By Michael Galant
Twenty-five years ago, a small band of mostly indigenous rural peasants declared uprising against the Mexican state on the very day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Five years later, over 40,000 protesters – union members, environmental activists, consumer advocates, and anarchists – filled the streets of Seattle, demonstrating against and even briefly shutting down the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The Zapatista uprising and the Battle in Seattle were watershed moments in the emergence of a global network of resistance to neoliberal globalization known variously as the Global Justice Movement, the Alter-Globalization Movement, and, typically derisively, the Anti-Globalization Movement. The Alter-Globalization Movement (AGM) was (and though weaker now, still is) a loose global network of progressive NGOs, unions, activists, and think tanks, united in opposition to neoliberal globalization and in the struggle for alternatives. As the American left works to articulate its foreign policy and strengthen its internationalist organizing, the anniversaries of these events should act as reminder and opportunity: to reflect on, learn from, and find inspiration in, the often-overlooked AGM.
AGM activists work across a landscape of distinct issues – trade, agriculture, international financial institutions, intellectual property, indigenous land rights, peasant rights, environmental justice, and more. Movement membership is often loosely, if incompletely, defined as those organizations in the orbit of the World Social Forum (WSF), an alternative to the annual Davos World Economic Forum. Key participants of both the WSF and the AGM broadly include: the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens; Focus on the Global South; Grassroots Global Justice; the Institute for Policy Studies; Global Justice Now; the International Forum on Globalization; the Landless Workers Movement; the Transnational Institute; the Third World Network; and La Via Campesina, among many others.
The movement therefore does not have a singular ideology, with participants ranging from mild social democrats to anarchists, from the market-based, consumer-oriented Fair Trade movement to the indigenous libertarian-socialist Zapatistas. But under this big tent all share a Leftist critique of neoliberal globalization and are organized in pursuit of an alternative global economic order. Though the movement is more readily defined by its structure, as a particular network of interacting members, most all involved do share a general ideological orientation toward global justice, based in principles of transformative/paradigmatic change, participatory democracy, equality of access to resources and opportunities, social justice, universal rights, global solidarity, and sustainability.
While neoliberal globalization had always met with resistance, particularly in the Global South, the organized transnational network now referred to as the AGM reached the North in the 1990’s at the height of “the end of history” fervor. By the turn of the century, basic AGM critiques of corporate globalization had broken through to the mainstream. No longer was it gospel that free trade is an unqualified good, that Washington Consensus policies forced upon developing countries are in their own interest, or that capital restrictions are mere impediments to growth.
Mobilization for alternatives to the neoliberal system peaked in the early 2000’s and would continue in the South, but by the mid-2000’s, momentum in the Global North, and especially the United States, had begun to slow. The “War on Terror” and the global financial crisis drew attention away from AGM organizing, while the combined effects of neoliberal opposition and moderating elements within the movement took their toll. Today, though many original participants soldier on, the political strength once held by those explicitly demanding radical alternatives to neoliberal globalization has drastically diminished.
20 years since the events of the Battle of Seattle, it’s time that the left look back and learn what it can from the AGM. It offers more than just a reminder of the weaknesses of left internationalism today – it offers a chance for change.
Groundbreaking policy analyses
Decades ago, members of the AGM were already grappling with the changing global landscape, exploring the causes and consequences of, and potential alternatives to, the neoliberal model of globalization.
AGM thinkers, primarily based in the Global South and rooted in the postcolonial tradition, were early to identify and articulate neoliberal globalization not as an inevitable, enlightened global unification, but as a political project rooted in the conflict of material class interests between capital and worker, colonizer and colonized. From this foundational critique, the AGM would build substantial bodies of political analyses that are unfortunately still relevant today.
Grassroots activist networks like La Via Campesina and the Landless Workers’ Movement diagnose the ways in which World Bank policies dispossess peasants and indigenous groups of their land in a contemporary reflection of the Inclosure Acts. AGM bibles like No Logo and Alternatives to Economic Globalization explore labor standards, marketing, and global value chains, and propose blueprints for alternative global governance, respectively. Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch publishes meticulous analyses of free trade agreements, exploring the subtle ways corporate influence seeps into the texts through obscurant legal jargon. And, while think tanks and scholar networks have their limits, the Institute for Policy Studies, Focus on the Global South, the Transnational Institute, and the International Forum on Globalization continue to do essential research to this day.
Classic left thinkers from Marx to Lenin to Luxemburg theorized the broad strokes of global capitalism. The work of the AGM situated those general theories in today’s realities. Its political analyses have much to offer contemporary Left internationalists: theories of global dynamics, like the race to the bottom; diagnoses of specific problems, like the dispossession of indigenous groups through corporate control of seeds; technical assessments of policy proposals, like potential replacements for Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanisms; as well as visions of wholesale systemic alternatives.
As left internationalists articulate their critiques of neoliberal globalization and build a movement for a justice-based global economy, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. The wealth of knowledge already produced by the AGM, both at its peak and today, have laid the groundwork for a movement that transcends borders.
The AGM clearly did not dismantle and build an alternative to the neoliberal global system. Yet for a time, it was a prominent, if not the driving force mobilizing popular resistance to institutions like the WTO on a scale unthinkable to the contemporary American left.
To this, the AGM can add concrete, if moderate, victories: a relative softening of the extremity of austerity policies pushed through international financial institutions like the World Bank; improved mechanisms for environmental and human rights protection within those institutions; various one-off treaties and soft law declarations; and $100 billion in debt relief for thirty-five countries. Neoliberal hellscape though the global economy may be today, it would be one circle deeper were it not for the pioneering efforts of the AGM.
One reason for the AGM’s success was its ability to mobilize diverse constituencies, for which supporters dubbed it a “movement of movements.” The Seattle WTO protesters were famously described as “teamsters and turtles” for the unity demonstrated between the labor and environmental movements. Both recognized neoliberal globalization as a power grab for capital with the potential to undermine hard-won domestic victories and fuel the exploitation of worker and environment alike. Identifying the common enemy, the AGM was able to organize across issue-based divisions and articulate an inclusive vision of alternative world orders. In doing so, it built a perhaps unprecedentedly broad resistance movement.
The AGM was also strengthened by its use of the “transnational advocacy network.” In response to the globalization of problems, the AGM helped pioneer a globalization of resistance, building vast issue-based based networks to share information, distribute resources, and coordinate organizing across borders. The Jubilee 2000 coalition, itself composed of over 40 national networks, united thousands of activists across both creditor and debtor countries in their demands for debt cancellation. While debtor country activists alone lack influence among creditor governments, and creditor country activists lack the issue legitimacy and contextual knowledge of their debtor country comrades, the groups united in coalition were able to bring unprecedented attention to the injustices of the global financial system and ultimately won substantial debt cancellation. Though similar organizing forms had been used in the past, the AGM developed and expanded upon their practice to great effect.
There are many proposed explanations for the AGM’s gradual decline since the mid-2000s:
- As the movement expanded, its open-door policy left it vulnerable to “NGO-ization.” Major North-based non-profits overran events like the World Social Forum, pushing out those most marginalized by globalization and steering the once-radical movement toward moderate reformism.
- Despite successful one-off street protests, the AGM was never able to shift from a resistance-based discursive project to an organized political movement. The World Social Forum, openly billing itself as a place of dialogue rather than planning for action, is exemplary of this failure.
- Following the September 11th attacks, states used their newly-expanded powers of repression to crack down on the more radical elements of the movement.
- With the start of the Iraq War, activists in the Global North simply shifted focus from the AGM to the global anti-war movement. The ultimate failure to prevent the invasion then led to disillusionment and demobilization.
- In 2008, AGM activists on the center-left put their faith in the Obama presidency. By the time it became clear that meaningful change was not coming, they had already demobilized.
- In response to the global financial crisis of 2008, former AGM participants turned their sights inward, abandoning internationalism to focus on pressing domestic concerns. The movement failed to accurately frame the crisis in global terms and lost the resulting moment of political opportunity.
- Ultimately, facing limited success, energy simply faded.
Each of these theories tells only part of the story. But underlying all is a broader narrative. The AGM succumbed to the fundamental challenge of organizing under neoliberalism: capital’s ability to divide the working classes of North and South by tossing the crumbs of imperial accumulation to Northern workers. Rather than building a global working class for radical alternatives, Northern groups are subdued by their pittance of the material benefits of imperialism. Thus, Northern movements are apt to slide into moderation and to abandon internationalism for domestic concerns.
Left movements must be rooted in true global solidarity – not as altruistic sacrifice for the sake of the South, but as prerequisite for mutual liberation. Solidarity is not conditional. We must resist the temptation to respond to pressing domestic problems by turning inward. Instead, when capitalism’s regular crises are felt at home, we should seize the opportunity by strengthening connections abroad, articulating a vision for the world that goes beyond the redistribution of imperialism’s spoils, and mobilizing across borders to achieve it.
In building this movement, an ideological balance must be struck to prevent cooptation. While there are advantages to big tent-ism, and to exclude influential Northern NGOs entirely would be folly, ceding too much power to moderates risks undermining the movement’s necessarily radical demands. Formal transnational coalitions should design their governance structures in ways that empower grassroots and marginalized communities, and convenings like the WSF should maintain minimum requirements for participation. Above all, a revived AGM must fully commit to rooting itself in the organization of working class and other oppressed peoples.
The struggle of the Zapatistas continues today. Though their battle with the Mexican government quickly reached a stasis, they maintain autonomous control of much of the state of Chiapas and remain a political force for indigenous rights. Organizations fighting for alternatives to neoliberal globalization still meet semi-regularly under the World Social Forum banner. La Via Campesina and others in the peasants movement recently won a long-running campaign for a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. Research organizations like Focus on the Global South and the Institute for Policy Studies continue to investigate and advocate against the current global economic model. And global unions like the International Trade Union Confederation and Public Services International are still building cross-border labor solidarity. At the same time, newer actors like Chicago-based Justice is Global and Yanis Varoufakis’ Progressive International, though not necessarily operating under the AGM banner, have entered the movement ecosystem and brought with them hopes of revitalization.
The former heights of the Alter-Globalization Movement should not be idealized. But neither should they be ignored. Today’s left must reignite the movement for alternatives to the neoliberal global system. As we do, we should look to the past. 25 years since the Zapatista uprising and 20 years since the Battle in Seattle, the AGM still has much to teach us.
Michael Galant is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is interested in building global solidarity for left alternatives to neoliberal models of globalization and “development.” He can be found on twitter at @Michael_Galant and by email at email@example.com