“Think globally, act locally” is still one of the best slogans progressives ever slapped across the backside of a vehicle. But the leap from bumper-sticker admonition to political reality has proven difficult, as the movement to challenge economic globalization has come to realize that even the most colorful street demonstrations are not enough to halt the forward march of corporate capital. That recognition should serve as the inspiration for a serious rethinking of how the movement will approach the next stage in what must be seen as a very long struggle. It is time to stop waiting for the next Seattle and to start thinking about how US activists can most effectively contribute to global justice: by adding the considerable weight of this movement to tipping the balance in a Congress where the biggest globalization fight of 2001 was decided by a single vote.
There is still a good deal of educational and political value to in-your-face challenges to the mandarins of multinational corporations, such as the January 30-February 4 rallies, marches and teach-ins organized to coincide with the World Economic Forum’s New York sessions. And there is every reason to be excited about parallel gatherings of such civil society groups as the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, especially as they lay the groundwork for the coming struggle over the scope and character of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. But a strategy built around protests and teach-ins runs the risk of creating a false sense of progress while advocates for a corporate-friendly vision of globalization keep winning the most important battles. Such was the case in December when the House voted 215 to 214 to grant President Bush fast-track authority to negotiate the FTAA. Using evidence of how the North American Free Trade Agreement has undermined the ability of the United States, Canada and Mexico to protect the environment, regulate business and preserve family farms, Public Citizen, the Sierra Student Coalition and the AFL-CIO convinced several House Democrats to abandon their free-trade stances. But they could not sway the one more member needed to deny the President the power he identifies as the single most important tool for asserting the globalization agenda favored by corporate allies like Enron’s Ken Lay.
“The corporate influence is so constant on these trade issues–all the corporate jets flying in, all the corporate CEOs walking the halls of Congress–that the only way we can beat them is with an outpouring of citizen opposition on these issues,” says Representative Sherrod Brown. “Members have to start feeling the heat at home on these issues.” What issues? Congress votes on dozens of trade and international economic issues every session: In addition to fast track, legislation involving trade with China, Jordan and Vietnam gained Congressional approval last year, and key debates over restructuring US support for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are in the offing this year. A global justice movement that turns up the hometown heat on politicians who continually vote the corporate line has a real chance of connecting with broad constituencies who, thanks to NAFTA, understand that trade agreements negotiated in secret are not being written for workers and farmers. And a movement that builds support for alternatives to inhumane IMF and World Bank policies–including debt relief proposals that have already achieved bipartisan backing in Congress and plans to force the IMF to stop demanding that developing nations cut social spending and abandon environmental protection as a condition of assistance–will find allies in faith and international solidarity communities.
Can a tighter focus on US legislative matters really make a dramatic difference? Consider: Among the twenty-one Democrats who sided with Bush on fast track were California’s Susan Davis and Utah’s Jim Matheson, both elected in 2000 with strong labor and environmental group support. Had stepped-up hometown pressure caused one of them to switch their vote, activists from the Tundra to Tierra del Fuego would have gained time to increase the pressure on their own countries to make labor, agricultural and environmental protections central to FTAA negotiations.
But fast track is just one fight. There will be dozens more, as the Bush Administration seeks to put in place trade, agricultural, development and foreign aid policies favored by the country’s elites. Thus, it is time for those who have done so much to educate and agitate on global issues to get serious about acting locally–and aggressively. These fights will be central to the question of whether another world is possible.