization is “more than a mere nuisance: it is getting its way.” But globalization from below is having a concrete impact on policies and conditions in scores of instances all over the world. Each such campaign is a partial representation of the movement’s vision, goals and program, reflecting fundamental values of human dignity, self-government, environmental sustainability and human solidarity.

Trevor Manuel, finance minister of South Africa and co-chairman of the Prague IMF/World Bank meetings, recently complained, “I understand what [protesters] are against, but I am not sure what they are for.” In fact, as even Newsweek had to concede after the Battle of Seattle, “One of the most important lessons of Seattle is that there are now two visions of globalization on offer, one led by commerce, one by social activism.”

The movement for globalization from below is now developing positive programs that integrate the needs and objectives of its diverse constituents. More than 1,000 civil-society organizations in seventy-seven countries–essentially the “Seattle coalition”–have launched a new global campaign to demand “an alternative, humane, democratically accountable and sustainable system of commerce that benefits us all.” They have agreed to an eleven-point program for transformation of the WTO and the global trading system, focused not on eliminating trade or returning to some lost past of national economic isolation but on promoting “internationalism–where different cultures, countries, and people trade and exchange goods and ideas and work together toward common goals.”

Globalization from below’s vision has been articulated in scores of international statements and above all in the movement’s own actions. Many of its guiding principles are elaborated in the Global Sustainable Development Resolution, co-sponsored by a group of progressive members of the US Congress [see “Whose Globalization?” March 22, 1999]. They include leveling labor, environmental, social and human rights conditions upward; democratizing institutions at every level from local to global; making decisions as close as possible to those they affect; equalizing global wealth and power; converting the global economy to environmental sustainability; creating prosperity by meeting human and environmental needs; and protecting against global boom and bust.

The advocates of globalization from above often portray its critics as backward-looking economic nationalists who want to hide from the realities of globalization–and its opportunities–in order to protect narrow special interests. And indeed, all over the world, Patrick Buchanan, Jean-Marie Le Pen and their ilk are exploiting the antiglobalization backlash to recruit followers for ethnocentric, anti-immigrant, antigay, racist, sexist and nationalist bigotry. Globalization from below, in contrast, is rooted in solidarity among people and groups who recognize their diversity but who nonetheless grasp their common interests. It can only succeed to the extent that the diverse elements that make it up are able to incorporate one another’s needs and concerns while holding their own more xenophobic impulses in check.

Some within the movement advocate centralized global government as the solution to corporate globalization; others seek a reassertion of national or even local sovereignty. But the problems of globalization are unlikely to be solved either by some central global authority or by national or local autarky. The real choice today is between a globalization from above that disempowers people at every level and a globalization from below that expands self-government not only at a global level but at regional, national and local levels as well. The movement faces many potential pitfalls, and given the power of those it opposes, there is no guarantee that it can actually modify globalization enough to preserve people and environment, let alone to build a decent world order. But that is more likely to be achieved by means of a movement that is unified across the boundaries of countries, issues and constituencies than by any other approach. Globalization from above made ordinary people around the world seem powerless; globalization from below has the potential to change the power equation. Rarely in human history have ordinary people had such an opportunity to transform the world for the better.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy