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.